Dr. Peter M. Sandman offers a unique approach to managing risk controversies and was keynote speaker at the CMA’s annual Responsible Care conference. “The normal state of humankind vis-à-vis risk is apathy. Whenever people are overly concerned about a risk, there has to be a reason – and by far the most common reason is outrage. I spend some of my time helping activists mobilize outrage about serious risks, and the rest of it helping industry and government reduce the outrage about not-so-serious risks.”
Sandman’s presentation – Coping with chemical outrage: Risk Communication for Responsible Care’s Second Decade – focused on an old problem, namely the risks that do damage are not usually the risks that upset people. The correlation between hazard (most of what the experts mean by risk) and outrage (most of what the public means by risk) is “ridiculously low.”
Outrage, he says, is as manageable as hazard: “The most effective strategies of outrage management are unpalatable and uncomfortable.… but they are effective. You can even act pre-emptively to prevent outrage before it arises.
“When hazard is high, everyone focuses on the emergency. Manage the hazard. When outrage is high, don’t ignore it, and don’t manage the hazard: Manage the outrage. When both are high, obviously manage both,” Sandman says. If your problem is an outrage problem to begin with, remember that outrage management is easier, cheaper and more effective than hazard management.
Sandman offers six principal strategies for reducing outrage:
- Stake out the middle, not the extreme. In a fight between “terribly dangerous” and “perfectly safe,” the winner will be “terribly dangerous.” But “modestly dangerous” is a contender. If you deserve a B–, activists can get away with giving you an F instead; you can’t get away with giving yourself an A.
- Acknowledge prior misbehavior. The prerogative of deciding when you can put your mistakes behind you belongs to your stakeholders, not to you. The more often and apologetically you acknowledge the sins of the past, the more quickly others decide it’s time to move on
- Acknowledge current problems. Omissions, distortions, and “spin control” damage credibility nearly as much as outright lies. The only way to build credibility is to acknowledge problems – before you solve them, before you know if you will be able to solve them – going beyond mere honesty to “transparency.”
- Discuss achievements with humility. Odds are you resisted change until regulators or activists forced your hand. Now have the grace to say so. Attributing your good behavior to your own natural goodness triggers skepticism; attributing it to pressure greatly increases the likelihood that we’ll believe you actually did it.
- Share control and be accountable. The higher the outrage, the less willing people are to leave the control in your hands. Look for ways to put the control elsewhere (or to show that it is already elsewhere). Let others – regulators, neighbours, activists – keep you honest and certify your good performance.
- Pay attention to unvoiced concerns and underlying motives. Unvoiced concerns make the most trouble. Bring them to the surface subtly: “I wonder if anyone is worried about.” And remember to diagnose stakeholder motives other than outrage and hazard: ideology, revenge, self-esteem, and greed.
Dr Peter Sandman is a risk communication and reputation management consultant. The contents of this feature are all extracts from Dr Sandman’s work. His keynote at the CMA conference was sponsored by EMSoftCorp Inc of Golden, Colorado, which distributes his “OUTRAGE Prediction & Management” software in North America. In the rest of the world, the software is distributed by Dames & Moore.
The Four Traditional Stages of a Risk Controversy
- Ignore Them. Your research tells you the hazard is low, so you do nothing. This typically generates more outrage.
- Bury Them in Data. Ignoring them didn’t work, so you try to convince them that they’re wrong. This typically generates more outrage.
- Impugn Their Motives. If they’re local, call them ignorant or hysterical. If they’re not local, call them radicals, mercenaries, or outside agitators. This typically generates more outrage.
- Give Them What They Asked For. Management wants them to go away! Nothing else has worked, so you finally decide to pretend the hazard is huge, though you know it is not. Even this typically generates more outrage. They wanted an apology and a Community Advisory Panel: instead, you gave them a cleanup or an expensive piece of equipment. They are still outraged and now so are you!
The proper response to a serious outrage is neither to ignore the outrage nor to pretend that it is a serious hazard. Just as a serious hazard requires hazard mitigation, a serious outrage requires outrage mitigation.
|Twelve Principal Outrage Components|
|Individually controlled||Controlled by others|
|Morally irrelevant||Morally relevant|
|Trustworthy sources||Untrustworthy sources|
|Responsive process||Unresponsive process|
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