Where Does Risk Communication
Fit in Public Participation?
In November 2007 I had a chance to run a two-day risk communication seminar at a Scottsdale (Arizona) meeting of the International Association for Public Participation. I have been a member of IAP2 for many years, since back when it was IAP3 (International Association of Public Participation Practitioners). I even gave a seminar for the group once before, in 2000.
But I’ve never been a very active member, and until I started preparing for Scottsdale I never thought very deeply about the relationship between risk communication and public participation (PP). I tried my new thinking out on the group in Scottsdale – which included three IAP2 Board members – and the resulting discussion made me do some rethinking. But my ideas on this issue are still very preliminary. I’m trying out the current version in this column.
The Public Participation Paradigm
Let me start with the paradigmatic public participation event – which is, obviously, a public meeting. It’s not just any meeting. It’s a meeting where a diverse group of citizens interact with each other and with officials about a pending decision. PP practitioners try to make such meetings happen, and try to make them as useful as possible.
From a PP point of view, these are some of the specifications for an ideal meeting:
- People are there voluntarily.
- They are there to discuss an issue that matters.
- There are real decisions yet to be made about the issue. The fix isn’t in.
- Participants at the meeting represent the full range of possible participants, diverse on at least three dimensions:
- Demographics – age, gender, ethnicity, etc.;
- Opinions on the issue at hand – some are strongly pro-X while others are just as strongly opposed;
- Interest in the issue at hand – some are passionate, but others are merely curious or perhaps not even curious.
- The discussion is calm, thoughtful, and generally unemotional. There’s a lot of reasoning, and not a lot of shouting.
- The discussion is mutually respectful. People listen to each other. They believe that a better decision will result if everybody’s viewpoint is considered. They may even concede that the other side has a few solid points to be made on its behalf. They are looking for a consensus if possible, a new answer (or set of answers) that meets everybody’s needs. Failing that, they anticipate a compromise.
- Decision-makers are there as well, and come prepared to be responsive – not just in what they say at the meeting but also in what they will ultimately decide to do. The meeting’s participants may or may not have some decision-making power of their own. But even if the meeting is strictly advisory, there is reason to expect that some of the advice given will influence the outcome.
Of course PP people facilitate a lot of meetings that fall far short of these ideals. But that’s still the paradigm.
Where does the PP paradigm fit in the risk communication universe? As frequent readers of this website know, I distinguish a risk’s “hazard” (how much harm it’s likely to do) from its “outrage” (how upset it’s likely to make people). Based on this distinction, I categorize risk communication as follows:
- When hazard is high and outrage is low, the task is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!”
- When hazard is low and outrage is high, the task is “outrage management” – reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.”
- When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the task is “crisis communication” – helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We’ll get through this together.”
- When hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot” (hence the happy face) – dialoguing with interested people about a significant but not urgent risk. “And what do you think?”
Which of these four kinds of risk communication most resembles the public participation paradigm – PP’s ideal meeting? The sweet spot, obviously.
When outrage is very low, people are apathetic. When outrage is very high, people are upset. In the sweet spot, people are interested. When hazard is very low, it’s hardly worth talking about, at least not for long. When hazard is very high, the situation may well be too urgent to stop to talk, at least not for long. In the sweet spot, talking the issues through is the main priority.
The sweet spot is also the place on the risk communication “map” where the conversation is most likely to focus on data. In precaution advocacy (high-hazard, low-outrage risk communication), people aren’t paying enough attention for you to explain a lot of data (until after you get them interested, if you manage to accomplish that). In outrage management (low-hazard, high-outrage risk communication), people aren’t trustful enough for you to explain a lot of data (until after you improve the relationship, if you manage to accomplish that). In crisis communication (high-hazard, high-outrage risk communication), there may or may not be enough time for you to explain a lot of data, depending on how slow-moving the crisis is; and there may or may not be enough calm for you to explain a lot of data, depending on upset the group is. In the sweet spot, you invariably get to explain a lot of data.
Obviously, public participation practitioners facilitate a lot of meetings that aren’t at the sweet spot. But the sweet spot is where they want to be.
The Outrage Management Paradigm
Here’s a very different public meeting:
- Most of the people at the meeting are upset – angry or frightened or both.
- What they’re upset about is a foregone conclusion, or at least they think it is. Decisions have been made that meeting participants oppose. They want to reverse those decisions, but they doubt they can accomplish that goal via persuasion. They hope to accomplish it via political action.
- Participants may be upset at each other – that is, divided on key issues. But usually they are mostly on one side, upset at the decision-makers. People who support the decision-makers are less likely to show up for the meeting, as are people who don’t care much either way.
- Participants’ chief reason for being there is to vent – to voice their objections in the presence of each other, the decision-makers they’re upset with, and journalists who can help them spread the word.
- While the participants are there voluntarily, the decision-makers have come to the meeting because they cannot avoid it. Their goal is to protect their prior decisions, to avoid giving ground. Their other goal, which conflicts with the first, is to calm people down.
- The substantive issues are minor compared to the emotional issues. The outcomes participants fear most are considered unlikely by technical experts. Participants find it easy to believe those outcomes are likely mostly because the decision-makers have been (and continue to be) arrogant, over-reassuring, dismissive, unresponsive, and not quite honest.
This is the outrage management paradigm. Or, rather, this is the sort of situation outrage management tries to address. The premise of outrage management is that when a controversy is substantively minor but emotionally hot, decision-makers should listen to upset stakeholders, let them vent, validate their legitimate grievances, share control, establish mechanisms of transparency and accountability, and generally learn to behave more decently and more responsively. The promise of outrage management is that when decision-makers do all that, over time stakeholders are likely to get calmer. As their outrage declines, they will be better able to see that the hazard is low. (Remember, we’re stipulating that the hazard really is low. When people are rightly upset about a serious hazard, the paradigm is crisis communication, not outrage management.)
Obviously, the sort of public meeting outrage management was developed to calm is quite different from the sort of public meeting PP practitioners were born to facilitate. This column is about those differences and their implications
What about the other two risk communication paradigms, precaution advocacy and crisis communication? Where do they fit in the comparison of risk communication with public participation?
