2015 Guestbook
Comments and Responses

Outrage at a company by governments, suppliers, or competitors

field:Ph.D. student
date:December 6, 2015


Have you ever faced a situation when your client was a company but the outrage that company faced came from government bodies or suppliers, or even competitors?

Could you provide an example? I am wondering if such situations exist in practice.

peter responds:

It is very common for government bodies to be outraged at companies. I think immediately of the Deepwater Horizon accident in the U.S., which aroused high levels of outrage among government officials (and the public too, of course). More recently, the revelations about how Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests also led to government officials expressing strong outrage.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if the officials’ expressions of outrage are genuine or pandering to public outrage. But often they’re genuine, and sometimes the public isn’t even aware of the issue.

Importantly, government outrage is sometimes personal rather than substantive. I worked some years ago with a company that had ignored regulatory demands for years. The company was politically powerful and usually got away with its scofflaw attitude. Eventually, a key national regulatory agency put out the word to all local branches to “throw the book” at that company any time it had a violation, however minor. The same thing happens locally when a company goes over the head of a local regulator, persuading some higher-ranking headquarters bureaucrat to reverse a decision. The price of doing so is a high level of outrage in the company’s future relationship with that regulator.

I remember looking at a study (which I can no longer find) that claimed regulatory toughness depends on five variables. I don’t remember what #5 was, but I think I remember the order correctly for the top four:

  1. Community outrage and political outrage – whether the public and politicians are outraged at the company.
  2. Regulator outrage – whether the regulators themselves are outraged at the company. (This includes revenge for prior slights.)
  3. Legalism – the clarity and seriousness of the infraction legally. (This includes the likelihood of winning in court if the regulatory decision is litigated.)
  4. Hazard – the seriousness of the infraction technically, how much actual harm it’s likely to do. (The authors of the study expressed disappointment that hazard wasn’t #1. But at least it was on the list.)

Of course when a company and a government are partners (for example in most mining and oil ventures around the world), the potential for government outrage at the company is even greater.

It is also common for suppliers to be outraged at companies – especially when a company stops buying from a longtime supplier, maybe for reasons the supplier considers foolish or dishonorable (e.g. a different supplier bribes the company’s procurement person, or even merely makes friends with the procurement person and gets an advantage that way).

In addition, suppliers are sometimes outraged when companies do poor product stewardship of their product. For example, a chemical manufacturer may get into reputational trouble because a customer (such as a commercial pesticide applicator) has misused the chemical and caused an accident. Or a food producer may get into reputational trouble because a customer (such as a restaurant or grocery chain) has failed to refrigerate it properly or cook it properly and caused a foodborne illness outbreak.

I haven’t dealt as often with supplier outrage as with government outrage – but I’ve dealt with it often enough to be certain it’s common.

Companies’ lists of stakeholders – the people and organizations whose good opinion they need and fear losing – always include politicians and regulators (local, regional, and national). The lists also always include suppliers. Others that are never omitted are customers, employees, shareholders, partners/investors, etc. By contrast, the lists often neglect to include neighbors, and they rarely include activists and critics – although they should.

Typically these lists of stakeholders also don’t include competitors. I have certainly been involved in controversies from time to time where competitors were outraged at each other. Claims of unfair competition, for example, are fairly common: price wars; stealing patented processes; raiding key employees; making false claims about the competitor’s product; etc. But in my experience most companies are slow to get outraged at other companies. They tend to see fierce competition, even unfair competition, as normal. And they are surprisingly forgiving of competitors’ misbehavior.

Maybe that’s the golden rule at work; maybe companies forgive their competitors in the hope that their competitors will forgive them when the tables are turned. More likely this forgiveness is a function of the job market. People move easily from company to company in most industries. So there are people at Company X who used to work at Company Y and people at X who hope someday to work at Y. Both are reasons for X not to get outraged at Y, even if the outrage is justified.

In fact, I have often urged my corporate clients to reimagine activists as competitors – competitors for the public’s allegiance, for example – as a way of trying to diminish the company’s kneejerk outrage at the activists, which gets in the way of the company’s ability to manage the activists’ outrage effectively.

My never-changing list of outrage components

field:Freelance writer
date:December 1, 2015
location:California, U.S.


I am a writer, and I’m researching how people perceive risk. I read with interest your 1993 book, Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication. I have also explored your website and watched several videos of lectures you’ve given in recent years.

I am reaching out because I’m curious to know whether you have found any reason to amend the “components of outrage” you identify in your book. I’m asking because these components are undoubtedly informed by the psychometric paradigm, established in 1978. However, they are rooted in ancient philosophy. Take Aristotle, for example, whose thought on fear is somewhat of a representation of the distinction between “chronic” and “catastrophic” risk: “As for our own state of mind, we feel confidence if we believe we have often succeeded and never suffered reverses, or have often met danger and escaped it safely.”

From your website and a review several of your publications, I cannot identify any alterations to the components you outline in the 1993 publication.

If you can verify that I am correct in this assessment, and perhaps offer an explanation as to why you believe public perception of risk remains so consistent, I would greatly appreciate it.

peter responds:

You’re quite right that my “outrage components” were grounded in the early work of Slovic, Fischhoff, Lichtenstein, and colleagues – in what has come to be called the psychometric model. link is to a PDF file  See for example this classic 1981 study. I’m aware of antecedents (and I’m sure they are too), going back as you say to the ancient Greeks and probably earlier. But I was leaning on Slovic et al., not Aristotle.

As you know, the psychometric model got whittled down to just two (sometimes three) main factors, using factor analysis and other statistical methods. I stuck with my list of 12 link is to a PDF file (and sometimes a longer list of 20). The psychometricians relied on the intercorrelations among the factors to refine their model. But I was more interested in the heuristic value of the individual uncombined factors. It was and still is helpful to my clients to scrutinize the outrage components one at a time, and think about which ones meet two criteria: (a) That particular component seems to be playing a big role in the controversy at hand; and (b) There are things the client can do to ameliorate that component. (See “Reducing Outrage: Some Additional Strategieslink is to a PDF file for some suggested ways to address each of the 12 components.)

Two other ways I diverged from the psychometric paradigm:

  • I was interested in the emotional outcomes of these factors, rather than seeing them simply as causes of (mis)perception. Slovic and others have also moved in that direction with Slovic’s “affect heuristic.” link is to a PDF file
  • I insisted on outrage as part of risk, not a perceptual distorter. My “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula is meant to convey this. In my terms, outrage doesn’t simply lead to misperception of risk. Rather, outrage is a part of risk that people tend to perceive accurately, which then affects how they perceive the other part, the hazard. A factory’s neighbors accurately note the evidence that the factory manager is dishonest; that leads them to assume, sometimes mistakenly, that the factory’s emissions are dangerous.

All of the above notwithstanding, in recent years I have emphasized the outrage components less than I used to. I focus more now on my six generic strategies link is to a PDF file of outrage management. The component-by-component discussion that dominates my Responding to Community Outrage book no longer dominates my standard one-day outrage management seminar.

But I still use a handout entitled “Twelve Principal Outrage Components,” link is to a PDF file copyrighted in 1991, that features the same 12 factors as in the 1993 book you reference. I have toyed with changing them from time to time, but ultimately decided to stick with these 12.

Three changes I have contemplated but not made might be of interest to you.

number 1

Seminar participants sometimes ask why I describe the morality component of outrage as “morally relevant versus morally irrelevant” rather than as “moral versus immoral.” In other words, why is the low-outrage side of this dimension “morally irrelevant” rather than “morally good”? It is certainly true that many risk controversies could be framed in terms of whether a particular risk is morally bad or morally good, rather than just bad or not bad. There are moral pluses to genetically modified food or fracking – to pick two examples more or less at random – that could be asserted in response to moral challenges to these technologies.

But it seems to me that the battle doesn’t usually play out that way. The usual fight is between the view that some situation/technology is immoral and the view that it isn’t immoral. I didn’t want “it isn’t immoral” to be located in the middle of my scale, since in a typical risk controversy it’s one of the two extremes.

number 2

The most frequent question raised by people when they first examine the list of 12 outrage components is, “Where are benefits?” My usual answer is that benefits are an aspect of fairness. If you’re bearing more than your share of the hazard but getting less than your share of the benefit, that makes the situation unfair, which makes it a bigger outrage, which makes it a bigger risk. Ditto if you’re getting less benefit than others. Ditto if your benefit isn’t commensurate with the hazard you’re bearing.

All that is true. But it’s also true that the mere existence of benefits can lead to low outrage. I sometimes conceptualize hazard/benefit as a seesaw, or as a framing problem. If you focus first on the benefit you’re expecting or getting, that makes you less attentive to the hazard you face. If you focus on the hazard, that makes you less attentive to the benefit. In reality, hazard and benefit are probably positively correlated. Lots of high-benefit medications, for example, are also high-hazard; meds that are high-hazard but low-benefit don’t get marketed, and strong, effective medicines usually have significant side-effects. But perception of hazard and perception of benefit are negatively correlated. Public opinion on fracking, for example, is dominated by two positions: low-risk high-benefit and high-risk low-benefit. Far fewer say fracking is high-risk high-benefit or low-risk low-benefit.

The causality here is tricky. Perceiving low benefit to me (lower than the benefit to others or lower than the hazard I endure) leads to high outrage, while perceiving high benefit to me insulates against outrage – but that’s about fairness. Perceiving high benefit to everyone (high benefit in general) also insulates against outrage to some extent. But perceiving low benefit to everyone doesn’t arouse much outrage; rather, outrage leads to a disinclination to acknowledge there are benefits. I sometimes talk about this in consultations. But I decided not to add a “low benefit / high benefit” outrage component to the list.

number 3

Acknowledgment, transparency and accountability
A lot of my consulting and writing focus on the closely related concepts of acknowledgment, transparency, and accountability. See for example “Tell People What’s Going On: Building Trust through Candor” and “Accountability.” Several of my six generic strategies of outrage management – which have largely replaced the 12 outrage components as the linchpin of my one-day outrage management seminar – are variations on this theme. I urge participants to acknowledge their prior misbehaviors and current problems, to validate their opponents’ valid arguments, to set up accountability mechanisms so stakeholders don’t need to rely on trust, etc.

And yet my list of outrage components doesn’t directly address this crucial issue. The closest it comes is trustworthiness. But acknowledgment, transparency, and accountability aren’t really ways to be trustworthy. They’re more ways to address the reality of not being trusted; they’re ways of not asking to be trusted. I have toyed over the years with the possibility of adding something along these lines to the list. I’ve got “trustworthy sources / untrustworthy sources.” Why not “transparent sources / opaque sources”? Why not “accountable sources / unaccountable sources”?

Each time I have decided that acknowledgment, transparency, and accountability are responses to outrage rather than sources of outrage. They are crucial aspects of outrage management. But I don’t think of them as components of outrage.

I haven’t got any answer to your broader question: Why does public perception of risk remain so consistent? Why wouldn’t it? Human nature is human nature. I certainly wouldn’t expect human nature to have changed much in the 40-odd years I have been doing this work.

It might be a different story if my list of outrage components were a regression equation, with a specific weighting for each of the 12 components. While my list hasn’t changed, it’s quite possible that the relative importance of some of the components may have changed. Has familiarity become more important as the pace of social and technological change has accelerated? Has responsive process become more important as people get used to the immediate responsiveness of social media (or less important as they get used to the impersonality of big institutions)? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I don’t even know which questions are most worth asking. But I do suspect that there are some changes over time in which of the 12 components tend to predominate in people’s reactions to risk controversies.

There are also some changes over space. When I started doing a lot of international consulting, I used to worry that the dynamics of outrage might be different in other countries, potentially leading me to offer advice that would have worked in my own culture but wouldn’t work where I was working. I have long since stopped worrying. At least in the realm of outrage management, the commonalities across cultures are far more striking than the occasional differences. Still, there are differences in the relative importance of the different factors.

The most vivid example for me is the tradeoff between trustworthiness and control. Some cultures are trust cultures. When an organization has misbehaved, people see the misbehavior as a betrayal of trust – and they demand a new management that will be more trustworthy. Other cultures are control cultures. The same organizational misbehavior is seen less as a betrayal of trust than as an outcome of insufficient oversight; the demand isn’t for a more trustworthy management, but rather for more sharing of control (more activism, more government regulation, more power turned over to external stakeholders).

But even though their relative priority does vary, I have never seen a culture where both trustworthiness and control aren’t important aspects of outrage.

Guilt as a climate change motivator

name: Mark Trexler
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Climate risk
date:December 1, 2015
location:Oregon, U.S.


As attention to climate change issues is again spiking, we’re seeing more and more innovative risk communication efforts being pursued through Kickstarter and many other means. (Look for the climate change toothpaste box, which is interesting!)

One in particular is suddenly trending in the media, namely warning labels on gasoline pumps.

Regardless of the technical truth of the labels, I can see a number of ways in which this idea could go horribly wrong as a way of getting people to act on climate change, accentuated by the love affair we have with our cars. What's your perspective?

peter responds:

When it comes to persuasive communication – about risk or anything else – evidence trumps theory. For all I know, maybe the people behind gas pump warning labels like the one illustrated below have solid data that the labels can penetrate the environmental indifference of many drivers and somehow manage to kindle their inner spark of climate change activism.

If they do, the data would surprise me. Most warning labels are all about protecting the reader from the risks associated with some object or activity. This “warning,” by contrast, tells drivers how their use of their automobile – that is, their selfish insistence on continuing to guzzle carbon-spewing fossil fuels – is endangering innocent animals (not to mention all humanity). It’s not a warning, really. It’s a guilt trip. And a lot of pretty solid theory suggests that guilt-inducing messages are likelier to backfire than to inspire.

Unfortunately, this sort of guilt-tripping has long been a mainstay of environmental activism. I wrote about it at length in my 2009 column on “Climate Change Risk Communication.” Here’s an excerpt:

We need to stop imagining that telling people they are part of the problem is the best way to persuade them to be part of the solution.

Climate change activists put incredible emphasis on assessing blame. They blame global warming not just on human activity generally, but on western overconsumption in particular. (The internal combustion engine and power generation from coal are also common targets of activist ire.) How many times have you read comparisons of the carbon footprint of the average American to the carbon footprint of people in the developing world, perhaps linked to the old quotation from Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us”?

I don’t question the validity of the charge, but I strongly question the utility of harping on it. I question the faulty assumption that telling Americans they should feel terrible for consuming so much more than people elsewhere will help Americans decide to consume less.

The column goes on to distinguish guilt from guilt-tripping:

For sure, people are motivated to avoid (or stop) feeling guilty. At fairly low levels of guilt, that can impel us to take action – to reduce our carbon footprints, for example. And at fairly low levels of guilt, feeling guiltier can strengthen our motivation to act. But at some point, the emotional circuit breaker of denial kicks in. The guilt is too hard to bear. Instead of being motivated to act on our guilt, we are motivated to stop feeling it.

Even before our level of guilt gets intolerably high, we are motivated to resist messaging that harps on our guilt. Guilty feelings can be an effective motivator if the guilt isn’t too strong. But audiences rarely respond well to messaging that tells them directly how guilty they ought to feel. Such messaging makes us ornery. We get angry at the source of the message, and our attitudes and behaviors tend to move in the opposite direction – a phenomenon known as “reactance.” …

Who really gets inspired by guilt-laden messages about American overconsumption? People who judge themselves not to be big-time consumers anymore, who see themselves as having opted out of the lifestyle they blame for global warming. Many climate change activists fit this description. For them, messaging about the overconsumption of their neighbors (and their audience) doesn’t arouse guilt; it arouses self-righteous anger. Since it feels so good to guilt-trip other people, it can be hard to notice that guilt-tripping usually backfires.

With all this in mind, let’s partition the audience for gas pump climate change warning labels into three rough groups:

  • Group 1 drivers already care a lot about climate change. They are already doing a lot to reduce their carbon footprints by driving a less fuel-consumptive car and driving it less. When they have to gas up they hate the internal combustion engine all the more. The warning label reminds them of these preexisting values and feelings. It reaffirms that they are part of a movement, reinforcing their already powerful commitment to that movement. And they probably get some added pleasure when they imagine a less responsible driver reading the warning and feeling suitably reproached.
  • Group 2 drivers are apathetic about climate change, or perhaps even hostile to the claim that it’s a serious worry. They’ve seen plenty of messaging already about how cars and air conditioners and over-consumption and the rest are ruining the planet. A slogan on a gas pump isn’t likely to move them where all those earlier messages failed. They may ignore the pump warning. Or they may find it irritating, and argue back in their minds. They’re unlikely to be inspired.
  • Group 3 drivers already feel guilty about the way their lifestyle contributes to global warming. Maybe they feel so guilty they have gone into denial – so now they imagine themselves to be in Group 2. The pump warning hits them at their most vulnerable moment, right when they’re feeling worst about their automotive dependency. If they’re still in touch with their guilty feelings, such overt guilt-tripping may finally tip them over the edge into irritated, rebellious denial. If they’re already in denial, the warning pushes them further into denial.

I’d expect the warnings to have a negative effect or at best no effect on Groups 2 and 3. Assuming the goal of the campaign isn’t merely to reinforce Group 1’s self-righteousness, it’s probably doing more harm than good on these three groups.

But maybe there is a Group 4 that benefits from the pump warnings. Maybe there are people who are interested in climate change and open to argument, but naïve – surprised and grateful to learn that gasoline consumption is bad for animals. Or maybe there are people who want to reduce their carbon footprint but keep putting it off, so a well-timed reminder helps get the climate change issue back to the top of their worry agenda. Maybe there are even people who started out in Groups 2 or 3, apathetic or hostile or guilty or in denial, but can be lured into Group 1 by the warning.

I don’t think so. But I’m open to contrary evidence.

What’s cleverest about the gasoline pump warning is also what’s most problematic about it: Right when you’re making your periodic behavioral commitment to gasoline dependency, the warning tells you how harmful that dependency is. The goal, presumably, is to strike while the iron is hot. And it might work that way for someone who already resents his or her role in our automobile-dependent culture, or who already feels proud of how long it has been since his or her last fill-up.

But for everyone else, it’s exactly the wrong time. Right at the moment when people are refilling their cars, you tell them they’re ruining the planet. What’s the actionable recommendation: Walk away from the car? I’d rather see this sort of message posted on the wall of car dealerships, where the recommended action is obvious: Look for a car that gets good gas mileage. Or at bus stops, where you can congratulate the reader for using mass transit and then urge him or her to use it even more. “Here’s what you can do to help solve the problem and feel less guilty” is a helluva lot better message, I think, than “Here’s why you should feel guilty as hell!”

I can’t resist adding that the text of this specific warning (it’s part of a set) is a surprising combination of the doctrinaire and the tentative: “Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change which may put up to 30% of species at a likely risk of extinction.” The first half of the message is the doctrinaire part, expressing total certainty that using gasoline contributes to climate change. The second half is surprisingly tentative, with three qualifiers: “may,” “up to,” and “likely.” So it’s probably less than 30%, right? And they don’t face a guaranteed risk of extinction, just a likely risk. And even at that, the risk is only something that “may” happen to them – or may not, presumably.

There’s no actual action recommendation in this warning. I suppose most people do get the implicit recommendation to use less gas. But the explicit message seems to be that a lot of species are (or at least may be) doomed because of “use of this fuel product” by me and others like me. That message is more sad and fatalistic than urgent. The accompanying photo – mother and baby of some endangered ungulate species – is presumably meant to be heart-melting. But again, I would say heart-meltingly sad. Guilt-arousing, not anger-arousing or action-arousing.

I’m reminded of the 1971 environmental documentary “Say Goodbye,” narrated by Rod McKuen, which predicted the extinction of numerous magnificent animal species because of human greed and apathy. Soon after the documentary appeared, some graduate students of mine did a study on it. They asked fellow students who had just seen the movie to specify whether it made them feel mostly angry or mostly guilty. (They didn’t ask about sadness.) A week later, a different researcher went door-to-door in the respondents’ dorms with a petition to save endangered species. Students who had said they were angered by “Say Goodbye” were likelier to sign the petition than students who had said they felt guilty. The researchers concluded that an endangered species movie that aroused more anger and less guilt would be a better recruiting tool for endangered species protection.

Some of the defects I have pointed out in the gas pump warning labels are remediable. In fact, the first community to require the labels – North Vancouver, British Columbia – seems to be pursuing appropriate remedies. The article you cited in your comment mentions a city staff report recommending messages like “Get $5,000 toward a purchase of a new electric car” and “Idling your vehicle for more than 10 seconds wastes more gas than restarting your engine.” Those are a far cry from “Say Goodbye” or from the guilt-tripping message in the photo.

The originator of the gas pump warning label proposal is a Toronto organization called Our Horizon, founded by attorney Rob Shirkey. I’ve looked at the Our Horizon website and listened to a TEDx talk by Shirkey, and I think they fall into the guilt-tripping trap. But North Vancouver seems to be adopting the idea without the guilt-tripping.

Guilt isn’t useless. To use guilt effectively as a motivator, I would advise:

number 1
Arouse guilt subtly, so people feel guilty but don’t feel guilt-tripped. Using guilt as a sledgehammer is all too likely to backfire.
number 2
Make sure you offer absolution – that is, tell people what they can do to feel less guilty. Guilt without a path to absolution is a recipe for denial.
number 3
Design your messaging strategy with your audience in mind, not yourself. Beware of guilt-tripping other people as a means of self-congratulation for your movement.

Until I see data to the contrary, I will continue to suspect that the Our Horizon gas pump warnings fall short on all three criteria.

Analyzing wind farm outrage well … and addressing it badly

name: Elenor
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Business executive; also Peter’s webmaster
date:November 20, 2015
location:Georgia, U.S.


I just read your newly posted “Sandman in the News” on infrasound from wind farms.

Author Simon Chapman and the commenters on his post all had a great fun time ridiculing and insulting folks who may – or may not – have legitimate questions about this inaudible “noise.”

I have real mixed feelings about wind farms. On the one hand, renewable energy is good; on the other, killing millions of birds, especially raptors, is extremely bad.

Please realize, I’m not asking you to address Chapman’s “science” but rather his presentation. Just how much of your teachings has he missed or left out?! He got the outrage factors table right – but I think he missed (most of!) the rest of your “how to deal with outrage.”

I don’t know if there is anything damaging in windmill “noise” (heard and unheard) or in sea-and-tree “noise” (heard and unheard) – and perhaps Chapman’s research, which he presented with such frivolity, was more serious than he presents. I don’t have any strong opinions on possible health effects of infrasound; I’m dismayed (and a bit disgusted) by the tone of the article and the comments. Chapman apparently didn’t absorb your oft-made point that ridiculing your outraged opponents is a truly bad idea!

While I, too, seriously doubt that the alleged 224 problems claimed to be caused by windmills are all or mostly caused by windmills, I think taking the outrage of many thousands of people as a focus of put-down humor is way less than optimal.

Your view?

peter responds:

You’re right.

Chapman does a good job of explaining why infrasound (low-frequency and usually inaudible vibration) from wind farms arouses more outrage than infrasound from other sources. And though it isn’t my field, I think he also does a good job of summarizing some of the scientific evidence and reasoning suggesting – he would say proving – that neither infrasound from wind farms nor infrasound from other sources is a serious health hazard.

But he accomplishes these tasks with too much mockery.

Most of his post is fine, I think, but three paragraphs are gratuitously sarcastic:

“As I sit at my inner Sydney desk writing this I’m copping infrasound from the planes that pass some 200–300 metres over my house sometimes many times an hour, the sound of passing road traffic on a quite busy road 100 metres from our house, and the stereo system I listen to as I write. Don’t tell anyone, but I feel fine and I’ve lived here 25 years.”

”Wind farm opponents claim infrasound is the cause of this Old Testament-like plague of plagues (now numbering 244 different problems). If that were true, how is it that hundreds of thousands of Australians who are daily exposed to infrasound in cities, in their houses surrounded by dastardly infrasound-generating fans, air conditioners and stereo systems, and those who live near trees or the sound of the ocean aren’t breaking down the door of those sworn enemies of infrasound Senators John Madigan, Nick Xenophon, Chris Back, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day who brought us their scathing report on wind farms in June?”

”If the committee is sincere in its concerns about the health effects of infrasound, will we soon learn of a new inquiry about the pernicious and unappreciated dangers of living near the sea or trees, having air conditioners, stereos, ceiling fans, or travelling in motor vehicles?”

All three paragraphs rely on Chapman’s conviction that there’s nothing unique about a large swathe of wind turbines that might pose a different sort of risk than other infrasound sources. He may well be right; he has looked into the question and I haven’t. But you are surely right that ridicule is a poor strategy for mitigating outrage, no matter how technically off-base the outrage may be.

In fairness, I’d guess that Chapman isn’t writing here for wind farm opponents. Certainly there aren’t a lot of wind farm opponents among his commenters. And I suspect he would assert that he’s not really ridiculing citizens who are genuinely outraged about wind farms; he is ridiculing politicians who know better but nonetheless choose to cater to their constituents’ outrage.

Even so, he is setting a bad example. He is teaching his readers how outrage affects the risk perceptions of wind farm opponents. But instead of teaching them that the dominant role of outrage in risk perception is universal, he lets them luxuriate in shared and unjustified contempt for those idiots who have succumbed to outrage instead of sticking with science – as if we weren’t all quite capable of discounting scientific findings that conflict with our deeply held feelings and values. And instead of teaching them that ridicule is a self-defeating response to other people’s outrage, he models precisely that response.

Only one commenter, James Jenkin, picked up on Chapman’s tone problem:

The overwhelming evidence suggests fears of wind farms are unfounded.

However, the article’s sarcasm – “Don’t tell anyone, but I feel fine,” “the pernicious and unappreciated dangers of living near the sea or trees” – suggests the author conducted his metastudy for a bit of a laugh. The people expressing anxiety are idiots and patsies.

It’s a good example of what the public health industry thinks of the general population.

Jenkin’s comment was attacked by several commenters. Except for Jenkin, Chapman’s audience clearly liked his tone. Several of them said so, and more than a few joined in the derision.

The Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal

name:Erich Janka
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Risk management expert
date:November 2, 2015


I am sure you are already typing your thoughts about the Volkswagen scandal.

I thought the company’s written statement on its website, dated September 22, uses too “soft” words for what it did: installing software that made its diesel cars look far less polluting in laboratory tests than they actually were on the road.

Also, I think the statement is intended to address the interests of shareholders, saying that the company has set aside some billions of Euros “to cover the necessary service measures and other efforts to win back the trust of our customers.” But if I were a shareholder I would feel that this statement includes too little information regarding possible business consequences, stock value effects, and plans to rebuild the company’s value. And if I were a customer I would not feel addressed by this statement since it offers no help for my situation. So it is not a good way to earn back the trust of either group.

Maybe it would have been wise to begin by addressing customers’ concerns in a short paragraph, redirect them to a different page with more information relevant to them, and then continue addressing the shareholders in more detail.

On a different webpage, there is a “Message to our customers from Michael Horn, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America.” This message, for customers and not shareholders, does not mention business consequences of the scandal. But the same message could have been written if the violations had been caused by an unintended mistake instead of an intentional fraud. Therefore the apology feels half-hearted.

The German website of VW does not mention the scandal at all. (I last checked on October 16, 2015.)

To me it looks like VW has one message for its customers and a different one for its shareholders. Do you think this is a good idea?

What do you think about the trustworthiness of VW when you know that you can find a message about the scandal on the U.S. website but not on the German website? Are Germans not so interested in the scandal? (It’s a German company with many German employees.) Is there a cultural gap in risk communication so there is no need to address the scandal for German audiences?

I would also be interested in any other thoughts you have about Volkswagen’s response to this scandal.

peter responds:

For readers who aren’t aware of the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article (with links and footnotes removed):

On 18 September 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to German automaker Volkswagen Group, after it was found that the automaker had intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate certain emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing. The programming caused the vehicles’ nitrogen oxide (NOx) output to meet U.S. standards during regulatory testing, but produce up to 40 times higher NOx output in real-world driving. An estimated eleven million cars worldwide, and 500,000 in the United States, produced between model years 2009 and 2015, included such programming.

The result was a sizable scandal that did serious damage to Volkswagen’s reputation and sales, and threatened it with potentially devastating legal liability. The focus of your comment and my response is on Volkswagen’s handling of the scandal, especially its effort to rehabilitate its reputation.

You raise two main issues: the differences between Volkswagen’s messages for U.S. audiences and its messages for German audiences; and the differences between its messages for customers and its messages for shareholders. I will start there. Then I want to take advantage of your invitation to talk about other aspects of the scandal as well.

Different messages for different audiences

The issue you raise about how Volkswagen’s response to the scandal is different in Germany than in the U.S. is hard for me to dig into, since I don’t read German. I have followed other cases where the misbehavior of a multinational corporation was much less severely punished – legally and reputationally – in its home country than elsewhere. (The 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just one of many examples. BP was once “British Petroleum” and is still U.K.-based; many Americans were outraged and many British were defensive.) Volkswagen is obviously very important to Germany, not just economically but as a corporate icon. Given the Lower Saxony state ownership of a big block of Volkswagen stock, the large number of other German shareholders, the large number of Volkswagen employees in Germany, and its iconic status as a German company, I can understand why corporate management would anticipate a more sympathetic response in Germany than in the U.S. And of course it was a U.S. regulation on which the company cheated.

So it’s not so surprising that Volkswagen might end up sounding more apologetic in the U.S. than in Germany. I agree with you that the company should say something about the scandal on its German website. But what’s really surprising to me is that it didn’t end up sounding very apologetic even in the U.S.! I’ll get back to that in a minute.

As for the distinction between messages for shareholders and messages for customers, of course the two sets of messages should be compatible, since people sometimes end up accessing the “wrong” messages. And the core message for all audiences has to be that the company has betrayed everyone’s trust: customers’ trust, shareholders’ trust, regulators’ trust, etc. Still, it makes sense to me that shareholders would want to hear a great deal about the likely effects of the scandal on sales, fines, lawsuits, share price, dividends, and profitability. Customers are a lot less interested in this.

And a message to customers that focused on how the scandal was affecting the company would be pretty offensive. They want to hear about how the company’s misbehavior has affected the environment and public health, and especially about how the scandal has affected their car (its resale value and even more importantly its status value as a symbol of green responsibility).

So I think a difference in emphasis is justifiable and even wise. This is true for all multi-audience communications: All messages have to be compatible but the emphasis should usually be adjusted to the specific audience.

Half-hearted apologies for intentional misbehavior

As you point out, what Volkswagen has to apologize for here isn’t a mere mistake. It is an intentional act of dishonesty.

Apologizing for mistakes is of course a lot easier than apologizing for evil, for intentional misbehavior. And it does absolutely no good to apologize for evil while claiming it was a mistake.

I don’t think anyone believes the company’s claim that a few mid-level engineers managed this fraud on their own. What would their motive be? I suppose it’s conceivable that some engineers pretended to have invented a huge improvement and got rewarded for doing so – and faked the improvement to get the reward. But it’s hard to imagine that no VW lawyer would have tried to patent the improvement … and thus discovered the fraud. And if individual employees loyally cheated on the regulation in order to benefit the company rather than themselves – which is also hard to imagine – the company would still be responsible for having created a corporate culture where a loyal employee could decide that that was a good thing to do.

If I’m right that nearly everyone believes top Volkswagen management knowingly participated in the fraud, and if that is actually what happened, then any “apology” that claims this isn’t so will fall flat. In fact, any “apology” that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge intentionality will fall flat. You can’t commit a crime on purpose, then apologize for an accident, and expect any sort of forgiveness.

But let’s put that aside and grant the vanishingly unlikely possibility that nobody in senior Volkswagen management was aware of this massive fraud until the company was notified by the EPA on September 18. Let’s assume that top management was stupid – asleep at the switch – rather than evil. Senior managers should immediately have realized that this “truth” (we’re hypothesizing for the moment that it’s true) would be hard for anyone to believe. The default explanation for all corporate misbehavior is evil, not stupidity. The only way to overcome this default is to acknowledge that your audience is inclined to attribute your misbehavior to evil, and then plead stupidity as explicitly and convincingly as you can. In a 2001 column I called this “The Stupidity Defense.”

If Volkswagen’s top management really wasn’t in on the deception, it needed to say something like this:

It’s hard even for us to realize that a fraud this big was committed under our noses, and in our name, without our ever noticing. So we can understand why people outside the company would find that almost impossible to believe. In hindsight, there were so many signals that should have alerted us. We feel incredibly stupid.

Even if the stupid-versus-evil dichotomy weren’t in play, Volkswagen’s apologies would be judged half-hearted. The company and its executives made many statements in response to the scandal. Some were better than others. And some, in fairness, were a little better than the two statements you reference in your comment. But I’ll confine myself to those two, which are pretty awful.

The September 22 statement out of Germany runs five paragraphs. Nowhere does the statement include the word “apology” or “apologize” or “sorry” – not to mention words like “fraud” or “deception.”

The first sentence of the first paragraph captures perfectly the neutral, technical tone of the entire statement: “Volkswagen is working at full speed to clarify irregularities concerning a particular software used in diesel engines.” Here are phrases other than “irregularities” that are deployed later in the statement to describe what went wrong:

  • “Discrepancies relate to vehicles with Type EA 189 engines….”
  • “A noticeable deviation between bench test results and actual road use….”
  • “Volkswagen is working intensely to eliminate these deviations through technical measures.”

Twice in the five paragraphs, the statement talks about trust: “efforts to win back the trust of our customers” and “the top priority of the Board of Management to win back lost trust and to avert damage to our customers.”

Nothing in this statement suggests that the irregularities/discrepancies/deviations were anything other than a regrettable accident. The only hint that there might have been some intentional misbehavior on somebody’s part comes in the last paragraph, where the statement asserts that “Volkswagen does not tolerate any kind of violation of laws whatsoever” and promises to “inform the public on the further progress of the investigations constantly and transparently.”

The U.S. CEO’s “Message to our customers” isn’t much better. Once again there is nothing approaching an actual apology in the statement’s eleven short paragraphs, and nothing suggesting that anybody (high-ranking or low) might have intentionally cheated on an environmental regulation. To the contrary, the statement asserts: “As environmental protection and sustainability are among Volkswagen’s strategic corporate objectives, the Company takes this matter very seriously and is cooperating with the investigation.”

But the tone of the U.S. statement is a bit more human than the tone of the German statement:

We understand that owners of the cars affected by the emissions compliance issues are upset. We ask our valued customers for their patience as we address this issue as quickly as we can….

We are committed to making this right and preventing it from ever happening again. We will bring these TDI vehicles into compliance with the federal and state emissions regulations.

Along with our parent company, Volkswagen AG, we are committed to do what must be done, and begin to restore your trust.

One other flaw in these non-apology apologies deserves to be mentioned: They’re too forward-looking. That may sound strange. Doesn’t the public, especially owners of affected cars, want to know what Volkswagen is doing to solve the problem?

Sure. But outraged people typically don’t want the company they’re outraged at to focus prematurely on solutions. They want to hear, first and foremost, what went wrong, how it went wrong, why it went wrong, and how awful the company feels about screwing up. My clients – especially if they’re engineers – always want to skip to the part where they explain how they’re going to solve the problem, without dwelling nearly enough on how they caused the problem in the first place.

And anyway, Volkswagen doesn’t know yet how it’s going to solve the problem. All it has to offer on that front is broad promises to cooperate with government investigations, conduct its own investigation, figure out ASAP how to make its cars compliant with U.S. law, and stay transparent along the way.

I understand that it’s hard to say much about what went wrong when you’re claiming to be gobsmacked and completely in the dark. Nonetheless, good apologies are backward-looking. They focus on “what we did wrong,” and how understandably angry “you” (customers or other stakeholders) have told us you are.

Prior signals of an auto industry emissions scandal

Although you wouldn’t know it from these two Volkswagen statements, in fact there were at least three prior signals that an auto industry emissions cheating scandal was brewing.

The three signals are referenced in a LinkedIn article on the Volkswagen scandal by Leesa Soulodre. (Leesa is managing partner of RL Expert Group, a Singapore-based reputation risk management consultancy; I am one of her on-call experts.)

One of the three warning signals Leesa cites was in German. I can’t read it, so I won’t cite it. If you want to check out the other two, here they are:

It was the last of these documents, produced by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), that ultimately led to Volkswagen’s exposure. The ICCT commissioned the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines, and Emissions (CAFEE) at the University of West Virginia to conduct the U.S. part of the study, which compared emissions on the road with emissions in the laboratory. Published in May 2014, the CAFEE final report link is to a PDF file is mind-numbing, and mentions Volkswagen by name only once (in a footnote). But CAFEE and ICCT shared their results with the California Air Resources Board – with brand names included, I surmise – and the cat was out of the bag.

So VW had signals that should have warned top management that somehow, for some reason, its NOx emissions control system worked a lot better in the lab than on the road – or, if it knew that already, should have warned it that an emissions cheating scandal might be forthcoming. Did it miss the signals? Did it shrug them off? Did it worry internally at high levels but decide that the only real option – proactive confession of its own sins and perhaps blowing the whistle on everybody else as well – was worse than hoping the story would somehow never come out? I wish I knew!

