Risk communication

Ever since the revelations of manipulation and irregularities in high-profile major projects, companies have been under pressure to be transparent. But when it comes to communicating certain risks, openness is not always the best solution, and because many project managers know this, their instinct is to communicate cautiously or not at all. It would be better to systematically assess the risks during the risk analysis phase and, from a communication point of view, to clarify whether the information on the risks is unproblematic or rather critical. On this basis, the project manager should develop and implement a suitable concept for communicating potential and actual risks.
Three black pay phones on one wall.


Why do risks need to be communicated?

Communicating risks, including communication with the public, is important for several reasons. With risk communication, the project manager can:
Create transparency

Risk communication enables transparency and openness about potential hazards and uncertainties associated with a project. This helps to build trust and credibility, both within the project team and with stakeholders.
Assign responsibilities

Risk communication makes stakeholders accountable for potential risks and their impact. This creates an awareness that risks cannot be ignored and that appropriate action must be taken to address them.
Build a basis for decision-making

Risk communication provides the information needed to make informed decisions. By understanding potential risks, decisions can be made on a sound basis, reducing the risk of making the wrong decisions.
Act early

When risks are communicated early, participants have sufficient time to take appropriate action to manage or mitigate the risk. Timely communication enables risks to be identified, analysed and appropriate risk management strategies to be developed before they become major problems.
Maintain safety

Projects can pose risks to public safety and related public welfare. By communicating risks, potential impacts on society, the environment or other important areas can be identified and appropriate measures can be taken to minimise risks and ensure public safety.
Communicate properly

If risks are not communicated openly, there is a risk that rumours or misinformation will be spread, leading to misunderstanding and uncertainty. Clear and transparent risk communication helps to avoid misunderstandings and ensures an accurate representation of the true risk situation.

Which risks should not be communicated?

Some risks are not suitable for publication, or only to a limited extent:
1. Risks that are based on hidden stakeholder interests that contradict the official project objectives

From the world of project management

Alpha Ltd manufactures the Kappa device, which it developed jointly with Beta Ltd. The board of Alpha Ltd wants to replace the existing Kappa device, end the collaboration with Beta Ltd and strengthen its own market position by developing a new replacement product. If Beta Ltd learns that Alpha Ltd is developing a successor to the Kappa device without it, Beta Ltd would also develop a new device and thus jeopardise the consolidation of Alpha Ltd's market position. For this reason, Alpha Ltd cannot talk openly about the new development or the risks involved.
2. Risks that require a culturally unusual degree of self-disclosure 

From the world of project management

In a development project for a washing machine, the project manager was required by senior management to sign a non-disclosure agreement. When a test failed, the project manager was not allowed to say anything about the test to the external project partners because of the signed declaration. Therefore, they were not allowed to show their cards. To make matters worse, they could not openly tell their partners from a certain culture that the test had taken place but had not been successful, even if they asked. It was impossible for the project manager to say "no", so they had to give evasive answers and keep the truth hidden.
3. Risks that have the character of a "self-fulfilling prophecy"

Project managers should assess in advance the effect of risks where the damage caused by the risk in the event of its occurrence or the probability of occurrence is increased by the communication of the potential risk itself, to see if they are suitable for disclosure.
From the world of project management

In the course of the risk analysis, an employee got to know that the project manager considered him to be underperforming and therefore a project risk. The result: the employee was unsettled; he was absent more often due to illness and his performance went down. The project manager felt vindicated.
4. Risks that have their cause in different stakeholder interests 

From the world of project management
From the project manager's point of view: As a bidder participating in a tender, the project manager cannot openly communicate the risks because the contract would then go to the competitor who has kept the risks secret. 
From the perspective of the project client: A potential client is reticent to communicate the cost-relevant risks known to them because they intend to award the contractor a fixed-price contract.
Project managers usually treat such risks outside the formal risk management process because of their "political" impact. This is because documenting risks is always associated with the risk of confidential information leaking out. But if formal risk management only takes into account those risks that can be officially "communicated", its overall informative value decreases. Only key persons who have all the information can then still assess how high the risk potential really is in this project. All other project participants are not in a position to grasp the full scope of the project risks.

What is the approach to risk communication?

If the decision is made to present the truth, a decisive approach is important. Half-heartedness is interpreted as uncertainty and challenges interested parties to ask uncomfortable questions.
When communicating risks, the project manager should follow certain procedures to ensure effective and targeted communication, that is:
Create risk awareness

In addition to simply communicating risks, it is important to raise awareness of risk management throughout the project team and among stakeholders. Explain the importance of risks, their impact on the project and the role of each individual in addressing risks.
Identify target groups

Determine who the relevant stakeholders are for risk communication. These can be internal team members, project managers, executives, clients, suppliers, external participants or the general public. Consider the specific information needs and expertise of the target groups.
Define messages clearly

Formulate the risk messages clearly, precisely and understandably. Avoid jargon or technical details unless they are relevant to the target group. Ensure that the messages contain the essential information about the risk, its impact and the planned measures to address the risk.
Select communication channels

Select the appropriate communication channels to convey the risk information to the target audiences. This may include meetings, emails, reports, presentations, internal communication tools or public communication tools. Consider the preferences of the target audiences and ensure that the chosen channels convey the information effectively.
Support two-way communication

Encourage open and constructive communication by giving stakeholders the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions or raise concerns. Create an environment where dialogue can take place to promote a better understanding of the risks and develop potential solutions.
Consider appropriate frequency

Determine the required frequency of risk communication to ensure that information remains current and relevant. This may vary depending on the stage of the project, the extent of the risk or the needs of the target groups. Regular exchange of information is important to enable continuous risk management.
Keep communication up to date

Regularly review and update risk communication to reflect new risks or communicate changes in existing risks. Ensure that risk information is up to date and that relevant updates are communicated in a timely manner.
Considering these points can help the project manager to improve the communication of risks in their project management.


The exact approach to communicating risks can vary depending on the project, organisation and stakeholder. In order to ensure effective and successful risk communication for the project, communication needs to be project-specific and adapted to the specific requirements and needs of the project. The project manager should make the first necessary considerations in the start-up process of his project and implement the measures derived from this during the realisation and closing process.

Risk communication - the Author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Risk communication, Risk analysis

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