Precaution advocacy hardly fits at all. The precaution advocacy audience is apathetic by definition, and apathetic people don’t come to many meetings. But there are exceptions to this generalization. Sometimes you can require apathetic people to come to a meeting (e.g., your department has a weekly safety meeting), or catch them at a meeting they’re having for other reasons (e.g., you make your health pitch at a ballgame). More importantly, apathetic people aren’t necessarily apathetic forever. It’s hard to get them interested, but not impossible. As they start to get interested, if they do, precaution advocacy approaches the sweet spot. Thus PP practitioners can find themselves facilitating a meeting that focuses on precaution advocacy – explaining the hazard, telling people what you plan to do about it, getting their feedback, discussing how they can get involved, urging them to take precautions of their own, etc.
As for crisis communication, an acute crisis may rule out a meeting altogether; if you need to evacuate or inoculate people, there probably isn’t time to meet with them first. But sometimes even an acute crisis moves slowly enough to convene a meeting. During the 2003 SARS outbreaks, for example, Singapore’s government held a series of successful meetings to explore the pros and cons of revealing the names of people who had been ordered into home quarantine. Many high-hazard, high-outrage situations, moreover, hang over a community for weeks, months, or even years. The dam has cracks and nobody knows when it might fail; the epidemic is spreading and will probably get here in a few weeks; the groundwater is contaminated and should reach our drinking water source late next year. There’s ample time for meetings about these future crises. Here crisis communication approaches the sweet spot. And so PP practitioners can find themselves facilitating a meeting aimed at helping rightly upset people think through what they plan to do, individually and collectively, about a prospective crisis that looks like it’s coming.
Still, when risk communicators are worrying about how to run a meeting, odds are they’re imagining one of two meetings: a rational debate about important substantive options (the public participation paradigm) or an emotional venting of fears and grievances (the outrage management paradigm). Meeting management begins with getting clear on the differences between these two paradigms.
Of course, many meetings end up someplace in the middle. There’s an important substantive decision to be made, and in order to make it wisely people’s differing opinions and interests need to be considered. But some people find some of the options hard to consider calmly – those options arouse outrage that goes way beyond the substantive pros and cons. A few months ago, for example, I consulted with a government agency that was trying to decide how to meet the future water supply needs of a growing seaside city. Tap into groundwater, even if it’s a little polluted? Build a desalination plant, certainly increasing water costs and possibly damaging some ocean species? Pipe the water in from the countryside, which has aquifer to spare for now, but doesn’t necessarily want to give it up? Recycle wastewater, and get people used to the idea of drinking the stuff? Find ways to conserve water? Maybe even restrict metropolitan growth? Not surprisingly, various stakeholders felt a lot of outrage about aspects of the various options, complicating the discussion of substantive issues.
In fact, it’s fair to say that in real life the pure paradigms almost never happen. Outrage complicates just about every substantive discussion, and substantive issues lurk beneath just about every outraged venting. A core problem in meeting management – maybe the core problem – is figuring out how to split the difference, how to address outrage and substance at the same time.
But before turning to this problem, I want to explore the two paradigms some more. I will discuss five key differences:
Difference #1: The Value of Venting
From a public participation perspective, emotional venting is a distraction from the purpose of the meeting: to get people reasoning together about what should be done. Many PP practitioners consider it worse than a distraction, believing that too much venting (perhaps even a little venting) can derail any meeting. They worry that after participants are done yelling at the decision-makers – or one bunch of participants is done yelling at another bunch of participants – nobody is likely to be in a mood to reason together.
Meeting facilitators therefore see keeping the discussion civil as a basic part of their job. They often insist on getting all meeting participants to agree in advance to a set of rules, invariably including things like no interrupting, no personal attacks, and no questioning other people’s motives. People who break the rules are cautioned by the facilitator; if that doesn’t work, they’re asked to step outside for a few minutes; if that doesn’t work, they may even be kicked out of the meeting.
PP practitioners’ aversion to the expression of anger is mostly strategic; anger gets in the way of civil substantive discussion. But at least for some facilitators, it’s also a matter of personal style, skill set, and emotional range. Before posting this article, I emailed it to the participants in my Scottsdale IAP2 seminar for their comments. One of the most trenchant responses came from Barbara McNeil, a facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. “Facilitators … cannot be afraid of anger,” she wrote, because otherwise “some participants will look for a facilitator’s weakness and then annihilate them on it.” According to McNeil, “in the IAP2 training and in other facilitator training I have taken, very specific anger management awareness and skills are not addressed. I think some facilitators are not ready to handle the level of outrage expressed.”
Even if a PP practitioner is “ready to handle” outbursts of outrage, he or she is not likely to welcome such outbursts. Since reasoning together is the purpose of the meeting, emotional venting has to be seen as off-topic – as self-indulgence if not outright sabotage.
This PP perspective on venting is, of course, attractive to decision-makers, who certainly prefer calmly substantive meetings to hotly emotional ones.
But from an outrage management perspective, emotional venting is the purpose of the meeting, at least one of them. As I noted in my list of bullet points, outraged people come to meetings in order to vent, preferably in the presence of each other, decision-makers, and reporters. Nothing useful can be accomplished until some venting is accomplished.
My clients often ask me how to manage meetings so that it’s difficult or impossible for participants to build a head of emotional steam. There are lots of strategies for accomplishing this, if it’s really your goal. A meeting facilitator who proposes and then enforces a no-venting rule is one way – though activists who aren’t permitted to vent at the meeting may decide to vent in the hallway instead, creating a really good photo-op. Another common stratagem is to organize the meeting around a dozen different tables or displays. “Everybody who’s interested in X go here; everybody who’s interested in Y go there.” Participants wander from table to table. This design makes it easy to ask questions one-on-one; people can even get into a fairly detailed discussion with a real expert on a narrow substantive point. The design makes it next-to-impossible to vent outrage, and entirely impossible to organize the whole room into a media-worthy display of angry opposition.