In her LinkedIn article, Leesa Soulodre points out that VW might have fared better if it had “let” industry associations do the communicating. But I’m not sure how it would have managed that, unless it was willing to go public with evidence that it was just one of many companies cheating on the NOx standard. And it would have had to go public with that information before it got targeted – or at least before it got targeted publicly. If it waited till it was publicly targeted and then pointed the finger at others, I think the outrage would have been exacerbated, not ameliorated.

Now that VW is in deep trouble, I assume the other guilty companies – if there are other guilty companies – are waiting on tenterhooks to see whether they will get exposed as well … and if they do, whether they’ll get off easy because their sins will feel like old news. Surely no trade association is about to announce that VW isn’t the only villain in the story.

Even if VW is the only villain, it’s still an industry problem. At a minimum, I think, this particular Volkswagen fraud must have been an open secret within the auto industry. Other companies would have seen Volkswagen’s claims to have met tough U.S. NOx emissions standards in its diesel cars without compromising other criteria, especially fuel economy; they would have tried and failed to replicate the achievement; and they would surely have reverse-engineered Volkswagen’s cars and ascertained that there was no such achievement to replicate. I don’t see how this would diminish Volkswagen’s guilt – and it’s not something Volkswagen can say publicly in any case – but I’m inclined to assume that either other companies were doing it too or they knew Volkswagen was doing it and kept silent.

The likeliest scenario, given the sources cited above: Other companies probably cheated too, but less than VW; they probably knew VW was cheating even more aggressively than they were, but they were in no position to blow the whistle (even if they wanted to) since their own hands weren’t entirely clean.

The source of the outrage

Volkswagen in particular is renowned for its green reputation (at least in the U.S.), going all the way back to “Think Small” Beetle ads in the 1950s. As I discussed at length in my “Two Kinds of Reputation Management” website column, companies are punished more for betraying an outstanding positive reputation than for confirming an already negative one.

I think a lot of VW diesel owners in the U.S. bought the car they bought not just because they wanted to do something good for the environment, but because they wanted to be seen to do something good for the environment. Driving a VW was a way of signaling that the driver is seriously green. Now it has become instead a signal that the driver is a sucker.

I don’t think the outrage is mostly because VW allowed its diesel cars to emit 40 times the permitted amount of NOx. Nor do I think it’s because the resale price of VW diesel cars (and maybe even other VW cars) has plummeted. Nor do I think it’s because VW has proved itself to be untrustworthy.

I think it’s mostly because VW owners have been deprived of a source of pride in themselves. Volkswagen’s reputation restoration effort has to include an effort to rehabilitate the self-esteem of its customers – their sense of their own reputations in the eyes of friends and neighbors.

The irony here is that some experts think the U.S. NOx standard that Volkswagen pretended to satisfy is a foolish standard in the first place, with little if any impact on public health, except possibly in a very few places (like Los Angeles) where NOx levels haven’t declined as much as elsewhere in the U.S. According to this argument, automakers that met the standard honestly did so at the expense of more important things like fuel economy and carbon emissions. It follows that a post-scandal VW “fix” that actually met the U.S. NOx standard at the expense of fuel economy and carbon emissions would be worse for the environment than the status quo.

In other words, Volkswagen did cheat – but it cheated on what some experts consider a dumb regulation, and actually manufactured a greener car than adhering to the regulation would have let it manufacture. This isn’t my field, and I don’t have an opinion on whether the argument is sound. If it is, it might affect how people judge the company’s dishonesty. But again it would be a very difficult thing for Volkswagen to say publicly.

What kind of risk communication is Donald Trump doing – and why don't politicians do outrage management?

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Civil servant
date:October 17, 2015


You conclude your (as always) interesting piece on “Outrage about Brian Williams’s lies and his sort-of apologies” with this statement, which suggests that Donald Trump has bigger communications problems than Brian Williams:

In America today, racial stereotyping is much less forgivable than telling self-aggrandizing lies.

And yet, despite his racial stereotyping, Trump is now riding high! I would like to believe that your concluding sentence is right, but it would appear that the appeal to “authenticity,” phony as that is, is a big seller!

Obviously, Hillary Clinton’s late apology and denials of wrongdoing over her use of private email do not work in her favor either.

Is there, sadly, a lesson to be drawn here about communications or outrage management? I cannot help wondering if this strategy of Trump’s – and it was that, a strategy – holds a lesson: In a competitive situation, an individual or firm can, by going all in defending noxious beliefs or practices, attract attention and support at the expense of both even more extreme competitors and less culpable but more evasive ones. It might be dubbed the Donald Trump / Rob Ford Principle.

peter responds:

For readers who haven’t been following the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s most memorable moment of racial stereotyping came on June 16, 2015, when he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. He focused in part on illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. Here’s the money quote:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

There’s a huge volume of commentary on this brief passage. For starters, you can check out the Wikipedia discussion.

Even readers who haven’t followed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination are probably aware of the ongoing controversy over how she managed her emails while she was U.S. Secretary of State. You can check out the Wikipedia article on that too. In a nutshell, Clinton decided not to use her State Department email account, but rather to route all her emails, official and unofficial, through a private email address and to store them on a private server. Among the many issues this has raised, three predominate: whether she violated the law and endangered national security by the way she handled classified information in her emails; whether she failed to turn over all emails with official content when asked to do so by the State Department; and whether her public statements when the controversy surfaced were dishonest.

As for Rob Ford, he’s a colorful and controversial former Mayor of Toronto (still a City Councillor), known among other things for admitting to smoking crack cocaine “probably in one of my drunken stupors” – and then refusing to resign. Ford’s blustery style, his disinclination to apologize ever for anything, and his popularity in the face of (or perhaps because of) establishment disdain have occasioned more than a few comparisons to Trump. For more, see Ford’s Wikipedia profile.

And now to your comment..

Donald Trump’s strategy

Trump never came anywhere near apologizing for what he said about illegal Mexican immigrants. He did publish a statement of clarification, which said positive things about legal immigrants from Mexico but reasserted his view that the illegal ones are “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” The media rightly referred to this follow-up as “doubling down” on his original claim.

Trump has been similarly unapologetic about other campaign statements that some found offensive, and that it was predictable some would find offensive – most notably his derisive comments about the physical appearance of fellow candidate Carly Fiorina and about the war hero status of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Trump’s offensive comment about illegal Mexican immigrants is thus not a one-off. It is part of a pattern of offensive comments.

This is not the right place (and I am not the right expert) to discuss the crime rate of illegal immigrants versus the crime rate of native-born Americans; nor the ways in which illegal immigration hurts and helps the U.S. economy; nor the political implications when the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination goes out of his way to offend a key electoral constituency (Hispanics).

The question worth discussing on a risk communication website is this: Why does Donald Trump keep making offensive statements, and then doubling down on them instead of apologizing? It’s certainly feasible to take the policy positions Trump is taking on immigration reform and other issues without arousing the sort of controversy Trump keeps arousing. Several other Republican candidates are doing just that. But Trump keeps picking the most offensive way to make his points. As you say, it’s got to be conscious. It’s clearly his personality but it’s also clearly his strategy. So what is he up to?

Most commentators agree on the answer to this question. Trump is trying – very successfully, at least so far – to appeal to the segment of the Republican electorate that is outraged at politics-as-usual, especially Republican politics-as-usual. To a lesser extent, the soft-spoken Ben Carson is similarly trading on his outsider status. And on the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is successfully mobilizing the anti-mainstream outrage of his party’s left wing. All three candidates are anti-establishment. But there’s a difference. Sanders’s anti-establishment credibility with Democrats is grounded exclusively in his socialist ideology; he’s a longtime politician, albeit an unusually extreme one. Carson’s cred with Republicans derives from both his rightwing views and his nonpolitical career (he’s a retired brain surgeon).

Trump doesn’t have a clear-cut ideological history like the other two (though he has adopted the conservative opinions he thinks he needs to win the Republican nomination). A billionaire businessman, he shares Carson’s nonpolitical background. But mostly his outsider, anti-establishment appeal comes from his belligerent style. He doesn’t just stand for rebellion against politics-as-usual. He stands for rebellion against political correctness, even against common courtesy. The mantra of Trump’s supporters is that he “says what he thinks,” by which they mean that he doesn’t mind offending people who disagree with him. In contrast to ordinary politicians who focus-group their opinions and craft their words ever so carefully, Trump’s calculated offensiveness comes off as authenticity. He doesn’t just say illegal immigrants are a problem. He says they’re rapists. He doesn’t just propose a plan to address the problem. He promises to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

The conventional wisdom is that the American public is more politically disaffected, more outraged at Washington politics-as-usual, than ever before in modern times. I’m not so sure, but maybe that’s true. What’s pretty obviously true is that the minority who vote in state primaries and caucuses are more politically disaffected than usual. Politically disaffected people normally stay away from politics or start their own political parties. In the 2015–16 campaign season, politically disaffected people are organizing revolutions inside both established parties. Trump’s revolution, uniquely, is more stylistic than ideological.

Of course offensiveness arouses controversy, and controversy attracts journalists. The media have given Trump endless coverage, far more than any of the other Republican candidates – more, even, than his frontrunner status justifies. He leads the polls by a lot less than he leads the coverage count. The media have even given endless coverage to the fact that they are giving Trump endless coverage, noting often that he has “sucked up all the oxygen” in the campaign. (The metaphor is self-satisfied but not inaccurate; for political candidates media attention is indeed the stuff of life.) See for example this August 24 “Huffington Post” article.

In risk communication terms, Trump isn’t interested in outrage management. He’s not trying to calm his opponents or ameliorate their opposition. To the contrary, his core strategy is to arouse ever more outrage in his supporters. He’s a polarizer, not a consensus-builder. Offending people who would never support him anyway is a good way to build the fervor of those who do support him or at least might come to support him. And of course apologizing for his offensive comments plays little or no role in his strategy.

So if Trump isn’t doing outrage management, what kind of risk communication is he doing?

Most obviously, he’s doing crisis communication. His natural constituency is people who think the country is in crisis and are outraged at its leaders. He tells them they’re right. He validates that the hazard to the country and to their personal wellbeing is high, and so their outrage is justified. And then he offers guidance on how to get through the crisis: Make him President of the United States.

Polarizers have always been able to command a segment of the U.S. population – but rarely a big enough segment to win national elections. With so many candidates for the Republican nomination, it’s not surprising that the mad-as-hell segment is currently the biggest. But Trump is polling at 20-some percent – barely enough to lead in a fragmented field, a plurality but way short of a majority. The big question is what will happen as losing candidates drop out of the race. Will Trump’s 20-some percent grow? Or will the supporters of departed conventional politicians switch to a different conventional politician, leaving Trump with the same 20-some percent, nowhere near enough to win the nomination, far less the election?

To win either, Trump needs to go beyond the already-outraged segment of the Republican primary electorate. He needs to arouse outrage, not just guide preexisting outrage. To convince people who are politically inactive or politically conventional to join his revolution, he needs to accomplish three things:

  • Increase their outrage – for example, by saying extreme and offensive things about people, groups, and beliefs they loathe and fear.
  • Use their outrage to increase their hazard perception – that is, convince them that America is at risk.
  • Mobilize their newfound sense of crisis into support for him as the solution to the problem.

This is straightforward precaution advocacy. “Watch out!” Trump is warning the electorate. “The politicians are all stupid. They’re flushing America right down the toilet. Only I can make America great again.” (This isn’t a quotation. But it could have been, right?)

Bottom line: Donald Trump the risk communicator needs both crisis communication and precaution advocacy. He has no use for outrage management.

Outrage management in conventional politics

Even conventional politicians have little use for outrage management, at least insofar as elections are concerned.

Faced with a controversy, communicators have three basic options:

number 1
Work to strengthen the commitment of your supporters, trying to convert weak support into stronger support.
number 2
Work to win over neutrals and undecideds, trying to convert no position into a weakly supportive position.
number 3
Work to ameliorate the ire of your opponents, trying to convert strong opposition into weaker opposition.

Politicians call the first strategy appealing to the base. They call the second strategy outreach. They don’t have a name for the third strategy, because they don’t have much use for it. I call it outrage management.

It’s different for companies. When a company is trying to rescue its damaged reputation, for example, the value of ameliorating opposition is pretty obvious. I have written at length about the “Two Kinds of Reputation Management” and why I think becoming less hated (ameliorating opposition) is often more valuable to a company than becoming more loved (strengthening support). I won’t repeat the whole argument here. One key point is that there aren’t that many ways for strong supporters to buy more of a company’s products or services than ordinary supporters; if customers are satisfied and loyal already, how much benefit is there in pursuing greater satisfaction and stronger loyalty? But corporate profitability can be substantially damaged by passionate critics; diminishing their fervor has great value even if there is no chance they’ll ever become supporters.

Similarly, consider the options for a company seeking regulatory approval – for a new medicine, for example, or a new factory. Converting weak supporters into strong supporters might help a little, and so might converting neutrals and undecideds into weak supporters. But regulators typically focus on opponents: not just the content of their arguments, but also how many of them there are and how fervent they are. The company’s best shot at getting its license or permit is to try to keep the controversy as low-key as possible. Aiming for fewer and less passionate opponents is usually more productive than aiming for more and more passionate supporters.

I often have trouble convincing my corporate clients that the third option – the outrage management option – is the bext course. Rousing your allies simply feels better than conciliating your critics. But I’m pretty sure I’m giving them the right advice.

I couldn’t in all conscience give the same advice to a politician trying to win an election.

The first option, strengthening your support, has huge political advantages. Given the low turnout in elections (especially primary elections), a politician can’t count on weak supporters actually voting. Stronger supporters are likelier to bother. They’re also likelier to talk you up to their friends. Maybe you can even get them to contribute money or volunteer time. And it takes a lot less effort to increase the fervor of a supporter than to win over an apathetic neutral or an interested-but-ambivalent undecided. It’s a lot less chancy.

Still, trying to win over neutrals and undecideds is pretty important too – especially in low-turnout races where a handful of previously uninterested newcomers can be decisive; or close races where a small group of swing votes can be decisive; or volatile races where there are lots of swing votes.

But ameliorating opposition? Suppose you’re a particular primary voter’s least favorite candidate. If all the other candidates somehow dropped out of the race, she’d rather stay home than vote for you. What’s the payoff for getting her to hate you a little less, so she just might hold her nose and vote for you if there were no other choices available? Not much. There are going to be other choices available, and she’s still going to vote for one of those other choices.

The main purpose of an apology is to ameliorate the antagonism of someone who was offended by something you did or said, which in politics is usually someone who was against you already. So apologizing has little electoral payoff. It may actually do more harm than good. Apologizing gives the media another chance to talk about what you did or said that called for an apology, thereby cluing in those who missed it first time around. Apologizing reminds those who have forgotten already what you did or said. And apologizing tends to irritate your strongest supporters who want you to stand tall for your brand.

These disadvantages are a price worth paying in situations where ameliorating the antagonism of opponents is important. But in electoral politics, where ameliorating the antagonism of opponents rarely adds much value, apologizing seldom calculates out as the best path forward.

That’s why Hillary Clinton – as establishment as a candidate gets – isn’t much more given to apologies than Donald Trump. As you point out, Clinton belatedly acknowledged that the way she managed her State Department emails was a “mistake.” She even added “I’m sorry about that.”

Saying you’re sorry that you made a mistake is way short of saying you’re sorry for doing something wrong. Clinton’s basic position is that she did nothing wrong: nothing illegal, nothing dangerous to national security, nothing dishonest, nothing to apologize for, except perhaps for apologizing to her supporters for making a political mistake that has handicapped her campaign. Handling her emails the way she did was a “mistake,” she seems to be saying, because she should have realized it would be used against her.

At least in the Democratic race for the nomination, Clinton’s refusal to apologize is probably a politically sound decision. Polls suggest that even a lot of Democratic voters think she’s not entirely honest and not entirely trustworthy, but they don’t seem to hold it against her. She is the frontrunner by a wide margin. Many of her supporters apparently accept that deviousness isn’t a disqualification for becoming President. They worry only that it might damage her electability. They figure that Republicans will try to make her behavior look as bad as possible, so she should try to make it look as good as possible. They’re not looking to her for a candid, soul-searching apology. And they’re not going to get one.

Perhaps the best evidence that her strategy is sound is what Bernie Sanders said in the October 13 Democratic debate: “I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Clinton grinned and shook his hand, and the crowd roared its approval. Why would you apologize seriously for something when your toughest primary opponent is telling the world it isn’t serious? That leaves open what might happen in the general election if Clinton is the Democratic candidate or what might happen if one of the 32 pending lawsuits about the emails explodes in her face, not to mention what might happen if the Justice Department ends up indicting her for something. But for now, Clinton has as little reason to apologize as Trump.

In your comment, you speculate that maybe “an individual or firm” might do better “defending noxious beliefs or practices” than apologizing for them or avoiding them in the first place.

I think you’re wrong about firms. Corporate managements don’t always recognize their need for outrage management. But they do need it. Reducing the enmity of their enemies is good for their bottom lines.

I think you’re right about politicians, though. They can go far – maybe even all the way – by staking out and sticking to positions that critics find totally unacceptable. That’s because their priorities are strengthening support and winning over undecideds and neutrals, not ameliorating opposition. Donald Trump has no use for outrage management. Neither do most politicians, most of the time.

When is it okay not to warn people about a risk?

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Communications consultant
date:August 26, 2015
location:Colorado, U.S.


Do you believe that businesses should play any role with regard to letting consumers know about waterborne microbial diseases possibly being transmitted from the misters being used in the produce section of a grocery store?

As a consumer, I find it terrifying to think I could unknowingly be exposed to something as simple as the produce mister at the grocery story.

Should a grocery store play any communication role in letting the consumer know if there has been an issue in the water system? Is it enough to shut off the misters without giving any reason?

peter responds:

For readers unfamiliar with this issue (as I was until I received your comment): Improperly maintained grocery store misting systems can pose health risks, most notably the risk of Legionnaires’ disease. I’m not sure how sizable this risk actually is. It seems tiny. The most frequently mentioned U.S. case – still – occurred in Louisiana in 1989. I found a possible but never proved 2013 case in Milwaukee, but the only other confirmed case I can find was in 2006 in Pamplona, Spain.

Most Legionnaires’ outbreaks are traced to the climate control systems of large buildings, not to grocery store misters. Readers interested in alarming information about grocery store mister risks can read this commercial message from a company trying to sell improved misting systems to store owners.

But misters aside, the risk communication issue you’re raising is super-important: When is it okay not to warn people about a risk, especially if you’re managing the risk appropriately?

There’s a related question lurking underneath your comment as well: When (if ever) is it okay to warn about a risk but not feel you have to do anything yourself to manage it?

The answers to these questions, I think, depend in large measure on whether something has gone wrong or everything’s normal.

When something has gone wrong

The last paragraph of your comment specifies that “there has been an issue in the water system.” Something has gone wrong, leading the grocery store’s management to turn off the mister while it works on the problem. There may or may not have been risk management deficiencies that led to the problem in the first place, but at least now the risk is being managed. Your question is whether the store also needs to issue some kind of warning to shoppers.

Let’s start with an easy example. Assume there has been an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the neighborhood, and epidemiologists from the local public health agency have traced the outbreak back to its source: Legionella – the microorganism responsible for Legionnaires’ – has been found in your grocery store’s misting system, and the strain of Legionella in your mister has been matched to the strain that’s making people in the neighborhood sick.

Obviously you need to turn off your mister, sanitize it, and rethink your maintenance protocol before you restart it. Almost as obviously, you also need to warn your customers. Shoppers in recent days before the problem was discovered were potentially exposed; they need to know that, so they can be seek medical help promptly if they experience any symptoms that resemble Legionnaires’. There’s little risk that you will neglect your duty to warn. The media and the local health department will be all over you, and your management will be in all-out crisis management mode.

But suppose the source of the outbreak isn’t known yet. In search of the source, public health officials have been testing all the grocery store misters in the neighborhood, and they found some Legionella in several stores’ systems, including yours. Your mister may or may not be responsible for the outbreak.

The answer is the same. This scenario is pretty much what happened in the summer of 2015 in the Bronx (part of New York City). The Bronx outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease comprised 124 cases and was responsible for 12 deaths. Ultimately the problem was traced not to a grocery store mister but to the cooling tower of the Opera House Hotel. But in the meantime several other area cooling towers (serving a factory, a shopping mall, a hospital, etc.) were also found to harbor Legionella. Those cooling systems had to be cleaned too, of course. The buildings also had to be named, so their occupants and immediate neighbors could be alert for symptoms.

It would be almost the same story, I think, if the outbreak had already been traced to the hotel before the other buildings were found to have their own Legionella problems. With lots of neighborhood victims and a high level of neighborhood anxiety, there’s no way the health department could have avoided giving the media their follow-up story: “More Area Cooling Towers Found with Legionella.”

As a result of the Bronx outbreak, many cooling towers throughout New York City were checked for Legionella. Suppose contamination had been found in a cooling tower in some other part of the city, with no nearby cases. Would city officials have announced that too? Maybe so, given that Legionnaires’ disease was temporarily big local news. Maybe not. Maybe inspectors did find some Legionella contamination here and there around the city, and simply got it taken care of without any publicity. How would we know?

And suppose a New York City grocery store had found some Legionella in a mister, right in the middle of New York’s concern about Legionnaires,’ but not in the Bronx neighborhood with an actual outbreak. Assume the store’s owners aren’t legally required to notify the health department or the public, only to fix the problem. Would the owners have put up a sign anyway? I doubt it. Should they? Would you? Would I?

I’m not sure. If the experts tell the grocery store owners that recent shoppers are seriously at risk, issuing a warning is obviously the ethical thing to do. It may also be the smart thing to do, given the outrage and legal problems the owners will face if they do nothing to warn people, and then someone gets sick.

But what if the experts say the risk is small? And what if there’s no local Legionnaires’ outbreak to make the issue salient? Nobody’s sick and nobody’s interested. Doesn’t it seem more sensible simply to sanitize the system, improve your maintenance protocol, and say nothing?

It sort-of does, doesn’t it? Among the objections to issuing a warning under these circumstances is the fact that people are all too likely to overreact. A voluntary warning is sufficiently unusual that people might well misinterpret one as a signal that the risk is much bigger than it is. Also, if grocery stores will feel obliged to warn their customers every time routine mister maintenance finds routine minor contamination, that’s a substantial incentive not to do routine maintenance, so they won’t find anything that forces them to warn their customers.

But notice that big companies in many industries do issue warnings – and launch recalls! – even under these circumstances. If you’re a food manufacturer, for example, you’re expected to announce a voluntary recall when you find contamination in a factory that might have gotten into some batches of your product, even if the experts are pretty confident the health risk is tiny.

I have worked on several such recalls, the most recent a 2013 recall by New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra, the world’s fourth largest producer of dairy products (and China’s principal powdered milk supplier). Routine safety tests indicated that some whey protein concentrate from a particular Fonterra factory might have been contaminated with the bacteria that cause botulism, a potentially deadly disease. Nobody had been reported sick, and it was far from certain that the contamination was really the species of Clostridia bacteria that causes botulism, rather than a different Clostridia species that’s nontoxic. Nonetheless, Fonterra initiated a large-scale recall, with major economic and reputational implications not just for Fonterra but for New Zealand agriculture generally. The bacteria were ultimately determined not to be the botulism-causing species.

So what can we conclude so far? When should you warn people and when is it okay not to warn people after something has gone wrong – in this case, after you have found Legionella in your grocery store mister?

number 1
If you have a legal obligation to warn people about your mister, warn them. That’s a no-brainer.
number 2
If somebody else (the health department or the media, for example) is likely to warn people about your mister, warn them yourself. That’s a no-brainer too.
number 3
If the experts tell you your recent customers are seriously at risk, warn them, regardless of #1 and #2. That’s also a no-brainer, not just ethically but also in terms of your reputation risk and liability risk.
number 4
If the thing that went wrong is pretty minor and pretty commonplace – nobody got hurt, this is something that “goes wrong” from time to time at lots of grocery stores, and people wouldn’t be especially surprised to learn that it went wrong at yours – then you probably don’t need to warn them. The more harmful and unusual the occurrence, the closer you’re coming to the paradigm of “Something Went Wrong,” and the stronger the case for a duty to warn. This is crucial. Dangerous weird occurrences require warnings. More ordinary occurrences may or may not.
number 5
If a warning would have no action implications for the people warned, it’s probably pointless to warn them. People tend to resent warnings they can’t do anything about. But if the warning is actionable – “see your doctor immediately if you shopped here on X dates and have Y symptoms” – then the case is stronger for a duty to warn.
number 6
If it’s a big local issue and people are paying close attention to it, warn them – for example, if you’re in the Bronx in the summer of 2015 and you just found Legionella in your mister. That’s because the high salience of the issue has two relevant effects: It increases the odds that people will find out even if you don’t warn them, and it increases how outraged they will be that you didn’t warn them. This is a judgment call and not a no-brainer at all. In making the judgment call, I urge clients to focus more on the second factor than the first. Don’t guess whether people are going to find out. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and decide how they’ll feel about you if they do. If you’re pretty sure they won’t feel you should have warned them, it’s okay not to warn them.
number 7
When in doubt, warn them. The mistake of failing to warn probably occurs more frequently than the mistake of issuing unnecessary warnings. And failing to warn almost certainly does more reputational damage than issuing unnecessary warnings. So bias your decision-making in the direction of more warnings, not fewer. Of course unnecessary warnings do have a reputational downside: the risk that people may overreact. A grocery store that routinely tests its mister and routinely tells customers about any problems it has found is arguably safer than one that never tells customers anything, leaving open the question of whether it’s even testing. But inevitably some customers will misperceive a store’s willingness to warn as evidence that it’s more dangerous than other stores. Knowing this will naturally make you disinclined to warn your customers. If despite this factor you’re in doubt about whether to warn your customers or not, you almost certainly should warn them.

Ideally these sorts of warnings would occur on an industry-wide basis instead of individually. I can imagine a website to which every grocery store in the state routinely uploaded its mister maintenance and inspection records. Any time someone was concerned, he or she could check the website to see whether there were problems with a particular store’s mister, or how that store compared with other stores, or more generally how often misting systems got contaminated. Most warnings could then take the form, “We had a mister problem. See website for details.” With a website in place, the “this is pretty routine” message would be an intrinsic part of the warning, reducing the risk that merely by deciding to warn your customers you might be communicating more urgency than the situation merits. People could gradually learn that Legionella is widespread in the environment, and that it’s not a big deal when routine environmental testing turns up Legionella that hasn’t made anybody sick.

Various industries in various states – from doctors to restaurants – do have websites like the one I’m imagining. They’re more often mandated and run by regulators than voluntary efforts by the companies themselves. But assuming your grocery store is on its own, the standards listed above may provide some guidance.

When nothing has gone wrong

The first two paragraphs of your comment seemed to be talking about the generic, very small risk from grocery store misters – the mere fact that they occasionally harbor Legionella and other pathogens, and very occasionally make somebody sick.

Without getting into the weeds of misting system technology and regulation, let’s assume that a grocery store operates a misting system that poses an acceptably small but non-zero risk to shoppers. Whatever regulations public health officials consider appropriate (if any) are being obeyed. Everyone pretty much agrees that the misting system has significant benefits. It extends the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables, which means there’s less spoilage, which means fresh fruits and vegetables are cheaper, which means more people buy and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which is good for their health. But everyone also agrees that misting systems can foster the growth of pathogens like Legionella, thus posing some risk that shoppers might catch Legionnaires’ disease from the mister, the mist, or the misted produce. Properly obeying the regs (if any) reduces this risk to a level that health officials consider acceptable, but not to zero.

So should the grocery store post a warning sign about the mister? “Warning: The mister that keeps this produce moist might carry dangerous microbes.” I don’t think so.

It doesn’t matter whether the misting system is unregulated because officials consider the mister risk acceptably low, or it’s regulated enough to make the risk acceptably low. Either way, the risk is acceptably low. The grocery store management thinks so. The government thinks so. The shopper doesn’t need to be warned.

That’s my starting position.

So why can’t I stop there and cut this answer short? (Well, I pretty much always write l-o-n-g. But here’s a better reason.) Because my claim that there’s no duty to warn when nothing has gone wrong is grounded in the view that whatever level of regulation currently exists is the right level of regulation. That’s a view that’s easy to dispute.

Legionnaires’ disease was discovered (and named) after a mysterious deadly outbreak at a 1976 American Legion convention was traced to the cooling system of Philadelphia’s Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, where the convention was headquartered. Once the new disease had been identified, regulatory agencies around the world promulgated new regulations for climate control systems in big buildings – though often not until they had experienced local Legionnaires’ outbreaks of their own to drive home the need. For reasons I haven’t explored, the U.S. wound up with a less strict Legionella regulatory regime than many countries in Europe and elsewhere. Even within the U.S., cities and states have widely varying Legionella guidelines and regulations.

In the wake of the 2015 Bronx outbreak, predictably, New York City tightened its regs, and there were calls for tighter regs throughout the U.S. See for example Betsy McCaughey’s August 2015 article, “Everyone is still getting it wrong on the Legionnaires’ outbreak.” McCaughey argued that New York officials were completely mistaken in their “ridiculous” claim that the Bronx outbreak was unprecedented; in fact it had many precursors around the country that U.S. public health agencies had stubbornly ignored. “New York could do a far better job of preventing future Legionnaires’ deaths,” she wrote, “if our officials were willing to learn from other countries.”

I think my “three buckets” concept is useful here. In a 2014 Guestbook entry on “What to say when a chemical that’s outlawed in some countries is legal in yours,” I argued that we should think of risk regulation in terms of three buckets: an “obviously needs to be regulated” bucket, an “obviously okay to leave unregulated” bucket, and a “tough call” bucket in the middle. Countries with comparable levels of regulatory toughness make pretty much the same decisions with regard to risks in the high-risk and low-risk buckets, but widely differing decisions with regard to risks in the middle bucket.

What determines whether a particular government regulates a particular middle-bucket risk laxly or strictly? Lots of things: activist fervor, public outrage, industry lobbying, politics, even random chance. Not science. Science helps regulators decide that the risk belongs in the middle bucket in the first place, but other factors control which middle-bucket risks get lax or strict regulatory attention.

One of the factors in play is whether there has been a major, highly publicized outbreak recently. A big outbreak can trigger public outrage. Public outrage can entice activists and politicians into picking that issue instead of some other issue to pursue; the combination of public outrage, activist fervor, and political action can convince industry to back off a bit in its anti-regulatory lobbying. Obviously a big outbreak doesn’t always do the trick, but it surely improves the odds.

What fuels everybody’s demand for stricter regulation of whatever risk was recently big news? It’s mostly hindsight bias. After a major outbreak, people feel in hindsight that more should have been done to prevent the outbreak. They don’t necessarily feel the same way about dozens of comparable risks that haven’t launched a recent outbreak but might launch the next one. They don’t want every middle-bucket risk more strictly regulated. They want regulators to have guessed right and tightened the regs governing the risk that just blew up in their faces.

In the wake of the Ebola epidemic that devastated three West African countries in 2014–2015, many commentators have been extremely critical of the world’s failure to have developed an Ebola vaccine in advance of the epidemic. Few of these commentators have bothered to think through how small all prior Ebola outbreaks had been, and how many similarly rare infectious diseases also lacked a vaccine. Some have argued that we should prioritize the search for vaccines against all neglected diseases. But most just think there should have been a high-priority search for an Ebola vaccine, as if infectious disease experts could have guessed that Ebola was the right disease to focus on. That’s hindsight bias at work.

Regulators have trouble resisting hindsight bias. It is very, very difficult to explain what ideally needs explaining:

Hundreds of risks rear their heads from time to time, kill a few people, and then go quiet again. It is unwise to impose super-strict regulations on every risk that turns deadly once in a while. It is impossible to impose super-strict regulations only on the risks that are about to turn deadly. And it is foolish to impose super-strict regulations only on the risks that just turned deadly and have already subsided.

Public health professionals find this especially difficult to say. They can’t even get themselves to make the first point, that not every occasionally deadly risk deserves regulatory attention, that “public health” is mostly about managing widespread risks, not occasional ones. They especially can’t get themselves to make this point right after somebody has died and the local public is alarmed and outraged. So instead, understandably and perhaps even wisely, they seize on the teachable moment and make a big deal out of the small risk that has just struck.

Legionnaires’ disease is a middle-bucket risk. Some countries regulate it strictly, some not so strictly. Unless the Bronx outbreak changes things, the U.S. is on the not-so-strict side of the continuum.

Bear in mind that there are other middle-bucket risks that the U.S. takes more seriously than most other countries. One of many examples is influenza. U.S. public health agencies push flu vaccination much more aggressively than the public health agencies of most other developed countries around the world. But most U.S. jurisdictions require less environmental testing for Legionella than many European jurisdictions.

Or compare how the U.S. treats two middle-bucket risks, Legionella and plastic bags. The U.S. CDC estimates that between 8,000 and 18,000 patients are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease in the U.S. each year, and 5–30% of those patients die. Far fewer people die due to accidental plastic bag suffocation, about 25 children a year. But every plastic bag over a certain size is required to carry a warning link is to a PDF file something like this one: “Warning: To avoid danger of suffocation, keep this plastic bag away from babies and children. Do not use this bag in cribs, beds, carriages, or playpens. This bag is not a toy.”

Accidental plastic bag deaths are a far smaller human risk than Legionnaires’ disease deaths. Even allowing for the fact that we care more about the death of a child than the death of an adult, there’s still an imbalance here. Plastic bags may get more regulatory attention in the U.S. than they deserve, statistically speaking. They certainly get more regulatory attention than Legionella gets.

Still, the regulatory regime is what it is. The misting system in your U.S. grocery store is regulated however laxly or strictly it is regulated. If you’re complying with the regs and nothing has gone wrong, you are not required or even expected to warn your customers that misters can occasionally be dangerous.

Why not warn your customers anyhow? Because warning people about too many small risks can undermine the value of warnings. A warning is a signal. It asks people to pay attention to a risk. If you ask people to pay attention to too many risks, they may stop paying attention to any of them. And a surfeit of warnings makes it harder, not easier, for people to distinguish big risks from small risks.

Many people think our litigious society, where failure to warn can lead to lawsuits, has already created a world with excessive warnings. Who actually reads the patient package inserts for prescription medicines? Who reads the warning pages in the instructions for new electronic gadgets? How well do warnings work in a world with too many warnings?

Too much information: A tangle of information on the
A3 Kingston by-pass in South West London

I have written at some length about “warning fatigue” twice before on this website, in a 2008 Guestbook entry and again in a 2012 Guestbook entry. In both cases I emphasized that warning fatigue is a real phenomenon but a comparatively weak one. I was focusing then on what happens when you have warned people about a risk that doesn’t materialize – in these two examples, a bird flu pandemic or a bushfire. The problem is to sustain credibility and thus concern about risks that loom more often than they strike. Among my recommendations: Emphasize the magnitude of the risk without exaggerating its probability, so its failure to materialize doesn’t feel like disproof of your warning. Good insurance salespeople have long understood this; they know better than to imply that your home is highly likely to burn down in the current policy year.

The problem before us now is different. We’re not talking about damaged credibility when the risk you have warned people about doesn’t materialize. We’re talking about damaged attention when there are simply too many warnings to absorb. That’s an issue that arises in all sorts of venues, from automobile traffic to hospital care.

One venue where it has been much-discussed is California’s Proposition 65, passed by direct voter initiative in 1986. This state law specifies standardized warning language about chemicals that are thought to be carcinogenic – language that is required on product labels and even on signs in chemical-using facilities (not just factories, gas stations, and the like, but all sorts of facilities normally considered pretty benign).

There is no penalty for posting an unnecessary warning, but the penalty for failing to warn can be onerous – so Prop 65 warnings have become ubiquitous. As a California court noted in a 2006 decision, link is to a PDF file quoting the state attorney general, “it does not serve the public interest to have … almost the entirety of the state of California ‘swamped in a sea [of] generic warning signs.’”

The other side of the Proposition 65 argument is also valid. The obligation to warn about a carcinogen in some product or location has incentivized many companies to eliminate the carcinogen and thus eliminate the need to warn. Despite widespread agreement that there are too many warnings, there is also widespread agreement that Prop 65 has reduced Californians’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

But it needn’t have turned out that way. And it may not turn out that way in every case. Suppose a company uses a lot of carcinogens and has no choice but to post a generic Proposition 65 warning on its premises, like the Disneyland warning illustrated above. Suppose there are ways to eliminate some of those carcinogens, but not all of them. Management will still have to post a warning. So why make the effort to eliminate any of the carcinogens, even the ones that are easily eliminated? What was meant as an incentive to reduce exposures thus becomes instead an incentive not to bother. Warning people becomes a replacement for protecting people.

This is a recurring issue in industrial safety, where “behavior-based safety” has sometimes been misinterpreted as a license for employers to warn employees about a risk, train them to pay attention to the risk, and then blame them if they fail to avoid the risk … instead of reengineering the system or revamping the organizational culture to better manage the risk.

How does this apply to a grocery store mister? Store management has an affirmative legal and ethical obligation to manage the mister’s risks correctly – to keep the system properly maintained, to test for Legionella and other pathogens on the recommended schedule, to sanitize the equipment routinely, to be especially careful after it has been turned off for awhile and stagnant water may have nurtured excessive microbial growth, etc. These obligations are completely unaffected by management’s decision to warn or not warn customers.

