Risk and Crisis Communication Theories Compared

A comparison of two fundamental crisis & risk communication theories: Peter Sandman's Risk Communication and Timothy Coombs' SCCT

Dear reader,

Honestly, I am a bit nervous (complete understatement 😅) posting this article, which covers two of the most important theories in our field of work.

I am talking about Peter Sandman's Risk Communication theory and Timothy Coombs' Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT).

Nervous because I know Timothy. We had the opportunity to host a webinar together for the International Association of Risk and Crisis Communication (see link below).

I'm also nervous because I don't know Peter Sandman personally, but I use his work as the basis for what I do every day: risk communication and community engagement in health emergencies and disasters.

Both are subscribed to my newsletter and will most probably read this… 😱

So, gentlemen, I would already like to apologise if I have not been able to adequately document the importance of your work in our practise and have made a mess of it.

And of course, I would really appreciate your feedback and comments.

Here goes…

A comparison of two fundamental crisis & risk communication theories: Peter Sandman's Risk Communication and Timothy Coombs' SCCT

Both theories provide significant insights, but they also approach crisis and risk communication from different perspectives. This article aims to explore how a hybrid approach could create a comprehensive crisis communication approach.

Risk Communication Theory by Peter Sandman

The Risk Communication Theory by Peter Sandman is a fundamental study that defines risk as a combination of hazard and outrage. Outrage is the emotional reaction to risk, whereas hazard is the scientific part of it.

Sandman's hypothesis is especially useful in cases when public perception may differ from actual risk, such as public health crises.

Important Elements

  1. Hazard: A scientific, objective measurement of risk.

  2. Outrage: Emotional, subjective aspects such as trust, control, and fairness.

  3. Communication Strategy: Determined by the level of hazard and outrage.

Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) by Timothy Coombs

SCCT focuses on how organisations should communicate in crisis situations in order to maintain their reputation. Timothy Coombs’ approach divides crises into clusters based on organisational responsibility and suggests unique communication tactics for each.

Important Elements

  1. Crisis Type: Victim, unintentional, or avoidable.

  2. Crisis History: Has an impact on public image.

  3. Previous Reputation: Has an impact on the effectiveness of the crisis response.

  4. Communication Strategy: Customised according to the type of crisis and organisational responsibilities.


  • Focus: Sandman focuses on public perception and emotional factors, whereas Coombs is concerned with organisational reputation.

  • Applicability: Sandman is broadly applicable, whereas Coombs focuses on organisational issues.

  • Strategy: Sandman tailors communication based on hazard, outrage and risk, whereas Coombs tailors communication depending on the type of crisis.

  • Stakeholder Engagement: Sandman works with the “broader public”, whereas Coombs works with a variety of stakeholders, including consumers, investors, and regulators.

A combined approach: the best of both worlds

Imagine a fictional crisis scenario: a reputable baby food company finds a harmful substance in one of its products. To show how a hybrid approach can be effective, let's use this example.

Steps for a hybrid approach

  1. Assess the situation: due to the high hazard and high outrage, this is an avoidable crisis with a good reputation upfront.

  2. Develop communication strategy: use Sandman's approach to "alert" and "comfort" the public and Coombs' "rebuild” strategy to take responsibility and offer compensation.

  3. Executing the strategy: make public statements, talk to stakeholders, and monitor feedback.

  4. Post-crisis action: publish a public report and take steps to rebuild reputations.

This potential combined approach allows the emotional intelligence of Sandman's theory to be complemented with the structural rigour of Coombs' SCCT to provide a comprehensive crisis communication approach.

As esteemed theorists and practitioners Peter Sandman and Timothy Coombs agree, the ultimate goal of any crisis communication strategy should be to effectively navigate the maze of public perception and organisational accountability.

A hybrid approach could achieve just that by ensuring that both the heart and the mind are involved in crisis communication management.

I'm really looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions!

A new book is in the making!

I am slowly getting started on my second book, where I’ll look at practical applications of AI in emergency response, risk communication, community engagement, and “infodemic management”.

What should I cover? What would you like to see and read in the book? Suggestions welcome! Just hit reply to this email.

🎧 Do you listen to podcasts? This newsletter is now available in audio format on Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, Listennotes and many more.

Interesting reads from across the web

👉 ChatGPT is debunking myths on social media around vaccine safety, say experts - Science Daily

👉 A study finds ChatGTP outperforms physicians in providing high-quality, empathetic advice to patient questions - Science Daily

We can use these technologies (AI) to train doctors in patient-centered communication, reduce health disparities faced by minorities who often seek healthcare through messaging, create new medical safety systems, and help doctors provide better and more efficient care.

Dr. Mark Dredze, the John C Malone Associate Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins and study co-author.

👉 ChatGPT informs and disinforms better than humans - (read more here)

These findings suggest that information campaigns created by GPT-3, based on well-structured prompts and evaluated by trained humans, would prove more effective for instance in a public health crisis which requires fast and clear communication to the public.

Giovanni Spitale, Nikola Biller-Andorno, Federico Germani, authors of AI model GPT-3 (dis)informs us better than humans.

💼 Vacancy: Crisis Management Senior Consultant @ Insignia - Crisis Management Training, Planning and Consultancy - Remote/UK (Easy Apply)

What I am reading/testing/checking out:

  • Webinar Replay: Crisis Communication in the World of AI: When Theory and Practise Unite with Timothy Coombs (scroll down on the IARCC page).

  • Odin AI: it is more of an AI platform than just a single app. Allows you to work with your own knowledge base and publish public AI chatbots.

PS: I hope you've enjoyed this newsletter! Creating it is a labour of love that I provide for free. If you've found my writing valuable, the best way to support it is by sharing it with others. Please click the share button below to spread the word; it would mean so much to me. Thank you for reading!


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