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Dealing with Denial

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Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) principles can help emergency responders communicate life-saving information during a crisis. However, this information is only useful to those who are willing to use it. People affected by a crisis risk greater harm if they’re unable to move past denial.

Denial is refusing to acknowledge either imminent harm or harm that has already occurred. People may receive and understand the message, but behave as though the danger is not as great as they are being told. People may have:

  • Not received enough accurate information to recognize the threat,
  • Assumed the situation is not as bad as it really is because of outdated or incomplete information,
  • Assumed their past experiences provide enough information to make choices about their current situation, or
  • Received messages about a threat but not received action messages on what they should do.

When people doubt a threat is real, they may seek further confirmation. They may consult community leaders or experts for specific opinions. They might want to know how others are responding before they take action. Or the message may be so far outside a person’s experience that he or she simply can’t make sense of it and thus chooses to ignore it.

Denial can, at least in part, be prevented or addressed with clear consistent communication from a trusted source. If your audience receives and understands a consistent message from multiple trusted sources, they will be more likely to believe that message and act on it.

For more resources and information on CERC, please see Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication, 2014 Edition or Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Pandemic Influenza, 2007.

Have you used CERC in your work? To share your CERC stories, e-mail Your stories may appear in future CERC Corners.