Posted: March 5, 2014
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Article SummaryDuring a health or safety crisis, the most important audience is obviously the people who are at risk. But what about the people who aren’t at risk, but merely bystanders? This column argues that bystanders are also an important crisis communication audience, for six reasons: (1) They may find out about your crisis some other way if you don’t tell them, which could cause them to over-react. (2) They may feel at risk even if they’re not and intellectually know they’re not. (3) They may be feeling miserable about your crisis and what it’s doing to other people. (4) They may not actually be bystanders, but affected in some way you’re not noticing. (5) They may want to help – and helping may be psychologically important for them. (6) Other people’s crisis is a teachable moment, an opportunity to convince them to take seriously the possibility that it could happen to them too someday.

Other People’s Crisis: Talking to Bystanders

This is the 28th in 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 both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (condensed, and with minor copyediting changes) in the March 2014 issue of The Synergist, pp. 36–38.

The key audience for most risk communications is stakeholders, people who are affected by the risk you’re talking about. At least somebody thinks they’re affected; either you do (the expert, the official, the risk manager, the industrial hygienist) or they do.

  • If you think they’re affected but they don’t, you’re usually doing precaution advocacy: trying to warn them about a risk they’re unaware of or inclined to shrug off.
  • If they think they’re affected but you don’t, the task is usually outrage management: trying to reassure them that they haven’t got as much to worry about as they imagine.
  • If you and they both think they’re affected, it’s usually crisis communication: trying to guide them through a situation that genuinely endangers them and thus rightly upsets them.

But suppose nobody thinks they’re affected. They’re not stakeholders; they’re just “the public.” They’re bystanders and they know it.

During a crisis, obviously, bystanders aren’t your most important audience. That honor is reserved for those who must endure the crisis or respond to it. But should bystanders be a crisis communication audience at all? Should you talk to bystanders about other people’s crisis?

I think you should.

Of course if the crisis is big and newsworthy, and reporters are banging down your door, you don’t have much choice. It’s clear that bystanders (the media audience, that is) are going to learn about the crisis. Unless you want your perspective excluded from what they learn, you’ll need to start talking.

But why talk on occasions when you have a choice, when the crisis is still small or still secret, when there are no reporters hounding you to talk?

People May Find Out

If your rationale for not talking about your crisis is that “nobody knows” (the crisis is still secret), my rebuttal is that people may find out. And when people find out risk information belatedly, they tend to overreact.

Not having been told makes people more inclined to think the crisis affects them – so the very act of not talking to bystanders may convince them they’re not bystanders at all, but victims. And not having been told makes people more inclined to think the crisis is serious – so even if they continue to see themselves as bystanders, your silence may lead them to see you as more culpable, more villainous, than they would have thought otherwise. On both counts, you’d be better off talking to them.

When you decide not to talk to bystanders about your crisis, you’re betting that they’ll never find out – or that if they do find out they won’t care, won’t think you should have told them, and won’t conclude that they’re victims too or that you’re an especially culpable villain. If you think that’s a good bet, go ahead and keep your response within the work team or neighborhood.

But beware. My clients routinely imagine that the crises they are managing are smaller than they actually are. In crisis management, it’s comparatively rare to make a mountain out of a molehill. It’s very common to fail to notice that what you devoutly hope will remain a molehill is already growing into a mountain.

I don’t deny that telling bystanders about your crisis can add to its cost, that you may have reputational and other reasons to prefer to keep the crisis quiet. But it’s a bad gamble. All it takes is one tweet, one YouTube video, and your quiet crisis could go viral.

If you tell them yourself, on the other hand, bystanders may be paradoxically uninterested in other people’s crisis. Telling the world about your small crisis is thus literally conservative. You forgo the possibility of solving your problem privately; you pay the price of widespread knowledge that you have a problem. In the process you insure against the far higher price of being discovered having tried to keep your problem secret.

All this is true not just of real crises (high-hazard, high-outrage) – but also of reputational “crises,” low-hazard, high-outrage controversies. When you’re thinking about bystanders, the distinction between a high-hazard crisis and a low-hazard controversy disappears. For bystanders they’re both low-hazard. If your goal is to keep the situation low-outrage for bystanders as well, your best bet is to tell them about it.

People May Feel at Risk

Often bystanders already know about your crisis, so you’re not worried that keeping them in the dark will backfire on you. They know and they’re not affected, not at risk themselves. So why talk to them?

One key reason: Even if people are not at risk, they may feel at risk. You can’t convince them that they’re not unless you talk to them.

Other people’s crisis is quite likely to be high on a number of outrage factors. link is to a PDF file  It’s probably memorable, unfamiliar, catastrophic, dreaded, etc. So even if bystanders know perfectly well, intellectually, that their risk is small, they can feel anxious, even fearful. Psychologists sometimes call this “empathic identification.”