You don’t get to let a dangerous dog roam your property just because you have posted a “Beware of the dog” sign. And you don’t get to cut mister risk management corners just because you have posted a “Beware of the mister” sign.

Nothing is more fundamental than this: Risk communication is no substitute for risk management. It is never appropriate to issue warnings (and even less appropriate to issue reassurances!) instead of managing a risk, insofar as the risk needs managing and is manageable. The question is when you need to warn people in addition to doing good risk management, not whether you can get away with warning people instead of doing good risk management.

So assume you are doing good risk management of your mister. That doesn’t mean the risk is zero. Zero risk probably isn’t achievable, even if you do everything right. And “doing good risk management” doesn’t actually mean doing everything right. It means doing a normal job, a decent job, a “good enough” job, not necessarily a perfect or even an optimal job. You’re managing your mister more or less correctly, following the regs and the user manual most ways most of the time. And everything’s going fine: no problems so far. How should you decide whether to warn people about the residual mister risk?

Let me suggest five criteria. (There are probably others I missed.) Remember, these are criteria for deciding whether to warn when nothing has gone wrong. Refer back to the earlier list for help figuring out whether to warn after something has gone wrong.

number 1

How big is the risk? Most of the time the risk is small enough that no warning is needed. If it’s not small enough, you probably need to up your risk management game until it is – not imagine that you can warn people instead of protecting them properly.

But sometimes you’re doing everything feasible to manage the risk, and the residual risk you can’t feasibly manage is still pretty substantial. I’m thinking about hospital-acquired infections, for example. Or recreational skydiving. Or peanut allergies. What these very different risks have in common is that the residual risk is substantial even when those in charge are doing a pretty good risk management job. When there’s a nontrivial unmanageable risk involved, a warning is probably called for.

number 2

How controversial is the risk? The first criterion suggests that you don’t need to warn people if the risk is being well enough managed and the residual risk is small. (As we have seen, “well enough” is a sliding scale, especially for middle-bucket risks.) But if there’s an ongoing controversy over whether a particular risk ought to be better managed, that in itself is a rationale for warnings – so people who think it’s more serious than the regulators do can take appropriate evasive action.

That’s why I think it makes sense to have labels on foods saying whether they contain genetically modified ingredients, and signs on lawns when pesticides have just been applied. The main reason to warn about controversial risks that the experts consider very small is to show respect for people who are worried about those risks by enabling them to take action to protect themselves.

number 3

How actionable is the warning? If there’s nothing that people who are worried can do to protect themselves, there’s less reason to warn them. Actionable warnings always make more sense than warnings that aren’t actionable. But keep in mind that “actionable” includes the possibility of political action, even political action to eliminate a certain risk altogether. If people ever get upset enough about grocery store misters, misters could get banned.

Why do pediatricians warn parents about the risks of childhood vaccines, even though those risks are tiny? It’s partly because vaccination is controversial. But anti-vaxxers don’t really need to be warned. The main reason is because vaccine risk is actionable. Pediatricians don’t actually want parents to respond to vaccine warnings by deciding not to vaccinate their kids; that’s their right, but it’s certainly not the goal. The goal is for parents to expect the routine side effects so they won’t get unduly alarmed, and to be on the lookout for the rare side effects so they can seek immediate medical help.

number 4

How unfamiliar or unexpected is the risk? If you have just mopped the floor of your grocery store and it’s still wet and slippery, it’s a no-brainer to post a warning sign. If there’s something wrong with your floor that makes it unexpectedly slippery all the time, you should solve the problem with new flooring or a new wax – and in the meantime post a warning sign. But you shouldn’t post a warning sign on an ordinary dry floor telling customers that all floors pose some risk of slipping. Familiar risks don’t require warnings; unfamiliar or unexpected risks do.

Warning people about unfamiliar or unexpected risks has two benefits: It enables them to protect themselves, of course, assuming the warning is actionable. But it also protects you from the outrage people rightly feel when they’re blindsided.

There is room for disagreement about how to apply the familiarity criterion. Most people think it’s unnecessary to put signs on ladders warning people not to balance precariously on the top rung, not to climb when the ladder isn’t firmly on its base, or not to fall off. But some regulators disagree. Familiarity varies over time, and from one audience to another. Do plastic dry cleaner bags still need warnings not to let children play with them, lest they suffocate themselves? Probably they do. The risk may be unfamiliar to new parents.

number 5

How salient is the risk here and now? This is the most variable of my five criteria. As we have seen, middle-bucket risks arouse a lot of outrage after something has gone wrong; hindsight bias leads people to judge that more should have been done to protect them. They don’t just blame regulators for not having regulated the risk more strictly. They also blame everybody they think (in hindsight) should have managed the risk better … and should have warned them about it.

You can’t predict whether Legionnaires’ disease in general or grocery store misters in particular are going to suddenly turn into a hot issue. But at least you can react when they’ve already turned into a hot issue. If I were running a grocery store in the Bronx in the summer of 2015, I would probably post a sign to tell my customers that misting systems, like cooling towers, are sometimes a source of Legionella, and that my store is currently taking special precautions to protect shoppers from Legionnaires’ disease.

How do my five criteria apply to a grocery store misting system that isn’t in the Bronx in the summer of 2015? A mister warning would be pretty actionable (#3). Customers could avoid going near your produce section or could shop elsewhere; they could monitor themselves for Legionnaires’ symptoms. And the risk of misters is pretty unfamiliar (#4); at least it was unfamiliar to me, and apparently to you. But if the store is maintaining and inspecting its mister properly, the residual risk is pretty small (#1), pretty uncontroversial (#2), and not particularly salient (#5). And remember: The problem of too many warnings is a real problem. How many other grocery store risks might deserve a warning as much as the misting system does?

On balance, I wouldn’t recommend a routine mister warning. I wouldn’t be especially critical of a grocery store owner who decided to launch a personal crusade for mister safety, starting by posting consciousness-raising signs and handing out consciousness-raising flyers. We’re all entitled to pick our own middle-bucket risks for special attention. But I wouldn’t be critical of a grocery store owner who thought it was enough to manage the store’s produce mister properly without saying anything about it to customers.

Outrage about Brian Williams’s lies and his sort-of apologies

name:Ashley Conway
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

date:July 7, 2015
location:New Jersey, U.S.


I searched this site for your thoughts on Brian Williams’s crisis and didn’t find anything but I imagine that you have an opinion on why it sparked such ire; what helped and what hurt; and what you would have recommended.

My questions are:

  1. How deeply did social media influence the course of the incident? Is the vitriol expressed online new or does it just have a bigger stage than pre-Internet?
  2. Don’t powerful organizations like NBC have communication experts that can “get ahead” of the outrage and take action that will limit damage?
  3. What is your critique of Mr. Williams’s apology interview with Matt Lauer?
  4. How important is the journalist’s role as a “truth-teller” in how this incident has played out over the past months?

peter responds:

I thought awhile before using the word “lies” in the title of this Guestbook entry. I finally decided to use it. Even though Williams’s lies were more about burnishing his own reputation than misrepresenting the news he was covering, they were lies nonetheless. At least they started out lies, though eventually he could easily have come to confuse his self-aggrandizing versions of events with what actually happened. Williams didn’t use the word “lie” in any of his several apologies, and he got blasted for it. So I’m using it here.

Still, I don’t think Williams belongs in the ranks of modern journalism’s famous fabulists, reporters who fabricated news stories out of whole cloth such as Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, and Jayson Blair. He reminds me more of various politicians who have been caught embellishing their war experiences or military records.

And consider these serious journalistic sins of dishonesty:

  • Writing an intentionally biased story – giving the side you favor better coverage than the side you dislike.
  • Writing a dishonestly neutral story – giving both sides equal coverage even though you know one side has a far bigger share of the truth than the other.
  • Writing a stenographic story – knowingly letting sources lie to you and reporting their lies without exposing them or seeking out another source to expose them.
  • Not writing a story at all – suppressing news to please a source or to avoid embarrassing a cause.

Then there’s prettying up or juicing up an otherwise routine story. Back in the 1960s, I worked as a summer replacement reporter at the Toronto Star. Old-timers told me about a Star photographer who allegedly kept a wrecked tricycle in his trunk. When covering car accidents he would occasionally insert his tricycle into the background to add pizzazz to his photo. (And yes, I had to think a minute to remember that I never actually met the photographer or saw the tricycle or a photo with the tricycle; I only heard the story, which may have been apocryphal for all I know.)

Also worth considering: the lies politicians, government officials, and other societal movers-and-shakers tell with impunity – not just self-aggrandizing lies, but substantive lies about the crucial workings of our institutions. That includes lies under oath. For example, witnesses often appear before Congressional committees, swear to tell the truth, and then calmly assert that they “don’t recall” things you know damn well they recall perfectly.

Brian Williams’s lies seem pretty benign by comparison.

For those who didn’t follow the story, the lie that launched Williams’s downfall came out of a 2003 moment in the Iraq war. In Williams’s original on-air reporting, he had been traveling in a military helicopter when “the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky … by an RPG” and had to make an emergency landing. That was literally true, though misleading. Three U.S. helicopters really had come under fire and one of them had been hit and forced to make a desert landing – but they were at least a half-hour “ahead” of the helicopter that Williams was riding in. Even less defensible was the headline on the story: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”

Over time, the story morphed. In 2007 Williams said that he “looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us, and it hit the chopper in front of us.” In 2013 he said that “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was on.” And on a January 30, 2015 “Nightly News” broadcast, he said his chopper was “forced down after being hit by an RPG.”

This time the story provoked complaints from crewmembers who had been aboard the downed helicopter 12 years earlier. On the February 4 “Nightly News,” Williams recanted and apologized (sort of). Other details continued to surface, and so did other examples of discrepancies between various Williams anecdotes and the recollections of others. On February 10, NBC announced an internal investigation, and suspended Williams without pay for six months.

According to Google Trends, interest in the Williams controversy (as measured by U.S. Google searches for his name) was high in February 2015. There was a much smaller blip between June 18 and June 24, when he apologized (sort of) again on the Matt Lauer show and was reassigned to MSNBC.

(Google Trends)

Why was this story so interesting to so many people?

Part of the answer, surely, is Schadenfreude – the secret pleasure we all feel when the mighty tumble.

Beyond that, many people probably watched Williams’s fall with secret sympathy, a strong sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” I know I did. If I think really hard about some of my favorite professional anecdotes, especially the old ones from early in my career, I am not entirely certain that they happened exactly the way I (now) remember them. I have sometimes caught myself embroidering my role in past events, which leaves me wondering how often I haven’t caught myself. I find it dangerously easy to segue from “what I would have said if I’d been in the room” to “what I wish I’d said” (implying I was there but not on my best game) to “what I said.” Or from what I suspect somebody else was probably thinking at the time to what she answered. Some of my stories get better the first few times I tell them. Then they stabilize, and that’s how I tell them forevermore. Pretty soon that’s how I remember them.

Do I think Brian Williams misremembered whether or not he was shot down in Iraq? Not quite. At the outset, I think he probably embellished his role consciously. By the end, I think he probably remembered the story he’d been telling for years better than he remembered the actual event. I think the story probably felt more real and vivid to him than the actual event. But I think he probably also knew that he had a repertoire of such stories that had “improved” with age and frequent retelling, and realized that this could be one of them. I think he probably worried from time to time that the veracity of his version might come under attack. And when it did come under attack, I think the actual event probably came back into sharp focus for him.

Anyone who sometimes embellishes the truth in the service of ego – and I think that’s pretty much everyone – could be excused for watching Brian Williams’s fall with fearful fascination. Some of us consciously or unconsciously recognized ourselves in Williams and empathized with the fallen anchor. A lot of us denied the self-recognition and felt only disdain. I suspect the second group is why the controversy, as you put it, “sparked such ire.”

With all that in mind, I’ll turn to your four questions.

The role of social media

As I pointed out in my April 2015 column, “10 Things You Need to Know about Outrage Management and Social Media,” social media don’t really change the dynamics of outrage and outrage management. But they do make outrage easier to disseminate and therefore more important to manage effectively. I wrote:

The main effect of social media vis-à-vis outrage is to provide a timely, fast, cheap, emotionally appealing, accessible, searchable, permanent, worldwide vehicle for outraged people to attract an audience for their outrage. And one more adjective: mobile. Anyone with a smartphone – and by 2016 there will be more than two billion smartphones in the world – can now access, spread, and create social media content. Social media plus smartphones empower the outraged as never before.

Another adjective I should have put on my list is anonymous. One of the main reasons outrage metastasizes so quickly via social media is that people can pile on without being individually accountable for their vitriol.

Famous people have certainly seen their reputations destroyed long before the advent of social media. But I’m pretty sure it happens more often and more quickly now because of social media. And thanks to social media, even someone who isn’t famous, who has no reputation to speak of, can acquire a worldwide bad reputation overnight. Will this trend continue until anonymous nastiness becomes ingrained, permanently coarsening our culture? Or will there be some kind of tipping point that leads to limits on how much social media cruelty we tolerate? The next few years will tell.

More than most people, network anchors can take care of themselves. The extraordinary capacity to communicate that Brian Williams controlled (and will still control in his new job) makes it hard to see him as a victim of social media bullies. Mainstream media favor the powerful. Social media democratize power. I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing that exposing and toppling the powerful has become easier than it used to be.

What NBC (and Williams) should have done to quell the social media pile-on

One of the points I stressed in my April 2015 column was that outrage “needs to be managed in the venues where it is being expressed.” Social media, I said, are “where the outrage is most frequently and most effectively expressed, so that’s where it should be managed.” It follows that organizations that decide to be responsive to social media criticisms need to accept hostile commentary in the social media venues they control, and need to participate in social media venues they don’t control where hostile commentary is emerging.

Williams’s and NBC’s responses to this controversy didn’t follow my advice. (Just to be clear, I wasn’t in the room. I never gave Williams or NBC any advice. But I have given this advice to clients who were under attack in social media. Very few of them follow it either.) Their responses struck me as too staged, too controlled, and too MSM to be effective in quelling the storm.

On the other hand, there is no consensus about how best to respond to social media outrage. I recommend wading into social media with authentic contrition about what you agree you did wrong, authentic empathy for why others are upset with you, and a modicum of authentic anger at what you consider unfair attacks. Other consultants recommend the more staged, controlled, MSM responses that Williams and NBC favored. Still others recommend going silent until the social media pile-on subsides.

Williams’s sort-of apologies

Williams’s first apology came on the February 4 “Nightly News”:

After a groundfire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.

Williams offered a more elaborate apology in Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper that had published crucial interviews with crewmembers disputing his version of the event. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another,” he said.

In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.

Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience … and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area – and the fog of memory over 12 years – made me conflate the two, and I apologize.

Even for those who think as I do that there’s a gray area between lying and misremembering, there are problems with these apologies. They continue to claim that Williams’s chopper was “following” the one that got hit, as opposed to being a half-hour or more behind. They focus on the fact that 12 years had passed, without mentioning Williams’s earlier misstatements or explaining how his story morphed over time. And I have trouble buying Williams’s assertion that he had “no desire to fictionalize” or “dramatize” his experience but just got confused because of his “constant viewing of the video” of himself inspecting the damage to the helicopter that was actually hit.

Mike O’Keefe, a door gunner on the downed chopper, told Stars and Stripes that “Mr. Williams has been outed and has enough to deal with.” He added: “Guess I just don’t want to kick the guy when he is down. Though he wordsmithed his apology to downplay what he did, he did recant and I am satisfied.”

The social media world and much of the commentariat were not satisfied, however. The apology earned Williams widespread criticism and more than a little ridicule. Check out the Twitter hashtag “#BrianWilliamsMisremembers.” My favorite of the many parodies appeared on the military humor website Duffel Blog: “NBC’s Brian Williams Drops Claims To Have Been Personally Beheaded by Al Qaeda.”

What followed next was months of enforced silence. I don’t know if Williams wanted to keep talking, but NBC refused to let him make any public appearances until June, when it announced that his post-suspension role would be at MSNBC.

Then it scheduled Williams’s one appearance, the June 19 Matt Lauer interview. As Variety’s Brian Steinberg described it, “NBC sent its best-known morning-news anchor, Matt Lauer, to grill its best-known evening-news host, Brian Williams, in an exchange on its popular “Today” that was by turns awkward, dramatic and surreal.”

The New York Times article on the Lauer interview is a nice package. The whole 9-minute interview is embedded, as are clips of Williams’s shifting versions of the Iraq helicopter incident. And the article itself quotes a number of experts explaining why the interview failed as an apology.

The main criticism in the Times article and many other commentaries is that Williams didn’t confess to lying. Lauer pressed him several times to do so, and he explicitly said no. “I was not trying to mislead people,” he insisted.

I share that criticism, and would add several others:

  • Williams focused far too much on how bad he felt – not how sorry, but how miserable, what an awful time he was having reading news stories about everything he ever said that wasn’t true. Lauer asked what it had been like for him, and he fell for the bait: “It has been torture.” He sounded a bit like BP’s Tony Hayward after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, complaining, “I want my life back.” An effective apology has to focus on how your misbehavior has affected others, not on how getting caught has affected you.
  • Williams refused to identify other false statements he had made. Lauer asked if he wanted to take the opportunity to correct the record, and he demurred, with the weak excuse that “one is too much.” It might not have been wise or even possible for Williams to recite a complete list of his prior lies and exaggerations (though several critics had compiled such lists), but he’d have sounded less defensive if he’d given a few examples. A good apology has to start with what you did wrong; if it feels like you’re leaving stuff out, the apology suffers.
  • Williams didn’t judge himself harshly enough. He didn’t really talk about having failed to live up to the ethical standards of journalism. He didn’t really concede that people might have trouble believing him (or other journalists) in the future. He didn’t really apologize to the military personnel whose valor he had appropriated. He sounded more preoccupied with understanding what he had done, and getting others to understand it, than with saying he was sorry for doing it. In a well-crafted apology, being sorry that you misbehaved has to precede explaining why you misbehaved.
  • The goal of doing just one hard-hitting interview surrounded by silence before and after was probably defective in the first place. That’s a conventional reputation management strategy, but I’m not convinced it’s a good one. I’d have rather seen Williams apologizing often in other venues (especially social media venues), both before and after the Lauer interview.

For more generic advice on how to apologize, see my 2001 column on “Saying You’re Sorry.”

On the plus side, Williams repeated several times in several different formulations that he had said things that weren’t true. And he took responsibility: “I own this. I own up to this.”

Parts of the interview revealed a fair amount of ambiguity about exactly what Williams thought “this” was, if it wasn’t lying. He leaned too much toward explanations like “sloppy choice of words” and events that “got turned around in my mind.” Those explanations sounded far too self-forgiving.

But other parts of the interview had the ring of truth. In his February apologies, Williams had focused exclusively on his having accidentally misremembered things, conflating one aircraft with another in the fog of memory. He had denied any intent to fictionalize or dramatize. By the time he talked to Lauer in June, Williams was still denying that he had intended to mislead, but was conceding that his misstatements were more than mere errors:

Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else….

This came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge … clearly ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in….

I know why people would see it that way [as lying]. It’s not what happened. What happened is the fault of a whole host of other things. What happened was clearly part of my ego getting the better of me – to put myself in a better light, to appear better than I was.

To me, Williams’s explanation of his lies as a product of ego was both convincing and sympathetic. If he’d called them lies, if he’d abandoned any pretense that they were merely errors, if he’d bemoaned his fate less, if he’d focused more on apologizing and less on explaining, and if he’d done it all a lot earlier and a lot more often than a single June interview, maybe it would have done him more good.

Journalists as truth-tellers

I don’t have any special expertise on the evolving public image of journalists. I know what everyone knows: that it’s harder and harder to earn a good living through journalism, and that today’s journalists (superstars and ordinary practitioners alike) are required to do more than traditional journalism. They have to write online blogs. They have to build a Twitter following. They have to project personalities, complete with opinions, hobbies, quirks, families, and sometimes even on-camera surgeries.

The boundary between news and commentary has oscillated for centuries – sometimes rigid, sometimes fluid. It was pretty rigid in my youth. Newspaper reporters wrote stories about important people but didn’t expect to become important people themselves; they disappeared into their stories and only sometimes got bylines. Television reporters were physically recognizable but not otherwise distinctive; they mostly tried to get images to go with the facts they had ripped from the wires and the local papers.

In the early days of broadcasting, anchormen (and on rare occasions anchorwomen) were if anything less prestigious than actual reporters. Since they merely read or presented the news, they were often called “newsreaders” or “news presenters.” More than anyone else, Walter Cronkite of CBS changed that, becoming the father figure whose parting words each evening, “And that’s the way it is,” embodied credibility. Cronkite also pioneered the practice of leaving the studio to cover major stories in person. For years after he retired, Cronkite was still high on list after list of most trusted Americans. Cronkite only occasionally expressed opinions on-air. When he did – for example, when he editorialized against the Vietnam War in February 1968 – it was big news.

Sitting in the anchor chair of the “NBC Nightly News,” Williams wasn’t that different from Cronkite. But in stark contrast to Cronkite, Williams was a frequent celebrity guest on “The Daily Show,” interviewed by Jon Stewart. He also appeared regularly on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” slow jamming the news of the previous week with Fallon; on the “Late Show with David Letterman”; on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”; on NBC’s comedy series “30 Rock” (playing a caricature of himself); on “Saturday Night Live”; on “The Tonight Show”; on “Ellen”; etc. It is hard to imagine Walter Cronkite doing much of that.

Most of Williams’s documented lies and exaggerations originated on these shows and at other non-news events, where he was projecting his personality rather than reporting the news. As Williams explained to Lauer, “After work when I got out of the building … I used a double standard. Something changed. And I was sloppy and I said things that weren’t true.” Eventually some of them were repeated on the “NBC Nightly News.”

NBC knew that Williams was building his brand in a decidedly non-Cronkite way. There’s no evidence that the network objected, and ample evidence that it was pleased to have a star anchor who managed to find a highly profitable niche merging gravitas and lightheartedness. That doesn’t mean NBC knew that Williams was telling self-aggrandizing lies in his non-news appearances. But arguably it must have suspected. It’s not much of a stretch to deduce that a journalist who becomes an entertainment phenom might occasionally extend his storytelling ability beyond the facts.

That’s the thesis of a nicely titled Washington Post article, “Storytelling ability connected Brian Williams with viewers but also led to his downfall”:

Tom Bettag, a veteran producer who worked with Williams on the short-lived news magazine “Rock Center With Brian Williams” and has held top positions at all of the major networks, called him one of the “most meticulous anchors” in the business….

But when Williams was talking about himself outside the confines of his anchor’s desk, he seemed to want to make his experiences more dramatic, colleagues said. He was the biggest news anchor in the country, the undisputed ratings champ, but he often pushed stories to their limit – and sometimes beyond.

“That’s Brian being Brian” became the newsroom shorthand.

Breitbart offers a similar interpretation, less charitably framed, in “The List: 32 Lies and Disputed Stories NBC News Let Brian Williams Tell For a Decade.”

Our cultural expectations of journalists are in some kind of awkward transition. I doubt we’re capable of faith in neutral “truth-tellers” anymore – whether it’s anonymous just-the-facts reporters or father-figure anchors. Campus deconstructionism and postmodernism have yielded a generation or two of citizens who aren’t quite sure there is any such thing as truth; everything is a viewpoint. If Walter Cronkite were resurrected today we would see him as more establishment than neutral. Most people increasingly get their news from sources that share their bias, not sources they consider unbiased. Fewer and fewer of us even get our news from “news”; we get it instead from entertainers and aggregators and commentators. It may take a hybrid like Brian Williams to get us to watch a conventional newscast.

And yet, in spite of all that, we get angry when an entertainer/newscaster lies.

One final observation: As I write this, Donald Trump’s self-immolation is still big news. Trump got into trouble not for telling self-aggrandizing lies, but for saying that Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems” to America, including rapists and other criminals. Accused of racism, he neither apologized nor backed down; instead, he amplified his remarks. NBC dealt with the furor by canceling its arrangement with Trump to broadcast his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. Trump’s response: “[T]hey will stand behind lying Brian Williams, but won’t stand behind people that tell it like it is.”

Of course Williams apologized (sort of) whereas Trump just kept trumpeting his opinions. And NBC’s six-month suspension of Williams, to be followed by demotion to an unspecified MSNBC assignment, isn’t exactly standing by their man. And Williams was a more important asset to NBC than Trump, especially since Trump was already slated to leave his reality TV show to pursue his presidential bid. But Trump’s main point is accurate, I think. In America today, racial stereotyping is much less forgivable than telling self-aggrandizing lies.

“Stop being so emotional!” – playing the rationality card

name:Paul Schrimpf
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index
      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Magazine editor and active citizen
date:July 3, 2015
location:Ohio, U.S.


You've done a bit of writing for me in the past [see “After the Disaster: Communicating with the Public”], but that’s not why I am writing you today.

It’s actually a real life situation happening here in my city. In a nutshell, the city and Cleveland Clinic are in the process of considering a proposal to close our city hospital, which Cleveland Clinic owns and the city has a financial stake in operating. There has been a huge uproar over the process as much as the actual closure. There was no public discussion, no warning, no anything.

The issue has created a grassroots effort to keep the hospital open, as well as a mayoral candidate running on improving transparency and keeping the hospital open.

You can read more on our city “citizen journalism” website, http://lakewoodobserver.com/.

I realize this is pretty sketchy, but the question is simple. How often in a situation like this would the antagonists (city hall) play the “your case is based on emotion, ours is based on reason” card? And have you written anything on this in the past that I could review?

peter responds:

I won’t try to get to the bottom of the controversy in your hometown over who really wants to close Lakewood Hospital (the city government, the local hospital board, or Cleveland Clinic); or why; or what will and what should replace it; or how good or bad closing the hospital would be for Lakewood; or whether economic realities make closure inevitable anyway; or how the process by which the decision was made could have been managed better; or whether it’s too late to turn things around. (Did I get most of the main points of contention?)

(Photo credit: clevelandclinic.org )

But I gather from your comment, and a few newspaper stories (this one, for example), that opponents of closure have sometimes come across as hotly emotional. And an interesting thread in the Lakewood Observer discusses whether city officials have tried to avoid responding substantively to opponents’ substantive concerns by accusing them of “having a hysterical and emotional reaction” instead.

Whether or not that’s what’s been going on in Lakewood, it certainly goes on a lot. When ordinary citizens are outraged at some establishment – a company or government agency, typically – it’s awfully tempting for the representatives of that establishment to try to depict stakeholder outrage as a defect. “Stop being so emotional!” they say. If they have their act together (and it is an act), they say it without the exclamation point. They rephrase it less emphatically and more patronizingly: “Do you think you could try to stay a bit calmer?” And they intone it without inflection, as if a monotone were a sure sign of superior rationality.

Playing the rationality card – framing the controversy as a battle between a rational organization (us) and its hyperemotional stakeholders (you) – comes all too easily to many of my outrage management clients.

In fairness, it has a mirror image. Activists not infrequently paint their corporate or bureaucratic opponents as uncaring, robotic, and totally lacking in normal human emotions. That’s a bum rap too.

Here are some key aspects of this battle of stereotypes.

number 1

Telling your critics that they’re being too emotional never helps to calm them.

When people are outraged, telling them to calm down just makes them more outraged – especially if you’re the one they’re outraged at. Whether they’re actually being over-emotional or not, telling them they are is certain not to help.

This point is too obvious to belabor. It is so obvious, in fact, that we have to wonder why companies and government agencies keep trying to calm their critics by telling them how excessively emotional they’re being.

One possibility is that the companies and agencies aren’t really trying to calm their critics at all. Maybe they’re actually using the hyperemotionality taunt as a way to keep their critics off-message and off-balance, a way to keep them too shrill to win over the undecideds and too riled up to think straight.

There’s a second possibility I think likelier. Maybe the people who are guiding their companies and agencies through the controversy aren’t thinking straight themselves. Maybe their calm demeanor is a fraud. Consider the possibility that Lakewood city officials, Lakewood Hospital officials, and Cleveland Clinic officials are all secretly gritting their teeth and swallowing bile. When they hyper-calmly accuse neighborhood opponents of being hyperemotional, maybe that’s just their weirdly uptight way of venting. Or maybe they consider their own emotions unprofessional and unacceptable, so they’re desperately projecting them onto community folks.

Or maybe shrewd activists are intentionally pushing their buttons, conning them into playing the rationality card that’s bound to backfire.

I’m not sure what emotional complexities lead so many organizations to accuse their critics of being too emotional. I do know it’s a useless way to try to calm people down. Deploying it for that purpose is literally irrational.

number 2

In most controversies both sides have strong feelings, whether they show them or not.

Controversies are intrinsically emotional – for both sides.

Say you run an organization. You have made a decision (easily or agonizingly, with or without consultation). Now you want to act on it, to get it done. Out of the woodwork come people who know little or nothing about the goals, constraints, and other considerations that led to your decision. But they feel entitled not just to question the decision, but to accuse you of simultaneous incompetence and dishonesty. (They can’t even decide which.)

Their opposition has already cost you hundreds of hours of wasted time, trying to research their often foolish claims so you could show them where they went wrong. Their opposition is bound to cost you hundreds of hours more before you’re done. You might be forced to revise or even reverse your decision. Your reputation has been damaged and your job is on the line.

If you’re any kind of human being at all, you’re feeling a lot of hostility.

But if you’re the kind of human being who works inside companies, governments, or hospitals, you have very likely learned not to express your feelings directly – at least not in the midst of a highly publicized controversy. Instead, you struggle heroically to stay outwardly calm and courteous, even when your opponents are yelling at you. Not surprisingly, your calm courtesy may take on an icy quality. It may come across as uncaring, or even as passive-aggressive.

You started out determined to ignore your critics’ emotions – that is, not to be distracted by their inappropriate (in your view) displays of emotion. You would take the high road, you resolved, focusing purely on the substance of their objections. And how do people respond when their emotions are ignored? They escalate. They yell louder, cry harder, listen less. That made your calm courtesy even icier, which further provoked their passion. Eventually, you could no longer ignore their outrage or control your own. You managed not to yell back, but you couldn’t help asking them – calmly (that is, icily and patronizingly) – to please calm down. To your amazement, even that courteous request for calm seemed to backfire.

Here’s what I advised in a 1986 booklet for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on “Explaining Environmental Risk”:

Breaking this self-defeating cycle is mostly a matter of explicitly acknowledging the feeling (and the legitimacy of the feeling) before trying to explain anything substantive – because any effort to explain substance first will be experienced by people as just another way of not noticing how they feel. The trick, in other words, is to separate the feeling from the substance, and respond to the feeling first. “I can tell you’re angry about this” won’t eliminate the anger – nor should it – but it will eliminate the need to insist on the anger, and will thus free energy to focus on the issue instead. “A lot of people would be angry about this” and “in your position I would be angry about this” are even more empathic remarks, legitimating the anger without labeling the citizen. All three responses are far more useful than pretending that the anger isn’t there or, worse yet, demanding that it disappear.

This is the classic drama of stereotypes in conflict: cold officials versus hysterical citizens. The officials aren’t really cold; they’re just stifling their emotions. The citizens aren’t really hysterical; they’re just giving free rein to theirs. When the emotionally stifled officials are mostly men and the emotionally expressive citizens are mostly women, as is often the case, gender stereotypes further exacerbate the contrast.

number 3

Emotional expressiveness is a strategic asset especially for low-power people.

There’s another reason why officials tend to stifle their emotions while citizen activists tend to let theirs loose. It’s about how powerful and not-so-powerful people deploy emotion. (Yes, I know this often has gender correlates.)

Officials can afford to be publicly unemotional because they have other assets: expertise, stature, formal control over the ultimate outcome. Concerned citizens, on the other hand, have mainly the resources of passion: genuine outrage, depth of commitment, willingness to endure personal sacrifice, community solidarity, informal political power.

So officials learn to respond to situations coldly or at least coolly, intellectually. When strong feelings arise, they try to hold them in check. But to generate the energy needed to stop an official juggernaut, citizens must respond more hotly – and must let the heat show.

number 4

Both sides can benefit from a more mixed strategy.

I’m trying to make two points here, an obvious one and a subtler one.

The obvious point is that calm rationality is the natural competitive advantage of officialdom, whereas hot emotionality is the competitive advantage of activism. Officials who don’t know how to assess data calmly and look like they’re assessing data calmly aren’t likely to go far. Neither are activists who don’t know how to raise the temperature of the room.

The subtler point is that both sides can benefit from a more mixed strategy.

Officials should learn to let their feelings show more – even the hot feelings, but especially the warm ones. In a 2007 column on “Empathy in Risk Communication,” I gave these two examples:

At a public meeting, a mother was testifying about her daughter’s leukemia: how awful it is to watch your child sicken and wonder whether it might be the emissions from the nearby waste treatment plant, and all the experts can say is they don’t know, they’re not sure, there’s no proof. She was weeping, and many in the audience were tearing up … but not the hearing examiner, who remained calm, aloof, unruffled. I’m sure she thought that the leukemia had nothing to do with the waste treatment plant, and I guess she thought that showing compassion for mother and daughter might be tantamount to conceding a connection. So her only reaction came at the end: “Your five minutes are up. Thank you for your input.” You could hear the audience gasp.

At a different meeting, an agency spokesperson was being given a hard time by angry townspeople. After a few hours of hostile rhetorical questions, she asked for a break. “I need a few minutes alone,” she said. “What’s happening tonight is important and legitimate, and I really want to hear all your criticisms and bring them back to my agency. But it’s hard for me. I don’t want to start crying. That would be terribly unprofessional. I just need some time to pull myself together.” When the hearing resumed after the break, the criticisms continued, but the tone was much more substantive instead of personally hostile.

“Do you think the first official was more professional than the second?” I wrote. “Maybe so. But the second was a lot more empathic – and the second ran a much better meeting.”

Citizen activists, on the other hand, should learn to display their analytical sides more. They have analytical sides. They have substantive concerns; they even have data, typically. But I think they tend to deemphasize their best substantive arguments more than they should. This is obviously a gross overgeneralization, but one with more than a germ of truth: Officials lecture boringly, while activists rant shrilly. One-sided rants work well to build support among fellow true-believers. But they tend to alienate not just the establishment but also the undecideds who might be won over with a less emotional approach.

The optimum style for officials is more intellectual and less emotional than the optimum style for activists. But officials would come across better a bit warmer, and activists a bit cooler. I will develop this point from a different perspective in #9 and #10 below.

number 5

Emotionality isn’t irrationality.

The points I have made so far:

  • Officials tend to come across as analytical. That’s usually because they’re suppressing their emotional side, not because they don’t have one.
  • Activists tend to come across as emotional. That’s usually because they’re deemphasizing their analytic side, not because they don’t have one.
  • Officials tend to accuse activists of being hyperemotional and lacking in analysis. Activists tend to accuse officials of being hyper-analytic and lacking in emotion. Both accusations tend to exacerbate the polarization.
  • Officials are wise to emphasize their analytic side, but should let their emotions show more than they do. Activists are wise to emphasize their emotional side, but should let their analyses show more than they do.

Now I want to turn to something more abstract, but crucial to the issues you’re raising: the relationship between emotionality and rationality.

The idea that people are either rational or emotional, that emotionality is equivalent to irrationality, is a false dichotomy. Consider these seat-of-the-pants definitions:

Rational vs. IrrationalAre you reading the substantive evidence sensibly or foolishly (or not at all)? Are you drawing sensible conclusions from the available data?
Emotional vs. UnemotionalAre you experiencing strong feelings about the situation, or are you responding without such feelings? (The question isn’t whether you’re hiding or revealing your feelings, only whether you have them.)

Given these definitions, it is obvious that rationality and emotionality are independent variables. All four combinations exist: rational/emotional, rational/unemotional, irrational/emotional, and irrational/unemotional. Strong feeling is not a symptom of weak thought. Sure, sometimes strong feeling interferes with our thinking. But other times strong feeling motivates us to think harder. And we all have plenty of experience with people (including ourselves) who aren’t thinking clearly in situations where they aren’t feeling much either.

So whether people are emotional or unemotional about a controversy is a completely separate question from whether they’re assessing the evidence rationally or irrationally. Rationality is thinking clearly and effectively. Irrationality is thinking unclearly and ineffectively. Emotionality isn’t about thinking at all. Emotional people are using their hearts. Irrational people are using their heads but coming out with weird, insupportable conclusions. Equating emotionality with irrationality is irrational.

Moreover, coldly “rational” decisions can be incredibly mistaken. Real wisdom requires access to both our intellectual and our emotional faculties. Ignoring emotion isn’t conducive to good decision-making.

When organizations tell their stakeholders they’re being irrational, it’s a serious criticism – though it’s often a false one. When they tell their stakeholders they’re being emotional, it’s not a criticism at all – though they often think it is.

number 6

Emotion and reason affect each other in complicated ways.

Although how much emotion you’re feeling and how effectively you’re assessing the evidence are separate variables, they do affect each other. And the effects are complicated.

The most obvious causal relationship is this one:

Assessment of the Evidence      Emotional Response

You look at the data on what promises were made and broken with regard to Lakewood Hospital, or on how the hospital’s finances were mismanaged, and you get angry. You look at the data on how the hospital’s closure would affect response time if your child had a medical emergency, and you get frightened. Your interpretation of the data may be sound. Or it may be mistaken, even irrational. Either way, your emotional response to the controversy is grounded in your assessment of the evidence.

