Posted: April 11, 2003
This page is categorized as:   link to Introductory articles
Hover here for
Article SummaryThis short column was an early attempt to lay out what I see as the four kinds of risk communication. Some of my labels have changed since 2003. When hazard is high and outrage is low, the job is warning apathetic people about serious risks. I now call that precaution advocacy; the column called it public relations. When hazard is low and outrage is high, the job is calming upset people about small risks. I called that outrage management in the column, and that’s still what I call it. When hazard and outrage are both high, the job is helping rightly upset people bear a dangerous situation. No change in that label either; it’s crisis communication. Finally, when hazard and outrage are both intermediate, the job is chatting with interested people about a real but not urgent risk. The column called that stakeholder relations; I now call it “the sweet spot.”

Four Kinds of Risk Communication

This is the first of a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear simultaneously in the journal and on this web site. This column appears (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the April 2003 issue of The Synergist, pp. 26–27.

Many readers of The Synergist are familiar with the distinction I draw between “hazard” and “outrage.” In a nutshell, “hazard” is the technical component of risk, the product of probability and magnitude. “Outrage” is the nontechnical component, an amalgam of voluntariness, control, responsiveness, trust, dread, etc. They are connected by the fact that outrage is the principal determinant of perceived hazard. When people are upset, they tend to think they are endangered; when they’re not upset, they tend to think they’re not endangered.

For years I have focused on two paradigms of risk communication: “Watch out” – appropriate for the high-hazard low-outrage risk; and “Calm down” – appropriate for the low-hazard high-outrage risk. When hazard and outrage are both low or both high, I said, there are few risk communication challenges. Then came September 11, 2001, an obviously high-hazard high-outrage risk with substantial communication challenges.

In the wake of 9/11, it now seems to me that there are four kinds of risk communication, not two. Industrial hygienists need to know how to do all four. And since the requisite skills are different, industrial hygienists need to know how to decide which one is called for.

Public Relations: High Hazard, Low Outrage

Low outrage by definition means an apathetic audience. Getting and holding this audience’s attention will be extremely difficult, so there is a premium on figuring out your key message, honing it down to as few words as possible, and finding a way to make it interesting. Since the hazard is high, or at least higher than the outrage, the task is often to provoke more outrage.

I call this paradigm public relations because the essence of PR is talking to people who aren’t interested. But this is also the domain of health education, safety training, and environmental activism. Urging people to take some risk more seriously is the kind of risk communication industrial hygienists do most often.

The uninterested public is a huge group, so high-hazard low-outrage risk communication is likely to make heavy use of mass media. The barriers to be surmounted include audience inattention, audience size, media resistance, the need to package everything into short sound bites, and the policy implications of trying to provoke outrage. The silver lining is that there is little need to listen, or to address audience concerns, reservations, or objections; this audience has few if any. But be ready to change tactics when the audience starts to become attentive.

Stakeholder Relations: Moderate Hazard, Moderate Outrage

Unlike publics, stakeholders are an attentive audience – neither too apathetic nor too upset to listen. So the task of stakeholder relations is to discuss the issues openly and rationally, explaining your views and responding to audience questions and concerns.

Instead of the mass media, stakeholder relations relies on interpersonal dialogue, supplemented by such specialized media as newsletters and web sites. There are no real barriers to overcome, but one-on-one dialogue can be painfully inefficient. And you have to be prepared to explain the technical details; this is the only audience that really wants to hear them.

Stakeholder relations is the sort of risk communication industrial hygienists (and everyone else) like best. Duplicating it is the goal of the other three sorts of risk communication.

Outrage Management: Low Hazard, High Outrage

Now the audience is outraged, largely at you. And while the outrage may be justified in some nontechnical sense (for example, you may have been less than honest or less than courteous), it isn’t technically justified; the hazard is low. A core group of “fanatics” is usually accompanied by a larger, less outraged constituency watching to see how the controversy evolves. The task is to reduce audience outrage by listening, acknowledging, apologizing, sharing control and credit, etc. The controversy ends when the “fanatics” declare victory or their constituency thinks they have won enough.

Industrial hygienists have traditionally thought of themselves as “Watch out” communicators, not “Calm down” communicators. But in recent years the need to cope with risk controversies and the outraged employees and neighbors such controversies arouse has become an important – and unwelcome – part of many I.H. positions.

In outrage management the medium is in-person dialogue … though this time the “audience” does most of the talking. Barriers include the audience’s outrage at you, your own outrage at the audience, coming to grips with the need to focus on outrage when you’d really rather talk about substance, and sometimes the complicating presence of the media. The silver lining: At least you have their attention, though it is hostile (or at least highly skeptical) attention.

Crisis Communication: High Hazard, High Outrage

This is a relatively rare but enormously important sort of risk communication. The audience is huge and very upset. The outrage is even greater than in outrage management. It’s also different – more fear and misery than anger. If either is unbearable, it may flip into denial or escalate into terror or depression. The task, therefore, is to help the audience bear its fear and misery. Key strategies include avoiding over-reassurance, sharing dilemmas, being human and empathic, providing things to do, and acknowledging uncertainty.

As in public relations, crisis communication makes heavy use of mass media. But finely honed sound bites aren’t needed. There is no “public” in a crisis; everyone’s a stakeholder, glued to the television screen for hours. Missing the difference between crisis communication and routine public relations is the biggest barrier – which is why people who are good at PR (politicians, for example, but also many industrial hygienists) may do poor crisis communication unless they adjust. The stress of the crisis itself is another important barrier. The silver lining is that the audience’s outrage, though very high, is not usually aimed at you. Any anger at you, in fact, is put aside until the crisis is past.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman

For more introductory materials on risk communication:    link to Introductory articles
      Comment or Ask      Read the comments
Contact information page:    Peter M. Sandman

Website design and management provided by SnowTao Editing Services.