Empathic identification is a big piece of what makes terrorism work. Leaving aside weapons of mass destruction, terrorists can’t kill a significant percentage of the populace. The most they can do is kill an insignificant percentage in a way that’s memorable, unfamiliar, catastrophic, dreaded, etc. Terrorism is a kind of risk communication, aimed at arousing and sustaining extremely high outrage (especially the fear component of outrage, as opposed to the anger component) – far more outrage than the hazard justifies. Hurting and killing victims is mostly a means to an end. That end – the goal of terrorism – is terrifying and thus demoralizing bystanders.

It follows that the mission of counterterrorism is to prevent terror and, when that fails, to manage and diminish terror. Foiling terrorists’ plots is clearly the best way to accomplish this mission. But there are also crisis communication strategies link is to a PDF file that help prevent and manage bystander terror. Paramount among them is acknowledging and validating that terrorist attacks make bystanders feel at risk, statistics notwithstanding. “Of course we’re all feeling shaky right now” is paradoxically a more reassuring message than “Your risk is tiny so calm down.”

Natural disasters, infectious disease outbreaks, and other events can also provoke terror in bystanders, and thus also call for counterterror risk communication.

Even your much smaller crisis can arouse anxiety (though probably not terror) in bystanders, again despite the statistical evidence that their risk is minuscule. So responding to bystanders’ empathic identification – their sense that they’re in the same boat with the actual victims – should be a standard component of crisis communication.

Other than validating that it’s natural for bystanders to feel at risk, what else is likely to help? A few quick tips:

  • Be candid about the odds that the crisis could spread or happen again. If scenarios that would directly impact your bystanders are unlikely, explain why … but only after you have validated that their fears are natural. If those scenarios are not unlikely, say so. Don’t worry that raising the possibility will frighten them all the more. It’s already in their minds. You’re not raising it, you’re addressing it.
  • Talk about what is being done to keep the crisis from spreading or happening again, and what preparedness steps are being taken in case it does. If possible, suggest some precautions your bystanders can take on their own as well. We’re all better able to bear our fears if we’re doing something about them. Explain what warning signs to watch out for. Fearful people become hypervigilant. Telling them what to be vigilant for is reassuring; until the danger signs materialize, they know they’re safe.
  • People quite close to the crisis are likely to experience a “boundary problem” vis-à-vis precautions. Some will resent being excluded: “Why does she get bottled water and I don’t?” Others will resent being included: “Why do I have to take antibiotics and he doesn’t?” Rather than defend an arbitrary boundary between “you can’t” and “you must,” it helps if possible to have a fuzzy area in the middle where the precaution is voluntary.
  • Don’t call them “bystanders.”

Bear in mind the difference between employees and bystanders. One of the reasons why occupational standards tend to be laxer than environmental standards is the widespread opinion that industrial workers are paid to take a certain amount of risk, whereas neighbors outside the plant gates should be virtually risk-free insofar as the plant is concerned. Whether or not you agree, you need to know that your neighbors may be close-to-indifferent about even a big onsite risk, while considering it totally unacceptable for a crisis at your facility to impose the tiniest of risks on them. And of course the conviction that the offsite, bystander risk is unacceptable (“I don’t work there!”) leads easily to the perception that the risk is big.

People May Be Miserable about Your Crisis

Bear in mind also that empathic identification isn’t just taking onboard victims’ fearfulness. It also involves taking onboard their other emotions, most notably misery.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, for example, the resulting misery was much more widespread and long-lasting than the terror itself. People who knew perfectly well that they were unlikely to be victims of a future terrorist attack thought it all too likely that there would be more attacks, more victims, more devastating TV images to absorb, more painful efforts to explain the inexplicable to their children, more weeks and months of nationwide depression to endure.

To help bystanders bear their misery, you have to share it, not belittle it. (The same is true of their fear.) An early entry in my website Guestbook, posted in December 2001 just months after the 9/11 attacks, was entitled “What did Rudy Giuliani do right?” (Giuliani was New York City Mayor during the attacks.) I wrote:

Giuliani modeled coping with misery: feeling it, not denying it; but bearing it, not crumpling under the burden. The moment that crystallized his leadership came only hours after the attacks, when he was asked to estimate how many had died at the World Trade Center. “More than we can bear,” he said, bearing it. Of course a mayor who couldn’t bear it would not have been able to lead us. But a mayor who found it easy to bear, who seemed not to feel the misery, would not have been able to lead us either.

There are always crises somewhere in the world, and they vary in their capacity to arouse empathic identification in bystanders: suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq; typhoon devastation in the Philippines; civil war (or is it genocide?) in Syria. There’s no shortage of things to be miserable about. Take seriously the possibility that some bystanders may be miserable about your crisis too.

People May Not Actually Be Bystanders

Sometimes people we think are bystanders turn out not to be bystanders after all.

They may be genuinely at risk. The fire or the infectious disease outbreak could spread. The terrorists could strike again.