The opposite causal relationship is less obvious, but super-important:

Emotional Response      Assessment of the Evidence

If you’re angry and frightened, your anger and fear become the lens through which you see the evidence. You’re far likelier to find data supporting your feelings than data suggesting you’re off-base. Your assessment of the evidence is thus at least partly grounded in your emotional response to the controversy.

But of course your emotional response has to be a response to something. If it wasn’t the evidence itself, what was it? Maybe city officials planned the closure in secret and then sprang it on the community without warning. Maybe they’ve been arrogant and unresponsive, or dishonest, or patronizing. Maybe community demands for a voice in the decision have fallen on deaf ears. I call these “outrage components.” link is to a PDF file So:

Outrage Components      Emotional Response (outrage)      Assessment of the Evidence (hazard perception)

These two causal relationships – evidence-to-emotion and emotion-to-evidence – are not mutually exclusive. The evidence affects your emotional reaction to the situation. Your emotions affect your reading of the evidence. It’s a tangled web.

I have earned my living for the past 40+ years as a risk communication consultant. If people were routinely unemotional about risk, risk communication would be nothing more than explaining hazard data clearly. But as it turns out, our responses to risk are grounded mostly in emotion, and our failures to respond are grounded mostly in the absence of emotion. So explaining data clearly is a relatively small part of the risk communication job.

A much bigger part of the job is:

  • arousing people’s emotions when they’re insufficiently upset about serious risks (precaution advocacy);
  • calming people’s emotions when they’re excessively upset about small risks (outrage management); and
  • helping people bear their emotions when they’re rightly upset about serious risks (crisis communication).

These three risk communication paradigms are all grounded in the same basic truth: Hazard perception depends chiefly on outrage – that is, whether we think that a risk is serious depends chiefly on whether we feel that it is upsetting. That’s just as true when people aren’t very upset and therefore think the risk isn’t a big deal as when they’re extremely upset and therefore think it’s awful. And it’s just as true regardless of whether the actual hazard, measured by technical criteria, is high or low.

In the case at hand, how serious the people of Lakewood consider the prospect of the hospital’s closure depends chiefly on how upsetting that prospect is to them. Outrage determines hazard perception. In large measure, our emotions determine where our rationality takes us. I haven’t forgotten the point that started this section. One of the inputs to our emotions is the evidence. Still, it’s chiefly our emotions that determine how we view the evidence. Managing people’s responses to risk is mostly managing their emotional responses – whether upward or downward – and trusting their intellectual responses to follow along.

number 7

Rationality is hard to disentangle from rationalization.

If emotions play a huge role in our interpretation of evidence, as I am claiming, it follows that when we think we are being rational, much of the time what we’re really doing is rationalizing.

The concept of rationalization has acquired a bad reputation, as has the word itself. But rationalizing decisions we made largely for emotional reasons is normal human behavior. Sometimes the rationalization is valid; sometimes it’s spurious. That’s the distinction that matters. It’s important whether a decision holds up under rational scrutiny. It’s not important whether the decision was initially grounded largely in emotions. Most decisions – good ones as well as bad ones – are initially grounded largely in emotions.

This was the basis for one of my earliest contributions to risk communication, my application of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory to the task of getting people to take a serious risk more seriously. (See Brian Day’s book chapter on “Media Campaignslink is to a PDF file or my more recent summary of the technique.) Instead of trying to convince people intellectually that they should take some precaution, I suggested, motivate the precaution in a less intellectual way – for example by suggesting that a much-admired Hollywood star does it, thereby mobilizing people’s emotional desire to emulate the star. Then, after they’ve taken the precaution once or twice, cement the new behavior by providing information showing why it actually makes sense.

In short, use information to help people rationalize a behavior you have first motivated in some more emotionally meaningful way. The decision to take the prescribed precaution is rational – that is, it holds up under rational scrutiny, and people wind up with sound rational reasons for continuing the behavior. But the process that led them to launch the behavior was rationalization, grounded more in emotion than in evidence.

My corporate and government clients often make decisions grounded in emotions that don’t hold up under rational scrutiny. But they almost invariably defend their decisions – even the bad ones; perhaps especially the bad ones – calmly, intellectually, “rationally.” And they almost invariably charge that critics of their decisions are being emotional and irrational.

One of my clients’ worst decisions, typically, is the decision not to try to make peace with their critics. Here it is in outline form:

  1. Stakeholders are outraged at something my client has done or proposed to do.
  2. The stakeholders’ outrage is a threat to my client’s goals.
  3. So it would make sense for my client to manage the stakeholders’ outrage – that is, to apologize for mistakes and misbehaviors; to suggest compromises; to share control; to do and say things that might calm the controversy and enable my client to get back to business. That would be the rational response.
  4. But my client is as outraged at the stakeholders as they are outraged at my client.
  5. In fact, my client is especially outraged at the idea of apologizing to those hateful stakeholders, compromising with them, etc.
  6. My client’s emotions are fueling an irrational commitment to prolonging the war instead of negotiating the peace.
  7. But as discussed earlier, my client usually manages to express this outrage – which is both emotional and irrational – calmly.
  8. My client’s pretense of calm exacerbates the stakeholders’ outrage. So does my client’s demand that the stakeholders stop being so emotional.
  9. This pattern accomplishes what my client secretly, even unconsciously – not to mention emotionally and irrationally – wanted all along: a prolonged fight in which my client gets to play rational “parent” and shoehorn the stakeholders into the emotional “child” role.
  10. My client rationalizes the pattern in any number of ways – “reasoning” that the activists are unsatisfiable, that trying to make peace would only encourage them to demand more, that it would set a bad precedent, that it’s morally wrong to placate troublemakers, etc.

When I see this dynamic at work, I can’t just tell my clients they’re being emotional and irrational. That won’t work for me with my clients any more than it works for my clients with their stakeholders. Instead, I have to do outrage management on behalf of outrage management. For more on this, see my 2007 column on “Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.”

The Lakewood Observer thread I mentioned earlier includes a claim that’s relevant here: “The only people acting in an emotional manner are the people of City Hall and the people who sit on the Hospital Boards. When they realized the institution they were charged with protecting was failing they panicked. The result of that panic attack was the deal they are trying to force through Council.” I don’t know if this is so, but it wouldn’t shock me.

We are all emotional creatures who rationalize our emotion-based decisions post-hoc. Those of us who are least comfortable with our own emotions put the greatest pressure on ourselves to rationalize, to convert our emotional motives into reasons and arguments. Officials are likely to be more skillful rationalizers than activists. That doesn’t mean they’re any less emotional. And it doesn’t mean their rationalizations are any more rational.

number 8

Establishments try to depict their own selfishness as rational, and their stakeholders’ selfishness as emotional.

A straightforward clash of interests is a big piece of most controversies.

I don’t know the facts of the Lakewood Hospital controversy well enough to judge, but it seems likely to me that all the major players are being rational about their self-interest. Cleveland Clinic rationally wants to close an uneconomical branch hospital and funnel its patients to a different nearby hospital that could use the business. The city government rationally wants to renegotiate an agreement that isn’t working for it financially and redevelop part of the hospital property for a use that will generate taxes. Community members rationally want to hang onto a full-service hospital instead of settling for a clinic for routine treatment and a longish ambulance ride for serious medical problems. (I can’t tell what the hospital board wants – maybe just to get out of the middle.)

In short, everybody’s goals may well be grounded in rational self-interest. That doesn’t mean everybody’s assessment of the situation is equally accurate. Supporters of closure claim the hospital can’t keep operating the way it has without economic collapse. Opponents claim it can. Supporters accuse the opponents of not understanding the numbers. Opponents accuse the supporters of cooking the numbers. Deep in the weeds are competing factual claims that can’t all be true (though all can be partly true, and most probably are). But it’s the clash of interests, not just emotions, that is motivating the competing factual claims. In that clash of interests, all sides are looking out for themselves.

But the establishment side tries to depict its selfishness as rational, and its stakeholders’ selfishness as emotional. Here’s how I’d be tempted to respond to that:

You say we’re being emotional because we want to hang onto what we’ve always had, what we were promised: a full-service hospital close at hand. You’re right. We feel pretty strongly about that. But it’s a rational thing for us to want.

We get it that you’re being rational too. It’s rational for you to want to close our hospital so you can make more money – or maybe lose less money – than you would if you were required to keep it open. It’s rational for big hospital conglomerates to seek ever more monopoly power over community health, and to use their monopoly power in their own self-interest.

Okay, so we’re both rational. You rationally want to screw over our community to improve your bottom line. We rationally want to keep from getting screwed over to protect our families’ health.

Maybe we’re really more emotional about not getting screwed over than you are about screwing us over. Or maybe you’re just hiding your emotions better than we are. Our key emotions here are anger and fear. Your key emotion appears to be greed. We can’t blame you for wanting to hide it, maybe even from yourselves.

I’m not sure if I think this response is tactically wise. But I suspect it has a good deal of truth.

Of course if the other side were more comfortable coming out of the closet about its own emotions, it could respond by talking about how hospitals are getting screwed over by insurance companies, how depressing it is to have to consolidate and downsize instead of growing and improving, and how terrifying it is to realize that your business plan no longer works and going out of business altogether is no longer unthinkable. That kind of emotional clarity might even free it to do better outrage management. It could acknowledge that of course it’s just as rational for community members to want to keep their hospital as for hospital managers to want to stop hemorrhaging money. It could apologize for its prior secrecy and try to launch a mutually respectful collaborative search for a livable compromise.

number 9

Good outrage management means handling the emotionality-versus-rationality battle more adroitly.

The Lakewood Hospital controversy looks to me like a fight between establishment decision-makers who want to close the hospital and citizen activists fighting to reverse that decision and keep it open.

Assuming that’s right, the establishment decision-makers should be playing defense. Their goal should be to diminish the activists’ outrage, to calm the situation so they can proceed with the closure plan – or quite possibly a revised closure plan that includes some concessions to the activists. Of course they probably can’t expect to win over the leaders of the opposition. So they should be aiming to convince the opposition rank-and-file – “attentives” as opposed to “fanatics” – not that they’re right and the fanatics are wrong, but rather that their concessions to the fanatics are sufficient, that the compromise is livable, and that it’s time for everybody to go home.

Toward that end, they should deploy all the various strategies of outrage management: listening and echoing, staking out the middle, acknowledging prior misbehavior, acknowledging current problems, sharing control, being accountable, giving credit for improvements, etc.

Vis-à-vis the emotionality-versus-rationality battle in particular, they should:

  • Validate the activists’ strong emotions, not ignore them or belittle them. That means validating not just that the emotions are justified, but even that the emotions are data, revealing real and important truths about the problem and how it might be resolved.
  • Validate the rationality of the activists’ goals, not pretend that those goals are irrational or merely emotional. “Of course you want the hospital kept open if at all possible. Anyone would.”
  • Acknowledge that they too have been motivated partly by emotion. That might mean apologizing for moments of anger or condescension. It might even mean talking about the perils of ambition and greed.

One payoff of all this outrage management should be an improved opportunity for the competing sides to look together at the hospital’s economic data. If the establishment genuinely believes an objective examination of the data will support their view that the hospital needs to close, they should want to encourage as much objectivity as possible. That may require some more outrage management, specifically with regard to the data:

  • Acknowledge that the data aren’t necessarily trustworthy. The numbers might be wrong or incomplete. The interpretations might be biased.
  • Acknowledge that one side in any controversy has good reason to be mistrustful when the other side has been singlehandedly responsible for producing “the data.”
  • Acknowledge that even if the data are trustworthy, the conclusions to be drawn are not self-evident. Different people, even different experts, might draw different conclusions from the same data.
  • Acknowledge that it is hard for any of us to look objectively at data that we fear might force us to a conclusion we’re struggling (for good reasons) to avoid.
  • Acknowledge – and keep acknowledging – that the economic data aren’t the whole story. Stress that whatever the numbers show, it will be necessary to look at other things too, not least at people’s powerful and rational emotional commitment to keeping their hospital.

Beyond acknowledgment, there are a variety of other strategies for ameliorating data-related outrage. For example, companies and government agencies sometimes give Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs) to community groups, so they can hire the technical advisor of their choice to help them review the data. “The hospital management is right about X,” such an advisor might tell the activists in a confidential meeting. “Drop it. It’s a bad argument. But they’re weak on Y. Let’s push harder on Y instead.” A TAG helps equalize technical expertise, helps activists decide which technical issues to pursue and which to abandon, helps them feel safer focusing less on emotion and more on substance, and helps narrow the substantive discussion to the genuine points of valid disagreement.

In sum, when establishments really want to ameliorate stakeholders’ outrage rather than stoking and expressing their own outrage, they have a lot of things they can do that make more sense than playing the rationality card.

number 10

Good activism also means handling the emotionality-versus-rationality battle more adroitly.

If the establishment should be playing defense, trying to ameliorate the controversy, does that mean that activists should be playing offense, trying to exacerbate the controversy?

Often it does. Public controversies are not debates, where each side’s goal is to convince a neutral judge somewhere that your arguments are sound and the other side’s arguments are faulty. (Lawsuits, on the other hand, really are debates, though not wholly; convincing a neutral judge and/or jury is crucial.) The establishment’s goal in a public controversy should be to end the controversy, usually by making concessions that may not satisfy the activist leaders but do satisfy their supporters sufficiently to erode their support. It follows that the goal of the activist leaders should be to sustain the controversy, while making it as costly as possible to the establishment, thus forcing the establishment to make bigger and bigger concessions … and perhaps even to surrender altogether.

So the conventional advice for activists in situations like the Lakewood Hospital controversy would go something like this:

  • Nurture and strengthen your supporters’ emotions. Emotionality is your strong suit, so play to it. Rouse as much fervor as you can. Aim mostly for righteous anger. (That’s basically what “outrage” means in this context.) But fear is good too. “What if your child had a serious accident without a nearby hospital?”
  • At the same time, deny you’re being only emotional. Your righteous anger isn’t just anger; it is right. It is justified by the community’s genuine need for a hospital, and by the establishment’s evil intent, its hostility or at least indifference to the public interest.
  • If the establishment plays the rationality card, double down. Accuse it of being patronizing. Accuse it of being cold and uncaring. Accuse it of sexism. Accuse it of selfishness. Accuse it of a secret emotionality and irrationality of its own. Any or all of the above will add value.
  • Don’t get seduced into the weeds of data analysis. Dueling over data is too dispassionate for your needs. Instead, attack the credibility of the establishment’s data claims. Imply that they might be cooking the books. Don’t let the controversy descend into their accountant versus your accountant.

There is much wisdom in this conventional advice for activists.

But I think it sometimes goes too far. Too much emotionality and too little respect for data can turn off some supporters – especially potential supporters who aren’t yet involved enough to respond well to purely emotional appeals. And there are some neutrals whose opinions matter (editorial page writers, for example), who are looking for evidence not just that you’re upset, but that you’re actually right.

The optimal activist strategy depends, I think, on what strategy the establishment is deploying.

Often the establishment doesn’t understand outrage management, or is too outraged to attempt outrage management. So the establishment keeps playing the rationality card, and in a variety of other ways as well it acts as if it wanted to exacerbate the controversy, not settle it. Since the establishment is doing the activists’ job for them – prolonging the battle – the activists can afford to stick to the script and follow the bullet-point recommendations listed above. Even so, I would temper the emotionality a little. I’d make sustaining my supporters’ passion my top priority, sure, but I’d devote some secondary attention to convincing neutrals that I had some valid substantive arguments as well.

But what if the establishment starts doing good outrage management? What if it starts utilizing the sorts of strategies I summarized in #9 above? Then I think the activist leadership needs to adjust. If the establishment starts being conciliatory but the activist leaders show no willingness to be conciliated, then the rank-and-file are likely to lose interest and go home. The establishment’s willingness to engage respectfully is thus a unilateral game-changer. It forces the activist leaders to engage respectfully back. It transitions the controversy to a debate, even a conversation. Data become important, even paramount.

The implications here are crucial. Activists are not only skilled at keeping their supporters’ passions high. They are also skilled at keeping their opponents’ passions high – at keeping the establishment sufficiently provoked that it won’t start doing good outrage management, that it will keep playing the rationality card instead. The paradox is rich. If the establishment gets its own emotions under control, it may stop accusing the activists of being hyperemotional and start showing them some respect. At that point the activists will have to start paying more attention to the data.

number 11

Further reading.

You asked whether I have written anything on this in the past that you could review. I doubt you still want more reading after wading through my answer. But in case you do, here are four old columns of relevance:

Mismanaging one controversy worsens the next controversy: an example from school district drug policies

name:Lori Stern
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Nonprofit training for state agencies
date:June 23, 2015
location:Wisconsin, U.S.


We were in conversation a few months ago about applying outrage management to school districts. I thought I would throw a case study your way to see what advice you could provide.

I developed this case study, and others, from real world examples. This fictionalized case study of drug use and discipline policy illustrates how a school district’s reaction to community outrage can lead to more and different community outrage.

A small rural school district has recently been the focus of a drug investigation. A building administrator (who was also the district athletic director) has been arrested for “possession with intent to sell.” While the investigation did not lead to any current students or athletes he was working with as being involved in the sales of illegal drugs, the community was outraged that this trusted professional had been allowed to work with children.

While school district officials were never determined to be knowledgeable of these behaviors, some community members questioned how such an individual could escape scrutiny for so long in being able to carry on this type of behavior. To say the least, a lack of trust in the administration emerged.

Wanting to show that the district is “tough on drugs,” the school board has passed a policy of a mandatory three-day suspension for student possession of any drugs (including over-the-counter analgesics). In order to return to school, any suspended student must also show proof of a drug assessment from a mental health/treatment professional. Despite evidence that this “zero tolerance” approach is not effective, the district enacted this policy.

In six months, 120 students have been suspended under this new policy.

One of these students is the scheduled senior class speaker, who was suspended from graduation after a teacher saw her taking an ibuprofen for cramps. Her parents, friends, and many community members are protesting at school board meetings and are planning to do something at graduation as well.

peter responds:

I haven’t done much work with school boards over the years. But from time to time a client I worked with in a non-education context has reached out to me to say that he or she was involved in a school controversy (sometimes as a member of the school board, sometimes as a school board candidate or critic) and was finding use there for outrage management approaches.

So I fervently agree with you that school boards have frequent need for outrage management, and tend not to possess the requisite skills or understandings. I wish you luck in your effort to create fictionalized case studies to help you teach outrage management to school districts.

As you rightly point out, the way an organization manages or fails to manage stakeholder outrage can oftentimes arouse new outrage, sometimes in the same group of people and sometimes in an entirely new group. The case study you present here is divisible into four phases, with each outrage eruption resulting from the school board’s poor handling of the one before.

Phase one: A school administrator is arrested for dealing drugs

A school administrator, also the district athletic director, has been arrested for dealing drugs. You don’t say whether he (I assume it’s a he) was eventually convicted, or how strong the evidence was against him. But apparently the community was confident of his guilt. And even though his alleged drug dealing was never linked to any students, or to the school in any way, community members were angry that a “trusted professional” who “had been allowed to work with children” was apparently a drug dealer on the side.

It is simultaneously natural and irrational for people to feel that district officials who worked with this administrator should have suspected that something was hinky. The district spokesperson can’t ignore that many people will have that reaction, even if they hesitate to say so. And she can’t tell them it’s a stupid reaction to have, especially when they haven’t admitted they’re having it.

So what should she do? Express that reaction herself – which enables her to point out gently that it’s a bit foolish:

I can’t help feeling we should somehow have known. A lot of us worked closely with Coach Smith for years. We never suspected a thing. I know it’s silly, but I keep thinking back over my own interactions with him, asking myself if there’s something I missed.

This advice is grounded in the risk communication seesaw. The specific strategy is called counterprojection. When stakeholders are feeling but not voicing a criticism of you, voicing it for them without accusing them of it is a way to bring it into the conversation. That improves the odds of their beginning to see why it may be an unfair criticism.

I might also recommend deflecting the discussion from the case at hand to some other case, in order to more comfortably make the point that this sort of reproach (and self-reproach) is both natural and irrational.

Years ago, a good friend of mine was aghast when a colleague at a company she worked for was arrested for possessing child porn. She liked the guy and had no idea! She was really angry at herself for not sensing anything was wrong. I had to remind her that people’s guilty secrets are not thought bubbles you can see suspended over their heads.

What else would I have advised district officials to do?

number 1

Express your shock and distress as quickly as possible. You may be constrained in doing so by various labor relations policies and/or union contracts bearing on the accused-but-not-convicted administrator’s rights. Without trampling on those rights, you need to anticipate and preempt the likely community reaction:

Of course we’re all hoping this turns out to be some kind of awful mistake. But if it’s true, how horrible! Everyone loved Coach Smith! He worked closely with a whole generation of kids! And now this.

number 2

Don’t take it as a given that nobody in the school system knew, or that nobody else was involved. Don’t express confidence that this is true. At most, express hope: hope that his coconspirators were not fellow district employees, and hope that his customers were not students or former students. And make it clear that if there’s more bad news to come, you won’t try to hide from it … or to hide it. I doubt I’d recommend doing your own investigation. Internal investigations are rarely credible, and school boards lack the relevant expertise. Cooperating visibly with the police and prosecutors is usually a better course. Above all, you shouldn’t be in the position of telling the community whether there’s school system involvement. Rather, you should be learning that there is or isn’t right along with everyone else.

number 3

Take effective action, again consistent with the presumption of innocence and your contractual obligations.

While we wait to see where the truth lies, we have put Mr. Smith on paid leave. We have no legal or moral right to fire him when all the facts are not in. But for now we simply don’t want him working with kids.

number 4

Raise the question of whether there is more the district should do in future to prevent these sorts of surprises.

Should we intrude more into the private lives of district employees, so we’re less likely to face this kind of surprise ever again? That would raise all kinds of ethical and legal issues. Even so, is it worth exploring?

This kind of evenhanded mention of a policy conundrum is called dilemma-sharing. It positions you at the fulcrum of the risk communication seesaw, and encourages stakeholders to join you there, jointly considering the pros and cons.

number 5

You probably can’t get through this controversy without lots of mentions of Walter White. You might as well go with the flow and mention him too.

Phase two: The school board passes an unwise student drug use policy

As you tell the story, the school board considered and then passed its “zero tolerance” student drug use policy knowing it was likely to backfire, because the board felt impelled to look “tough on drugs” in the wake of the arrest of its drug-dealing administrator.

This is a particularly egregious example of a common mistake: attempting a hazard solution to an outrage problem. As I endlessly tell clients, “If the hazard is broken, fix the hazard. If the outrage is broken, fix the outrage. If they’re both broken, fix them both. But don’t expect a new piece of emission control equipment to make people less upset, any more than you’d expect an apology to make them less endangered.”

The school district may or may not have had a drug hazard problem that deserved some kind of action. But it obviously had a drug outrage problem because of Coach Smith’s arrest. Passing an unwise (and nearly irrelevant) hazard mitigation measure was never likely to accomplish the outrage mitigation that district officials were hoping for. Instead, it set them up for more outrage.

So what should district officials have done about the residual outrage over the coach’s arrest?

For one thing, they should have kept talking about it. My clients almost always resist this advice. They imagine that a controversy will subside more quickly if they ignore it. The reverse is far more often the case. Even if the controversy is actually subsiding, re-raising it will do more good than harm; it will encourage stakeholders to get on the seesaw’s other seat and urge you to “put that behind us.” And if the controversy is still simmering (which it probably is), ignoring it just exacerbates the outrage; it will keep simmering until it eventually erupts again. Far better to address it.

For more, see this off-site video on why good outrage management requires “wallowing” in prior misbehaviors, mistakes, and messes until your audience is sick of hearing about them, not just until you’re sick of talking about them.

In addition to wallowing in what went wrong, school officials should also have sought advice from their critics about appropriate ways to respond. Outraged stakeholders don’t necessarily know what they think you should do; they just know you’re not doing it yet. Challenging them to figure out a solution or shut up is neither fair nor effective. But as long as you do it with genuine humility, it is both fair and effective to ask them to help you try to think of a solution. Keep saying that a lot of people – including some on the board – think there’s got to be more you can do in response to the Coach Smith situation. Keep saying that you haven’t come up with a lot of good answers. (Yes, I know how hard it is to admit you don’t have the answers!) Keep asking if anyone else has some thoughts to contribute.

And what if somebody responds to your appeal for new ideas by suggesting a “zero tolerance” student drug use policy?

number 1

Stress your view that the proposed policy isn’t actually all that relevant to Coach Smith’s arrest. A drug-dealing administrator is one thing; the question of whether students are taking illegal drugs in the halls of the high school is something else again.

number 2

Discuss the proposed policy on the merits. Do you or don’t you have a problem of students taking illegal drugs in the halls of the high school? If you do, what are your options for trying to address the problem? Is a zero tolerance policy that forbids even routine analgesics a good answer? What are its pros and cons?

number 3

By all means make sure to discuss what you call the “evidence that this ‘zero tolerance’ approach is not effective.” But also make sure not to set the question up as a fight between outraged stakeholders who don’t know what they’re talking about and a rational school board armed with evidence. Don’t deploy data to defeat an external proposal. Instead, take the proposal onboard for objective consideration and let everybody learn together what the evidence shows.

number 4

Above all – and despite my first point in this list – acknowledge the shared feeling that there ought to be more we can do in response to Coach Smith’s arrest. Even acknowledge how tempted you are (you – not just your critics) to pass some proposal, even this one, even in the face of pretty compelling evidence that it’s likely to do more harm than good. This is dilemma-sharing; it’s counterprojection; it’s an adroit use of the seesaw.

Phase three: The school applies the policy to a good kid who did nothing wrong

Okay, under pressure to take a strong antidrug stand, the board has passed a dumb policy, imposing a mandatory three-day suspension on any student caught possessing any drug – illegal or properly prescribed or even over-the-counter – and forcing the suspended student to endure some kind of formal drug assessment before returning to school. In the six months since the policy took effect, 120 students have been suspended.

And now a good kid who was not only about to graduate, but about to give a Graduation Day speech, has been “caught” taking a Motrin for her menstrual cramps. The dumb policy is unambiguous and leaves you no leeway; she has to be suspended and put through the drug-assessment wringer, just like her 120 predecessors.

Now what do you do? You back down. You eat crow. Specifically:

number 1
Admit that applying the policy to this particular kid would be an injustice.
number 2
Admit that the policy allows no exceptions, and admit that that itself is evidence that it’s a bad policy.
number 3
Admit that some of the other 120 kids were also mistreated and their cases deserve another look.
number 4
Admit that you passed the policy in the first place, knowing better, because you felt pressured to do something about drugs.

Here’s a draft mea culpa:

Two days ago one of our best seniors was “caught” taking an over-the-counter pill on school property. This is technically a violation of our zero tolerance drug policy, passed six months ago. The policy says we must suspend this student. We have decided not to do so. We would rather be guilty of inconsistency than of injustice.

We decided on such a rigid policy in the first place partly because it is so often difficult or impossible to know whether the pill a student takes in the hall between classes is legal or illegal. It’s a lot easier to say no pills, period. And in the wake of the Coach Smith controversy, we wanted to take a strong anti-drug stand.

These are not good enough reasons to punish a student for treating her menstrual cramps with a Motrin. We do need a policy that protects our students if we suspect that an illegal drug is being used or sold in school, even when the evidence isn't solid. But what we have now is a policy that punishes students even when the evidence is solid that the student has done nothing wrong. That goes way, way too far.

It’s not enough to waive the policy in this particular case. We need to revise the policy. And we need to look again at the 120 students who have been suspended under the policy. Some of them deserve to have their school records cleared. And they deserve an apology. Yes, they broke the policy. But it was a dumb policy.

The school board would be wise to seek legal counsel, not just outrage management counsel, before issuing a statement like this. How much liability is it assuming when it acknowledges that 120 kids have been suspended for breaking a dumb policy? (On the other hand, how much liability was the board assuming when it forbade students to take their meds during the school day … especially if the school no longer has a full-time nurse available to dispense meds to students who need them?)

But don’t ask your lawyer to give the board a legal rationale for sticking to its dumb policy. Ask your lawyer to help the board minimize the legal cost of abandoning that dumb policy and apologizing to its victims. (See also my 2001 column on “Saying You’re Sorry.”)

Phase four: Supporters of the badly treated kid orchestrate protests

After backing itself into a corner, the school board has decided to stick to its dumb policy – which means Sarah Jones can’t march in her own graduation, much less give the speech she was scheduled to give. And now demonstrations are planned on Sarah’s behalf.

I have written before about how to deal with demonstrators, most recently in my February 2015 Guestbook entry on “Accommodating hostile stakeholders: dialogue, demonstrate, or disrupt.” I won’t repeat here everything I said there. But here are a few key points:

number 1

Be respectful of the right to protest. It is a fundamental right in a democracy. Say so. And show you mean it.

number 2
Try to negotiate with the demonstrators. Their goal is presumably to dramatize their view that your drug policy is dumb and that your stubborn insistence on applying the policy to Sarah Jones is unwise, unkind, and unfair. Your goal should be to help them find a way to do all that without ruining the graduation ceremony for everybody else. Make it clear, both privately and publicly, that that is your goal. If they’re determined to ruin the graduation ceremony for everybody else, you probably can’t stop them. But you can make it vividly obvious to all that you’re trying to make space for their demonstration, and that they don’t have to ruin graduation in order to make their point.
number 3
“Disrupting” board meetings isn’t as big a deal as ruining graduation. Your goal vis-à-vis board meetings should be to negotiate appropriate ways for your critics to get their point across even at the cost of some minor disruption – but not in a way that keeps you from transacting essential business and, of course, not in a way that feels threatening to those at the meeting. Again, you can’t stop the demonstrators from going too far. But you can make it clear to them and everyone else that you didn’t force them to go too far in order to get heard at all – that you offered them ways to get heard without raising the stakes.
number 4
Be respectful not just of their right to protest, but also of their substantive point. Explain why you’re standing by your policy, even though this application of it looks awfully foolish and awfully cruel to a lot of people. Say this explicitly: It’s not just that your critics have a right to protest – they’d have that even if their cause were crazy – but in this case you know their cause has a lot to be said for it, and a lot of people (perhaps even some board members) on their side. You came down on the other side for X and Y reasons, but you agree that their side has merit and deserves to be heard. This kind of substantive moderation is an extremely useful outrage management strategy; I often call it “staking out the middle.”
number 5
Maybe even say something about how you realize the suspension has been hard on the stellar student who was suspended, and you hope maybe this outpouring of support will make the day more bearable for her.

In terms of specific outrage management strategies for each of these four phases, I have only scratched the surface. You should come up with additional strategies when you develop your school district training materials. And the people you train will come up with more still.

Quite apart from the growing list of strategies, let’s not lose track of the overarching truth this fictionalized case study demonstrates: When an organization manages outrage badly, it often sets itself up for more outrage to come.

When public health agencies spread misinformation about vaping, they undermine their important messages about vaccine safety, pandemic preparedness, and everything else.

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index      link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

field:Software engineer, vaper, grandmother,
sometime volunteer activist
date:June 15, 2015
location:California, U.S.


Remember the “telephone game” we were taught as a lesson in how information can get badly distorted? Dr. Frieden’s input to the nationwide discussion of e-cigarettes is starting out distorted (as you noted in your article) but then getting much more distorted as it filters down to state health departments and county and city health departments, which are mostly staffed by social workers, with a smattering of lawyers and nurses.

The result is quite a bit of video feed on the web showing local public health officials spouting outright lies, horrible distortions, and backwards advice, and supporting laws designed (probably by Change Lab Solutions, judging by the language in many of them) to disincentivise smokers from switching to vaping.

Those of us who attend [meetings where public health officials spread misinformation about e-cigarettes] post the URLs on the vaping activist websites, and they are watched all over the English-speaking world and in parts of Europe, especially Germany.

Then we see comments from vapers (many of whom are young parents) to the effect of “I can’t believe I used to trust and listen to public health officials! I’ll never be that stupid again as long as I live!”

As a grandmother who watched my grandson go through five unnecessary rounds of antibiotics because he could not attend daycare with the slightest cough for the two months of the whooping cough outbreak at his daycare center, caused by an unvaccinated worker, I can’t decide whether I’m more enraged that Frieden and McAfee are willing to let older smokers die as collateral damage, or that the people charged with protecting my family from avian flu and other things are flushing their credibility down the drain.

Both of these consequences are unforgivable. IMO only the second one is unintended.

peter responds:

You make three important points I want to underline.

Public health dishonesty gets worse as it rolls downhill.

When high-level public health officials want to create a particular impression, they often craft their messages carefully to give the impression they’re aiming for without actually saying anything false, simply by stressing some facts, putting a misleading twist on others, and leaving still others out altogether. As in the telephone game, the messages get simplified as they get repeated. By the time they’re being parroted by lower-level public health officials, ordinary doctors, and journalists, carefully crafted misimpressions have sometimes morphed into outright falsehoods.

Here’s a non-vaping example. The CDC intentionally gives the misimpression that everybody needs two measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shots to be adequately protected against those three diseases. The CDC doesn’t quite claim that, because it knows that one rubella vaccine dose is sufficient for nearly 100% of recipients, one measles vaccine dose is sufficient for about 95%, and one mumps vaccine dose is sufficient for about 80%. We give our kids the second M, M, and R doses, which most of them don’t need, because of two policy decisions: to combine all three vaccines into a single shot and make the three monovalent vaccines unavailable in the U.S.; and to give a second shot to everybody rather than testing blood titers to see which second doses if any a particular child actually needs. The CDC knows all that, but manages without saying anything false to give the false impression that all children need all three second doses. Local public health officials, doctors, and journalists get that false impression, and say so unambiguously – inadvertently turning a misleading claim into a false claim.

The best evidence that this telephone game is intentional is that high-level public health officials so rarely correct the record.

I haven’t looked carefully enough or broadly enough at anti-vaping messaging downstream from the CDC to confirm your view that the same thing happens there too. But I’d be shocked if it didn’t.

Public health dishonesty about one topic undermines credibility about all topics.

As you put it: Vapers who know that e-cigarettes are almost certainly much safer than real cigarettes see public health messaging that implies otherwise, and draw the inevitable conclusion: “I can’t believe I used to trust and listen to public health officials! I’ll never be that stupid again as long as I live!”

We all do this. We generalize. We learn that somebody – a parent, a child, a teacher, a corporation, a doctor – has misinformed us about one topic and deduce that they’re likely to misinform us about other topics as well. Sometimes the generalization turns out unjustified. The company that misled us about its environmental record may be telling the unvarnished truth about its profitability. The public health agency that misled us about vaccine efficacy may be telling the unvarnished truth about vaccine safety.

But as mental shortcuts go, this is a sensible shortcut. We figure out whom we can trust, and those who earn our distrust earn it across-the-board.

So it’s not crazy to speculate that a staffer at your grandchild’s daycare center might have decided to ignore public health messaging about the importance of whooping cough vaccination because she knew for a fact that what public health was telling her about e-cigarettes was crap. And it’s not crazy for any vaper who knows how dishonest the CDC has been about e-cigs to shrug off CDC warnings about pandemic preparedness as similarly dishonest.

E-cigarette dishonesty is a special case.

Most dishonesty on the part of public health officials takes the form of what I have elsewhere called “misleading toward the truth.” They’re 95% right on the basic issue – right enough to win the debate handily if they’d just be candid about the other five percent. But instead they ignore or distort or even deny the other five percent, unwisely sacrificing the moral high ground. (At least it’s unwise when they get caught. I have to admit that often they don’t get caught, so their dishonesty often works fine in the short term.)

Let me return to the example I used earlier in this response. The risk of the MMR trivalent vaccine is genuinely tiny. I’d love it if monovalent vaccines were available and parents were given a choice: Just give your kid two MMRs as recommended, or, if you prefer, give your kid one MMR and then ask the doc to do blood titers to determine whether there’s any need for a second measles or mumps shot (or both). The vast majority of parents would pick the easy first option. Parents worried about “too many vaccines” might pick the cautious second option instead, and would feel their concerns were being respectfully addressed even though most experts don’t share those concerns. Nobody would feel misled. Nobody would be misled.

But dishonesty about the need for a second MMR isn’t deadly, except indirectly insofar as it may undermine the overall credibility of public health. Dishonesty about the comparative risk of e-cigs and real cigs is deadly in a much more direct way, I think. (Of course parents who mistakenly believe that the MMR is incredibly dangerous feel about public health’s MMR dishonesty exactly the way you and I feel about public health’s e-cig dishonesty.)

If public health policymakers have their way, electronic cigarettes will be as expensive and stigmatized as real cigarettes, even though they are almost certainly order of magnitude safer. E-cigs will still have a huge competitive advantage over real cigs for people worried about their health – for smokers trying to quit, for example – once they learn to distrust public health messaging that claims or implies the two are equally deadly. But inevitably some people will absorb the misinformation public health is purveying, and will therefore figure they might as well smoke instead of vape. And what's the key audience that is famously unworried about health, but understandably price-sensitive? Adolescents! For them, the policymakers will have succeeded in making e-cigs versus real cigs a toss-up instead of a no-brainer.

The data aren’t in, but to me it seems far likelier than not that the bias of public health professionals against electronic cigarettes will contribute significantly to smoking deaths in the years ahead.