It’s not that hard to suppress venting at your meeting. But suppressing venting doesn’t make people’s emotions go away; it just keeps the emotions bottled up … until eventually they explode.
When I’m working with engineers, I sometimes use the metaphor of a pressure relief valve (PRV) on a tank of volatile gas. Whenever pressure builds inside the tank, the PRV opens and vents some of the pressure, thus keeping the tank from exploding. An angry public meeting is a PRV for community outrage. Sure, you can disable the PRV so the outrage doesn’t get vented. But why would you want to? Far better to vent the outrage, so the community doesn’t explode.
Nor is emotional venting empty of substantive significance. I have been writing as if there were two non-overlapping sorts of meeting content: emotional venting and substantive discussion. This is a gross over-simplification. It’s true that the sources of outrage are normally nontechnical (and thus not technically substantive). But the content of the venting still contains important substantive information. Let’s say a roomful of stakeholders is outraged mostly because people feel the decision-makers have been arrogant, unresponsive, and dishonest. Some of their venting will be about the decision-makers’ arrogance, unresponsiveness, and dishonesty. Some of it will be about their technical concerns, the things they think the decision-makers have been arrogant, unresponsive, and dishonest about.
So what can the decision-makers learn from the venting? First, they can learn how outraged people are. Second, they can learn what people’s nontechnical grievances are – not just in general (“they think we’ve been arrogant, unresponsive, and dishonest”) but in particular (“for example, last month when we said….”). Third, they can learn what technical issues, hazard issues, are entangled with the outrage. And fourth, they can get clues about what they might do to address both the nontechnical grievances (ASAP) and the technical issues (later, probably, when the outrage is a little lower).
If people want to vent, in short, the best thing a decision-maker can do is let them vent … and pay attention to what they say.
Once you reconcile yourself to a meeting full of angry venting, there’s no point in trying to get your critics to tone it down. In fact, it can be really useful to have a couple of out-of-control people in the room (as long as they’re not dangerous). If Susan is so angry she’s almost spitting, most of her neighbors are likely to behave more reasonably and calm down more quickly than they would otherwise. They don’t want to look like Susan.
When participants are coming to a meeting to vent, I tell my outrage management clients, you should be coming to listen to them vent. I’m talking about active listening here. You don’t read a novel. You nod your head, furrow your brow, murmur uh-huh, maybe even ask questions or take notes. My list of the things you should do to communicate that you’re listening isn’t meant to suggest that you’re faking it. You need to be really listening – and you also need to make a point of doing the things that show people you’re listening. (See the “Listening and Echoing” section of my column on empathy.)
As they vent and you listen, meeting participants start to calm down. They don’t calm down completely (listening isn’t magic), but a little – over time, maybe enough to make room for some substantive discussion.
And as they calm down, meeting participants start to wonder what your reaction is to their list of grievances – and thus, toward the end of an angry meeting, people may actually want to hear from you. It’s a crucial watershed in a high-outrage meeting when participants start shushing each other to make space for you to talk. When that happens, I remind my clients, it doesn’t mean they’re ready for a full-fledged substantive discussion. It certainly doesn’t mean they’re ready for you to rebut their substantive errors (or the claims you consider to be errors) – that’s pretty much guaranteed to trigger more outrage.
When outraged people finally give you a chance to talk, the thing they most want to hear is evidence that you have heard their outrage: “Let me see if I’ve heard you right. I’ve been listening hard all evening, and there are three things I keep hearing again and again. Many of the people in the room tonight are really angry that we did X. Many are really worried that Y might happen. And many really don’t want us to do Z.”
The structure of a high-outrage meeting, in other words, is as follows. Early in the meeting, your stakeholders get to tell you what a jerk they think you are. Later in the meeting, you get to tell them what a jerk they think you are.
When do you get to tell them what a jerk you think they are – how wrong you think they are about the science and the facts? Never – at least, never at a meeting where the goal is outrage expression (for them) and outrage management (for you).
This is, of course, profoundly counterintuitive. When outraged people are venting, what they say almost invariably includes three kinds of content: valid grievances, exaggerated grievances that have a germ of truth, and garbage. If you’re normal, your inclination when you finally get the floor is to rebut the garbage. You ignore the valid grievances and even the exaggerated ones, and focus on the garbage. Whose outrage does that manage? Your own. If you’re trying to manage their outrage, you need to focus instead on the valid or partly valid grievances, and ignore the garbage. For a variety of reasons, you do need to rebut the garbage someplace, lest you give the impression of having accepted it as true. But you don’t want to squander a valuable venting opportunity on mere garbage rebuttal. Instead, make sure your website has a garbage rebuttal corner. (It’s usually called “Frequently Asked Questions.”) And save precious meeting time for listening and echoing.
Garbage rebuttal, in short, is the antithesis of a good outrage management meeting. But it’s the very essence of a good public participation meeting, a good substantive dialogue: Each side tries to rebut what it considers the other side’s garbage, and slowly the truth emerges. Of course it helps enormously if each side also acknowledges the other side’s valid arguments – both public participation and outrage management consider that an extremely worthwhile use of time. But disputing your opponents’ mistaken assertions is useful in PP, dysfunctional in outrage management. Emotional venting is useful in outrage management, dysfunctional in PP.
How you manage your meeting thus depends on what sort of meeting you want. If participants are coming to vent and you’re coming to listen and then echo, you’ll set up the meeting to facilitate venting. That’s the outrage management paradigm. If everybody’s coming to discuss the issues with mutual respect, you’ll set up the meeting to inhibit venting. That’s the public participation paradigm.
If participants are coming to vent and you’re coming to discuss the issues with mutual respect, you’ve got incompatible goals. Either you facilitate the venting and postpone substantive discussion till a later meeting (or at least till later in the meeting), or you inhibit the venting and risk exploding your community. For obvious reasons, I recommend the former.
What if some participants are coming to vent while others are coming to discuss the issues with mutual respect? What if almost everybody is coming to discuss the issues with mutual respect, but a handful of activists want to hijack the meeting with their venting? That’s a mixed paradigm – the toughest situation, and also the most common. We’ll get there. But first let’s explore some more differences between public participation and outrage management.
