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Processing Information during a Crisis

This information is for historic and reference purposes only.  Content has not been updated since the last reviewed date at the bottom of this page.
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People affected by a crisis take in information, process information, and act on information differently than in non-crisis times. By understanding how people receive information in an emergency, responders can be better prepared to effectively communicate with them.

During a crisis, there are four ways people process information:

1. We simplify messages.

Under intense stress and potential information overload, we can miss important details in health and safety messaging.

2. We hold on to current beliefs.

Sometimes, crisis communicators must ask people to take actions that conflict with their beliefs. Changing our beliefs during a crisis or emergency is difficult.

3. We look for additional information and opinions.

We remember what we see and tend to believe what we’ve experienced. Consequently, we want messages confirmed before taking action. This confirmation first—before we take action—is very common in a crisis.

4. We believe the first message.

The speed of a response is also an important factor in reducing harm during a crisis. The first message may become the accepted message, even though more accurate information may follow. When more complete information emerges, we often compare it to the first message.

Because of how people process information during a crisis, it is critical for emergency communicators to:

  • Use simple, consistent messages
  • Ensure that messages come from a credible source
  • Release accurate messages as soon as possible

By doing so, emergency communicators are better able to protect the health and safety of the public.

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.

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