As you say, the indirect effect of e-cig dishonesty – diminished credibility of public health on other topics – will be unintended collateral damage. The direct effect – making vaping just as expensive and stigmatized as smoking – will be exactly what public health officials intended.

Belatedly telling utility customers there was uranium in their drinking water: where regulatory compliance and outrage management intersect

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Communications consultant
date:June 11, 2015
location:Western U.S.


In January of 2015, the state issued a warning notice to the utility I’m working for because uranium levels at the water treatment plant (WTP) for the fourth quarter of 2014 were slightly above the compliance level – 36 micrograms per liter (μg/l), when the maximum permitted level was 30. Then again at the end of the first quarter of 2015, the uranium levels averaged 36, and the utility was given another warning notice by the state. Nothing was done by the utility’s staff for reasons still unknown.

Then on June 1, the state issued a Tier 2 violation to the utility. One requirement – the main one that I’m writing you about – is that now the utility must notify all customers of the Tier 2 violation and the uranium problem.

Because of the notice of violation, the utility has basically stopped using the WTP and changed to a water source that has a uranium level below 30 μg/l. So it is now delivering water below the permitted level of uranium.

In the minds of the utility’s managers, the WTP’s high uranium levels don’t really matter, since the utility has stopped using that water source.

In the minds of the regulators, however, two things matter most. First, the water had high uranium levels for over six months. And second, the utility reported the high levels to the state but it failed to do anything about its uranium problem, despite two warning notices. The state regulators are understandably not pleased with the utility ignoring them and doing nothing until the state issued the violation notice.

So, the utility must now send a letter to all its customers about the violation. The letter has to say why high levels of uranium can be harmful to people’s health. It also has to say that customers should consider using an alternate water source.

There are a couple of factors that I believe could be perception issues. First, why didn’t the utility change water sources before the notice of violation? And second, why is the public just now learning about the uranium levels that they had been drinking for over 6 months?

Considering that the utility has now changed water sources, would you agree that the letter going to the residents should have some preface in the beginning saying the issue has been resolved – what was done to reduce/eliminate the uranium and how uranium levels will be monitored moving forward? Also, would this be a case where the utility should offer up a water quality test kit or something similar to allow the public to have some control?

peter responds:

In drafting my answer to this comment/question, I find myself making suggestions that are grounded in “facts not in evidence” – in my very tentative impressions from the comment and from some earlier correspondence with the commenter. I hope the result is useful as an example of how to respond to this sort of situation. But it should not be read as a reliable description of what’s actually going on in this particular situation.

Your utility client has two outrage management problems, not one:

  • Managing the outrage that some customers will almost certainly feel when they belatedly find out what’s been going on.
  • Managing the outrage that the state regulators obviously feel already.

You are clearly aware of both of these outrage management problems. But it looks to me like you and your client might be focusing your planning too much on ways to keep the public calm, and too little on ways to make peace with the regulators.

Outrage management aside, there is also the utility’s regulatory compliance problem. Or, rather, its lengthening list of regulatory compliance problems: how much uranium it’s allowed to deliver to customers’ taps; how much uranium it’s allowed to have in water measured at the treatment plant (before it’s diluted with groundwater from other sources); when/where it has to measure uranium levels and to whom it has to report the results; what it must do in response to state warning notices and to Tier 2 violations; etc. – plus any specific regulations that cover the content and deadline for the letter it must now send to all its customers.

I have no expert knowledge to share about the utility’s regulatory compliance problems. But I do want to discuss how outrage may complicate those problems.

Regulators’ outrage

It is clear that the utility has outraged its regulators, especially by stonewalling two warning notices, and perhaps also by not initially responding to the issuance of the Tier 2 violation the way the regulators wanted it to.

I don’t know whether there are other things the utility has done – perhaps completely unrelated to the uranium issue – that also outraged its regulators. By “regulators” here I don’t just mean the agency or agencies that are empowered to police the utility. I mean the specific individuals – call them Janice and Tom – who are most heavily involved in the policing. I wonder if there are other ways your client has angered Janice or Tom in years past. Did the utility once go over Janice’s head and successfully get state politicians to countermand one of her orders? Did Tom get a runaround when he asked utility execs to give him some data he needed, leaving him feeling less like a cop and more like a gofer? Did the utility have a difficult relationship with Janice and Tom long before the uranium mess materialized?

Maybe the regulators’ outrage is all about the uranium and the two warning notices the utility ignored. But you say nothing was done about those warning notices “for reasons still unknown.” You might want to dig into those reasons. They could give you useful insight into why Janice and Tom are being so prickly now.

The sources of Janice and Tom’s outrage are important in part because the boundary between managing regulatory compliance and managing regulators’ outrage is fuzzy. In fact, regulatory compliance cannot be disentangled from either regulators’ outrage or customers’ outrage. This is an extremely important point – for your uranium problem and generically.

The range of theoretically possible regulatory responses to any specific situation runs the gamut from really, really lax to really, really tough. But the whole theoretical range isn’t actually available to the regulators. There is a level of laxness that’s “too lax” – so lax it could get the regulators themselves into trouble with their agency bosses, with politicians in the legislature, or with activist groups that might actually sue over excessive laxness. “Too tough” also exists – so tough the regulated entity could challenge the regulators in court and win. Between these two practical extremes is the real range of regulatory discretion.

It is typically quite a large range. That is, regulators usually have a great deal of freedom to throw the book at one regulated entity (one water utility, for example) while cutting slack for a different regulated entity (even a different water utility). The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for uranium in drinking water is presumably fixed at 30 μg/l. But lots of things are undoubtedly fuzzier than that and thus subject to regulatory discretion. I have no idea, for example, whether it’s fixed or fuzzy that the MCL gets measured for the output of a treatment plant rather than for the water people are actually drinking. I have no idea whether it’s fixed or fuzzy how long a utility gets to keep delivering water over the MCL before a warning notice turns into a notice of violation. I have no idea whether it’s fixed or fuzzy that a company that gets a notice of violation for exceeding the MCL is required to write its customers a letter telling them what happened. I certainly have no idea whether it’s fixed or fuzzy that the letter has to say that customers should consider getting their water from someplace else … even if the utility’s water no longer exceeds the MCL.

But I’ll bet a lot of things are fuzzy – and it looks to me like Janice and Tom are deciding a lot of the fuzzy things in the way that’s worst for your utility client. That’s regulators’ outrage at work.

I have seen research on the factors that determine how regulators choose to use their regulatory discretion. One key factor – the one I’ve been focusing on so far – is the regulators’ own outrage. So it’s crucial for the utility to find ways to make peace with its regulators.

Another key factor in the exercise of regulatory discretion is stakeholder and public outrage. Regulators are likelier to get tough with a company that has outraged a significant segment of the community, provoking demonstrations, angry public meetings, newspaper editorials, social media kerfuffles, etc. – all demanding regulatory action. So it’s doubly important for the utility to do good outrage management with its customers – not just because outraged customers are bad for business, but also because outraged customers often turn regulators into martinets.

The potential here for a vicious cycle is obvious. Outraged regulators sometimes force companies to do and say things that will predictably exacerbate stakeholder and public outrage (like writing a scary letter to customers, for example). The increase in stakeholder and public outrage then justifies the regulators in tightening the screws on the company even further.

Thankfully, a third key factor in the exercise of regulatory discretion is how technically serious the regulators consider the violation to be – in my terms, whether they think the hazard is high. In this case, are Janice and Tom actually worried that the uranium in the water could have hurt people’s health? Responsible regulators who think the hazard is high get tough regardless of whether anybody is outraged or not. High hazard trumps both regulator outrage and community outrage. But when regulators think the hazard is pretty low, they may still get tough if regulator outrage or community outrage is high.

Here’s one key implication of this intersection of regulatory compliance and outrage management. In drafting its required letter to customers, your client will no doubt be thinking about arousing as little customer outrage as possible, while still making sure the letter meets all the regulatory specifications. That’s already a challenge. But it’s not the whole challenge. The utility also needs to make sure the letter doesn’t exacerbate the regulators’ outrage.

You ask, for example, whether the letter should “have some preface in the beginning saying the issue has been resolved.” I certainly agree that you don’t want to send out a letter that gives customers the impression – even the first impression before they start to read carefully – that their current drinking water has illegal levels of uranium in it! But it’s one thing to explain that the problem isn’t ongoing because the regulator has already made you stop using the high-uranium water. Presumably Janice and Tom won’t mind reading that.

It would be something else again to imply that the water was never really dangerous:

  • Maybe because the MCL is very conservative and uranium levels in the water were only a little above it.
  • Maybe because people were drinking the high-uranium water for only a few months, not for years and years and years.
  • Maybe because (if this is true) the water from the treatment plant was routinely mixed with less uranium-contaminated water from other sources, which might well have brought customers’ actual drinking water below the MCL.

That sort of information is all too likely to sound – especially to Janice and Tom – like you’re trying to imply that the regulators are making a mountain out of a molehill. That may well be what your utility client actually believes. And for all I know it may simply be true. But saying so isn’t going to help smooth things over with Janice and Tom.

Similarly, if I’m reading your comment correctly, your utility client had to close its water treatment plant and source its water elsewhere in order to get below the MCL for uranium. Taking a functioning (and maybe newish?) WTP offline presumably has serious economic implications. And the utility’s customers don’t just drink the water; they also pay for it. So they can be expected to have tough questions about whether the cost of water is going to go up.

Maybe the “right” answer in the utility’s judgment would be something like this:

The cost of water may soon skyrocket unless we can get the regulator to see sense and let us use the WTP again. We want to mix water from the WTP, which has slightly elevated uranium levels, with water from other sources with much lower uranium levels to produce water that’s both safe and cost-effective. As we read the relevant laws, that’s also a legal solution to the problem. But for reasons that make no sense to us, the regulators have so far refused to give the okay. They’re being quite unreasonable in their interpretation of the law, and if we can’t get them to change their position we anticipate significant increases in the cost of water.

I have no idea if this answer is technically and legally sound. But even if it is, it’s still a bad answer if ameliorating regulators’ outrage is a key goal of the letter. And it won’t help to make the same point in coded language so that Janice and Tom get the insult and the threat but it sails right past most customers.

Of course it’s possible the utility will ultimately decide to do battle with the regulators – and to ask customers to join in the battle on the utility’s side. But until it makes such a fateful decision, it needs to keep one eye on regulator outrage that’s already high, even as it tries to minimize stakeholder outrage to come.

Best practice would be to sit down with Janice and Tom and negotiate the exact text of the letter to customers.

Stakeholder and public outrage

If I were part of that negotiation, what would I want the letter to say? That is, putting aside the legal specifications the letter has to satisfy, and putting aside also the complications created by the regulators’ outrage, what do I think the utility should say to its customers? Here are the key points as I see them.

number 1

Telling almost the whole truth.

Witnesses in legal proceedings must swear to tell the whole truth. But there are all kinds of truthful information they don’t get to tell – because much of what they know is too detailed or too peripheral for anyone to want to sit through, because they’re not asked the right questions, because a complete answer would violate some rule of evidence, etc.

I’m proposing a laxer standard: Tell almost the whole truth. Tell enough of the truth that if and when people later find out something you didn’t tell them, it doesn’t make them think less of you for having misled them. This standard has a name. It’s called “communicative accuracy.”

Your client is going to have one decent opportunity to come clean about a dirty situation – to meet the communicative accuracy standard not just about the uranium in the water, but also about its failure to tell customers immediately, its failure to correct the problem immediately, etc. If customers later learn anything else about the uranium controversy that makes them think the utility had no business leaving that part out, then the utility flunks the communicative accuracy test.

It is unlikely to be granted a retest. Any damaging facts that the utility got wrong or left out will loom all the larger when they come belatedly to light. Future excuses like “we hadn’t found that in the files yet…” or “we didn’t realize people would feel entitled to know that too…” will ring hollow.

The utility gets one chance to come clean.

So before you put on your “public relations counselor” hat, put on your “internal investigative reporter” hat. Sure, there may ultimately be things you advise the client not to reveal, or things the client decides not to reveal against your advice. But in order to be able to give your advice, whether it’s accepted or not, you need to know whatever is knowable. So start by trying to make sure there aren’t many things that top management isn’t telling you, or that middle management isn’t telling top management.

One danger sign in your comment: You say the utility staff did nothing in response to the regulators’ first two warning notices “for reasons still unknown.” You need to know the reasons before you can help decide how to explain the reasons to customers who will surely want to know the reasons.

A key tool in getting to almost the whole truth is a timeline. By now you should already have a detailed timeline. If you don’t, start putting one together ASAP. Put on it every date you can find – the date of every uranium test of the water, the date of every water test that didn’t include uranium but maybe should have, the date of every uranium-related communication to or from the regulators, etc. Every time you learn something new, try to ascertain when it happened and get it onto your timeline.

As you study the timeline, gaps and anomalies are sure to emerge. Explore them. Ask difficult questions. Ask them not just of the company’s senior managers and communication professionals, but also of the techies at the water treatment plant. Keep asking until you figure out what you were told that you misunderstood, or what you were told that was mistaken or incomplete or dishonest.

Keep asking, in short, until you feel you know everything you need to know, until all of it is in the timeline, and until there aren’t any further gaps or anomalies making you uncomfortable.

Then you can start pushing to include the unexpurgated timeline as a freestanding document in the package the utility is sending to its customers. And you can start pushing to make sure the letter itself, and everything else in the package, will stand up to a careful comparison with the timeline. In other words, you can start pushing your client to tell almost the whole truth.

number 2

Saying you’re sorry.

I have written extensively elsewhere about how to apologize. See for example my 2001 column on “Saying You’re Sorry.” Better yet, watch or listen to my 42-minute 2010 seminar presentation on acknowledging prior misbehavior. The audio-only version link is to an audio MP3 file is on this website; the video is on Vimeo. There’s even a 12-minute excerpt on YouTube.

As detailed in the links above, here are the steps in a truly effective apology:

  1. Admit you did it.
  2. After you admit you did it, shut up while people berate you for doing it.
  3. After they’ve berated you for awhile, say you’re sorry – which entails showing regret, expressing sympathy for victims, and accepting responsibility.
  4. After you’ve said you’re sorry, make it right – which includes compensating victims and making improvements to avoid recurrences.
  5. Also after you’ve said you’re sorry, explain why it happened – bearing in mind that unless you cop to something like stupidity, the default explanation is evil.
  6. Finally, do a penance, some kind of public humiliation that symbolizes your admission of misbehavior and your commitment to try to do better.

Your client may have trouble grasping the reality that an apology is called for – much less the six-step, full-frontal apology described above. Like most human beings and human institutions, my clients have usually found ways to see themselves as more victims than perpetrators. You may not be able to change how your client sees the situation, but you absolutely must get your client to see how others will see the situation … and to produce a letter that’s responsive to how others will see the situation.

By my count the utility has at least five things to apologize to its customers for:

  • Letting too much uranium into the water.
  • Not finding out promptly.
  • Not acting promptly once it found out.
  • Not telling customers about the problem until it had to.
  • Putting the future price of water at risk.

Your comment refers to two of these issues as “perception issues”: not taking prompt action once the utility discovered it had too much uranium in the water, and not telling customers about the problem. I can’t stress too much that these are not perception issues. The utility really didn’t do anything about the uranium and the utility really didn’t tell customers it had a problem. Even people who aren’t especially outraged tend to get outraged when they’re told that actual reality is merely their “perception” of reality. You’re unlikely to be able to convince your client to apologize for what it did if you or the client thinks the problem is just customers’ perception of what it did.

Putting an apology to the regulators into the letter might not be a bad idea either.

number 3

Setting the context at the outset.

I think the letter needs to start with what journalists would consider the lede. It’s a complicated lede. Yes, it should include the good news you say you especially want to include: that there is no longer more uranium in the water than the law permits. But remember, some of the recipients of this letter are starting from ground zero. They won’t know till you tell them that there used to be illegal levels of uranium in their water. You don’t want the letter to come across like the proverbial child’s postcard home from camp: “They took the stitches out today.” So you need to start with the bad news and the good news. Something like this:

We are writing to tell you something you have a right to know. At least from early November 2014 until late May 2015, the water coming out of our water treatment plant (WTP) had more uranium in it than the law permits.

The good news: Because the WTP water was mixed with water from other sources before it was piped into people’s homes, the water you were drinking had less uranium in it than the water at the plant; we’re not actually sure it was even above the legal standard, and it certainly wasn’t very far above. The even better news: We have stopped using the high-uranium water source entirely. The water you are drinking today is within all legal standards for uranium.

The hard-to-say-if-it’s-good-or-bad news: Nobody can tell us anything solid about the possible health effects of low levels of uranium. Scientists know that high uranium exposures are dangerous, even deadly. But the amount of uranium in our water from November 2014 through May 2015 was only a little above the permitted level. And we don’t even know what the uranium levels in the water might have been before November 2014. We can’t find any experts who predict detectable health effects from the amount of uranium our customers were probably exposed to. But we also can’t find any experts who guarantee that there couldn’t be health effects that are too subtle to detect.

The bad news: When we discovered the uranium problem, we told the regulators, but we didn’t tell you. The regulators gave us two warning notices to do something about it, but we did nothing. We finally stopped using the high-uranium water source only last month after they issued a stronger notice of violation. For good reason, the regulators are pretty angry at us – which is part of the reason they are requiring us to send you this letter. We expect you to be angry too, also for good reason. The even worse news: We still have to figure out how to get our water treatment plant back up in a way that the regulators agree doesn’t violate the uranium standard. That could mean a significant increase in the cost of water.

I am guessing at a lot of the details in this good-news bad-news lede. Obviously you and your client can’t afford to guess. You need to get the story right. But I’m pretty sure that setting the context at the outset will mean starting with a good-news bad-news story.

Note that these four paragraphs don’t necessarily have to be the first four paragraphs of a multi-page letter. They can and probably should be a freestanding document instead, printed in larger, more arresting type than anything else in the package. Your goal is to make sure customers read them first, before anything else.

number 4

Coordinating the package for customers with the media announcement.

You have to design your letter and the rest of your package for customers so they will make sense even to those who know nothing about the uranium situation except what you tell them. But you also have to realize that many customers will already know most of it.

I am assuming that the utility’s uranium mess-up will be fairly big local news. Even if you and the regulators keep it completely secret until customers start receiving your package, it will soon be covered by mainstream media and discussed on social media. So lots of customers will get the news second-hand first.

Unless Janice and Tom have any objections, you should probably plan it that way, releasing the story to the media, including the package you are mailing to customers, a day or two before you mail out the package.

Maybe that means a news conference; maybe a news release; maybe a press kit; maybe a bunch of one-on-one interviews and editorial board meetings – maybe all of the above. Maybe it means some kind of joint announcement with the regulators; or maybe the utility needs to go it alone, with whatever expectation makes sense as to whether Janice and Tom will or won’t respond to reporters’ follow-up calls. You know perfectly well how to stage this sort of rollout. You’ve probably done it more often and certainly done it more recently than I have.

The point I want to emphasize here is the importance of anticipating what aspects of the story journalists (on mainstream media) and critics (on social media) will find especially attractive. Those are the aspects journalists and critics will almost certainly unearth if you try to bury them deep in your package, or if you leave them out of the package altogether.

So don’t bury them deep and don’t leave them out. For customers who will have seen the media coverage first, you want your letter and the rest of your customer package to come across as refreshingly candid, not as predictably self-serving and one-sided. And for customers who will see your package first, you want it to stand up well even in hindsight, after they see what the media have found to add.

number 5

Talking about the uranium.

From your client’s perspective, what’s most important is sure to be the uranium itself. (From the community’s perspective, the “cover-up” may well be a bigger deal. I’ll get to that next.)

So what do you have to say about the uranium? Here are five key questions you have to cover, whether you do it in the letter itself or in a separate document that’s part of the package.

How much uranium were people exposed to?

This looks like a can of worms. I get the impression that you know how much uranium was in the water from the water treatment plant between November 2014 (when the utility discovered high uranium levels) and May 2015 (when it switched water sources). And you presumably know how much uranium is in the water the utility is providing now.

But you apparently don’t know what the uranium levels were between November 2014 and May 2015 in people’s “blended” tap water as opposed to the utility’s WTP water. And worse – much worse – you apparently don’t know a thing about uranium levels in the water before November 2014.

So you need to tell what you know. You need to tell what you don’t know. And you need to tell why you don’t know what you don’t know. (“Huh?” you need to imagine customers reacting. “You suddenly started testing for uranium in November 2014? Why then? Didn’t anyone make you test earlier? Why shouldn’t I think you had earlier tests with bad results you didn’t want to reveal?)

And then I think you need to make some credible guesses. Is the most credible guess that the 36 μg/l you measured in WTP water in late 2014 was the uranium level in people’s tap water since time immemorial? Is there any credible reason for thinking it might ever have been more than 36 μg/l? Is there any credible reason for thinking it used to be a lot less than 36 μg/l – back before the WTP was built, maybe, or back when the utility used to get its water from an entirely different aquifer, or whatever?

I doubt there’s a credible reason for pretending there wasn’t any uranium in the water at all until November 2014.

What’s useful isn’t the most optimistic guess you can make sound credible; that just invites a critic to bring onboard an expert with a scarier guess. What’s useful is the most pessimistic guess that’s credible – the credible worst case scenario for how much uranium your customers may have been consuming in their water back when the utility wasn’t testing for uranium.

Do you have to guess? No. You could just tell what you know and what you don’t know and stop there. But once people start to get worried about their uranium consumption since November 2014, they will also get worried about their uranium consumption before November 2014. I think the utility should try to inform that worry as best it can, even without hard numbers.

What is the likely health risk of that much uranium?

I’m not an expert on uranium health risks. But I know that regulators traditionally set maximum contamination levels (MCLs) at least three orders of magnitude below the lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) for a contaminant. In English: They look for the lowest amount of dimethylmeatloaf (or uranium) that they can prove actually hurts people, and they don’t let industry expose people to more than one-thousandth of that amount.

So if the MCL for uranium in drinking water is 30 μg/l, odds are 30,000 μg/l is provably bad news. If we assume that your client was exposing people to 36 μg/l, even for decades, you shouldn’t have much trouble demonstrating that the risk is probably pretty small.

Don’t overstate the case, however. There are good reasons for those three orders of magnitude of wiggle room. Some health effects are tough to measure; some contaminants show up in lots of sources, not just drinking water; some people are more vulnerable than others. The last thing your client can afford to do is sound cavalier about its flouting of the uranium standard.

What I think I’d do in your client’s shoes is to bring in an outside expert on uranium health effects – not an expert affiliated with the water utility industry, but an activist expert. I’d search for an expert who routinely testifies for plaintiffs, not defendants, in tort litigation, but who routinely sees exposures a lot higher than 36 μg/l. I’d ask him or her for a worst case assessment: How worried should your customers be about this level of uranium for, potentially, that number of years? Go for the scariest answer a reasonable, honorable, activist-leaning expert can give. My bet: That will be a pretty reassuring and thoroughly credible answer.

Make sure the expert is also asked what if anything worried customers should do. Are there tests they should take for total body absorption of uranium? Are there specific uranium-related disease symptoms they should be watching for? Should they tell their doctors about this exposure? I’m expecting negative answers to these questions. Negative or positive, the answers will help, so the questions should be asked.

I haven’t forgotten that the regulators are requiring you to explain “why high levels of uranium can be harmful to people’s health.” Make sure they’re onboard with your decision to rely on an expert, with your choice of which expert to rely on, and with what the expert ends up wanting to say.

And apparently somewhere in here the regulators are also requiring you to talk about alternative water sources. Given that the water currently being provided is below the MCL, I’m not sure what they want you to say. Ask them to spell it out, word for word. And then say it, word for word. If they don’t object, quote them. But remember, you can’t afford to sound sarcastic. The utility’s goal isn’t to prove that the regulators are idiots. Its goal is to be obedient for a change. If you obediently write about alternative water sources without any edge whatsoever, Janice and Tom might even tell you that’s a stupid thing to put into the letter and it was never what they wanted in the first place and please take it out.

What about current and future uranium exposure?

The utility presumably knows how much uranium is in the water it currently provides for its customers. And as you mention in your comment, it presumably has a protocol in place for monitoring the uranium level in the water from now on. These are certainly worth discussing, not pridefully but simply as evidence that the utility has learned its lesson and the regulators are on the stick.

And you mention offering to test a customer’s tap water on request, as a way of sharing control. That makes sense to me. Now is a good time to assure customers that they don’t have to trust the utility’s uranium testing; they can do their own at utility expense. But for most people, obviously, the focus will be on past exposure. Don’t overemphasize the test offer as if the past were erased just because the exposure has been reduced.

Why didn’t you know sooner?

When and how often did the utility test for uranium? Was it legally obligated to test earlier or oftener? Even if not, in hindsight would it have been wise to test earlier or oftener? Why didn’t the utility ever test the blended water it was actually releasing into people’s taps, as opposed to just the water from the treatment plant?

This is one area where your timeline will earn its keep. But what matters most here is acknowledging that the answers are skimpy, and then explaining why. If utility management believes it should have been collecting better data, say that. If it wishes now that it had been collecting better data, say that. If nobody in the water industry ever collected uranium data until recently, but in hindsight everyone feels stupid for not starting years ago, say that. If the industry consensus is that uranium data aren’t very important but everyone plans to go along with the new requirement anyway, say that.

I don’t know what explanation is the truthful explanation for your client’s ignorance about historical uranium levels in the water. I do know that an explanation – a truthful explanation – is needed.

Why didn’t you do more once you knew?

Okay, the utility didn’t know until quite recently that water from the WTP had more uranium than permitted. We’ve talked about why it didn’t know sooner. Let that pass. The day it found out – the day anybody at the utility found out – a clock started ticking.

Now you have to account for everything that happened and didn’t happen starting that day.

  • How long did it take the information to get from the techies to top management?
  • How long did it take the utility to inform the regulators?
  • Did any conversations take place about what to do?
  • When did they take place?
  • Who took part in those conversations? Who was conspicuously absent?
  • What options were considered?
  • Couldn’t the utility just have diluted the WTP water with water from other sources? Did it do that? Did the regulators consider that an unacceptable solution?
  • What other options weren’t on the table but could have been considered?
  • Why was the decision to do nothing? Or was there even a decision? Maybe nothing got decided so nothing got done. Is that it?

Here again your timeline is crucial.

At least some of the utility’s customers and critics are going to be supremely interested in why no action was taken until the regulators escalated from warning notices to an actual notice of violation. Do middle managers at the WTP and elsewhere habitually keep bad news from the attention of the utility’s senior management? Does the utility habitually ignore regulatory warnings until the regulators escalate? Was there another, bigger problem – a different contaminant, maybe, or an economic crisis – that kept everybody at the utility from focusing on what looked like a minor uranium glitch?

There needs to be an explanation (or several) for why the uranium problem got ignored. One way or another, critics, regulators, and even some customers are going to figure out why. The letter is the utility’s best chance to tell them why. In this context, see my 2001 column on “The Stupidity Defense.”

number 6

Talking about the “cover-up.”

I know you don’t want to call it a cover-up. And I’ll be shocked if your client is willing to call it a cover-up.

But that’s what your critics are likely to call it. However belatedly, the utility eventually discovered that its water had more uranium in it than the law allows. Not only didn’t management do anything to solve the uranium problem. Management didn’t tell. It told the regulators promptly enough. (Or did it? Was there much of a gap between when the utility got the first test results and when it shared those results with the regulators? Is it possible the regulators found out on their own?) But it didn’t tell the public. Thus it didn’t give customers a chance to decide for themselves whether to live with a little extra uranium … or demand faster action to get the uranium out of their water … or switch to bottled water in the meantime.

Like so many points in this response, I may be getting the details wrong here. But it looks to me like the utility wasn’t planning to tell the public about the uranium problem at all. It was presumably planning to find a way, sooner or later, to get its uranium levels below the MCL. But it had no intention of going public until the regulators insisted on a letter to all customers. I’m not even sure the regulators thought disclosure was important for its own sake. Your comment makes it sound more like the letter is the regulators’ way of punishing the utility for ignoring the first two warnings – that is, for not fixing the technical problem fast enough.

Right now, as I draft this Guestbook response, the utility’s customers still don’t know about the uranium problem. The clock on their cumulative uranium exposure is no longer ticking, since the utility has switched water sources. But the cover-up clock is still ticking.

It is a truism of reputational crises that the cover-up often does more harm than the offense being covered up. That might very well be true in the case at hand.

In an alternative universe, I can imagine a water utility urgently announcing that it has just discovered its water is testing out at 36 μg/l of uranium when the regulatory standard is just 30 μg/l. “What should we do!!?? Should we turn off the water treatment plant? Should we put everybody on bottled water? OMG!!” Faced with this adroit use of the risk communication seesaw, many customers would probably yawn and turn their attention elsewhere, and more than a few might retort that utility managers should be careful not to overreact in a way that could threaten the viability of the water treatment plant and the price of water.

But a utility that “hid” its uranium test results until regulators forced it to acknowledge them? That sounds serious.

This is a crucial point. It’s not just that cover-ups are often seen as more culpable than the offenses that were covered up. More importantly, cover-ups make the offenses that were covered up seem more culpable – and more dangerous – than they would otherwise have seemed.

So I urge you and your client to focus on the cover-up aspect of the story more than the utility’s managers probably think necessary. Whatever they decide to call it, they need to talk about it.

number 7

Talking about economic implications.

It’s just a guess, but odds are the utility had to scramble in some way to get its uranium levels down below the 30 μg/l MCL. And odds are whatever it had to do short-term will have economic repercussions if it has to do it long-term as well.

If I’m putting the pieces together correctly, one of the sources the water treatment plant was getting its water from had unacceptably high uranium levels. So the utility had to stop using that source. And apparently that meant the utility also had to shut down or at least severely curtail its use of an otherwise perfectly functional water treatment plant. WTPs are expensive, and their cost is built into water rates over a period of years, even decades. So unexpectedly shutting down a WTP is bound to have a serious impact on rates.

And maybe on water supply too. I don’t know what the supply situation is where you’re situated. Is the utility drawing down on alternative water supplies it didn’t want to have to use because they’re limited and getting depleted (or because they have different contamination problems)? Did it have to – or will it have to – buy water from other utilities?

I’m in way over my head here, so I’m not going to speculate further. But I have to think that there’s an important economic story the utility needs to talk to its customers about.

Maybe it’s a story about tradeoffs between safety/purity and cost: how much more customers would be willing to pay for water with less uranium in it. Or maybe it’s a story about tradeoffs between regulatory prerogatives and cost: how much more customers will have to pay for water if the regulators won’t cut the utility some slack vis-à-vis uranium. Or maybe it’s a story about tradeoffs between risk and reliability: This water is cleaner but that water is more plentiful. Or between one risk and another: This water has too much uranium but that water has too much dimethylmeatloaf.

Whatever the story is, the utility needs to tell it. But it also needs to be careful not to give the impression of defending against its uranium infraction by changing the subject from safety to cost: “We tried to save our customers a lot of money by living with a tiny bit more uranium than the super-conservative standard permits, but overzealous regulators are forcing us to resort to much more expensive water instead.” That can’t be the story. But the same facts – if those really are the facts – can be much more acceptably framed as a dilemma instead of a defense:

Over the next few months and years, we will all have a chance to consider the choices we face and the tradeoffs those choices require. How clean, how pure, and ultimately how safe do we require our water to be, with regard not just to uranium but to lots of other potential contaminants as well? How much more will we pay for water that’s a little cleaner, purer, and safer? How much contamination will we accept for water that’s less expensive and perhaps also more plentiful, more reliable for decades to come?

This decision is partly up to state and federal regulators, who tell us, the utility, what we must do. It is partly up to water users, our customers, who tell us what they want us to do. And within the limits set by regulators and the wishes expressed by customers, it is partly up to us, the water utility.

None of that means we were entitled to distribute water that exceeded the legal limit for uranium. We had no right to do that, and certainly no right to do it secretly. The regulators were right to make us stop, and right to make us come clean. Now that the cat is out of the bag and the uranium is, if not out of the water at least back down below the legal limit, we will face these choices together.

Living without trust

name:Maryanne Martin
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Community engagement consultant
date:June 4, 2015


I have recently read two interesting articles about the declining levels of trust Australians have in their leaders working in politics, business, trade unions, churches and community.

In the Swinburne Leadership Survey, the only group that Australians trusted to any extent were community leaders.

The other study I’m referring to is the 2015 annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which also reported a decline in trust in Australian institutions. Tim Riches, the CEO of Edelman Australia, headlined his commentary on the results, “No one’s buying what you’re selling.” link is to a PDF file

Trust is really precious and I think it takes a lot to create it, let alone maintain it. In the current environment there are many events that erode our levels of trust. For example, in my own community of Ballarat, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been hearing evidence for the last two weeks. It has revealed more stories of awful abuse in Catholic institutions spanning decades. The victims’ stories show the impacts of abuse extend well beyond the immediate families. There are lasting impacts on the community at large.

Sometimes I feel astonished that some leaders and institutions continue to ask us to trust them.

I know you say a better approach is for an organization to ask the community to “track” rather than “trust” us. If as the articles suggest we are in an environment where trust becomes more and more eroded, what will it take for a government, business, or institution like the Catholic Church to effectively develop and consistently use the “track us” approach? How does an organization improve its reputation in this climate of mistrust even if it hasn’t had a scandal?

peter responds:

I have written about trust before – most recently just last month in a Guestbook response on “Why I think trust is not central to negotiating a Social License to Operate.” But it keeps coming back, and I’m happy to take another whack at it, although most of the points I will make in this response are points I have made before.

It is often said that organizations today are less trusted than they used to be – all kinds of organizations: businesses large and small, governments local and national, charities, sports organizations, religious institutions, etc. The two articles you cite make this point aggressively.

I agree in part – but with six qualifiers.

number 1

We romanticize the past.

I came of age in the sixties, and remember when “Never trust anyone over 30” was seriously proposed as a watchword for my generation. So if widespread mistrust is new, it must be coming up to 50 years new by now.

More importantly, in thinking about the past we sometimes mistake apathy, cynicism, or discouragement for trust. Maybe (just maybe) our ancestors expressed less distrust of their institutions than we do of ours today. But is that really because they trusted their institutions more? Or is it because they felt less able to do anything to effect change, and so accepted their feelings of distrust – and the betrayals that provoked those feelings – as conditions of life that had to be endured?

”Go fight city hall” is a phrase that used to be widespread in the U.S. (I don’t know about Australia.) It was said sarcastically to convey the futility of challenging entrenched institutions. The phrase has largely gone out of style, I think. Maybe people are more willing to challenge entrenched institutions today – and maybe what we’re interpreting as an increase in distrust is at least partly an increase in self-efficacy.

Also, we rely more than our ancestors did on organizations we don’t know personally. I suspect my great-grandparents didn’t trust national government agencies or multinational corporations any more than I do. But they probably interacted a lot less than I do with national government agencies and multinational corporations, and they almost certainly depended less than I do on national government agencies and multinational corporations. So their distrust played a smaller role in their lives.

number 2

Distrust is the right response to untrustworthiness.

Whenever a client tells me that it has a trust problem, I ask whether it has a trustworthiness problem too.

The optimum level of trust in any organization is the level of trust that matches that organization’s trustworthiness.

There are three possible interpretations of the decline in trust (assuming trust has really declined):

  • Maybe organizations were more trustworthy in the good old days, so they were appropriately more trusted. In this case, the decline in trust is merited, a sign that people have noticed the decline in trustworthiness. And the decline in trust is useful, a signal to organizations that they need to earn back people’s trust.
  • Maybe organizations were just about as untrustworthy in the past as they are today, but were unwisely over-trusted. In this case, too, the decline in trust is merited, a sign that people have finally noticed that their trust was misplaced. And again the decline in trust is useful as well, a signal to organizations that they must finally start to become more trustworthy.
  • Maybe organizations were highly trustworthy in the past and were appropriately trusted, and are just as highly trustworthy today. In this case – and only this case – the decline in trust is a problem.

If you think the third paradigm is the right one – that is, if you think our organizations are unwaveringly trustworthy and for some reason people have unfairly stopped trusting them – then we need to figure out how to rebuild trust. But I doubt that even the people who bemoan the decline in trust actually believe the third paradigm. If you buy one of the other two instead (I lean toward the second one), the problem isn’t trust, it’s trustworthiness.

number 3

Trust in organizations may be intrinsically unsustainable.

Imagine an organization – a government agency, say, or a company – that enjoys well-earned trust from its stakeholders. Because the organization has behaved well in the past, its stakeholders trust it to continue to behave well. They see no need to monitor its activities.

What’s going to happen next? My prediction: The organization’s leaders will realize that nobody is watching and will start to cut corners. Or if the old leaders are steadfast, new leadership more willing to cut corners will take over. Eventually stakeholders will notice that the organization isn’t trustworthy anymore. If the organization is lucky, trust will decline slowly, allowing time for leaders to mend their ways before there’s a crisis. If the organization is not so lucky, the betrayal will lead to a trust implosion. That’s arguably what has happened to the Catholic Church. Lay Catholics trusted the clergy too much. Their children paid the price. And when the truth emerged, trust in the Church imploded.

