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C.9 Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE)

Emergency Risk Communication is the process of providing critical information to help people stay safe, inform them of response plans and describe what actions they can take. It has become an important strategy, especially in emergency responses to outbreaks of disease. However, many of its principles can be applied to hygiene communication in all emergencies. 

Risk communication aims to reduce both ‘hazard’ - the physical, structural and economic damage caused by an event - and ‘outrage’ - the level of emotion, concern, fear, anxiety or anger brought on by the event or threat. Effective risk communication aims to keep ‘outrage’ in proportion to ‘hazard’ so that people will have the appropriate level of concern to motivate them to act and mitigate the danger facing them.

People process information in a particular way during a crisis and this is the basis for risk communication principles. Under stress, people may not hear the information properly or cannot remember it. They may oversimplify what they have heard. They may hold onto current beliefs and find it difficult to do things differently - seeking evidence to confirm these beliefs rather than challenge them. 

The advice being given can seem counterintuitive, e.g. that homes - normally places of safety - are in fact places of potential danger due to the spread of disease or an impending hurricane. If people are to believe the advice, the person giving it must be trusted. People may follow the advice of someone known and trusted even if they have no expertise and provide inaccurate information. Communication must be simple, credible, timely and consistent; it may need to be repeated and come from multiple sources. Communication must be specific to the context and provide clear actions that are relatively easy to follow.

People experience a wide range of emotions in response to a crisis. Communicators should expect fear and anxiety, uncertainty, hopelessness and helplessness and understand how these emotions can affect communication. Sometimes a perceived threat can motivate people to act, but fear of the unknown can be debilitating and make some people react inappropriately, or not at all. Risk communication aims to stop people from feeling that nothing can be done to change the situation or to reduce the threat. If people feel they have no power to influence the situation they may withdraw mentally and physically; enabling them to participate in the response can help to reduce their fears and helplessness. 

Denial is also a common reaction to a crisis. It can occur because people lack information or because they have been deliberately targeted with disinformation. It can also occur when people feel overwhelmed by fear and powerless to counter a threat that is far outside their experience.

Contrary to popular belief people rarely act irrationally during a crisis. What can be erroneously described as ‘panic’ is an extreme ‘fight or flight’ reaction which is a normal and rational survival response to threats. Accusing people of panic and of being irrational is usually counterproductive; when unwanted behaviours do occur (such as ‘panic buying’) it is preferable to acknowledge why this is happening and redirect people to more helpful actions. Criticising people for particular behaviours (such as breaking lockdowns or curfews) can also help to reinforce those behaviours amongst others by setting up negative social norms. Ongoing communication with people to understand why they are engaging in unhelpful actions and what motivates them should be at the heart of effective risk communication.

The stigmatisation of certain people or groups is very common in disease outbreaks; some people may be the victims of violence. Stigma should be challenged and care must be taken to avoid using communications or images that reinforce it. Mistrust of those responding - both government and aid organisations - can also be an issue and the affected community must be consulted on how to try and address this. 

Process & Good Practice

  • Coordinate and plan hygiene promotion communication during disease outbreaks within a response-wide risk communication strategy which should be outlined in Communication Plans C.10

  • Develop partnerships and coordinate with others working in the response both within and between organisations to ensure consistency in communications with the affected community. For example, where possible, coordinate with an RCCE working group or coordination pillar. 

  • Profile and segment (A.7 and C.3) the community and recognise their different concerns, information needs and communication preferences. Include different groups and adapt and pre-test communications C.3.

  • Describe clear and concrete actions that people can take, rather than just telling them about the threat. Present information as ‘a call to action’ instead of treating people as passive recipients e.g. wash hands with soap after using the toilet. However, make information practical - don’t tell people to boil water if they have no fuel to do so.

  • Identify and work with trusted and credible sources of information and establish a system to track and address rumours, misinformation and disinformation C.6.

  • Encourage people to share information with their friends, families and communities, but ensure that contact points are available to provide additional information or clarify issues.

  • Encourage the identification of community-led and collaborative solutions to problems where possible e.g. how to monitor the arrival of outsiders visiting a community or support people to get to hospital.

  • Use a variety of methods and approaches. Focus on interpersonal communication, but collaborate with others to make use of public communication methods where possible e.g. Radio and TV T.38 and mobile phones. If it is used locally, establish and maintain Social Media activity T.44. Find out about the national and local media and develop relationships with them to share timely and accurate information.

  • Be proactive and anticipate information needs. Try to communicate what is both known and not known (anticipating what people want to know). Avoid giving too much information all at once.

  • Avoid over-reassuring or making promises that cannot be kept - acknowledge uncertainty and be honest when you don’t have the answers or the resources immediately e.g. ‘I can’t answer that question now but I will try to find out…’

  • Recognise that people who have experienced traumatic events or sudden life changes may not easily retain information. Hygiene promoters and WASH teams may need to repeat information several times and in different ways. Acknowledge that people will be fearful, sad or angry; make time to listen to their experience.

  • Try not to reinforce ‘negative norms’ by talking about how many people are not following the advice or by blaming people for it. Instead, create a ‘positive norm’ that encourages people to use the WASH facilities because everyone else is doing so.

  • Be empathic, honest and open; these behaviours are fundamental to building trust with the affected community and are at the heart of effective risk communication. Active listening - paying close attention to what someone says and asking questions to deepen understanding - is also important for effective risk communication. 



To provide critical information to the affected community on how they can stay safe and the actions they can take in response to a disease outbreak.


  • Effective outbreak response depends on the active participation of communities and cannot be addressed through the provision of health care alone.

  • Hygiene promoters and WASH teams play a key communications role during outbreaks. Their work must fit into a response-wide plan for communicating with the affected population. The plan should incorporate their local knowledge from working with the communities.

  • Information may be the only resource available in the early stages of an emergency - people need information about how to stay safe and the responses being planned. Giving people meaningful things to do can also help to calm anxiety and promote some sense of control.

  • Communicating quickly using credible and trustworthy information is vital. So is expressing empathy and respect for those affected. Effective communication can have a positive impact on how the community responds to and recovers from the crisis. Conversely, it can make the situation worse and lead to discontent and sometimes disorder.

  • Central to the concept of ’Risk Communication’ are the key principles of engaging and empowering the affected community and monitoring, evaluating and adapting communications with them C.6. Risk communication stresses the need for the exchange of information between those leading the emergency response and those affected by it, using different channels, messages and methodologies for different audiences.

  • The communication strategy will evolve and must be constantly reviewed and updated.


Introduction and overview on risk communication

CDC (2018): CERC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. Introduction

CDC (2019): CERC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. Psychology of a Crisis

RCCE (undated): Handout 1. What it Is and Why it Matters

RCCE strategy fpr COVID-19 response

IFRC, UNICEF, WHO (2020): Covid-19 Global Response Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) Strategy

Training resources

WHO (2015): Effective Communications. Participant Handbook

WHO (undated): Risk Communication Essentials: Get social!

Films on risk communication

Frost, M. (2020): Risk Communication and Community Engagement, WHO

Media/Pool (2020): What is Risk Communication?

Country specific guides on available media and telecommunications (including radio stations, newspapers, mobile phone networks, languages used and national legislation)

CDAC (undated): Media Landscape Guides