Difference #2: Who You Want at the Meeting
From an outrage management perspective, the ideal public meeting attracts everybody who is upset about whatever’s on the agenda, and nobody who isn’t. If there are people who are upset but didn’t come to the meeting, that’s too bad. If there are people at the meeting who aren’t upset, that’s also too bad.
I almost invariably have trouble convincing my clients of this. Meeting with a roomful of upset people, they intuitively feel, would be disastrous. So they want to dilute the crowd with people who aren’t upset about the issue.
In my 2003 column on “Stakeholders,” I organized stakeholders according to their level of interest in the topic on the table: fanatics, attentives, browsers, and inattentives. Let me offer a somewhat different set of distinctions here:
- Dedicated critics – fanatics on the other side; they’ll never change their minds, and you both know it.
- Tentative critics – attentives on the other side; they’re upset about the issue, but not so fervently or unalterably.
- Supporters – fanatics and attentives on your side.
- Undecideds – they may be attentives but they’re probably browsers; they see good arguments on both sides and haven’t made up their minds yet.
- Abstainers – they may be browsers but they’re probably inattentives; they think the whole thing is pretty unimportant and see little need to make up their minds at all.
With outrage management in mind, I want my clients to meet with dedicated critics and tentative critics, period. My clients, on the other hand, want the supporters there to argue that the critics are dead wrong; they want the undecideds there to argue that the question is complicated; they want the abstainers there to argue that the controversy doesn’t really matter. And they’d dearly love the critics – especially the dedicated ones – to stay home.
In the backs of their minds, my clients are conceptualizing the meeting as a debate, or even as a referendum. They want to win, so naturally they want as many supporters and as few critics in the room as possible. They want the undecideds there as audience, to be won over by the superior arguments and superior numbers of the supporters. And they want the abstainers there to keep things calm and unemotional, and maybe even to persuade the critics to become abstainers themselves. (From my clients’ perspective, a public that doesn’t care and lets them do what they want is just as good as a public that’s on their side.)
But outrage management doesn’t aim at convincing critics that they’re wrong or that the issue doesn’t matter, nor does it aim at convincing undecideds that the critics are wrong or that the issue doesn’t matter. Outrage management aims at convincing critics, especially tentative critics, that the company or agency is listening, that it sees the merits of their arguments (some of them, anyway) and is changing in response.
If you accept this goal – if you see the public meeting as an opportunity to validate your critics’ concerns and demonstrate your responsiveness – then it becomes clear why you shouldn’t want many non-critics in the room:
- Supporters are all too likely to get outraged at your responsiveness to the critics. They’ll try to “stiffen your spine,” to stop you from making the very concessions you’re there to make.
- Undecideds are all too likely to prolong the debate as they work to figure out who’s right about what. Worse, they may see your concessions as evidence that the critics must be more right than you are. So you may end up seduced into trying to show the undecideds that you’re right about X, rather than doing what you came to do: show the critics that you realize you’re wrong about Y.
- Abstainers are very, very hard to get to the meeting anyway. What can you say to urge them to come: “We need you there to stand tall for how little this issue matters”? But if you do somehow manage to get them to come, they’re all too likely to end up joining the critics, simply because it’s more fun to play offense than defense (or audience).
You should want lots of tentative critics at the meeting, not just the dedicated ones, because outrage management is mostly about convincing attentives that the fanatics have made their point. But you shouldn’t really want the other three groups.
Of course there are likely to be journalists at the meeting, who will report your outrage management efforts to supporters and undecideds whether you want them to or not. (Abstainers will ignore the story.) But that’s a problem in outrage management, not one of its goals. You can’t manage your critics’ outrage without word of your acknowledgments and concessions leaking to supporters and undecideds via the media. (See my column on “Media Sensationalism and Risk” for more on this problem.) Still, there’s no good reason to want them actually sitting there at the meeting.
In public participation, on the other hand, you should want everybody at the meeting. PP practitioners certainly want the critics there. A good PP meeting has that in common with a good outrage management meeting. But they also want the supporters and undecideds there. They even want the abstainers there. The core value of the public participation profession is that everybody’s viewpoint is worth hearing.
It took me a long time to understand why “public participation” includes even the participation of abstainers, people who are content to sit the issue out. Why involve the apathetic? Isn’t the concept of “uninterested stakeholders” an oxymoron? If they’re not interested, they’re not stakeholders, right?
Even in outrage management, people who don’t care now but are going to end up caring in the end are worth trying to involve now – so they don’t show up at the eleventh hour claiming they were never consulted, and questioning the wisdom and legitimacy of decisions made in their absence. If they’re going to get involved at all, you should want them involved now.
If you can’t get them involved now, at least you want them to be the ones who decided to sit it out, knowing they were invited and welcome. You want them to remember that later – and if need be you want to be able to prove it. I’ve often urged clients to write a letter that goes something like this:
We have done X and Y and Z to try to get you involved, and we haven’t succeeded. Groups A and B and C are involved, but so far not you. We’re coming to think you have probably decided you have better things to do with your time, and you probably want the decision to get made without you. But we wanted to check one more time to make sure that’s really how you feel. After all, the results of this decision could affect you in the following ways…. Please get in touch if you want to get involved after all.
Too often my clients make a halfhearted effort to involve hard-to-deal-with stakeholders, breathe a sigh of relief when they fail, and postpone the agony till the eleventh hour. Better to write the letter.
But “speak now or forever hold your peace” is a very different message from “please, please come tell us what you know.” If people are content to stay on the sidelines forever, outrage managers are content to leave them on the sidelines. Public participation practitioners are not.
I didn’t really get it until last November’s IAP2 meeting in Scottsdale, when several PP professionals patiently explained to me that people who don’t care about an issue nonetheless have wisdom to impart. They know things and think things that nobody else knows and thinks. The purpose of trying to get them to participate is to learn what they know and what they think.