People tell me it’s cynical to believe that trust in organizations is intrinsically unsustainable. I disagree. In fact, it’s a bedrock principle of democracy that governments can’t be trusted – that a vigilant citizenry is a precondition for good government, and that a trusting citizenry is a recipe for tyranny. And it’s a bedrock principle of capitalism (modern regulated capitalism, at least) that profit-making institutions shouldn’t be trusted either. It’s not a new idea, or a cynical one, that all institutions (even religious institutions) tend in time to abuse trust, and therefore need to be closely monitored.

number 4

It has never been easier to replace the need for trust with transparency and accountability.

In 1990 I gave a speech to the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) entitled “Addressing Skepticism about Responsible Care.” The Responsible Care program had been launched by the Canadian chemical industry in 1985 and adopted by the U.S. industry three years later, aimed at better stewardship of industrial chemicals and better responsiveness to public concerns. I proposed five “themes” to help cope with the inevitable skepticism of critics. One of the five: “We want you to track us, not trust us.”

”Track us, don’t trust us” became the informal slogan of Responsible Care. Critics sometimes turned the slogan around, pointing to the chemical industry’s failures of transparency as evidence that in practice its message to stakeholders was “Don’t track us, trust us.” But even the critics agreed that transparency and accountability were the right goals, not trust.

Achieving those goals has never been easier. If the neighbors of an industrial facility are worried that it might emit more of some pollutant than it promised it would, put a video feed of the key gauges online 24/7, or put satellite gauges in the office of the most hostile activist group, or give the group its own monitoring devices to run spot checks on yours – or do all three. If policy opponents of a government official are worried that she might be giving away the store to special interests, post a daily list of her meetings, a monthly list of her political contributions, or a total data dump of her emails … or do all three.

How transparent and how accountable an organization should choose to be is still a debatable issue, obviously. But it now has the technology to be as transparent and accountable as it chooses. It doesn’t need to be trusted anymore. So if it asks to be trusted instead of replacing trust with transparency and accountability, that too is a choice. I think it’s an unwise choice.

number 5

The big trust problem is that organizations don’t trust the public.

When I urge clients to lean more on transparency and accountability instead of trust, they typically recoil at my suggestion that they should share information and share power. They point to the ways they think journalists and the general public would misperceive the information, and the ways they think stakeholders, especially critics, would misuse the power.

This is the trust problem that concerns me most: not that the public doesn’t trust my clients, but that my clients don’t trust the public.

Their distrust isn’t altogether mistaken. People who have been shielded from upsetting truths – truths likely to make them angry or frightened – sometimes overreact at first when they belatedly get the news. And people who have been disempowered, forced to tolerate whatever the organizations in their lives decide to do, sometimes use their newfound power unwisely or even abusively at first when at last they get some. The transition can be rocky.

Even after the transition, transparency and accountability have real costs for organizations, of course. But the choice isn’t between being trusted and relying instead on transparency and accountability. The choice is between unsuccessfully expecting (asking, wanting, demanding) to be trusted and relying instead on transparency and accountability. That ought to be an easy choice. The chief reason it isn’t an easy choice is because organizations don’t trust the public.

In 2009 an association of public health information professionals asked me to give a keynote presentation summarizing my career. I entitled the speech “Trust the Public with More of the Truth: What I Learned in 40 Years in Risk Communication.” I think it’s so fundamental I put links to my speech notes , the audio link is to an audio MP3 file, and the video all on my website homepage. Here’s the key paragraph:

What I learned, in a nutshell: Nobody’s trustworthy. We should work harder to be trustworthy, and we should stop expecting (or seeking) to be trusted. We should all aim for accountability instead. That turns out to be a lesson “good guys” (like public health professionals) have a tougher time learning than “bad guys.”

number 6

Paradoxically, transparency and accountability lead to increased trust – for a while.

The route to trust isn’t asking to be trusted. It’s proving trustworthiness – which means asking to be tracked. That’s the paradox of trust. It’s a slender reed that breaks if you lean on it. But if you abjure it and settle for transparency and accountability instead, trust has a chance to flourish.

I have long noted this paradox with my corporate clients. In their dealings with customers and suppliers, they rely on contracts. And the contracts contain provisions that cover all sorts of possible untrustworthy behavior by one of the parties: inspection clauses, penalty clauses, etc. If a customer or supplier were to recommend relying on trust instead of a contract, that would be a major red flag. Precisely because the contract is there if it’s needed, to be utilized if anybody misbehaves, my clients feel free to trust and be trusted by their customers and suppliers. Both parties may go for years without actually looking at the contract. Informal shortcuts and accommodations arise to supplement (and even replace) the contract in routine interactions – but if at any point anybody feels mistreated, everybody has recourse to the contract.

My clients would be well advised to treat their community stakeholders the way they treat customers and suppliers. Instead of asking community stakeholders to trust them, they should negotiate agreements that detail the obligations of both parties and specify how grievances are to be resolved. If informal, trustful relationships evolve as well, so much the better. In good times the agreement facilitates trust. In bad times it replaces the need for trust.

There will be bad times. That’s the lesson of #3 above. Trust, distrust, and transparency/accountability are parts of an unending cycle:

Transparency/accountability Trust
Abuse of trust Distrust
New demands for transparency/accountability

So keep those transparency and accountability mechanisms going – even in good times, even when trust is high. And today, when everyone seems to agree that distrust is high, stop asking or expecting to be trusted and lean on transparency and accountability instead.

The over-polarized fight between mainstream medicine and the dissident alternative medicine and anti-vaccination movements

name: Kate
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

field:Public health
date:May 28, 2015
location:Ohio, U.S.


In reading your articles on extremists, I had some questions about how the principles could be applied in situations where both sides of an argument see it as a zero-sum game, with no compromise possible.

Two arguments that spring to mind are alternative medicine/pseudoscience and vaccination. In these arguments, the mainstream side sees no room for even a few people to “deviate” by going the alternative medicine route or not vaccinating their kids. And there’s no room on the other side for anybody to tell them what to do with their lives or their children’s health.

How do you manage these issues when both sides are just as outraged?

In the science blogging community, there are many vocal anti-pseudoscience and pro-vaccine bloggers, some of whom can be quite aggressive in their insults to the other side. On the other side, there are plenty of alternative medicine or anti-vax bloggers and websites, giving back just as many insults. As an example of this, the latest shake-up between a pro-science blogger called SciBabe and an alternative medicine blogger called FoodBabe has been creating a lot of waves. Both sides have thrown an incredible level of insults and harsh words, and it just feels like a drama contest more than anything truly persuasive for either side.

I feel like these arguments on both sides are honestly pretty poor persuasion, and unfortunately (saying it’s unfortunate does show my own bias), I feel that sometimes the anti-vax/alternative medicine crowd can be more persuasive.

The emotional argument on the alternative medicine/anti-vax side is far more effective. Doesn’t every parent want their child to live a normal, happy life? Doesn’t every parent cringe a bit when they see their child hurt, even if it’s momentary for the moment of the injection? I feel that neglecting this emotional argument severely hurts the pro-vax side, but they dismiss emotion in favor of “the facts.”

One side has armed itself with “true knowledge” of RCTs, journal articles, etc., while the other has armed itself with emotional arguments, high-outrage fears (autism, permanent damage, etc.), and some anecdotal evidence. And for the average layperson, I feel that the second side is far more effective.

Considering this, what do you think is the best way to move forward on these arguments? Both sides have become extremely polarized, and I feel like that’s leaving the moderates/undecideds out in the cold.

As the second half of the question, how can the pro-vax movement do better at bringing those moderates to their side? I feel like a lot of the bloggers are preaching to the choir on both sides, ignoring the influx of new parents every day and paying more attention to ideology than to persuasion. How can public health personnel (and bloggers, if they’d like) be more effective at their angle of persuasion, rather than announcing facts and thinking they’ll speak for themselves?

peter responds:

You’re raising three interrelated questions:

  • How can both sides in these two controversies – pro-vax versus anti-vax and conventional medicine versus alternative medicine – appeal more to moderates instead of continuing their current polarized battles?
  • How can your preferred side (pro-vax for sure, and conventional medicine too, I think) do better in the competition for moderates’ allegiance?
  • Specifically, do I agree that your side should learn to make more use of emotions and anecdotes instead of focusing on data and facts?

I think the problem goes deeper than your comment suggests.

You’re certainly right that there’s a lot of polarization in these two controversies. And you’re right that polarization doesn’t serve moderates well. I have talked with vaccine-hesitant parents who feel alienated from both sides in the vaccination controversy, identifying with neither the virulent anti-vax diatribes of opponents nor the doctrinaire “my way or the highway” demands of supporters. It’s easy to imagine what it must be like for these parents to try to make sense of the debate. When they look at the too-alarming-to-be-credible (and so angry) anti-vax literature it makes them feel like they probably should vaccinate their kids after all. When they look at the too-reassuring-to-be-credible (and so angry) pro-vax literature it makes them feel like they probably shouldn’t.

On the whole, I think the dissident sides of these two controversies do a better job than the establishment sides of reaching out to the middle. They’re less dogmatic. Most anti-vaxxers don’t say you’re an awful parent if you vaccinate your children; they usually say “I choose not to and here’s why, now do the research and make up your own mind.” And most alternative medicine advocates don’t urge people to have nothing to do with mainstream doctors; the very term “alternative medicine” is explicitly inclusive, suggesting that it’s okay to utilize traditional medicine but why not add a little of this and that to your treatment regimen? Mainstream medicine (and mainstream public health), on the other hand, isn’t just pro-vax and pro-conventional medicine. It’s often emphatically anti-anti-vax and anti-alternative medicine.

Consider for example parents who are worried that too many vaccinations all at once might pose a risk to their young children, so they’d like advice on how to space out the shots a little. Whether we think this worry is scientifically justified or not – I think it’s not – we ought to be able to see that it’s a worry, not an ideology. Worried, hesitant parents aren’t anti-vaxxers. But when mainstream medicine treats them like anti-vaxxers and is contemptuous of their concerns, it may turn them into anti-vaxxers, all the more so since anti-vax sources offer concrete advice on how to space out the shots while pro-vax sources say you need to follow the prescribed schedule exactly as it is written, period.

In fact, it often seems to me that mainstream medicine doesn’t especially want to reach out to moderates. No doubt it thinks it does. Leaders of the medical (and public health) establishment certainly want moderates to come over to their side. But they’re far from satisfied when moderates come over to their side partially and tentatively – come over “moderately” to their side, in other words. Sometimes consciously but more often unconsciously, they seem to want the moderates on their side totally or not at all.

That’s what polarization is like. But usually this kind of ideological litmus test is more characteristic of the dissident side in a controversy than of the mainstream side. Back in the 1980s, I was part of what we then called the peace movement, mostly working with groups that advocated a nuclear weapons “freeze.” A recurrent problem – at least I saw it as a problem – was the tendency of many of my fellow disarmament activists to set rigid doctrinal “entrance standards” for newcomers. If you weren’t wholeheartedly convinced that a nuclear freeze was the only way to prevent global annihilation, you weren’t really welcome at a nuclear freeze meeting. President Reagan was quite willing to accept halfhearted support; we weren’t.

The climate change movement has the same problem today, I think. If you’re not totally convinced that technology and consumerism are pushing the world over the cliff of a global warming disaster and radical changes are urgently needed, you’re a “denier.”

One of my favorite bloggers, “Scott Alexander” (it’s a pseudonym), wrote a wonderful essay in December 2014 called “The Toxoplasma of Rage.” It’s a complicated essay that needs several readings to appreciate fully. But part of Alexander’s point is that people and organizations with strong ideological positions have concrete reasons for saying polarizing things, things that alienate all but the most committed supporters.

  • One reason is their need to get more people paying attention to their issue. Polarizing, extreme claims attract more media coverage than conciliatory, moderate claims; polarizing tweets are retweeted more (even by opponents) than conciliatory tweets.
  • Another reason is their need to nurture in-group solidarity. When ideologues on any side of any issue take a polarizing position that is hard for moderates to accept, they give their immoderate supporters an opportunity to “signal allegiance to their own political tribe.”

Alexander illustrates these and other dynamics of polarization with examples from a wide range of controversies, including police brutality, factory farming, and rape.

What’s a little weird about the two controversies you’re focusing on is that the dissident side – the anti-vaxxers and the alternative medicine folks – seems more accepting of halfhearted support than the establishment side. Both sides pretty frequently act the way “The Toxoplasma of Rage” predicts they would act. But establishment medicine has a worse case of toxoplasmosis.

Think of mainstream medicine (and mainstream public health) as a guild. As “The Guild,” at least in the minds of practitioners. Several internal Guild needs – psychological and practical – are served when Guild leaders stake out highly polarized stands:

  • They garner lots of attention (both pro and con) and lots of mainstream media coverage for their position.
  • They get a chance to vent their outrage at the other side.
  • They make it legitimate for Guild members/supporters to vent their outrage at the other side too, thereby strengthening the us-versus-them frame and building Guild solidarity.
  • They help wholehearted Guild members/supporters feel good about themselves, rallying them to the cause and giving them opportunities to signal their Guild allegiance (to themselves, to the Guild, and to everyone else).
  • Above all, by clarifying what positions must be endorsed in order to earn and keep Guild membership, they force moderate potential supporters to choose sides. Some rise to the occasion. Others are repelled by the polarization and turn away. The Guild that results may be smaller but it is purer, with higher in-group solidarity.

The leaders of mainstream medicine obviously aren’t likely to become skillful at reaching out to moderates if they don’t really like having moderates around.

I realize that plenty of people in mainstream medicine do want to reach out to moderates. In fact many doctors quietly help their patients integrate alternative remedies into their treatment regimens and figure out less intense vaccination schedules for their kids. But in a variety of ways the leadership is incentivized to be uncompromising.

On the subject of data, I agree that sometimes mainstream medicine disadvantages itself in controversies by sticking too much to data. (The mainstream also cherry-picks its data, but that is another topic.)

On the other hand, in the two controversies we’re talking about the competitive advantage of mainstream medicine is data. The dissidents have some data on their side too. But most of the solid evidence regarding alternative medicine and vaccination is on the mainstream side. A fundamental tenet of outrage management says it’s a waste of time to deploy data to convince outraged opponents they’re wrong. But I’m all for deploying data to inform moderates – especially moderates who are diligently searching for information in an effort to figure out which side is right. When your audience is information-seeking, by all means provide information!

Anti-vaxxers and alternative medicine advocates know that. Emotion and anecdote are their competitive advantage – but they nonetheless work hard to deploy data as well. Precisely because they don’t have a lot of data on their side, they’re likelier than the mainstream to invent or misuse data.

Mainstream medicine’s problem here, I think, isn’t that it uses data too much. The problem is that it sometimes uses emotion and anecdote too little. The audience wants both.

And sometimes mainstream medicine’s use of data is stuffier, more complicated, and harder to understand than it needs to be. That makes sense in terms of the toxoplasma of rage. Being incomprehensible except to fellow members of the Guild surely helps separate the true believers from the hoi polloi. But it makes no sense at all in terms of outreach to moderates.

This is a longstanding problem, and it’s by no means confined to medicine. I wrote the following in a booklet entitled Explaining Environmental Risk, published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986:

When people have a reason to learn, they learn.

It is still possible for communicators to make the learning easier or harder – and scientists and bureaucrats have acquired a fairly consistent reputation for making it harder. At Three Mile Island, for example, the level of technical jargon was actually higher when the experts were talking to the public and the news media than when they were talking to each other. The transcripts of urgent telephone conversations between nuclear engineers were usually simpler to understand than the transcripts of news conferences. To be sure, jargon is a genuine tool of professional communication, conveying meaning (to those with the requisite training) precisely and concisely. But it also serves as a tool to avoid communication with outsiders, and as a sort of membership badge, a sign of the status difference between the professional and everyone else.

Like any piece of professional socialization, the tendency to mystify outsiders becomes automatic, habitual more than malevolent. It’s hard for a layperson to get a straight answer from an expert even when nothing much is at stake. When a potentially serious risk is at stake, when people are frightened or angry or exhausted, when the experts aren’t sure what the answers are, when the search for a scapegoat is at hand, effective communication is a lot to expect.

In clinical interactions with patients, doctors have gotten better in recent years at intermixing the data with emotion and anecdote, and at making more of an effort to explain the data rather than just using data to pull rank. But when controversy arises, mainstream medicine gets stuffy and data-fixated again – especially when it doesn’t have great data and it’s relying more than it wants to admit on anecdote and emotion.

As a consultant, I have learned that when my client’s language gets really techie and incomprehensible, that’s a tell. The client is hiding something – maybe a fact that supports the other side, maybe a hole in the client’s evidentiary argument, maybe just an emotion – but something.

At least sometimes, I think, mainstream medicine gets stuffy about data not because it lacks emotion but because it’s afraid of its own emotionality, especially its rage at opponents, dissidents, skeptics, and even insufficiently committed supporters.

Periodically the emotionality leaks out or suddenly breaks through. Then you get the sort of excessively passionate dialogue you referred to in your comment – SciBabe versus FoodBabe. Another example: the emotional tirades that some mainstream sources let loose during the recent Disneyland measles outbreak against parents who hadn’t vaccinated their kids.

In sum, there is some truth to the stereotype of the medical professional who can’t figure out how to be convincing to ordinary people, who wants to win over the moderates but keeps alienating them instead with too much polarization and too much data. But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Mainstream medicine doesn’t always seek to reach out to the unconvinced as much as it seeks to rally and purify the Guild. And it may come across as most data-driven and stuffily unemotional when its data are weak and its emotions strong.

A hazard response to an outrage problem: Pepsi’s decision to abandon aspartame

name:Tony Jaques
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Editor, Managing Outcomes
date:May 5, 2015


Did you see Michael Hiltzik’s piece in the Los Angeles Times about the recent Pepsi decision to quit using aspartame?

It’s a fascinating example of a big corporation making a major policy/marketing decision based not on real risk but openly admitting it is based purely on perceived risk.

This is a good riposte to anyone who doesn’t know the Sandman formula that perceived risk (outrage) is just as real as scientific risk (hazard).

peter responds:

This Guestbook entry is about Pepsi’s recent corporate decision to switch from an artificial sweetener that some consumers consider dangerous to one that arouses less concern – even though Pepsi management thinks both sweeteners are safe. But it’s also about the underlying generic issue, a super-important issue in outrage management: the pros and cons of remedying a small or nonexistent hazard in order to reduce stakeholder outrage.

Hiltzik’s article is entitled “Junk Food and Junk Science.” Though he gives Pepsi credit for candor, Hiltzik’s lede makes it clear that he thinks the company shouldn’t defer to “junk science” about a nonexistent aspartame risk because doing so will exacerbate people’s foolish concern:

PepsiCo, evidently testing the notion that junk science can be good marketing, announced last week that it was removing the artificial sweetener aspartame from most of its diet sodas in the United States.

To its credit, the company didn’t claim it was doing so because of any indication that aspartame is unsafe. It’s doing so because its customers think it’s unsafe. Never mind that there’s no scientific evidence that it is unsafe.

In marketing, consumer impressions are everything, so Pepsi will take this opportunity to feed public misperceptions and score points off its archrival Coca-Cola by emblazoning its Diet Pepsi cans and bottles “aspartame-free,” starting in a few months. The goal is to distinguish its product from Diet Coke, which, like Diet Pepsi, has faced plummeting sales, but isn’t, as yet, on the no-aspartame bandwagon. Pepsi candidly admits that consumer surveys indicated that one reason for the fall-off is public concern about aspartame.

”We’re listening to consumers,” Seth Kaufman, a senior vice president of Pepsi, told numerous news agencies after the announcement. “It’s what they want.” The punch line is that Pepsi is merely changing its formulation to sucralose, commonly sold as Splenda, another artificial sweetener. Splenda hasn’t been on the market as long as aspartame, so it hasn’t had as much time to accumulate public suspicion.

The article goes on to review the history of public concern about one artificial sweetener after another, and the evidence that aspartame is safe – that is, the paucity of evidence that it isn’t safe.

Much other coverage of the Pepsi decision is similarly critical. Roberto A. Ferdman’s blog for the Washington Post, for example, uses the word “appeasing” twice. Ferdman concludes: “What Pepsi’s move will likely accomplish, more than anything else, is give credence to unfounded fears that aspartame is somehow more harmful or artificial than a lot of other sweeteners being used in products on supermarket shelves.”

Ferdman too acknowledges that Pepsi never suggested there was anything unsafe about aspartame. Here’s his money quote from Seth Kaufman, senior vice president of Pepsi: “Decades of studies have shown that aspartame is safe, but the reality is that consumer demand in the U.S. has been evolving.… The U.S. diet cola consumer has been asking and asking and asking for an aspartame-free great diet cola.”

So there are two Pepsi decisions to assess:

  • The decision to abandon aspartame and say so, because there are significant numbers of consumers who try to avoid products that contain it, depressing Diet Pepsi sales.
  • The decision to be frank that the ingredient change isn’t because Pepsi thinks aspartame might be dangerous, but because some of its customers think so.

Is it okay for Pepsi to abandon a safe ingredient that some customers mistakenly consider dangerous?

Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that aspartame is safe. As usual, there are a few studies that suggest otherwise. But the bulk of the evidence shows little if any reason to worry more about aspartame than other artificial sweeteners – and plenty of reason to worry more about sugar than any artificial sweetener. So if people are going to drink something sweet, aspartame is probably as good a choice as they’re likely to find. (There’s an exception: People with an inherited disease called phenylketonuria shouldn’t consume aspartame.)

Let’s also assume that Pepsi is right that it has customers or potential customers who are worried about aspartame, and that (at least for now) fewer of them would be worried about sucralose. And let’s assume that most experts consider aspartame and sucralose equally safe. (There’s a third artificial sweetener, acesulfame potassium (“Ace-K”), that Pepsi apparently plans to mix with the sucralose. We’ll assume for this discussion that it’s equally safe as well.)

You don’t need my hazard-versus-outrage distinction to realize that perceived risk, not actual risk, is what determines people’s fears and therefore their behavior. If more people are worried about aspartame than sucralose, then more people will avoid an aspartame-containing soft drink than a sucralose-containing soft drink. So it should be good for business for Pepsi to make the switch.

At first glance, then, the decision to switch is pretty much a no-brainer. If there’s a safe, legal way to increase sales, you do it. End of story.

On the other hand, the fundamental basis for my hazard-versus-outrage distinction is my contention that hazard perception is chiefly a product of outrage – that is, of “outrage factorslink is to a PDF file like trust, control, fairness, dread, etc. So if people are excessively worried about aspartame, or about artificial sweeteners in general, it ought to be my position that their excessive worry results from unmanaged outrage.

And I have often written that an outrage problem deserves an outrage solution, not a hazard solution. Here’s the way I put it in a seminar handout link is to a PDF file that I have been using since 1994: “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.” Or as I sometimes say at the end of presentations:

If the hazard is broke, fix the hazard. If the outrage is broke, fix the outrage. If they’re both broke, fix them both. If your factory needs a vapor recovery system, install one. If your neighbors need an apology, apologize. But don’t expect a vapor recovery system to make people less upset – any more than you’d expect an apology to make them less endangered.

So if Pepsi customers wrongly believe that aspartame endangers their health, isn’t their mistaken hazard perception a result of outrage? Yes.

Then shouldn’t I be advising Pepsi to do something about trust, control, fairness, dread, and the rest – not simply replace the aspartame? Not really. Here’s why.

Most of my outrage management clients are trying to cope with stakeholders who are outraged at them for something the stakeholders (and maybe the client too) consider intrinsic to the client’s operations. In the hypothetical example I typically use, a factory’s neighbors are trying to shut down the factory. They say (and believe) that they want to shut it down because it is emitting dimethylmeatloaf out its stacks, and they are convinced that the dimethylmeatloaf is responsible for a cancer cluster in the neighborhood. They think the experts who say dimethylmeatloaf isn’t a carcinogen are lying or mistaken. But underneath their unshakable fear of dimethylmeatloaf are identifiable outrage factors. The factory brings in outsiders instead of employing people from the neighborhood; its emissions smell awful; management has been arrogantly unresponsive to neighborhood odor complaints and has steadfastly refused to say how much dimethylmeatloaf the factory is emitting; etc.

Replacing the dimethylmeatloaf with trinitrochickenwire would probably be difficult and expensive. Even if the switch is feasible, moreover, it would be unlikely to ameliorate neighborhood outrage much, given the underlying sources of that outrage. Trying to prove that dimethylmeatloaf isn’t a carcinogen wouldn’t work either. Management needs to figure out which outrage factors are making it so attractive for the neighbors to believe that the factory’s emissions are deadly, and so difficult for them to let go of that mistaken belief. Then it needs to do something about the outrage.

Pepsi is a different story. Few if any consumers are blaming Pepsi for aspartame in the way that my client’s factory’s neighbors are blaming the factory for dimethylmeatloaf. The several companies that manufacture and sell aspartame (it went off-patent in 1992) might face that kind of outrage, now or soon. If you’re in the aspartame business, you need to think through why your particular artificial sweetener is attracting so much controversy. Is it just your turn, following in the footsteps of saccharin and cyclamate? Or are there things you are doing or not doing that exacerbate the outrage, and things you could do to ameliorate it? If you’re in the aspartame business, aspartame is obviously intrinsic to your operation. So aspartame outrage is a fundamental challenge to your business model. You can’t just switch to a different sweetener. You need to figure out how to manage the outrage.

But as long as thousands of products contain aspartame, the manufacturers of those thousands of products – such as Pepsi – probably won’t face significant aspartame outrage. All they face is a drag on sales because some consumers bother to search out competing products with a different artificial sweetener.

Some day, perhaps, an anti-aspartame campaigner may decide to go after a handful of iconic aspartame-using companies, putting public pressure on them to switch to a different sweetener. If that were to happen while Pepsi were still a heavy aspartame customer, it might easily become a target of aspartame outrage-by-proxy. Then the company would need to choose between publicly defending aspartame and publicly switching under pressure. But that’s not happening so far, as far as I know. There isn’t a lot of aspartame outrage or aspartame pressure aimed at Pepsi, just a measurable consumer preference for a different sweetener.

In short, managing aspartame outrage isn’t Pepsi’s job. Pepsi can simply switch sweeteners.

Obviously, if Pepsi is going to switch from aspartame to sucralose in order to increase market share, it needs to make sure the market knows it has made the switch. So Hiltzik is almost certainly right that we can expect to see Diet Pepsi packaging emblazoned with “Now Aspartame Free!” claims. Not that Pepsi will come anywhere near suggesting that aspartame is dangerous. That would invite litigation from aspartame manufacturers and outrage from critics of junk science. Worse, such a claim could easily boomerang. “If you think aspartame is dangerous,” critics and customers would ask, “why did you continue using it for all those years?”

And that’s not what Pepsi top managers believe anyway. They’re on record as saying they made the switch for marketing reasons, not safety reasons – which brings me to the second question.

Is it okay for Pepsi to say it doesn’t think aspartame is dangerous but it’s listening to its customers?

The thing I like best about Pepsi’s announcement is its candor that its decision to switch artificial sweeteners isn’t a result of its own safety concerns but its desire to respond to consumer concerns.

This is absolutely compatible with my recommendation that those who are trying to deal with stakeholder outrage should claim responsiveness instead of responsibility. In 2006 I wrote a whole column on this topic, entitled “Giving Away the Credit: Managing Risk Controversies by Claiming You’re Responsive (though maybe not responsible).” (A video version is online at https://vimeo.com/18368513. Audio only is at http://www.psandman.com/media/8Sandman_Rio.mp3.) link is to an audio MP3 file

Companies under pressure to do something, I wrote in that column, may or may not decide to give in. That’s a tough decision. But when they do decide to succumb to pressure, saying so shouldn’t be a tough decision. I discussed five advantages of claiming (truthfully) to be responsive to your stakeholders rather than claiming (falsely) to be autonomously and virtuously responsible.

  1. It documents your accountability – that is, it demonstrates that you have taken aboard at least some of your critics’ concerns.
  2. It makes the change credible – attributing a reform to your own virtue arouses doubt that you actually made the reform, whereas attributing it to pressure makes it believable.
  3. It avoids infuriating those who pressured you to make the change by stealing the credit that’s deservedly theirs.
  4. It helps people understand how capitalism works – that it’s malfeasant for companies to implement expensive changes unless they can show a benefit to shareholders, and that being publicly responsive to critics is such a benefit.
  5. It’s the truth.

The 2006 column is basically about giving in to activist pressure and saying so. But most of its rationale applies equally to giving in to market pressure and saying so.

Claiming responsiveness rather than responsibility has a sixth benefit (not discussed in the 2006 column) that’s especially important when the change you’re making under pressure isn’t indisputably an improvement – for example when you’re replacing one safe sweetener with another. When you say you’re responding to other people’s concerns, you protect yourself at least partially from charges that what you’re proposing to do isn’t a real improvement over what you were doing before. You’re not claiming it’s an improvement. You’re not patting yourself on the back. You’re just responding to your stakeholders’ preferences.

In 1990, for example, McDonald’s finally decided to give in to longstanding pressure from environmentalists to retire its polystyrene “clamshell” hamburger container. In a joint announcement with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF was my client for this event, not McDonald’s), the company explicitly gave the credit to EDF and its allies, pointing out that in its own judgment the switch might not even be environmentally desirable, since the new packaging was hard to recycle. It wasn’t easy for anyone to accuse McDonald’s of greenwashing when it went out of its way to express its doubts about the switch.

There has still been some criticism of Pepsi for giving legitimacy to “junk science” claims that aspartame is dangerous. I’m pretty sure the criticisms would have been more fervent if Pepsi had endorsed the claims. Instead, like McDonald’s, it explicitly demurred but said it was giving in anyway.

Still, some of the commentators on Pepsi’s decision to switch from aspartame to sucralose seem peculiarly ambivalent about the company’s candor. That includes you. Instead of praising Pepsi for being and claiming to be responsive to customer concerns, you wrote that it was “openly admitting” the decision was “based purely on perceived risk.” Why “admitting”?

Other examples of the same ambivalence, starting with the two stories I have already quoted:

  • The Los Angeles Times – “Pepsi candidly admits that consumer surveys indicated that one reason for the fall-off is public concern about aspartame.”
  • The Washington Post – “Even Pepsi, as part of its announcement, acknowledged that there is no scientific basis for its formula rework.”
  • The “Public Health Perspectives” blog – “But Pepsi acknowledged that although they were bowing to consumer concerns about safety, they didn’t believe the sweetener was unsafe.”
  • USA Today – “PepsiCo has spent years trying to develop a new Diet Pepsi sweetener that would placate consumer concerns but still appeal to consumer tastes.”
  • The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) – “In fact, to its credit, Pepsi this week cited ‘decades of studies’ finding no health risk and admitted it was simply surrendering to a prejudice of customers who’ve been listening to faux food-safety campaigners on the make.”

”Admits,” “acknowledged,” “placate” “surrendering” – the authors of these articles sound like they would be happier if Pepsi claimed it was announcing a health improvement, not a marketing strategy.

Then they (or others) could have written articles debunking the claim, asking whether Pepsi sincerely accepts junk science or is only pretending to.

Apparently Pepsi had three options:

number 1
Get accused of “admitting” it is just “placating” (that is, respecting and serving) its worried customers in order to improve market share; or
number 2
Get accused of actually agreeing with junk science about artificial sweeteners; or
number 3
Get accused of pretending to agree with junk science in a hypocritical, Machiavellian plot to improve market share.

Pepsi made the right choice: #1.

Almost the same day as Pepsi’s aspartame announcement, Chipotle’s Mexican Grill announced it would be going GMO-free. It seems to have chosen #3 instead. It may have aimed for #2 – but #3 is where it ended up in the bulk of the coverage.

”They say these ingredients are safe,” Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells told CNN, “but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.” This is Ellis’s arch way of acknowledging that mainstream science is on the other side while allying Chipotle with the expert dissenters (and the majority of the general public) in an anti-GMO position.

A detailed GMO webpage on the Chipotle website is more straightforward about the company’s anti-GMO position. Entitled in solid caps “WHEN IT COMES TO OUR FOOD, GENETICALLY MODIFIED INGREDIENTS DON’T MAKE THE CUT,” the page says nothing about responding to customer demand, and a great deal about Chipotle’s own assessment of GMO risks – starting with this unambiguous paragraph:

Chipotle is on a never-ending journey to source the highest quality ingredients we can find. Over the years, as we have learned more about GMOs, we’ve decided that using them in our food doesn’t align with that vision. Chipotle was the first national restaurant company to disclose the GMO ingredients in our food, and now we are the first to cook only with non-GMO ingredients.

Few commentators gave Chipotle management credit for sincerity. A Los Angeles Times op-ed says the company’s decision “is rooted either in ignorance or in crass profit-seeking at the expense of science.” It goes on to specify which alternative authors Steven Sexton and David Zilberman consider likelier, crass profit-seeking: “Chipotle probably is responding to market forces…. But in misrepresenting the science surrounding a poorly understood innovation, Chipotle joins the too-populous ranks of companies that endeavor to deceive the public. Chipotle stokes the anti-GMO hysteria that threatens to marginalize a field of science that already has demonstrated important benefits.…”

The Chipotle story on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, is similarly derisive. Entitled “Why We Can’t Take Chipotle’s GMO Announcement All That Seriously,” it begins this way [hyperlinks in the original have been cut]:

Chipotle is trumpeting its renunciation of ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The company says that using GMOs – mainly corn in its tortillas and soybean oil for cooking – “doesn’t align” with its vision of “food with integrity.” According to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, it represents “our commitment to serving our customers the very best ingredients we can find.”

Here at The Salt, though, we’ve been hearing from people who think Chipotle’s stance shows little integrity at all. Rather, it shows a double helping of marketing hype, they say.

Pepsi’s announcement (claiming to be responding to consumer concerns) aroused less criticism and less harsh criticism than Chipotle’s (claiming to be acting on its own concerns).

Certainly claiming (not “admitting”) that you’re responding to the concerns of consumers or other stakeholders works better than claiming that the concerns are yours – at least insofar as you’re worried about the reactions of people who think the concerns are foolish.

But what about the reactions of people who think the concerns are justified? Do consumers who are worried about aspartame dislike the idea that Pepsi doesn’t actually agree with them about aspartame but is merely deferring to their opinion, almost implying that it’s a foolish opinion? Or do they like the idea that Pepsi is being responsive to their concerns, rather than claiming to be autonomously “responsible” about food safety?

No doubt both reactions occur. People demanding a change are happy to get the change. Sometimes they’re happier if the targeted organization claims to have been persuaded that the change was the right thing to do. Other times they’re happier if the targeted organization claims that it still disagrees, but is nonetheless deferring to their wishes (or perhaps to their power). Usually they’re happy enough either way. They got the change.

Other than the change itself, what matters most, I think, is giving those who wanted the change credit for making it happen – whether it’s credit for being persuasive or credit for being powerful. There’s only one way I’ve seen an organization give its stakeholders what they’re demanding and still leave the stakeholders more outraged than gratified: when the organization goes out of its way to deny that the stakeholders played a role in the decision. “We decided to do that on our own. They didn’t convince us. They didn’t pressure us either. We weren’t actually paying them much attention.”

Claims of deferring to stakeholder opinion can be credible under circumstances where claims of sharing that opinion wouldn’t be. Some years ago I consulted for a Canadian oil company whose then-CEO was famously and quotably contemptuous of global warming concerns. Despite the CEO’s opinion, the company was under pressure from all sides – activists, regulators, even employees and shareholders – to reduce its carbon footprint. Not doing so threatened to do serious damage not just to the company’s reputation, but even to its profitability. The decision to make greenhouse gas improvements had already been made. The question was how to explain those improvements, given the CEO’s well-known views. An explanation I helped the company write included this quotation from the CEO:

I remain skeptical of the science related to the impact of CO2 on the climate. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that many stakeholders hold a different opinion on this issue, some very strongly. I also understand that the issue of CO2 emissions and climate change poses particular risks to the energy industry, be it reputation or regulatory risk.

In essence, the company announced that the Canadian public’s concern about global warming was so strong that the company was taking precautionary steps its CEO considered scientifically silly.

To the best of my knowledge, no one attacked this explanation as hypocritical. It was obviously sincere. I don’t know if environmentalists would have preferred to see the CEO change his mind. But I do know they would have had trouble believing the CEO had changed his mind – but they had no trouble believing he had assented to change his company’s performance without changing his mind.

It might have been similarly difficult for people who had worried about aspartame safety for years to believe that Pepsi management had suddenly decided they’d been right all along and aspartame was dangerous after all. But it was surely easy to believe that Pepsi management would want to do something about declining Diet Pepsi sales. Chipotle’s history of prior efforts to reduce and disclose its GMO ingredients, on the other hand, probably made its new GMO announcement believably sincere to an anti-GMO audience (though obviously not to those who considered the anti-GMO position to be junk science).

In sum:

  • Pepsi was explicit that it doesn’t think aspartame is dangerous, but it wants to meet the needs of customers who disagree.
  • Chipotle was explicit that it does think GMOs might be dangerous, and it wants to meet the needs of customers who agree.
  • In the minds of those who think it’s foolish to worry about aspartame/GMOs, Pepsi’s approach probably did less reputational damage than Chipotle’s approach.
  • In the minds of those who think the worry is justified, both approaches were reputationally beneficial. Neither company fell into the trap – a more common trap than you’d imagine – of aggressively denying that other people’s concerns played any role in the decision.

That still leaves the question of how the two approaches are likely to affect public opinion about the worries themselves – public opinion about whether aspartame and GMOs are actually dangerous. Did Pepsi’s decision help the anti-aspartame movement less than Chipotle’s decision helped the anti-GMO movement?

