Bill Bispeck
5 min readAug 30, 2023

Effective communication is vital in high risk/low trust situations.

Wait! Don’t you understand me?!

A few years ago I attended a risk communication workshop conducted by Dr. Vince Covello who was at the time a professor and researcher at Columbia University. He is a widely known author and consultant in the field of communications. The focus of his training was to help plant managers be more skillful in explaining hazards to the general public, particularly the public living in close proximity to their facilities. Many communication theories and principles which Dr. Covello has proven by extensive research studies were discussed and applied in the workshop. As I thought about this recently, I came to realize that his principles of risk communication apply equally well to communication inside organizations, and can be quite helpful to leaders in boosting their communication effectiveness. Let me show you what I mean by taking each of Dr. Covello’s principles and theories for risk communication with the public, one at a time, and illustrate their broader application and usefulness for leaders in workplace situations.


“When people perceive a lack of trust, they tend to perceive things negatively.” It’s obvious how this applies in communicating risks to the public. It applies similarly to general communication inside companies. I saw this theory in action several years ago when my organization tried to communicate a positive addition to our compensation practices. I was stunned and bewildered when employees were not falling all over themselves rushing to express praise and thanks, but instead were being very critical. A favorite expression of one of my old bosses was, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In spite of the seeming applicability of this old adage and paradox in this circumstance, it now is apparent to me that the underlying issue was trust or the lack thereof. The employee perception was that the company was probably holding back and could have given a lot more than they did and also that we were not to be trusted to distribute it fairly across the employee population. According to the Negative Dominance Theory, if people generally don’t trust you or your organization, they will always say the glass is half empty and not half full. Some of this can just be chalked up to the fallen nature of human beings, but I have to believe that a major portion of the effect I saw was also a function of trust.


“People who are upset think differently than the experts.” This is certainly true with the general public. I experienced this first hand when I was in a situation where our communication on a risk issue was reactive instead of proactive. The public was already upset before we had a chance to tell our story. It didn’t matter then if you had Noble Prize winning scientists explaining the safety of the situation. It was no longer a rational discussion but an emotional one. This is all too true as well inside organizations when explaining safety and risks in operations to employees. You must stay ahead of the curve, and never be in a position of playing catch up as upset employees will never be convinced by evidence, facts and science once an emotional situation has arisen.


This theory is similar to the previous one and states, “when people are upset, they have difficulty hearing what other people have to say.” Haven’t you seen that happen in conflict situations in the workplace? When enough time has passed and enough “wrongdoing” has transpired, its becomes almost impossible to get people to listen to each other to find common ground and resolve their differences. “Mental noise”, the replay of past difficulties, fills up our conscious capacities and we don’t hear any rational arguments. Here again, being proactive is the key to keeping things at the rational level.


“When people are worried and concerned they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It is extremely critical in sharing information with the public that your messages contain genuine expressions of care and concern, and personal examples of how you are a “regular” person like them. The same is true inside organizations. If people are worried and concerned for their security, which is quite common in today’s business world due to all the downsizing, right-sizing, reorganization, re-engineering and organization redesign, it is quite challenging for a leader to be believed or even heard correctly unless people know that the leader cares about them. Just saying you care doesn’t cut it. The genuineness of your care and concern must be validated by the test of time. It must be demonstrated over and over again numerous times over a long period by things you actually do.


Covello’s statistical studies have demonstrated that trust is based on:

- Caring (50%)

- Honesty (15–20%)

- Dedication (15–20%)

- Competence (15–20%)

It is striking from this data how important caring and perceived empathy is in determining how much people will trust you. Genuine expressions of care and concern contributed over the long term will have a major impact on your communication effectiveness. Honesty, dedication and competence can be summed up in one word: integrity. Leaders of American corporations are currently facing a crisis of confidence centered on integrity. Anything they say right now will be discounted if not outright ignored unless they have built up with their constituencies, over a long period of time, a reputation of high integrity.


Dr. Covello worked with the Law School at Columbia University testing his concepts of communication in legal processes. He applied the theories I’ve describe here plus many others in mock trials in the law school’s moot court by coaching law students in their courtroom presentations. He told us that his insights into communication techniques were so accurate and powerful that he could get from a jury any verdict he wanted. This revelation for me was quite startling and disturbing and raises obvious ethical considerations for application of communication theory in the business world or in the broader world for that matter. Dr. Covello’s admonition regarding the ethics of communication is that you can use your sharpened communication skills to lie better or you can use them to tell the truth better. The choice is ours. Any “word smithing” of the messages contained in our communication should be done with the aim to make them more accurate, more factual, more useful and more truthful. Our professions, our industries, our businesses, our customers and the people we lead are always better served by telling the truth. And the theory shows that in the long run our communication and leadership effectiveness will increase. We do reap what we sow.


“In leadership, it doesn’t matter what you say, only what they hear.” — Marshall Goldsmith

“Problems can not be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” — Albert Einstein