This isn’t just theoretical. People who don’t care about an issue vary systematically from people who care deeply – so a decision made without them is both less wise and less legitimate than it could have been with them. Abstainers, after all, have reasons for sitting the issue out, knowledge and values that led them to decide not to get involved. That’s all potentially important data that could improve the decisions more interested people are trying to make. And so a lot of PP effort goes into trying to seduce the interest of “uninterested stakeholders.”
Everybody agrees it’s hard to get abstainers to a meeting. From an outrage management perspective, it’s not just hard, it’s foolish – you should be meeting with your critics, period. But from a public participation perspective, it’s hard but important. From a public participation perspective, everybody’s opinion matters, and everybody belongs at the meeting.
Difference #3: Whose Side You’re On
Here’s #3 in a nutshell: Outrage managers are coaches; PP practitioners are referees.
When I work as an outrage management consultant, my client is a company or government agency (or occasionally even an activist group) whose stakeholders are outraged. I’m hired to help my client reduce its stakeholders’ outrage. If I don’t think reducing people’s outrage is the right thing to do in the situation at hand, I don’t take the job. Once I take the job, I work for the client.
So am I a hired gun? Well, yes, in the sense that I am taking the client’s money in return for trying to help achieve the client’s goals. But in two other senses, not really.
First, I spend virtually all my time talking to the client, and almost none of it talking to the client’s stakeholders. Only very rarely do I actually do outrage management for a client. Clients want me to, and I explain why it wouldn’t work. Outrage management is all about listening, echoing, validating, and responding to people’s grievances. That pretty much has to be done by the decision-makers who did things to produce the grievances and arouse the outrage in the first place. Nobody wants to hear an apology and a promise to improve from a consultant flown in from New Jersey. So I mostly confine myself to giving advice. I function as a coach, not a player.
The second reason I don’t see myself as a hired gun is that I don’t take my clients’ goals as a given. Some clients do come to me already understanding that they have an outrage management problem, and seeking strategic guidance on how best to respond to stakeholders’ grievances. But most clients, and virtually all new clients, have misdiagnosed their problem. Typically, they ask me to help them convince their stakeholders that there’s nothing to worry about. They imagine that I will come up with the magic words that can cause critics to realize at last how foolish they have been, how virtuous and longsuffering my client has been, and how safe the situation actually is. The toughest part of my job is to get clients to rethink their problem – to realize at last how foolish they have been and how longsuffering (if not necessarily virtuous) their stakeholders have been.
Once a client understands that validating its stakeholders’ valid grievances is a lot more useful than rebutting its stakeholders’ garbage, the toughest part of my job is done. Then we can work out what specific outrage management approaches will work best in the situation at hand.
Am I ever hired by the other side, by the outraged stakeholders? Sure. But then the task isn’t outrage management. Activist groups, for example, sometimes hire me to help them figure out how to arouse more outrage – how to persuade an apathetic public to join in the fight. From the activist groups’ perspective, the hazard is greater than the outrage. As they see the situation, they’re in the lower right-hand corner of my map, the corner labeled “precaution advocacy.” Frankly, most of my precaution advocacy consulting is for government agencies (or even for companies trying to persuade employees to take workplace risks more seriously). Most activists already know how to arouse outrage, and they don’t need an expensive outside consultant to help them do it.
The key point here is this: Outrage management is intrinsically on one side. In order to take on an outrage management client, I must agree with the client that its stakeholders are more upset than the actual hazard justifies, and that it’s therefore appropriate to figure out how best to calm them down.
Public participation, on the other hand, is intrinsically in the middle. A PP practitioner wants the decision-makers and the stakeholders to listen respectfully to each other, and is facilitating a process aimed at encouraging that to happen. As I’ve said, I function as a coach, not a player. But no matter how much I argue with my client about its misdiagnosis of its problem, in the final analysis I am on my client’s team. A PP practitioner isn’t on any team. A PP practitioner functions as a referee.
Of course PP practitioners have clients too. And their clients are almost always the decision-makers, rarely the stakeholders. One of the remarkable achievements of the public participation profession is the ability of PP practitioners to remain credibly neutral even though they are paid by one side. To accomplish this, PP practitioners must actually be neutral. But that’s not enough. They must also convince the client to let them be neutral – not to expect any favoritism just because the client is paying the bill. And then they must convince the stakeholders to trust in their neutrality, to agree to participate constructively in a process managed by somebody who’s getting paid by the enemy.
Typically, in fact, public participation practitioners come across as more on the stakeholders’ side than the decision-makers’ side. That’s because PP practitioners try to redress any imbalance of power among the meeting participants, allying with those with the least power. And those with the least power are usually the stakeholders.
That’s not always true. In brainstorms and negotiations, for example, power is fairly equally distributed. In a brainstorm, nobody has the right to make a decision; the group is collectively gathering ideas. In a negotiation, anybody has the right to prevent a decision (except the decision to quit negotiating); the group is trying to reach an agreement and cannot act until it succeeds. PP practitioners do sometimes get hired to facilitate a brainstorm or a negotiation.
But in a typical facilitated meeting, the distribution of power is far from symmetrical. PP people usually facilitate a process whereby people authorized to make a decision interact with people who see themselves as affected by that decision and want some influence on what gets decided. Normally the stakeholders have some amount of power, at least the power to slow progress toward the decision-makers’ goals. If they didn’t have that, the decision-makers wouldn’t have much reason to meet. But as the term “decision-makers” clearly suggests, the organization that called the meeting has a lot more power than the people attending.
So even though it’s the organization that’s picking up the tab, PP practitioners bend over backwards to redress the imbalance. Helping powerful decision-makers listen respectfully to disempowered stakeholders really does matter more than helping the stakeholders listen respectfully to the decision-makers.
Nor is respectful listening sufficient. It is possible for decision-makers to “listen respectfully” to stakeholders without any real intention of letting what they hear influence their decision. That sort of pro-forma consultation is basically a fraud. Good PP practitioners expose the fraud. Really, really good PP practitioners may tolerate the fraud for a while and work to convert it into something real. Decision-makers who thought they were just going through the motions can sometimes manage to learn things anyway – things that change not just what they decide but even how they think decisions ought to get made in future.