I think so. But probably only by a little.

Chipotle claims to be taking the GMO hazard seriously – both the health hazard of eating GMO foods and the environmental hazard of growing GMO foods. (For what it’s worth, I think the former concern is junk science and the latter needs further research.) Some commentators who think the GMO hazard isn’t worth taking seriously claim that Chipotle is only pretending to be worried about the hazard as a way of managing the outrage – in this case, as a way of attracting more anti-GMO customers. Maybe these commentators are right. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re only pretending to doubt Chipotle’s sincerity as a way of undermining the impact of Chipotle’s decision.

Regardless, it’s a clear victory for the anti-GMO movement when a major food chain announces that it’s so worried about GMOs it hereby renounces all use of genetically modified ingredients. If Chipotle’s expressions of GMO concern are sincere, it presumably considers that effect of its announcement – a shot in the arm for the anti-GMO cause – a good effect. If the company is pandering, simply seeking market share by pretending to be concerned, then it probably considers the impact of its announcement on public opinion about GMOs to be (at worst) minor collateral damage.

Pepsi, by contrast, claims only to be responding to consumer concerns about aspartame, concerns that it explicitly says it doesn’t share. Critics nonetheless complain that its decision to switch artificial sweeteners is a victory for the anti-aspartame movement. But it’s got to be a somewhat smaller victory. It’s mostly a response to the movement’s prior victories. The movement succeeded in convincing a significant number of diet drink consumers to avoid products that contain aspartame. Diet Pepsi sales were declining, and aspartame was at the top of the reasons why. So Pepsi made a commercial decision to switch.

Obviously anyone who thinks aspartame worries are junk science would rather have seen Pepsi stay the course (as Coca-Cola is doing, so far). But defending aspartame isn’t Pepsi’s cause. Neither is opposing junk science. Pepsi’s cause is selling soda. Once Pepsi decided to switch sweeteners, the explanation it gave – just responding to the market – was the explanation least damaging to defenders of aspartame and opponents of junk science.

(Reminder: We’re still assuming that drinking aspartame and eating GMOs are safe, and that claims to the contrary are junk science. It’s always possible that claims to the contrary will turn out right.)

The generic question here is an important one. Suppose people are concerned about some risk that most experts consider negligible. In an effort to be responsive to the concern, even though it’s presumably a technically unjustified concern, some company or government agency decides to take an almost certainly unnecessary precaution. Is there a way to explain the precaution so it doesn’t validate and exacerbate the concern?

One venue in which this question has come up is the regulation of mobile telephones. In 2003, the World Health Organization was considering recommending new mobile telephone regulations. The WHO draft specified that it saw a possible need for new regs not because it thought mobile phones and towers posed serious risks, but because there was increasing concern (especially about towers) in the general public. The purpose of the new regulations, in short, would be to mitigate outrage about a hazard that the experts and even the regulators considered small-to-nonexistent.

A major worldwide mobile telephone company, Vodafone, commissioned me to write a response to the WHO draft, analyzing whether I thought the proposed regs would ameliorate outrage (as intended) or exacerbate outrage. The result was an essay entitled “Because People Are Concerned: How Should Public Outrage Affect Application of the Precautionary Principle?link is to a PDF file My overall conclusion, with some exceptions and qualifiers, was that hazard mitigation isn’t an effective way to manage outrage – so new mobile phone regulations aren’t an effective way to reduce public concern about mobile phones.

Several studies since my 2003 essay have examined the question empirically. Their overall conclusion: When governments require or recommend additional mobile telephone precautions, the public sees the new precautions as a signal of riskiness, not as a source of reassurance. Public concern therefore goes up – even if the regulators use terms like “abundance of caution” in an effort to communicate that they don’t intend to send that high-risk signal.

When there’s an ongoing debate about whether X is dangerous or not, and some company or government agency announces a new precaution against X, most people don’t say to themselves, “Oh, good, now we’re safer from X than we were.” They say, “Oh, too bad, that shows the X-is-dangerous side is right.” To the best of my knowledge, nobody has found a formula for making the new precaution reassuring rather than alarming.

On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge nobody has tested the effect of really explicit language. I wonder if something like this might work: “Even though the vast majority of experts say there is no real risk, we decided to add another margin of safety to help make people more comfortable with this technology.” Or, in the Pepsi case: “We don’t think aspartame is dangerous. Nearly all the experts we can find believe aspartame is safe. But some of our customers are concerned anyway, and we don’t want to lose their business. So we are responding to the market and switching to a different sweetener.”

That’s pretty much what Pepsi said in news stories about its announcement. I’d love to see a study on whether readers of those news stories ended up more or less fearful about aspartame. My guess is they ended up more fearful – but surely not as much more fearful as if Pepsi had talked about aspartame the way Chipotle talked about GMOs.

Of course the news stories about the Pepsi announcement didn’t have anything like the widespread and endlessly repeated exposure that Pepsi’s simpler “Now Aspartame Free!” messaging will have. Hundreds of millions of people will see and hear “Now Aspartame Free!” scores of times – not just on Pepsi cartons, cans, and bottles, but on billboards, in print advertisements and TV commercials, etc. Does anyone doubt that many will end up with the impression that aspartame must be bad for you?

Why I think trust is not central to negotiating a Social License to Operate

name: Eelco de Groot
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Social License to Operate expert
date:May 3, 2015
location:The Netherlands


Last month Carla Martinez and I gave a presentation on Social License to Operate (SLTO) at the Florence conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment. Our title was “Managing Your Social License to Operate.” Our PowerPoint slides are not available online, but the script is, link is to a PDF file along with our reference citations.

We plan to redo the presentation as an article, and would be grateful for your comments.

peter responds:

For too many of my clients, “Social License to Operate” (SLTO) translates to little more than a vague sense that strong community opposition is bad for business. Even that vague sense represents progress, compared to the bad old days when the opinions of civil society were seen as largely irrelevant. Companies may not like the new reality – I’ve occasionally heard clients pronounce the SLTO acronym “slutto,” which I think conveys how they really feel about it – but at least they know it’s so.

At its best, SLTO isn’t vague at all. It’s literal. A multinational mining or oil corporation can’t go into a country and exploit its resources without a license from the national government – a written agreement that spells out what the company is permitted to do and what it must do in return. More and more companies are now negotiating similarly explicit agreements with the locals.

Your presentation has a lot of useful detail about this new reality of “hybrid governance” – governance not just by governments and market forces, but also by civil society. I assume your article will as well.

In the article you might want to tease apart the components of hybrid governance more explicitly. For me there are two key distinctions:

  • Shared control with governments versus with civil society – especially activist groups and neighbors.
  • Shared control with national bodies versus with local bodies. (International bodies are increasingly demanding a voice as well.)

Underlying these two distinctions is the demand that the company’s or facility’s existence needs to be a net benefit not just to the government but also to the people; and not just to the government/people of the host country but also to the government/people of the host city, village, and even neighborhood. And of course this conclusion that there will be a net benefit needs to be the judgment not just of the affected companies and governments, but of all the affected stakeholders (or nearly all; there are almost always dissenters). And then the path to this net benefit needs to be embodied in agreements that stipulate the conditions under which the company will operate and the penalties if it violates those conditions.

What I like best about SLTO, hybrid governance, and negotiated agreements with stakeholders is their reliance on accountability rather than trust. So it surprised me to see the strong emphasis on trust in your presentation. You might want to reconsider that for the article.

The presentation refers to trust twice as “a central element” in SLTO, and a third time as “the central element.” In support of this contention, it mentions research by Moffat and Zhang, as well as writing by Robert Boutillier and by me.

It’s true that I routinely list distrust as an important component of outrage. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that trust is a central element in SLTO.

I’m not denying that being trusted is extremely useful to a company. Nonetheless, I rarely frame the task of achieving and sustaining a Social License to Operate in terms of trust – for at least six reasons.

number 1
Focusing on trust sets too high a bar.

Multinational corporations will never be trusted by many local (and nonlocal) stakeholders, including some of the most important ones. They can nonetheless forge agreements with stakeholders.

number 2
Focusing on trust puts the emphasis on the wrong actor.

If I’m working to get you to trust me, my objective is a change in you, not a change in myself. It would be much less objectionable to propose a focus on trustworthiness instead of trust. My trustworthiness depends on me. As a goal, trustworthiness focuses my attention on my own behavior, whereas trust focuses my attention on your judgment of me instead.

number 3
Focusing on trust ultimately leads to the undermining of trust.

This may sound unduly cynical, but I believe it is true: When companies do manage to be genuinely trusted (a rare achievement), they experience an ever-rising temptation to abuse the trust. Eventually they succumb. And in time they are caught and are no longer trusted.

number 4
Focusing on trust reduces the incentive to make agreements.

Distrust isn’t a barrier to writing agreements with stakeholders. Rather, it is the main reason to write such agreements. If there were mutually trustful relationships already, there would be precious little need to write SLTO agreements.

When my clients say their problem is that stakeholders don’t trust them, here’s how I respond:

It’s true that you’re not trusted, but that’s not your problem. That’s your stakeholders’ achievement, learning not to trust you. And it’s potentially a source of stability in your relationship with your stakeholders. Yes, really, mutual mistrust is stable – as long as there are reliable accountability measures to fall back on instead of trust.

The problem isn’t that you’re not trusted. The problem is that you haven’t figured out how to deal with stakeholders who don’t trust you … which is strange, given that you know perfectly well how to deal with customers, suppliers, and takeover targets without recourse to trust. You write agreements with them. The agreements include all sorts of accountability mechanisms: inspection clauses, penalty clauses, etc. Why not do the same thing with your neighbors, with NGOs, and with other stakeholders?

I’ll go further. Organizations that routinely do business with each other virtually never ask each other for trust. Suppose a big customer resisted your efforts to negotiate a sales contract, saying that you should simply trust it to do the right thing. Wouldn’t you see that as a huge warning sign? Wouldn’t the demand for trust increase your mistrust?

When you ask communities to trust you instead of writing agreements with them that don’t rely on trust, what you’re signaling is that you don’t consider them legitimate players in the game. You’re telling them they don’t have a seat at the table. Everyone with a seat at the table gets to mistrust the other players and impose accountability measures on them. But when a community group wants to play by those rules too, suddenly you’re offended that they don’t trust you – as if trust were how you usually did business.

Bottom line: Treat neighbors and NGOs with the same reciprocal, respectful mistrust that you apply to other corporations with which you do business. Write agreements that contain accountability measures.

number 5
Focusing on trust gets the causality backwards.

The previous point emphasizes that SLTO agreements rely on accountability as a replacement for trust. As the chemical industry’s Responsible Care® program put it decades ago, “Track us, don’t trust us.”

But here’s the paradox. Precisely because agreements don’t rely on trust, they build trust – conditional trust, which is the only kind that’s sustainable between a company and its stakeholders. I can afford to trust you because I know I have access to accountability clauses in our agreement if I need them. And you can afford to trust me for the same reason. It makes sense for us to expect each other to behave in a trustworthy way precisely because we each know the other has access to those accountability clauses.

number 6
Focusing on trust gets the most relevant direction of trust backwards too.

Companies don’t need to be trusted by their stakeholders nearly as much as they need to start trusting their stakeholders – for example, trusting them with information about their facilities, emissions, profits, and plans. I have found discussions of why my clients don’t trust their stakeholders (and what to do about it) generally more productive than discussions of why their stakeholders don’t trust them.

Convincing the CEO to give outrage management a try

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Stakeholder relations professional
date:March 8, 2015


This has to be anonymous, or my client will directly understand I am talking about them. If they throw me out I cannot bring the change I truly believe they need (apart from my reputational and eventual financial damage).

Suppose the client has a controversial issue. Communities are outraged. Because of a lack of communication and meaningful engagement, the issue has escalated from the local to the national level.

And suppose there is internal expert disagreement about how to get it right. The communication department proposes to use your outrage management theory. The technical/HSE department wants to do further investigation of the hazard. And the legal department sees only liabilities. All three are doing what they are good at, staying in their comfort zone.

Suppose the CEO thinks that the communication department is right. But he or she also knows that a job rotation will take place every three or four years. Changes in the company’s reputation – up or down – might be difficult to map to his or her performance.

The CEO might calculate the best course in terms of his or her own career. And then it might be safer to listen to legal and let HSE calculate risks, even when most people in the outside world would expect open and transparent communication.

In short, how can we convince such a CEO? And how can we help the CEO deal with his or her bosses (perhaps investors, lenders, the Board of Directors, or a government when it is a State Owned Enterprise)? How can we convince these bosses about reputational damage due to communicating too little and too late?

Have you handled this in your career and if yes, how?

peter responds:

You are raising three overlapping questions:

  • How to convince the CEO not to subjugate communication advice to technical and legal advice
  • How to convince the CEO that outrage management is the right kind of communication to try
  • How to address the CEO’s own career concerns about picking outrage management

I’ll take them in that order, and propose some guidelines for each.

But first, I want to make one overarching comment. In my judgment, the key strategies of outrage management are comparatively easy to learn, master, and implement. As I’ve sometimes said, I feel like one of the world’s leading experts in tic-tac-toe. The problem isn’t that these strategies are intellectually challenging. They’re really not. The problem is that they’re emotionally challenging. They’re profoundly counterintuitive. When critics are harassing you, it’s just not normal to put your mind to the task of calming them down. What’s normal is to fight back.

When stakeholders are outraged at an organization, diagnosing what went wrong isn’t especially difficult. Neither is prescribing how to make it better. What’s difficult is convincing the patient to take the medicine. That’s true whether the “patient” is a Board of Directors, a CEO, a middle manager, or a lowly “call center” employee who sits at a telephone all day fielding complaints from customers. It’s easy to teach people how to manage stakeholder outrage. It’s hard to get them to want to manage stakeholder outrage instead of expressing their own.

So the questions you’re raising are extremely important.

How to convince the CEO not to subjugate communication advice to technical and legal advice

number 1
Try to get everyone present at the same time.

Early in my career, I used to meet alone with senior managers. I would suggest what I thought they ought to do in the situation at hand, which typically included acknowledgments and apologies that made them more than a little uncomfortable. Then I’d go home.

After I was safely gone, the company’s technical people and legal people would be consulted. All too often, the techies would suggest that my advice betrayed my ignorance of the technical situation. Even more often, the lawyers would opine that taking my advice could be legally disastrous. “We can’t do that!” they’d agree. Senior managers would breathe a sigh of relief, having been handed the rationales they were looking for to shrug off my uncomfortable advice.

I learned over the years to push hard to get everyone into the room at the same time, so I could give my advice with the technical experts and lawyers within earshot. I’d ask them to voice any objections before I left. That discouraged the more specious objections, and gave me a chance to respond to the more valid ones. It enabled – almost forced – top management to assess our competing recommendations against each other, instead of using theirs (technical and legal) as an excuse to avoid seriously considering mine (communication).

number 2

Explain that all three fields have distinct areas of expertise.

In a sense, HSE experts, legal experts, and communication experts are all risk management experts. But they focus on different kinds of risk:

  • HSE experts know how to assess and manage technical risk (in my language, hazard).
  • Legal experts know how to assess and manage legal risk (that is, risk arising from litigation or regulation).
  • Communication experts know how to assess and manage reputational risk (in my language, outrage).

The more often and more emphatically you say this, the better.

Concede that experts in all three fields often disagree internally about the right path forward. There are no guarantees in any of the three fields. Nonetheless – and this is the payoff – there is widespread consensus that in all three risk venues (technical, legal, and reputational), outcomes tend to be better when the risk is managed based on advice from an expert in that kind of risk than when it is managed based on advice from an expert in one of the other two kinds.

number 3
Urge clarity and mutual respect with regard to the three kinds of expertise.

Point out that you sometimes have opinions about how technical risk and legal risk should be handled. Sometimes you even entertain the possibility that you might have better solutions to technical and legal problems than the technical and legal experts are offering. Then acknowledge that you have learned the hard way that you are usually wrong in this regard.

Speculate that your technical and legal colleagues may have noticed the same tendency in themselves: giving overconfident advice outside one’s own area of expertise. (There’s no need to point out that the lawyers are by far the worst offenders. Everyone in the room knows that already, including the lawyers.)

And then propose the following ground rule: When any of us offers advice that encroaches on one of the other two fields, we will acknowledge that we are doing so, enabling management to assess properly the merits of our non-expert opinions.

And this follow-up ground rule: When any of us feels that our field has been encroached on without the appropriate acknowledgment, we will point that out, gently but firmly.

number 4
Give the CEO guidelines for balancing the three kinds of advice when they conflict.

If you can get everyone to stay (mostly) within the boundaries of his or her field, that will help a lot.

But good technical advice, good legal advice, and good communication advice may or may not be compatible. To the extent that they are not, the CEO (or some senior manager) still needs a protocol for balancing the three kinds of advice.

Toward that end, point out that the key question isn’t “who’s right.” You may all be right in your respective venues. The key question is whose venue is paramount in the situation at hand – that is, what is the relative seriousness (this time) of the three kinds of risk the organization faces? Urge candid discussion of this question, emphasizing that the answer varies greatly from one situation to the next.

When hazards are serious, of course, technical advice should be paramount. Trying to deploy communication strategies or legal strategies as the principal response to a significant hazard is neither sustainable nor honorable. Organizations coping with real technical problems still have use for legal advice and communication advice – but never as a replacement for technical advice. (See “Managing Justified Outrage: Outrage Management When Your Opponents Are Substantively Right.”) When the technical risk is minor or nonexistent, on the other hand, the legal risk and even more often the reputational risk may still be huge.

Having urged the CEO to decide the relative importance of the three kinds of advice separately for every situation that arises, you might want to go one step further: Point how the three kinds of interventions typically affect each other. Here are the predictable patterns:

  • Reducing technical risk tends to reduce legal risk substantially. The outcomes of litigation and regulation hinge largely on the magnitude of the hazard.
  • Reducing technical risk tends to reduce reputational risk modestly. People usually believe that their outrage is a response to hazard, but in fact they often get more or less outraged for reasons that have little to do with the size of the technical risk.
  • Reducing reputational risk has no effect on technical risk. This is self-evident.
  • Reducing reputational risk tends to reduce legal risk substantially vis-à-vis prospective plaintiffs’ incentive to sue, jurors’ inclination to impose punitive damages, and stakeholders’ pressure on regulators to act. But it may increase legal risk modestly insofar as it entails acknowledging truths that legal opponents might otherwise have to prove.
  • Reducing legal risk has no effect on technical risk. This is self-evident.
  • Reducing legal risk tends to increase reputational risk substantially. It typically entails being less candid, showing less contrition, and in general communicating less – measures that significantly exacerbate stakeholder outrage.

For five of these six patterns, either the two kinds of risk management are unrelated or the relationships are mutually supportive. Only one of the six is problematic: Efforts to reduce legal risk tend to exacerbate reputational risk.

If you can get the CEO’s understanding to this point, your chances of a favorable decision are very good.

number 5
Urge the CEO not to try to balance conflicting advice prematurely.

After 40+ years as a risk communication consultant, I can say with confidence that usually the conflicting recommendations given by technical, legal, and communication experts are reconcilable.

It is true that the three kinds of experts tend to give quite different advice, and at first blush the conflicts often look deep. But that’s not the problem. The problem is threefold:

  • Top managers tend to pick instead of balancing: “We’ll go with Maria. Forget what George and Judy said.”
  • Top managers tend to pick based on their own comfort level: “It’s a relief we don’t have to take Judy’s advice. It sounded really contrary to our organizational culture.”
  • Top managers tend to do their picking or balancing prematurely: “Thank you all. We’ll let you know what we decide.”

Wise CEOs postpone any effort to adjudicate among the three competing recommendations, and focus instead on forcing the three professionals making those recommendations to continue their dialogue in search of a path forward acceptable to all three.

You should say this explicitly: A mutually acceptable recommendation usually exists, but it won’t emerge unless the three advisors are pushed to search for it together.

You probably shouldn’t say this explicitly, but bear it in mind: Whichever of the three advisors has the highest stature in the organization, that’s the advisor with the greatest incentive to resist crafting a consensus recommendation, simply because that’s the advisor whose recommendation will usually emerge victorious if top management ends up making a choice. That’s almost always the lawyer – despite the fact that reputational damage is often far more costly than legal damage.

How to convince the CEO that outrage management is the right kind of communication to try

number 1
Don’t assume that communication professionals are automatically your allies.

Imagine a spectrum of potential communication audiences. People strongly hostile to your organization are at one edge of the spectrum; your strongest supporters are at the other edge. Less fervent opponents and proponents are arrayed at varying distances from these edges. In the middle are people who are completely neutral, or who have no opinion at all.

One communication professional might be interested chiefly in trying to move people from strongly hostile to weakly hostile, or from weakly hostile to neutral. Another might focus on moving people from neutral to weakly supportive, or from weakly supportive to strongly supportive. In reputational terms, the first task is improving your negative reputation – making your organization less hated. The second task is improving your positive reputation – making your organization more loved.

The relative importance of these two tasks depends on the situation. Sometimes what you most need is more allies. Other times the key is fewer enemies. For more on this crucial distinction, see my 2010 column on “Two Kinds of Reputation Management.”

Outrage management is all about negative reputation: preventing and ameliorating opposition. Public relations, by contrast, focuses chiefly on positive reputation: building support. The two sets of principles and strategies are altogether different. In some ways they’re even antithetical. What you do to make peace with critics can irritate supporters; what you do to rouse supporters can infuriate critics.

In my four decades of outrage management consulting (going back before I coined the term), I have usually found it comparatively easy to win over technical experts. The more technical the better: Engineers are the easiest techies to convince; health, safety, and environment professionals are a bit more resistant; public health experts are more resistant still. Techies are confident of their expertise, and know perfectly well their expertise isn’t communication. So they’re as open to my brand of communication as any other. Lawyers are a tougher sell. They already have a specialized kind of communication expertise – debate, basically – and they’re not happy to face competition from a different kind. But the toughest sell, more often than not, are my client’s PR professionals. Communication is what they do, fulltime. It’s their franchise. When I invade their turf, a high-status outsider with an entirely different set of answers also called “communication,” it’s understandable why they can feel threatened.

As you framed the situation in your comment, your client’s communication department wants to do outrage management. That’s not unprecedented in my experience. (I’ve also had clients’ legal departments decide that outrage management was the way to go.) But it’s not the likeliest pattern either.

number 2
Don’t assume that outrage management is what the client needs.

We’re all inclined to diagnose problems in a way that puts our particular skill set front-and-center. As Abraham Maslow expressed it back in the 1960s, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So it’s predictable that I usually think my clients’ problems are outrage management problems. That’s just me walking around with my hammer thinking everything’s a nail. But not every communication problem is an outrage management problem. As I just pointed out, sometimes marshaling support really is a higher priority than assuaging opposition.

I have found it tactically useful to make this point explicitly, especially when a client is sounding skeptical. “I can help you figure out how to reduce the outrage of your critics – if that’s what you need to do. But don’t rely on me to decide whether that’s what you need to do. Is preventing or mitigating opposition your core communication problem? Or is it building support? Which do you need more right now, fewer enemies or more allies?” In other words, assert that it’s an empirical question whether outrage management is the kind of communication the client needs.

And then don’t assert that the answer is yes. Push the client to make the call that managing outrage is or isn’t a big piece of the problem at hand.

number 3
Look for outrage in both directions.

Outrage is usually symmetrical. When stakeholders are angry at an organization, it’s a safe bet that the people in the organization who have to deal with those angry stakeholders are angry back. That only makes sense. They’re calling you names. They’re accusing you of misdeeds you don’t feel guilty of (or misdeeds you’re trying not to feel guilty about). They’re questioning your integrity and your competence. Their criticisms are costing you endless time and threatening to undermine your whole project. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t feeling some outrage.

The difference is that outraged stakeholders express their outrage directly. They sound outraged. But organizational culture usually isn’t conducive to letting managers show their outrage at customers or neighbors or voters. So the outrage leaks out, unacknowledged. It often takes the form of passive-aggressive behavior: cold, unresponsive courtesy, for example. But it’s outrage.

This has important implications. Outraged people aren’t very good at managing other people’s outrage. They’re too busy trying to control their own (and venting it in whatever ways are allowed them or in ways they can’t control). So before you can help clients manage their stakeholders’ outrage, you may need to help them manage their own outrage. And before you can do that, you need to surface and validate their outrage. Maybe you can point out their outrage directly: “I can see you’re feeling angry about that” or “I imagine you must be feeling angry about that.” But more often you have to deflect it so as not to be too intrusive: “I think I’d be pretty angry if I were in your shoes.”

number 4
The CEO probably isn’t stupid. If he or she is making stupid decisions, figure the CEO’s outrage is getting in the way. Act accordingly.

Despite what I said earlier about carpenters and nails, if you’re pretty sure your client’s problem is an outrage management problem, you’re probably right. If the CEO doesn’t see it that way, don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re up against a stupid CEO. It’s a lot likelier that the CEO is too outraged to think straight about outrage management.

It’s not just that the CEO is outraged at those outraged stakeholders and the outrageous things they’re doing. The CEO is also likely to be a bit outraged at you, simply for proposing to manage those stakeholders’ outrage instead of doing what the CEO wants to do on some level: get even.

In short, advice to do outrage management often arouses outrage. The core strategies of outrage management link is to a PDF file are things like acknowledging that there are ways your critics are right (that is, staking out the middle), acknowledging your organization’s prior misbehaviors and its current problems, sharing control with critics and creating ways for them to hold you accountable, and giving the critics credit for improvements they pushed you to make. These are counterintuitive things to do even for a management that’s calm. They’re incredibly counterintuitive – even infuriating – for a management that’s already outraged.

number 4
Do outrage management on behalf of outrage management.

As you know, outrage management is a set of strategies for ameliorating the outrage of outraged stakeholders. If the CEO is outraged at the organization’s critics, you need to treat the CEO like any other outraged stakeholder. You need to manage the CEO’s outrage at the critics. Even more, you need to manage the CEO’s outrage at the very idea of trying to make peace with the critics instead of trying to win the war. That is, you need to do outrage management on behalf of outrage management.

I addressed some ways to do that in two 2007 website columns. Many of the pointers in these two columns are grounded in the concept of the risk communication seesaw. I especially like the title of the second of the two: “Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.” That’s it in a nutshell.

At the end of my outrage management seminars, I often advise participants to refrain from excessive enthusiasm when they report back to colleagues (especially senior colleagues) who missed the event. Saying “We’ve been doing everything wrong!” is almost certainly the wrong approach. Better to say something like this: “We learned some ways we might ameliorate the opposition of our critics, at least the more moderate, reachable critics. But almost everything Sandman recommended is so damn humble. It really means giving in a lot. Even though it might work strategically, even though it might help us get our project launched, I don’t know if it’s worth it. Maybe we should just keep standing tall for our side, and if the project fails, so be it!”

Instead of going head-to-head against the CEO’s outrage, this message allies with the outrage. If the CEO is torn between venting his or her own outrage because it feels good and mitigating stakeholders’ outrage because it stands the best chance of getting the project launched, this is the sort of message that might actually enable the CEO to pick outrage management over venting. If there’s a seesaw at work, in other words, telling the CEO to put his or her outrage aside and think strategically will probably backfire. Adroit use of the seesaw might actually get the CEO to tell you to put your outrage aside and explain what you learned at the seminar.

number 6
Use other approaches too.

I think managing the CEO’s own outrage is the single most important way to “sell” outrage management to a reluctant CEO. But it isn’t the whole story. You should be prepared to use more conventional approaches as well to convince the CEO that outrage management might be the way to go.

Among the approaches I have tried, the following most often help:

Provide evidence that outrage management has worked in the past.

Though not necessarily impossible, it’s hard to come up with quantitative evidence that outrage management works. You can quantify the value of a success and the cost of a failure – but how do you prove that it was outrage management that determined whether the project succeeded or failed? Anecdotal evidence is probably the best you can do, and it’s a lot better than no evidence at all. The most convincing anecdotes are stories about what went badly awry in a competitor’s project because stakeholder outrage was handled badly. Almost as useful are stories about what went right for the CEO’s own organization because stakeholder outrage was handled well. Avoid anecdotes about the client’s competitors’ successes or the client’s own failures. In lieu of proof that outrage management is what made the difference, collect testimonials to that effect.

Propose starting with small pilot projects.

When companies launch a technical innovation, they almost invariably run a few pilots first. Launching a communication innovation like outrage management also calls for piloting. The ideal pilot project is big enough that it’s worth trying to do right. But it’s small enough – and separate enough from everything else the organization is doing – that a spectacular failure won’t be catastrophic. The goal of pilots is partly to test whether the organization can make outrage management work, partly to identify and address the internal barriers that keep it from working, and partly to build organizational outrage management capacity.

Make sure the pilot projects are over-resourced and intensively evaluated.

Tell the CEO that to test the new approach properly, it’s crucial to make sure the pilot projects are sufficiently resourced: enough staff, enough budget, enough of everything … including training and expert advice (when I make this last point I always acknowledge that it is self-serving). If a pilot doesn’t work, the CEO should want to be certain it’s not because the organization didn’t give it a fair shot. And to make sure it’s clear at the end whether the pilot worked and why, push hard for an independent evaluation team that includes not just outrage management enthusiasts, but also skeptics and neutrals.

Urge the CEO to monitor the internal communication environment.

It is virtually impossible for an organization to be more honest with external stakeholders than it is being with its own people. One implication of this is the importance of not blindsiding likely internal opponents. If you’re proposing to be unprecedentedly candid with activist critics, you can’t start by trying to keep your plans secret from the attorneys! A broader implication: If the internal organizational culture is siloed, secretive, and rife with dissension, the CEO will probably have to do something about that before it makes sense to try outrage management with external stakeholders.

Stress the importance of sending signals down the hierarchy that the organization is serious about outrage management.

Most middle managers are skilled at distinguishing new policies they’re supposed to pay lip service to from new policies they’re actually expected to implement. Unless there are clear signals to the contrary, “let’s treat our critics better” is going to sound like a lip-service policy. Different organizations have different ways to signal that “this is serious.” Often the decisive factor is documents: whether outrage management is integrated into job descriptions, annual plans, quarterly performance appraisals, budgets, and the like. Ask the CEO what the key signals are in his or her organization.

How to address the CEO’s own career concerns about picking outrage management

number 1
Tactfully acknowledge that the CEO has bosses too.

Many of the CEOs I have met over the years are ambivalent about their less-than-omnipotent role in their organizations. If you say things that imply they can do whatever they like, they tend to feel misunderstood, and all the more oppressed by their recalcitrant board members and obstreperous investors. But if you point out how constrained they are by these and other “bosses,” they tend to feel disrespected, and may even insist that they can do whatever they damn well please with their organizations.

This is another seesaw. It’s a pretty common one, and not just among CEOs. When you tell people they’re powerful, they’re quite likely to tell you the limits of their power. When you talk about the limits of their power, they’re quite likely to tell you they’re powerful.

As always, the implications of the seesaw are paradoxical. If you want the CEO to pay attention to his or her power – and thus to feel free to say yes to an outrage management approach – it behooves you to mention those bosses who may find the strategy objectionable. But do it tactfully. Too strong: “You probably can’t implement outrage management even if you decide you want to. The board would raise hell and your job would be at risk.” Better: “I wonder how the board will react to an outrage management approach. It’s so different from what they’re used to.”

number 2
Help the CEO strategize ways to explain the outrage management approach before implementing it.

Mentioning the existence of the CEO’s bosses isn’t just a way of using the seesaw to nudge the CEO into asserting power and autonomy. It is also a way of launching a serious discussion of how to initiate those bosses into the outrage management approach.

For reasons I have already discussed, outrage is usually symmetrical. Supporters of an organization tend to be as outraged at the organization’s critics as those critics are outraged at the organization. And anyone who is outraged at the organization’s critics will naturally tend to be critical of any strategy that aims to make peace with the critics. This is the main downside of outrage management: It reduces the outrage of opponents, but it arouses outrage in allies.

So a smart CEO who wants to implement an outrage management approach should forewarn the organization’s allies – especially those who are in authority over the CEO. Blindsiding the board or the key investors is bad strategy. They’re inevitably going to see news reports about how the organization just admitted it did X wrong or gave the activists credit for making it do Y. When that happens, you want them to think, “Ah, yes, that’s that weird new approach in action” – not “What the hell is the CEO up to!”

Thus the question at the end of your comment – “How can we convince these bosses about reputational damage due to communicating too little and too late?” – is important.

Everything I’ve said about how a consultant should talk to the CEO applies equally to how the CEO (or the consultant) should talk to the board and other bosses. A big piece of the task is explaining that outrage management is a thought-through strategy, grounded in risk communication theory, practice, and even some research. An even bigger piece of the task is doing outrage management on behalf of outrage management – especially acknowledging that it is counterintuitive, profoundly uncomfortable, and even outrage-arousing to think about being responsive to nasty critics instead of being nasty back. The CEO should tell the board that outrage management is worth considering only because there is so much evidence that ameliorating the outrage of an organization’s critics can often achieve key goals more effectively than trying to defeat those critics. And then, if the CEO has mastered the seesaw, he or she might add, “and even so I’m not sure it’s worth it!”

number 3
Help the CEO plan to explain the two kinds of reputation management.

One of the theoretical concepts I have found most useful when talking to boards is the two kinds of reputation management. As I put it earlier in this response, being more loved is a very different goal than being less hated. It’s a common error to imagine that “reputation” is a single variable that goes up when you do something stakeholders like and goes down when you do something they don’t like – like deposits to and withdrawals from a single bank account. But in fact negative reputation and positive reputation are separate variables. Some organizations have high positives and high negatives; they’re much-loved and much-hated. Others are low on both variables, arousing little affection and just as little enmity.

And as I noted earlier, what you do to be more loved often gets you more hated as well; you arouse the fervor of both sides. And what you do to be less hated may also get you less loved; you irritate your allies by placating your enemies. So it is crucial to decide – carefully, unemotionally, empirically – which goal matters more in the situation at hand.

Here’s a hypothetical I often present to top decision-makers of organizations that need regulatory approval for their projects. Assume the regulator has scheduled a public meeting to hear input on a proposed project. In Scenario A, twenty opponents and ten supporters show up for the meeting. It’s a tiny crowd in which your side is outnumbered two-to-one. In Scenario B, 200 opponents and 400 supporters show up. Now your side has a two-to-one majority – but it’s a much bigger, much more newsworthy meeting.

Most senior people know from experience that the bigger and noisier the public meeting, the worse the chances for quick regulatory approval. Having more supporters than opponents is a lot less important than not having many opponents. So calming potential opponents enough that they decide to stay home is a lot more useful than arousing potential supporters enough that they decide to show up. That’s one of the things outrage management is good for: calming potential opponents enough that they decide to stay home. (Please remember: This is not for the purpose of getting away with not addressing actual hazards.)

I always end this thought experiment by pointing out that sometimes getting more supporters to show up really is what matters most – in which case, I say, outrage management is exactly the wrong strategy. When you need to attract more supporters or rally the ones you’ve got, you need public relations, not outrage management.

In your comment, you worry that “changes in the company’s reputation – up or down – might be difficult to map” to the CEO’s performance. Most large organizations today do monitor their reputations. But typically they focus more on positives than negatives, imagining that “more loved” and “less hated” are the same variable. A CEO who wants to adopt an outrage management approach should be sure to track what outrage management is good at addressing: negative reputation.

number 4
Talk to the CEO about the organization’s risk-reward structure.

Here is another hypothetical. Assume that if a certain project pursues a conventional communication strategy, the chances of success are 30%. But if it pursues an outrage management strategy, the chances of success double to 60%. Obviously outrage management is the better choice.

But let’s also assume that the organization sponsoring the project is conservative in its approach to risk; it doesn’t like venturing into the unknown. As long as project managers stick to a tried-and-true conventional approach, their careers are safe. If they pull off a successful outcome despite the odds, they’re heroes. And if they fail, as they probably will, nobody blames them much; we all knew from the start that projects of this sort have only a 30% chance of success.

But how does such an organization react if project managers try a risky, innovative, uncomfortable approach like outrage management? If they succeed, their success is likely to be seen as evidence that the project was a shoe-in all along, and that alarmingly novel approach they insisted on trying obviously wasn’t needed. And if they fail? Clearly they failed because they tried something new and untested. If only they’d stuck to the way we normally do things around here….

Bottom line: Under these circumstances, outrage management is a better bet for the organization, but a conventional strategy is a better bet for the careers of the people in charge.

Taking a CEO through this thought experiment has two purposes. First, you’re helping the CEO understand that getting people to try risky innovations requires building an organizational culture in which the rewards of risk-taking are sufficient to justify the risk – that is, an organization that makes sure a good bet for the organization is also a good bet for the careers of the people in charge. Second, you’re prepping the CEO to take the Board of Directors and other bosses through the same thought experiment. A key part of the CEO’s job protection strategy is to make sure the bosses understand why it’s worth taking a calculated risk on outrage management.

number 5
Suggest that the CEO might let the bosses see outrage management as a shrewd new kind of manipulation.

