Posted: August 29, 2013
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Article SummaryOn August 28, 2013, Montreal Gazette reporter Monique Muise emailed me for comment on a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) controversy in the nearby city of Pointe-Claire. An illegal and potentially dangerous PCB storage facility had gone unnoticed for years until a leak brought it to official attention in March. But officials still hadn’t told the public (or the neighbors) when a local journalist broke the story five months later. Monique wanted me to comment on the pros and cons of the decision to keep the information secret. My email focused on a common risk communication paradox: Officials suppress risk information because they mistrust people’s ability to avoid overreacting; when the information comes out, the secrecy makes people overreact; this convinces officials they were right to suppress the information. Monique used a few quotes from the email in her story, along with some excellent quotes from my Canadian colleague Bill Leiss.

Keeping PCB Contamination Secret Increases the Risk of Public Overreaction

(an August 28, 2013 email to Monique Muise of the Montreal Gazette)
Monique Muise’s August 28, 2013 article drew from this email.

When Provincial and Pointe-Claire city officials discovered PCB contamination in an industrial facility near people’s homes, they should have announced the contamination immediately.

By failing to do so, they added a third risk communication problem to the two they already faced:

  • Explaining why the PCBs went unnoticed for so long (until a March 2013 leak brought it to officials’ attention) – and whether this means there are many other similarly unnoticed sources of contamination around the Metropolitan area.
  • Explaining how dangerous the contamination is to neighbors and what the authorities will do to get it cleaned up safely.

The third problem, of course:

But officials didn’t only give themselves a third communication problem. They also made the other two problems more difficult. Their decision to keep the contamination secret means they cannot be trusted. That mistrust will quite appropriately spill over to “contaminate” their answers to the other two problems – most importantly the second. Why should neighbors (or anyone else) trust what officials have to say about the degree of risk posed by the PCBs when those officials didn’t even tell them the PCBs were there?

The mistrust issue goes in both directions. When officials decide not to announce an event like this, their main reason is usually that they’re afraid the public will overreact. “If we tell people about the PCBs, they might panic. They might demand that we house them elsewhere until the site is cleaned up. They might demand an immediate cleanup before we’re ready to act.” The core problem, in other words, is that officials don’t trust the public to understand the situation.

This paradox is crucial in risk communication. Officials are contemptuous of the public’s ability to understand the risk and not overreact. They mistrust the public. So they suppress information about potentially hazardous situations. When the public finds out that officials kept the risk secret, that understandably causes many people to overreact to the risk. In the language of risk communication, outrage leads to increased hazard perception. Then, when officials see that the public is overreacting, they conclude that their contemptuous mistrust of the public was right – that they were right to suppress the information. They never get it that the public overreacted to the risk because they suppressed the information.

Of course people do sometimes overreact even if they’re told about a risk promptly and empathically. But they’re much, much likelier to overreact when they’re told belatedly by a third party.

The other common reason why officials often keep risk information secret is because they haven’t yet decided how to address the situation. Everyone, not just bureaucrats, has a natural tendency to want to keep quiet until you have your ducks in a row. But seasoned risk communicators know that it’s more important to release what you know quickly than to wait till you know everything. It’s actually more confidence-building to announce an incomplete story and then let concerned stakeholders watch – and, yes, chime in – while you investigate further and decide how best to manage the problem, instead of trying to have your management plan ready to roll (and ready to defend) before you announce that there is a problem.

So what should officials do now? They should apologize for having failed to trust that the public wouldn’t overreact if told promptly about the PCB problem. They should acknowledge that now people may not entirely trust what they say about the degree of risk and the cleanup plan. And they should promise to keep the neighbors in the loop from here on in.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter M. Sandman

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