Public participation helps decision-makers make better decisions by helping them learn what their stakeholders know and think, so they can take stakeholder knowledge and opinion into consideration as they decide. By contrast, outrage management helps decision-makers make better decisions by helping them stop (or avoid) behaving in ways that upset their stakeholders, thus reducing stakeholder outrage and the pressure on their decisions that comes from stakeholder outrage. Better decisions should result in both cases, but for different reasons and in different ways.
A PP practitioner is basically a referee, facilitating the process. The desired result is participants who understand each other more clearly and more empathically. An outrage manager is a coach, engineering the outcome. The desired result is stakeholders who are less upset about small hazards.
Difference #4: The Relative Importance of Substantive Issues versus Process Issues
A fundamental assumption of outrage management is that the substantive issue isn’t the main issue – in terms of the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, the outrage is bigger than the hazard. A fundamental assumption of public participation, on the other hand, is that the substantive issue is what matters most.
Don’t stretch this distinction further than it’ll go.
I’m not claiming that in outrage management the hazard is necessarily zero, only that the hazard is small enough that it’s sensible (and honorable) to focus instead on the outrage. Look back at my risk communication “map.” The outrage management circle is in the upper left-hand corner, reserved for situations when the hazard is small and the outrage is substantial. When both hazard and outrage are substantial – when people are rightly upset about a genuinely serious risk – you’re in the upper right-hand corner of the map. There the paradigm is crisis communication, not outrage management. That is, when both hazard and outrage are substantial, the communication goals are to help people bear how upset they are and to help them make wise decisions under difficult circumstances.
You shouldn’t be trying to reduce outrage in high-hazard situations. Outrage is useful in high-hazard situations. It motivates action. (Extreme levels of outrage aren’t useful; they can lead to panic or, more likely, to denial. But sustained extreme outrage is pretty uncommon.) It is wrong to try to get people not to feel upset about a problem that’s serious. Reducing outrage, calming people down, is an appropriate goal only when the outrage greatly outweighs the hazard. The hazard doesn’t have to be nonexistent, but it has to be a lot smaller than the outrage, or outrage management is the wrong paradigm.
In short, risk communication always seeks a level of outrage that’s commensurate with the level of hazard. In precaution advocacy, outrage is too low and the goal is to increase it. In crisis communication, outrage is commensurate with hazard already, and the goal is to help people bear it and cope with it. In outrage management – and only in outrage management – outrage is too high and the goal is to reduce it.
Actually, the relationship between outrage management and hazard seriousness is a little more complicated than the previous analysis suggests. Outrage management can play a role in crisis situations too. Suppose people are genuinely endangered and thus justifiably upset about a disease epidemic. And suppose they’re also outraged at the local authorities, who they feel were insufficiently prepared and are now being insufficiently candid. The authorities’ most important communication job here is to help the public bear its outrage about the epidemic, and thus help it cope with the crisis. But in order to do that, the authorities must also try to reduce the public’s outrage at them.
In my effort to keep the different paradigms distinct, I sometimes oversimplify, neglecting the role of outrage management in high-hazard situations. Here’s a more accurate summary:
- Crisis communication paradigm: When people are upset about something that’s high-hazard, the risk communication job is to help them bear the situation and their feelings about it, so they can make better decisions about how to cope.
- Outrage management paradigm: When people are upset about something that’s low-hazard, the risk communication job is to acknowledge and respond to their concerns, so they can calm down and turn their attention elsewhere.
- Mixed paradigm: When people are upset about both high-hazard and low-hazard aspects of the same situation, there are two risk communication jobs: to help them bear their outrage about the high-hazard aspects, and to reduce their outrage about the low-hazard ones.
Even in the mixed paradigm, the stuff you’re doing outrage management about needs to be low-hazard, or you shouldn’t be trying to reduce people’s outrage about it.
Or to use a less narrow concept than “hazard,” the substantive issues need to be less important than the process issues, or you shouldn’t be trying to reduce people’s outrage. When people are outraged about serious substantive issues, the proper response is to address the substantive issues; there’s no reason for the outrage to subside until you do. But when people are outraged about small substantive issues, it’s a safe bet that the outrage is mostly a result of process problems (arrogance, unresponsiveness, dishonesty, etc.). It’s appropriate to try to reduce the outrage by addressing those process problems, not by focusing on the substantive issues they’re hiding behind.
Lest some readers misunderstand, I need to emphasize what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying that people are wrong to get outraged about small substantive issues. Typically, outraged people are outraged for very good reasons. That’s a completely different question than whether the things they’re outraged about are substantively important or not. Assume that the management of a factory has been arrogant, unresponsive, and dishonest about the factory’s dimethylmeatloaf emissions. Assume also that the dimethylmeatloaf itself is a putrid orange-green color … and harmless. People have good reasons for being upset, even though the dimethylmeatloaf issue is substantively unimportant. The risk communication job is to acknowledge and mitigate management’s arrogance, unresponsiveness, and dishonesty, and if possible the appearance of the emissions – so people will find it easier to believe that dimethylmeatloaf is not a threat to their health. That’s the outrage management paradigm.
Public participation practitioners, by contrast, don’t want to waste their time on substantively unimportant issues. Their goal is to help mixed groups of stakeholders reach shared conclusions about public policy questions. That’s hard work for everyone – for the groups as well as the PP practitioners. It’s not worth doing if the questions aren’t substantively important.
Suppose the factory management hasn’t provoked a lot of outrage by being arrogant, unresponsive, or dishonest. Suppose dimethylmeatloaf is colorless. Suppose there’s not a lot of outrage. And suppose some experts believe that dimethylmeatloaf might exacerbate the health problems of immunocompromised people living nearby. On the other hand, the data on health effects are inconclusive, it would be hard for the factory to stay open without emitting any dimethylmeatloaf at all, and the factory is one of the town’s major employers and taxpayers. How strictly the factory’s dimethylmeatloaf emissions should be regulated is a complicated, debatable, important substantive issue. That’s the public participation paradigm.