Or they may be stakeholders rather than bystanders in some other way. If there’s a crisis at an industrial facility, for example, the actual hazard may be confined to employees. But family members at home aren’t bystanders; they have an obvious stake in what happens to their loved ones. And if your plant is a linchpin of the local economy, then everyone in town has a stake in what happens there.

Even a far-away emergency can have impacts. People who were planning a trip to the Philippines, whether business or pleasure, had to rethink their plans when Typhoon Haiyan struck in November 2013. Companies that used products or parts manufactured in the Philippines had to rethink their supply chains. The large Filipino diaspora was a riveted and anguished stakeholder.

Every time a florist shop is bombed out or flooded out or burnt out, somebody’s wedding lacks flowers. People are naturally reluctant to complain about such relatively minor inconveniences and hassles in the face of other people’s disasters. But the minor inconveniences and hassles are very much on their minds. It’s wise to take them seriously and respond to them empathically.

When talking to bystanders, you should always consider that your crisis may be affecting them in ways you haven’t noticed sufficiently.

People May Want to Help

This is another way bystanders may not be bystanders: They may want to help.

Among the reasons why many people want to help in other people’s crisis:

  • Fearfulness. The fact that people are frightened on their own behalf doesn’t keep them from wanting to help those who have already fallen victim. On the contrary, they may try to push aside their fears for themselves by focusing on giving aid to others.
  • Misery. People rightly sense that helping victims is a good way to work out their empathic misery.
  • Survivor guilt. People who “just missed” being caught in the crisis naturally, even inevitably, feel some guilt about their good fortune. This too can be expiated and diminished by helping. So don’t keep telling them they’re lucky to be alive. (That’s the problem!) Instead, organize them to help their less fortunate neighbors.
  • Straightforward generosity, of course.

Not all help is welcome. Sometimes volunteers show up unannounced and unprepared, endangering both themselves and those they want to help – and diverting the attention of the professionals who are trying to manage the crisis. Sometimes contributors send the wrong supplies. Sometimes there are liability issues.

But sometimes it is psychologically important to let bystanders help, rather than abandoning them to stew in their own futile empathy. People who “did something” after 9/11 were less likely than those who did nothing to stay mired in misery or terror or post-traumatic stress disorder – even if what they did was to give blood that (sadly) wasn’t needed and couldn’t be stored.

Together with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I have long harangued public health professionals about the need to include some kind of Pandemic Survivor Volunteer Corps in their flu pandemic planning. In every previous flu pandemic, even the most severe ones, the vast majority of people who got sick recovered. They were then at least partially immune to getting sick again from the same flu strain, making them ideal volunteers for essential work that would pose a much higher risk to anyone not yet infected. With rare exceptions, volunteer recruitment has not been a top pandemic preparedness priority. It should be.

Facilitating helpful bystander action (genuinely helpful action, ideally) should be part of any comprehensive crisis management plan. Help bystanders help.

This Is the Teachable Moment

Health, safety, and emergency management professionals spend a fair amount of time trying to convince apathetic people that bad things can happen, and that precautions and preparedness are a good investment of time, effort, and money. It’s a tough sell. People are busy in their lives, and don’t want to think about possible future disasters. Then along comes a crisis, other people’s crisis, and for a little while those apathetic people aren’t so apathetic anymore.

A nearby forest fire is an opportunity to talk to people about why they might want to consider clearing away some underbrush and supporting a prescribed burn policy. A major hurricane/typhoon/cyclone anywhere in the world is an opportunity to talk to people about preparing for extreme weather events (and perhaps about the relationship between extreme weather events and global climate change). An outbreak of measles in one city is an opportunity to talk to the people of other cities about their children’s vaccinations.

Other people’s crisis, in short, is a teachable moment. It is an opportunity to do precaution advocacy, and maybe get some action, while people are temporarily paying attention.

All too often, the opportunity is missed. Maybe the crisis manager was too busy managing the crisis. Maybe he or she was worried that people would take the crisis too much to heart; trying to reassure bystanders that they aren’t greatly at risk makes it hard to warn them emphatically that someday they might be. Maybe he or she was preoccupied with minimizing reputational damage from the crisis itself.

If anyone knows the importance of harnessing teachable moments, it’s industrial hygienists. There’s a long history in industrial hygiene of harvesting the “lessons learned” from accidents elsewhere – not just the practical lessons (what went wrong there and how can we keep it from happening here) but also the motivational lessons (it happened there and it can happen here too if we don’t stay alert). But it’s comparatively easy to tell people that “they messed up so we need to take precautions.” It’s much tougher in all sorts of ways to tell people that “I messed up so you need to take precautions.”

Despite the drawbacks, other people’s current crisis is the ideal time to get bystanders interested in their own potential future crisis. Try to bear that in mind when you’re thinking about whether to talk to bystanders about the crisis you’re managing.

Copyright © 2014 by Peter M. Sandman

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