In asserting that PP practitioners focus on important substantive issues, I don’t mean to imply that they focus exclusively on technical data. True, they focus a lot on technical data – far more than outrage managers do. But anyone with PP experience quickly learns that even the most substantive of controversies is about much more than the data. Beneath the debate over facts and risk probabilities is a debate over institutional performance – competence, openness, etc. And deeper still is a debate over social, cultural, and political values – how safe is safe enough, how fair is fair enough, what kind of neighborhood do we want to live in, etc. Clients typically prefer to confine the discussion to the data. They want to force stakeholders to frame their disputes about institutional performance and values as disagreements about technical facts. This of course puts the stakeholders at a huge disadvantage; valid non-technical concerns end up sounding like mistaken (or even irrational) technical claims.
Knowledgeable public participation people know that disputes about institutional performance and values are substantive disputes. They resist the pressure from their clients to cram those issues into a “data” straitjacket.
Nor do public participation practitioners ignore process. In fact, PP practitioners are exquisitely sensitive to process. It’s their stock-in-trade. They typically call themselves “facilitators.” They concede readily that they’re not experts on the issue under debate, whatever that happens to be this time around. Their expertise is process expertise, and they happily go from issue to issue, applying the same procedural bag of tricks to important substantive debates – no matter which particular important substantive questions happen to be on the table. PP practitioners are just as process-focused as outrage managers.
Here’s the difference. PP practitioners use their process expertise to help the group discuss substantive differences of opinion, so participants can reach agreement (or, more often, compromise) on important substantive issues. Outrage managers use their process expertise to help the group address genuine process grievances, so participants can stop overreacting to substantive issues that are less important than those grievances led them to suppose.
Difference #5: What Skills You Need
The process expertise of public participation practitioners isn’t the same as the process expertise of outrage managers.
The two sets of skills certainly overlap. Both paradigms require good listening, for example. Both require empathy. But in my outrage management seminars, here are the six strategies I focus on most: stake out the middle, not the extreme; acknowledge prior misbehavior; acknowledge current problems; discuss achievements with humility (give away the credit); share control and be accountable; pay attention to unvoiced concerns and underlying motives. For the most part, these are not core tasks in PP facilitation.
IAP2 runs a five-day certification program in public participation. The course consists of two days on planning, then one on communication, and then two more on techniques. Some excerpts from the 2008 certification program brochure will give you a sense of its focus:
Planning for Effective Public Participation: The Planning course focuses on defining the issues for which public participation is required, identifying stakeholders and ensuring their involvement throughout the process. Using IAP2’s Spectrum for Public Participation, course participants establish clear and achievable objectives for public participation and a promise to the public. Participants learn how to prepare an organization for conducting public participation and to plan for the timing, techniques, and resources needed to make public participation a success. Emphasis is placed on creating and using continuous feedback and evaluation.
Effective Communication for Public Participation: At the conclusion of the Communication Course, students will have learned:
- An understanding of the communication skills needed to support effective public participation.
- An understanding of two-way communication models and how to share information and to elicit feedback.
- An understanding of learning styles and how to incorporate into public participation.
- A variety of public participation communication skills and techniques including active listening and empathy, communicating technical information to non-technical people, managing hostile audiences, risk communication, cross-cultural communications and media relations.
- How to use appropriate communication skills, behaviors and tools to support effective public participation.
Techniques for Public Participation: This two-day course in IAP2’s Certificate Program in Public Participation provides an introduction to a range of practical tools and techniques used at all five levels of IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum. It gives course participants an opportunity to try out or observe a number of specific techniques including World Café, Interviews, Samoan Circle, Citizens Jury and Advisory Group. It includes overviews of more than 20 tools and techniques tested and used by public participation practitioners around the globe.
This is all good stuff. Most of it is stuff I don’t know much about, stuff that doesn’t come up much in outrage management.
I am told that the risk communication segment of the IAP2 day on communication does include a brief discussion of outrage. The focus in that brief discussion isn’t on how to reduce people’s outrage; it is more on recognizing the role of outrage as a barrier to eliciting a good, substantive discussion.
A Role for Outrage Management in Public Participation
I have addressed five important ways in which the public participation paradigm differs from the outrage management paradigm:
Okay, they’re different in theory. But as I have admitted several times already, pure paradigms don’t turn up very often in the real world. A few examples:
Outrage management encourages venting while PP tries to suppress it. But what’s a PP practitioner supposed to do when most of the people at the meeting are too outraged to talk about substance until they’ve vented first? Or alternatively, what if most of the group is ready to debate the issues, but a few activists want to hijack the meeting with endless emotional outbursts?
Outrage management wants just critics at the meeting, while PP wants everybody there. But neither one gets what it wants. Typically you end up with mostly critics, plus a sprinkling of supporters, undecideds, and abstainers. Now what?
Outrage management is designed for calming people down about low-hazard, high-outrage issues, while PP is meant for encouraging substantive dialogue about issues where both hazard and outrage are intermediate (the “sweet spot”). But one-issue meetings are rare. What if some aspects of the situation at hand are low-hazard and high-outrage, but other aspects are squarely in the sweet spot? What if people won’t stay focused on the sweet spot issues unless something is done first to ameliorate their outrage about the high-outrage issues?
In short, what do you do when a substantive controversy is important and outrage is getting in the way? Or, more pointedly, what do public participation practitioners do when outrage rears its ugly head at what they had hoped would be a nice, calm, substantive discussion?
Bear in mind that clients only occasionally bring in a public participation practitioner to facilitate a series of meetings because they really want to learn from their stakeholders. It happens, but it’s more the exception than the rule. Here are the two big reasons why PP practitioners get hired. First, there’s a legal requirement to have a meeting; the client needs to get that public participation ticket punched. And second, stakeholders are sounding pretty outraged, so the client is afraid to manage the meeting in-house.
In other words, often the client is interested in professional public participation help only because stakeholder outrage is high. PP is often a belated response to outrage. It’s pretty much the wrong response. Not as wrong as some – not as wrong as ignoring the outrage altogether, for example, and not as wrong as expensively mitigating a tiny hazard because people are outraged about it. But it’s still the wrong response. The right response to outrage is outrage management.
So shouldn’t outrage management be an arrow in the public participation quiver?
It’s always worthwhile to be open to people’s substantive opinions, whether they’re outraged or not. Getting everyone’s views and interests respectfully considered (by everyone else) is intrinsically a good thing to do. But it’s not a very useful response to the sudden awareness of how hated you are by some of your stakeholders.
Not surprisingly, most clients don’t know the difference between public participation and outrage management, and don’t know which one they need. (Why should they? If clients understood the situation they were in, they wouldn’t need consultants.) Sometimes clients come to me to facilitate a substantive meeting, and I have to say that’s not really what I do. Often they come to a PP practitioner to figure out how to calm stakeholder outrage, and he or she has to say … what?
There are five options:
- The PP practitioner can tell the client: “That’s not really what I do. You need someone with outrage management expertise. Once the outrage is under better control, if you want help facilitating a substantive discussion, give me a call.” This has the significant disadvantage of reducing the market for the PP practitioner’s services.
- The PP practitioner can simply ignore the client’s outrage management problem and focus on the PP task instead. The problem with doing public participation while the outrage management need goes unmet is that you can’t do very good public participation. Your meeting participants’ outrage keeps getting in the way of your meeting.
- The PP practitioner can put the outrage in a “parking lot” – which is really more a burial crypt. Suppose somebody says, “Those bastards have been lying to me for years. Why should I believe them now?” The PP practitioner’s answer: “Your feeling of having been misled in the past is a valid concern, but it’s not what we’re here to discuss today. Let’s write it down on this flipchart and move on.” Parking outrage is better than ignoring outrage – but I doubt it works very well. Are people really able to turn their attention to substance when their outrage has been acknowledged and then parked? Are they able to keep their attention on substance when their outrage stays parked, virtually forever? I don’t think so.
- The PP practitioner can “park” the public participation task for a while and address the outrage first. I’m attracted to this option. But it has problems of its own, especially if some stakeholders came expecting the meeting to make substantive progress, and are likely to get outraged themselves when their substantive agenda gets derailed in deference to other stakeholders’ outrage. That can feel like a bait-and-switch not just to the substance-minded stakeholders, but also to the client. Also, of course, this option isn’t really available unless the PP practitioner possesses outrage management expertise.
- The PP practitioner can try to do both tasks in tandem. This option, too, requires the PP practitioner to have outrage management expertise. Other than that, it is obviously the best option – if it’s feasible.
I didn’t have these five options so crystallized at the time of my IAP2 outrage management seminar. But I did ask a number of seminar participants what role outrage played in their work. Nearly all of them told me they do what I’m now calling #5 – integrating outrage management into public participation. That’s why they were taking the seminar. Some of them said they were able to keep the outrage management off to the side, so they could focus on their core PP task. Others said that outrage management had come to dominate their work. (Some said that gladly, some glumly.) This subgroup of #5 was, de facto, doing something like #4 – parking the substantive discussion to focus on outrage management.
Only a couple of people owned up to “parking” outrage so they could focus on substantive discussion (#3). Nobody said they simply ignore their participants’ outrage and proceed with the PP task (#2). If there are PP practitioners that oblivious to outrage, they’re probably not the ones who sign up for an outrage management seminar. And nobody claimed to turn down work because outrage was likely to be a big factor (#1).
Since #5 seems to be the dominant option, the big question is how to do it. How do you facilitate a substantive discussion and address participants’ outrage at the same time? Can it work?
I don’t have definitive answers to this question. But here are a few starting points, grounded in my own experience on those relatively few occasions when I found myself actually facilitating a meeting.
- I have sometimes worked with two flipcharts at the same time – one labeled “hazard” and the other labeled “outrage.” Whenever anybody made a point, s/he had to specify which flipchart I should be standing at. If a point was relevant to both, it got entered onto both flipcharts. The goal was to keep the two categories of issues distinct, while making sure that neither was advantaged over the other.
- Other times I have got the group to agree on an agenda that allocated time for venting and time for substance. For obvious reasons, the venting had to come first. It’s not feasible to ask outraged people to wait. But there was an agreed-upon transition time when outraged people would be asked to button it up (for now) and let the focus shift to substantive debate. (When that time came, some of the venters stayed and listened; others went home, as did the journalists in the room.)
- When a few people want to vent but most want to discuss substance, I still push for the venting to come first. In that situation, in fact, it can be useful for the decision-makers (and the facilitator) to ally with the most outraged people in the room against the majority. There’s a seesaw at work here. If you are defending the minority’s “right to vent,” less outraged participants feel that much freer to express their impatience with all that venting. They roll their eyes and advocate moving on; you resist and insist that the outraged minority is making important points. Pretty soon social pressure takes its toll. The venting grinds to a halt and the focus shifts to substance – without damaging your fragile relationship with the outraged minority.
- I helped once with the meeting where we divided outrage management from public participation geographically rather than chronologically. The main meeting, we agreed, would focus on giving people as much time as they needed to express their concerns and feelings (their outrage), pretty much without interruption. The top management of the agency would stay to listen, and perhaps respond if and when the group wanted to hear from them. Meanwhile, anybody with a technical question or comment was invited to go to a different room, where the agency’s experts were standing by.
These four are obviously just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t really know how best to merge outrage management into public participation. I’m not certain it’s feasible; maybe it’s wiser to “park” the PP task until there has been some progress on outrage management.
I am hopeful that some of the PP practitioners who read this column will send me additional suggestions on how the public participation profession should cope with stakeholder outrage. If so I’ll post them, here or in the website Guestbook.
And I am hopeful that IAP2 will ask me back. Of the five options I listed at the start of this section, only #4 and #5 are really contenders. When outrage is contaminating the public participation task, either the PP practitioner must put that task aside and focus first on the outrage, or s/he must try to work both agendas at the same time. Either way, it seems to me that PP practitioners need some training in outrage management skills and strategies. I would be glad to continue to learn more about your field, and help you learn more about mine.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter M. Sandman