Activists are typically very ambivalent about my outrage management “bag of tricks.” On the one hand, it’s hard for them to disapprove of my urging companies and government agencies to treat them with more respect, acknowledge the ways in which they’re right, give them more control and more credit, etc. On the other hand, the payoff of all that for my outrage management clients is a calmer controversy, a reduced level of conflict and polarization, less outrage clouding people’s assessment of the seriousness of the hazard. That’s exactly the opposite of the angry sense of urgency the activists are trying to propagate in order to build a movement and accomplish big changes. So they often end up viewing my client’s signs of respect, acknowledgments that they’re right about some things, willingness to share control and give away credit, and the rest as a shrewd new kind of manipulation.

In 1999 an activist publication called PR Watch devoted a whole issue to describing and critiquing my approach. It’s still online link is to a PDF file if you want to read it.

Needless to say, I don’t share this interpretation of my work. But sometimes my clients do. “Treating our opponents decently,” they sometimes seem to be saying to themselves, “is Sandman’s shrewd new way to beat the bastards. Manipulate them. Kill ’em with kindness. It’s jujitsu instead of frontal attack.”

When clients raise the manipulation issue seriously as an ethical dilemma, I take it seriously. “Outrage management doesn’t seem unethical to me,” I tell them. “I don’t see anything objectionable about being more open, honest, and respectful with opponents. But if it seems unethical to you, don’t do it.” And then we talk about their ethical reservations, and try to come up with guidelines to address those reservations.

But when clients are relying on the manipulation label to help them feel better about outrage management – when they’re gloating over the term instead of fretting over it – I let them. So if board members want to see outrage management as a shrewd new way to manipulate opponents of the organization, I think it’s okay for the CEO to let them.

number 6
Advise the CEO to talk to the bosses about the relationship between legal advice and communication advice.

As I discussed near the start of this response (and as you laid out in your initial comment), CEOs and other senior managers get risk management advice from at least three different perspectives – technical, legal, and reputational. It’s important to be candid about these differing perspectives and how they ought to be reconciled. Otherwise you end up with a CEO who hears you out, sends you home, and then breathes a sigh of relief when the legal team insists that outrage management would be legally disastrous.

In many organizations, legal advice is privileged over all other sorts of advice. CEOs often point out that “My lawyers won’t let me do that.” I’ve never heard a CEO say, “My communications department won’t let me do that.”

Boards of Directors are much worse than CEOs in this regard. I can think offhand of half a dozen times when I helped convince the CEO that outrage management might be the way to go … and then the lawyers told the board it isn’t and that was the end of that.

Board members worry incessantly about the organization’s liability, including sometimes their individual liability for the organization’s misdeeds. There are always lawyers on the board, and the organization’s top lawyer typically attends board meetings as a matter of course. By contrast, there are unlikely to be any communication professionals on the board, and the organization’s top communicator is asked to address the board only occasionally, and only on specified topics. External communication consultants like you and me may or may not get a chance to talk to the board; we are almost never in the room while the board is deliberating about how best to address the organization’s opponents.

But the CEO is in the room. To get the board’s okay to pursue an outrage management approach, the CEO will probably need to share with the board some of the points I made in the first section of this response: that reputational expertise is different from legal expertise, so the lawyers may be giving advice outside their field; that efforts to protect an organization from legal liability often exacerbate the organization’s reputational damage; that instead of simply choosing between its legal and reputational advisors, the organization needs to push harder to reconcile the two kinds of advice.

Accommodating hostile stakeholders: dialogue, demonstrate, or disrupt

name:Nicole Hunter
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Public engagement consultant
date:February 22, 2015


I am interested in what your thoughts are about how to include and communicate with protestors who arrive at a meeting called to discuss what is happening at the site of some controversial project, but who are mostly interested in marching with signs and chanting rather than communicating.

What if they refuse to participate (they might see it as selling out on their ideals if they do) or cause such a loud noise outside the room that it is impossible to hear the other concerns of those who have entered into the conversation?

peter responds:

The core of your question is how to deal with protestors who come to your meeting in order to disrupt it. At least that’s what I’m guessing. If they simply didn’t realize that their demo was drowning out the words of meeting participants, you could just go ask them to be a little quieter please. But what if they’re doing it on purpose?

I’ll get to that. But let me lay some groundwork first.

I advise clients to be guided by three basic principles vis-à-vis hostile stakeholders:

number 1
If they want to dialogue, so do you – very much.
number 2
If they want to demonstrate, you will respect that – and you’ll accommodate and even facilitate it as much as you can.
number 3
If they want to disrupt, you may have to try to prevent them or stop them. But in the spirit of tolerance, understanding that the controversy is arousing strong emotions in some people, you will do your best to live with a little disruption without overreacting.

My clients often have trouble accepting even the first of these principles. “Why bother dialoguing with people you haven’t a prayer of changing or satisfying?” they ask. The second principle seems really excessive to them. “Why accommodate a hostile demonstration?” As for the third principle, trying to accommodate disruption, that strikes them as completely insane.

My rationale for all three principles isn’t grounded in any expectation that hostile stakeholders are likely to change their minds, no matter how accommodating you are. That does happen from time to time. For instance, a critic can eventually decide that you have made sufficient improvements and now your project is okay to proceed … or even (though this is rare) that it has belatedly become clear that you were right all along. But I’m not counting on your converting your hostile stakeholders.

It’s also worth noting that hostile stakeholders can be right about some things too, and what you learn from them can actually improve your project. But I’m not counting on that happening either. They may have nothing to say that adds value, or project management may not be listening.

Rather, I see relations with your most determined opponents as a kind of theatre. In language I started using more than 20 years ago, I categorize stakeholders into four groups: fanatics, attentives, browsers, and inattentives. While winning over the fanatics may be impossible, the all-important attentives are on the fence.

I’m thinking here especially of attentives who have real reservations about you and your project. They’re very attentive to the fanatics’ criticisms, but they’re still open to what you have to say in response. Partly they’re trying to figure out to what extent you’re right on the merits and to what extent the fanatics are right. But the more important dynamic is this: They already think the fanatics are at least partly right, and they are trying to determine whether you have taken the fanatics’ concerns onboard – whether you’re stonewalling or being responsive. If they think you’re stonewalling, they’re likely to move into the fanatics’ camp. But if they think you’re being responsive, they may well decide that the project is now tolerable, even though the fanatics still don’t seem to think so.

Even then, most attentives probably won’t turn into your supporters. That’s too much to expect. But once they decide the project is tolerable, they’ll go home. They’ll turn into browsers or even inattentives. That’s good enough. For a variety of reasons, diminishing the number of opponents is usually the key to winning project approval. You don’t need more supporters nearly as much as you need fewer opponents, and thus a lower level of community controversy.

In short, the key to managing the controversy is satisfying the attentives – that is, convincing the attentives that the fanatics have won enough and what’s left to argue about isn’t very important. And the key to satisfying the attentives is proving your responsiveness to the fanatics.

That’s why you want to dialogue with the fanatics (always keeping in mind that your main audience for this dialogue is the attentives). And it’s why you’re also willing to accommodate the fanatics’ demonstrations – even their disruptions to some extent.

There’s a kind of jujitsu at work here. Demonstrations strike most attentives as worthwhile mostly if the organization being demonstrated against isn’t open to dialogue. By proving (again and again) that you are open to dialogue, you make the demos seem less urgent, even a little pointless. Similarly, attentives are more likely to see a need for disruptive tactics if the more polite demonstrators have failed to persuade you to listen to their concerns. If you’re more than willing to listen, and you’re even willing to facilitate the non-disruptive demonstrations, most attentives will recoil at disruption. And what if there’s a little minor disruption? If you overreact, seizing the excuse to get everybody arrested, the attentives are likely to end up back on the fanatics’ side. But if you’re clearly trying to avoid doing anything to escalate the controversy, the attentives will firmly disapprove of anything the fanatics do to escalate unilaterally.

The fanatics, in short, are looking to polarize the fight. You’re looking to stake out the middle ground, thereby making their polarizing tactics seem rude, crude, and unnecessary to the attentives. At every stage, your willingness to accommodate the fanatics makes it harder for them to escalate without losing the attentives.

Let me flesh out these three principles a bit more.

number 1

If they want to dialogue, so do you – very much.

One key to proving your openness to dialogue, even your hunger for dialogue, is to set no conditions. Fanatics look for ways to con companies and government agencies into excluding them. Rather than participate in the meeting, they’d prefer (for sound tactical reasons) to march around outside the meeting room, asking rhetorical questions about what you’re so afraid of that you didn’t dare let them participate. Typically, they try to get the project sponsor to set some condition for their participation that they can legitimately object to. So project sponsors should try not to fall into the trap.

Among the conditions you shouldn’t set, here are some of the biggies:

  • “You’re either inside or outside. If you want a seat at the table, you can’t be running demonstrations on the side.”
  • “You have to promise not to litigate the outcome. We won’t talk to you now unless you agree not to sue us later.”
  • “If you want to meet with us, you’ll attend the same meetings as everybody else. We’re not going to have special meetings just with you.”
  • “Everybody in the meeting has to agree to honor confidentiality. We won’t meet with you unless you promise not to blab to the media … and keep the promise.”
  • “Our facilitator has drawn up a set of guidelines to ensure a constructive meeting: no personal insults, no interruptions, etc. If you violate the guidelines, you’re out.”

There are some kinds of meetings where some of these conditions might truly be necessary – contract negotiations, for example. But there shouldn’t be a lot of conditions simply for listening to your stakeholders’ concerns. Remember: In the competition for the attentives’ hearts and minds, you have far more to gain from ongoing dialogue (even if the fanatics are rude to you) than the fanatics do. They’re looking for excuses not to engage with you. Try not to give them any.

If the fanatics can’t get you to exclude them, their fallback position will probably be to insist that you’re just going through the motions – and that they will no longer participate in a charade that isn’t leading to significant project improvements. Since such pro-forma consultations are commonplace, this accusation is likely to ring true to many attentives. So you need to accumulate convincing evidence that your dialogue with fanatics is actually having a meaningful impact on your project.

If there really isn’t much impact, I’m not advising you to fake it. But typically, project managements really do make some significant changes in response to consultations with critics. And then, for reasons like ego and internal politics, they minimize the changes (“it was six of one or half a dozen of the other”) or pretend the changes had nothing to do with the fanatics’ criticisms (“we were planning to make that change anyway”). Far better to point out, when it’s true, that you were going to do X but the fanatics hated X for reasons you could understand, so you’re going to do Y instead.

number 2

If they want to demonstrate, you will respect that – and you’ll accommodate and even facilitate it as much as you can.

In your comment you focus on “protestors … who are mostly interested in marching with signs and chanting rather than communicating.” But of course marching with signs and chanting are communicating – with you, with the browsers (via the media), and above all with the attentives.

What they’re communicating is a one-sided, polarizing depiction of the controversy. If they can get you to adopt a similarly one-sided, polarizing depiction, they’ve got you beaten. As I often put the point, in a battle between “incredibly dangerous” and “perfectly safe,” incredibly dangerous wins. But in a battle between “incredibly dangerous” and “moderately dangerous,” moderately dangerous stands a good chance of winning. So the alarming side (the anti-project side) in any controversy has reason to want the controversy polarized, while the reassuring side (the pro-project side) should be staking out the middle ground.

Because it further polarizes the controversy, trying to stop a peaceful, non-disruptive demonstration plays into the demonstrators’ hands. And as I noted earlier, it constitutes a rationale and an excuse for them to escalate to something more disruptive. So accommodate the demonstration instead.

For example, I have sometimes urged clients to plan – and publicize – a meeting agenda that explicitly starts with an hour set aside for demonstrations. This puts the fanatics between a rock and a hard place in their effort to polarize. If they go along with your schedule, the demonstration becomes an integral part of your event, instead of the counter-event they had in mind. If they refuse to go along, they look churlish: “How dare you set aside time for our demonstration?”

Similarly, I remember a demonstration in the early 1970s against the Transamerica Corporation’s new pyramid-shaped headquarters building in San Francisco – now considered a jewel in the city’s skyline, but extremely controversial at the time. It was one of San Francisco’s rare hot days, and the demonstrators were wilting. Someone in Transamerica management got the idea of sending dozens of secretaries outside to serve iced tea to the demonstrators … and hang out with them for awhile, chatting and posing for the media. That afternoon didn’t quite break the back of the opposition movement, but it certainly made it harder to depict Transamerica as a heartless, unresponsive corporate monster. (Nowadays, management would be wiser to send out corporate VPs along with the secretaries.)

Some other things my clients have done – publicly – over the years with regard to demonstrations against them:

  • Offer to help the demonstrators get the necessary permits.
  • Offer a company-owned site when there is no appropriate public venue.
  • Offer to provide porta-potties, electric power, and other amenities to make the demonstrators more comfortable.
  • Offer to put up a tent or provide an alternative indoor venue if it looks like rain.
  • Offer to come spend time at the demo if they’ve got some things they want project managers to hear, or to stay away if they’d rather be alone.

And of course you should always offer demonstrators the opportunity to come inside and join the meeting – or if they want to keep the demo going, to send a delegation inside to join the meeting.

Your basic posture: Peaceful, non-disruptive demonstrations aren’t just your opponents’ right; they are democracy in action. Far from trying to prevent or stop or undermine a demonstration against your project, you will do what you can to facilitate the demo. Whether or not your opponents choose to demonstrate outside, they are welcome to come inside and dialogue with you. And whether or not they choose to dialogue with you, they are welcome to demonstrate.

number 3

If they want to disrupt, you may have to try to prevent them or stop them. But in the spirit of tolerance, understanding that the controversy is arousing strong emotions in some people, you will do your best to live with a little disruption without overreacting.

Many demonstrations break some law somewhere along the line. And many demonstrations are at least a little disruptive – maybe they disrupt third-party activities like traffic; maybe they disrupt your operations; maybe (as exemplified in your comment) they disrupt a meeting with the stakeholders who aren’t demonstrating.

You may have no choice but to put a stop to serious disruption. Public officials may insist on it. Neighbors and bystanders may demand it. Essential business may require it. Real risk to valuable property or to people’s safety (including the safety of the demonstrators themselves) may leave you no viable option.

But insofar as you can, I believe you should try to look the other way, tolerating minor disruptions even if you don’t officially condone them.

My clients’ first reaction to a demonstration is almost always to look for an excuse to shut it down. The single most common excuse is trespass. They’re on your property! They have no right to be there! Order them off, and if they don’t leave call the cops and have them dragged off! It’s your right!

It is your right. But what’s propelling you to exercise that right – sound strategic thinking or your own outrage?

Your goal, remember, is to be visibly responsive in the eyes of the attentives. So when you’re faced with a demo that gets a little disruptive, ask yourself how the situation looks to the attentives, and how it will look to them if you call in the heavy artillery. Will they see the demonstration leaders as dangerous agitators and your project management as doing what it had to do to protect the peace? Or will they see the demonstration leaders as martyrs to your management’s intolerant, autocratic, heavy-handed, legalistic overreaction? If it’s the latter, then you shouldn’t be looking for excuses to get the demonstrators arrested. You should be looking for ways to avoid having to do so.

Of course if they want to get arrested, they will force your hand. Even then, you can find ways to look responsive to the attentives. During the Vietnam antiwar protests, for example, getting arrested was an integral part of the plan for some demonstrations. Sometimes the resulting clashes with police were chaotic and violent. But surprisingly often they were collaboratively choreographed. A few days before a demo at the entrance to a military base, the protest leadership would sometimes sit down with the base provost marshal to negotiate the details: what time the demonstrators would block the gate; how long the MPs would let them stay before hauling them away; whether they would go limp; how they’d be handled if they did; how long it would take to process them and get them released; etc. Radicals who wanted a more polarizing event might ignore the negotiated agreement and try to provoke the MPs into using tear gas; angry MPs might be all too easy to provoke. But when things worked well, the demonstrators got to show their opposition to the war, the military got to show its acceptance of the right to protest, and nobody got hurt.

So what about the example in your comment? The demonstration outside your meeting is drowning out the meeting itself. You’re sure they’re doing it on purpose, and you’re sure it won’t help for you to ask nicely if they can demonstrate a little more quietly. Now what?

I think I’d probably ask the meeting participants what they think we should do. (Notice the “we.” You want the attentives to see that it’s not just a demo against your project. It’s drowning out their meeting.)

  • Should we postpone the meeting to a different date? Move it to a different venue?
  • Should we turn up the amplifiers?
  • Should we divide into small groups so we can hear each other better over the din?
  • Should we invite the demonstrators in or ask them to be a little quieter? (You did that already, but it’s different if a delegation of attentives does it now.)

Let the media watch this instructive piece of theater: Outside the demonstrators are drowning out your meeting, while inside you and all the other stakeholders are trying to figure out together how best to cope with the disruption.

What if some of the attentives at the meeting are pushing to call the cops on the demonstrators, you’re arguing that “Nah, that would be an overreaction to an exercise of democracy that just got a little noisy,” and they’re rolling their eyes and thinking you ought to show more spine? That’s just fine. In fact, it’s ideal. You always want to be more tolerant, not less tolerant, than the attentives think they would be in your shoes. Let them think you’re a wimp. Don’t do anything to make them think you’re an autocrat.

Of course it’s always a judgment call whether a disruption is simply too disruptive to tolerate. I had a mining industry client a few years ago that “hosted” a months-long Native American “encampment” on its mine site, physically blocking a planned expansion. It was costing real money to tolerate the demonstration. But the cost of calling the cops would be real, too; it was certainly what the demonstration leaders wanted in their quest to win more attentives over to their side. It was touch-and-go, but the company bided its time. While it waited to see how things played out, it asked the demonstrators if it could send some of its people to the encampment from time to time, to hear firsthand what their grievances were and maybe to learn more about tribal culture.

As winter approached and media interest diminished, so did the number of demonstrators. The demo died a natural death. Did the outrage management benefits of not calling the cops outweigh the delay in the expansion schedule? As I said: a judgment call.

One final comment on disruptive demonstrations: I have been focusing on outrage management – how to reduce the attentives’ outrage about your project so they don’t join the determined opposition. But safety trumps outrage management. Any time you believe that a demonstration isn’t just disruptive but is actually dangerous, do whatever seems best to keep everybody safe. That may mean canceling the meeting and asking participants to go out the back door. It may mean calling the police – or even your company’s security department (a far worse option in terms of outrage management). Worry about outrage management later, after everybody’s safe.

Don’t tell people not to panic. Especially don’t tell them not to panic yet.

name:Lisa Pogoff
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

field:Public health
date:February 18, 2015
location:Minnesota, U.S.


Back in 2008, the state health department did a study on mesothelioma on the Iron Range of Minnesota. Even though the findings were positive, the health department, under the Republican governor and commissioner, decided to hide the information for over a year. When the media found out, things blew up, and the study was taken over by the University. The health commissioner took the fall for that. She resigned (under the guise of needing to “spend more time with my family”).

The current health commissioner, Ed Ehlinger, said today that another 21 cases of mesothelioma have been identified in former iron mine workers. The health department release quoted him as saying: “We have always expected to see additional cases as time went by, in people who were exposed many years ago. We expect to see still more cases going forward.”

I thought that was good communication.

However, he also told the media that “I don’t think there is any reason to panic at this point in time.”

Seems like saying that serves no purpose. I don’t think anyone was panicking, and it sounds a bit patronizing. What do you think?

peter responds:

I think what Ehlinger said about panicking is poor risk communication for several reasons. My wife and colleague Jody Lanard outlined these in a 2004 World Health Organization report link is to a PDF file (see Appendix Five).

Here’s part of what she said:

To the public, “There is no need to panic” implies at least four things:

  1. “The officials think or know that people are close to panicking. Things must be pretty bad.” This increases public alarm.
  2. “The officials think we’re about to panic. How insulting.” This decreases respect for officials.
  3. “The officials are close to panicking themselves.” This increases public alarm.
  4. “Sometimes there must indeed be a need to panic.”

Worse than telling the public that “There is no need to panic” is the explicit “Don’t panic yet” type of statement – because these statements imply that there may actually come a time to panic.

Worst of all is using “There is no need to panic yet because ” type statements. They imply that if certain conditions are met, then it will be time to panic.

The quote from Commissioner Ehlinger saying there’s no reason to panic “at this point in time” is equivalent to “Don’t panic yet” in Jody’s typology. It not only falsely suggests that people are panicking; it also suggests that the right time to panic is coming, which of course is never true. And as you point out, it’s patronizing.

In fairness, Ehlinger seems to be trying to emphasize that only ex-miners are at risk. The paragraph right before the “don’t panic” quote reads:

But Ehelinger, on a conference call with reporters, said the uptick in cases isn’t happening in northern Minnesota’s general population. The stricken miners likely inhaled commercial asbestos on the job decades ago before the health threat became clear in the 1960s and early 1970s, he said.

I suspect what he meant to conclude is that former iron miners have reason to worry but the rest of the population doesn’t. But somehow it turned into an all-too-typical “don’t panic” comment instead.

I also agree with you that the other Ehlinger quote, about the expectation of more cases, is good risk communication. Telling people what to expect is always a good idea, but especially if the expectation is alarming. It lets people prepare for the bad news to come, instead of being taken unawares. And it signals that the people in charge are also preparing and won’t be taken unawares.

How to respond to reactance: an op-ed dissing infectious disease experts as “prophets of doom”

name:Logan Boss
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index
      link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

field:Public Information Officer,
Northwest Georgia Public Health
date:January 16, 2015
location:Georgia, U.S.


First, let me say “thank you, thank you, thank you” to you and your wife for continuing to provide real-time leadership in the field of risk communications in addition to maintaining your website, an indispensible repository of risk communications wisdom and information to which I refer almost daily.

When the need for better Ebola risk communications suddenly became critical last year, I would visit your website first thing each morning to see if you had posted anything yet. When you began commenting on Ebola risk communications and aggregating related articles to which you and Jody had contributed, I was both relieved and grateful to have a trusted source and framework for developing local messaging.

I know you’re going to retire fully someday – good for you – but, for selfish reasons, I hope you continue to postpone that date a bit longer.

I imagine you’ve read Wendy Orent’s latest. It ran in recent days under headlines like these:

  • “Ignore predictions of lethal pandemics and pay attention to what really matters” (Los Angeles Times)
  • “Why predictions of lethal pandemics should be ignored” (Palm Beach Post)
  • “Relax – fear of lethal global pandemics is overblown” (Press of Atlantic City)
  • “Pandemic?!?!? Doubtful ...” (Glens Falls Post-Star)

What key points would you use to simply, succinctly respond to this reactant opinion piece at the local level in letters-to-the-editor, op-eds, social media, etc.?

peter responds:

What a lovely message to start our morning yesterday! My wife and colleague Jody Lanard joins me in thanking you for your kind words.

Jody and I felt more than a little alienated from the public health establishment vis-à-vis the Ebola quarantine brouhaha (see Ebola in the U.S. (So Far): The Public Health Establishment and the Quarantine Debate), so it was all the more heartening to read that you found our writing on Ebola useful … maybe even my contentious piece on quarantines.

And it was wonderful to see your casual and accurate use of the word “reactant” – just the right label for the “hell no” response to pandemic warnings demonstrated by Wendy Orent (and others like her; Marc Siegel and Michael Fumento are among my other “favorites”).

Just for fun, I searched my computer for “Wendy Orent reactance” and found a 2005 email from Jody referencing Orent’s “bird flu reactance.” The reactant article Jody was reacting to was entitled “Chicken Little.”

As you know, Orent has a long history of dissing doomsayers. Naturally she usually turns out right. Warnings that a particular risk might have a horrific outcome aren’t actually inconsistent with reassurances that it probably won’t.

Consider the stream of novel infectious diseases that we have confronted in recent years – diseases that were entirely new, or new to human hosts, or new in our part of the world, or newly common, or at least newly grabbing our attention. Among them: SARS, H5N1, swine flu (pandemic H1N1), H7N9, MERS, and Ebola. Each of these has looked like it might be potentially capable of expanding wildly and wreaking serious havoc in much of the world. So far none of them has actually done so.

The last novel infectious disease that unquestionably devastated the human population was HIV, already a big deal thirty years ago and still on the rampage today.

Most (though not all) infectious disease experts believe that as people encroach more and more on animal habitats, more and more infectious diseases are jumping from animals to humans. Despite thirty years of what might be considered false alarms, most experts also believe that this poses significant human health risks – that sooner or later one or more zoonotic disease will prove deadly to humans and capable of spreading efficiently human-to-human. So they believe it makes sense to look for cost-effective preparedness/prevention measures we can take … even though they know quite well that most potential disasters won’t prove disastrous and that a lot of the preparedness/prevention measures they recommend will therefore turn out to be wastes of money.

That’s not how things look to Orent. She sees a string of false alarms, sensibly concludes that novel infectious diseases don’t usually wreak worldwide havoc, and then draws the further and more debatable conclusion that preparedness/prevention expenditures are foolish. Then she looks around for reasons why the “doomsayers” who disagree with her might be misled or, worse, willing to mislead others for the sake of their reputations or their pharmaceutical sales.

The problem is one I outlined recently in my website column on near misses, Warning, or False Alarm: Why Safety Professionals See Near Misses Differently than Everybody Else. Most infectious disease experts see SARS, H5N1, and the rest as warnings, reasons to get serious about the threat posed by novel infectious diseases. Orent sees them as false alarms, evidence that novel infectious diseases aren’t a serious threat.

The public is increasingly on Orent’s side, I think. And that has big implications for public health. The World Health Organization, for example, was widely excoriated (especially in Europe) for hyping the seriousness of the swine flu pandemic of 2009. (See The “Fake Pandemic” Charge Goes Mainstream and WHO’s Credibility Nosedives.) That’s probably part of the reason why WHO was slow to sound the alarm about Ebola in West Africa.

Jody and I may have lost some credibility as well – though we’re not infectious disease experts so we arguably didn’t have much credibility to lose. For several years we worried in print about a bird flu pandemic; later we urged officials to issue more aggressive warnings with regard to swine flu and H7N9. (See my Infectious Diseases Index for the record of this Sandman/Lanard doomsaying.)

Then in October 2014 we posted a column that pretty much predicted Ebola would spread to many other developing countries. Entitled Ebola: Failures of Imagination, the column said we had trouble imagining what an Ebola pandemic in the developing world would be like, but we couldn’t imagine it not happening. We tried to make a case for sounding the alarm. Along the way, we suggested several reasons why experts might hesitate to do so, including the fear of panicking the public and the more realistic fear of being accused (by the Wendy Orents) of trying to panic the public … of doomsaying. Another reason we should have stressed more than we did is the fear of being dismissed as doomsayers by the public itself.

It now looks unlikely that there will be an Ebola pandemic in the developing world any time soon. Score another point for Wendy Orent.

The risk management dilemma here is deciding how much preparedness is appropriate for risks whose probability is uncertain but probably small and whose magnitude is potentially huge. This is a debatable question.

In hindsight, of course, we all wish we had prepared more for the risks that materialized and less for the ones that didn’t; that’s how hindsight bias works. I remember when media in the U.K. were full of articles and editorials about how foolish the U.K. government was to order so much vaccine when the 2009 swine flu pandemic turned out mild, and how foolish it was to stockpile so little road salt when the 2009-2010 winter turned out severe.

Now that Ebola has done such horrible damage in West Africa, similarly, many are critical of the failure to have developed an Ebola vaccine in preparation for the hugest Ebola outbreak ever. Few, however, advocate spending serious money to develop vaccines against the many other diseases that aren’t widespread now but might conceivably become widespread someday, just as Ebola became widespread in 2014.

Expenditures to prepare for or prevent specific possible catastrophes are quite likely to be wasted. Like insurance, such expenditures may nonetheless be smart investments – or not. It’s not easy to figure out which risks are likely and serious enough and which precautions are cost-effective enough to spend money on, especially when the money could be spent instead on problems we already face. Investments in all-hazards preparedness and resilience are arguably wiser than investments in preparing for or preventing specific disease outbreaks.

One thing is certain: The fact that most potential disasters don’t materialize is not proof that warnings about those disasters are foolish.

For those on the precaution advocacy side of the debate (that is, trying to design effective warnings), the key risk communication challenge is figuring out how to frame our warnings in a way that emphasizes our judgment that the risk’s high magnitude justifies precautions – but doesn’t overstate the risk’s probability or our confidence in our estimates of magnitude and probability. One reason this is so difficult is that even carefully qualified warnings get oversimplified by journalists and misperceived and misremembered by audiences. The CDC’s worst case scenario modeling of how many Ebola cases West Africa might experience, for example, was widely oversimplified, misperceived, and misremembered as a prediction that turned out way too high.

So it’s not good enough to produce warnings that occasionally acknowledge the risk might fizzle. We need to produce warnings that get covered, perceived, and remembered as having acknowledged that the risk might fizzle … and that still arouse enough concern to motivate action.

Public health professionals don’t do this very well, I think.

Among the strategies that will help, two stand out in my mind:

  • Like an insurance salesperson, emphasize how awful the possible outcomes are, not how likely they are. Dramatize risk magnitude without overstating risk probability. Go out of your way to concede that preparedness/prevention measures may be unneeded and the investment wasted. In fact, express your hope that that will be the case.
  • Also go out of your way to concede that preparedness/prevention measures may not work. “It’s not great but it’s the best we’ve got” is nearly as effective a message as “it’s sure to work” – and it’s much more sustainable (and usually more truthful).

What’s the key risk communication challenge when we’re on the outrage management side of the debate – Wendy Orent’s side – trying to reassure people that a particular risk may be scary but is too unlikely to merit much worry or precaution?

Among the many relevant outrage management strategies, here’s the one that comes first to mind with regard to infectious disease risks: figuring out how to make the case against precautions we think are excessive without sounding contemptuous of those who disagree (either because they see the risk as bigger than we do or because they favor a more precautionary approach than we do). Scoffing at worriers isn’t just rude. It’s ineffective. At least it’s ineffective if reassuring the worriers is your goal. Of course if your goal is to mobilize your side to join you in ridiculing the other side, that’s another story.

If we assume that Wendy Orent and her fellow reactants actually want to reassure people who they think are excessively worried about H5N1, Ebola, and other infectious diseases, they do a terrible job. Their contempt is anything but reassuring. Mostly their writing just reinforces the opinions of people who already agree with them that these risks are negligible.

But public health professionals often make the same mistake. Consider the ridicule heaped on people’s vaccine fears by Paul Offit and many of his peers. Or consider how nasty so many in the public health establishment were about the U.S. public’s concern that volunteers returning from West Africa might transmit Ebola to their neighbors.

So how would I answer the Orent op-ed you referenced? I think I’d make six points:

number 1
Orent is flat-out right that a string of novel infectious diseases have jumped from animals to humans in recent years without leading to catastrophic pandemics. So anyone who predicts a catastrophic pandemic with regard to any specific new pathogen is backing a long shot.
number 2
She is also right that there are biological reasons why most animal pathogens don’t lead to catastrophic human pandemics.
number 3
And she’s right that sometimes warnings about novel infectious diseases have been overwrought. Sometimes people trying to arouse the public’s concern forgot to concede that a risk might fizzle. More often they made the concession, but journalists underplayed it or readers and viewers missed it or forgot it. So people sometimes got the impression that there was sure to be a disaster by next Tuesday.
number 4
But Orent is dead wrong when she claims that novel infectious diseases never lead to catastrophic human pandemics – or as she puts it in the recent op-ed, that “predictions of lethal pandemics have … always been wrong.” Somehow she seems to have forgotten the 1918 flu pandemic and HIV/AIDS. (The fact that neither of these two pandemics was taken seriously enough until far too late certainly doesn’t support Orent’s case against warnings.) The more new pathogens that manage to jump from animals to humans, the greater the risk of another catastrophic pandemic – though no one can predict which pathogen will be the one.
number 5
And she is dead wrong when she suggests that it’s foolish or dishonest to warn about a possible disaster unless that disaster is sure to materialize by next Tuesday. Warnings about possible disasters are useful. When a possible disaster fizzles, it’s a cheap shot to say that those who warned about it were misleading the public. And it’s profoundly unwise to conclude that the next possible disaster is sure to fizzle too, and that the next warning should therefore be ignored.
number 6
Above all, she is dead wrong when she implies that preparedness/prevention efforts are stupid unless the problem being addressed is a sure thing. We buy insurance against car accidents, house fires, and major illnesses even though most years the insurance isn’t needed. It’s not easy to decide what precautions to take against threats that may or may not come true. Ridiculing those who warn about such threats as “prophets of doom” doesn’t advance the discussion.

A fireworks near miss: warning or false alarm?

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Business executive, Peter’s webmaster
date:January 9, 2015
location:Georgia, U.S.


Regarding your column on warnings versus false alarms, our cul-de-sac (and I) had a salutary lesson on New Year’s Eve.

I had bought the $100 fireworks pack of around 80–100 fireworks at Costco, to throw an extravaganza for the folks. Neighbor Scott and I spread out the firework across the cul-de-sac – little ones leading up to big ones, in multiple semi-circles, ready to light.

One of the almost-last (therefore larger) ones had a weird fuse. It was a U-shape; that is, it had no ‘loose end’ to light, but I figured, “Eh, so I’ll light it in the middle and it will burn down both sides.”

Scott and I traded off lighting them one at a time, lots of fun pretty fireworks, happy applause from the neighbors. And then I lit that one.

Now, I am very conscious that these things are dangerous, so both Scott and I would light a fuse and walk quickly away. (These are not “pro” fireworks, the kind that shoot up into the air. These just sit on the ground and flare.)

I thought, “How bad could a U-fuse be? A little-ish firework, should be okay.” {shrug} I lit it and walked across the cul-de-sac to where there were some more fireworks to light – and BOOM!! Unintentional IED!!

It blew up like a bomb, throwing scraps of paper and cardboard all across the cul-de-sac. Scared the hell out of all of us! No one hurt, thankfully – not even Scott or me, within about 15 feet of the bomb. The rest of the cul-de-sac neighbors, including two 11-year-old girls, were 20+ feet away standing by the grass.

So, a truly scary near miss. But no-harm, no-foul!

However, as I’ve described it since: a great (and useful) near miss! The little girls got a clear demonstration of why you don’t hold a lit firecracker in your fingers to see what happens and why you let the adults (who one hopes will be smarter, although apparently not in my case) handle the fireworks display.

As we regained our “stability” after the explosion, Scott asked if I had ever held a lit firecracker. “Uh, no. I’m girl; that’s a boy thing.” But, yes, of course he had as a teen. Thankfully, he still has all ten fingers and both eyes!

So, a dangerous near miss, and a teachable moment for the girls. And maybe for me? Although – and here’s your “opposite gambler’s fallacy” – I concluded, okay, next U-shaped fuse, I’ll light it and move even further away!

peter responds:

Let’s unpack your example even further to see why talking about near misses isn’t usually very effective precaution advocacy. Here are some of the main factors affecting near miss perception.

Hindsight bias:

If you have another neighborhood fireworks display for 2015–2016, and again something goes wrong, but this time somebody gets hurt (God forbid), then everyone is sure to reinterpret your 2014–2015 near miss as a warning you failed to take seriously enough.

That’s how hindsight bias works. After a real accident, precursors look like obvious warnings. But the signal looks much more ambiguous when there hasn’t (yet) been a real accident.

Gambler’s fallacy:

If a roulette wheel is honest, every spin is an independent event, and there’s nothing to be learned from the outcomes of prior spins. But gamblers insist on seeing patterns. A frequently recurring number is “hot,” while one that hasn’t come up all night is “overdue.”

Similarly, some observers of your near miss will conclude that your neighborhood is unlucky with fireworks so you should expect more problems next time, while others will conclude that you survived your moment of bad luck already so you should expect no further problems for awhile.

Learned overconfidence:

You’ve had neighborhood fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve for some years without any problems. Even your near miss this time didn’t hurt anybody. You’ve been to lots of other fireworks displays and nobody ever got hurt as far as you know. Almost everybody you know has been to lots of fireworks displays, and nobody you know has ever mentioned getting maimed or seeing somebody maimed. Even your friend Scott who used to set off fireworks in his hands still has his fingers. Your life experience is that fireworks don’t often hurt people.

Of course someone who never goes to fireworks displays but obsesses over periodic media stories about fireworks disasters would have quite a different (in this case vicarious) “life experience.” Because bad outcomes are newsworthy, news generally teaches us to overestimate risk. But because bad outcomes are infrequent and low-frequency events are routinely underestimated, personal experience generally teaches us to underestimate risk. Learned overconfidence is the usual state of affairs.

Resilient near misses versus vulnerable near misses:

Your story is replete with resilience messaging. Its main theme seems to be how careful you were, even with that weird U-shaped fuse, and how your carefulness paid off: Your neighbors (especially the kids) were watching from a safe distance, and even you and Scott moved far enough away to be unhurt by the explosion.

The research says a “vulnerable near miss” (interpreted as good luck) has relatively little impact on risk perception. But a “resilient near miss” (interpreted as good precaution-taking) makes people feel safer. I get it that next time you light a U-shaped fuse you plan to move off even further. But you’ll light it, even though it’s pretty clear to you that fireworks aren’t supposed to have U-shaped fuses. The main thing you learned, I suspect, is that you’re good with fireworks.

The power of vividness:

If your recent New Year’s Eve explosion was sufficiently vivid, it might stick in the minds of your two 11-year-old neighbors enough to be a significant deterrent. They might even misremember it as having actually hurt people, the way many misremember Three Mile Island – as a disaster rather than a near miss.

But odds are it wasn’t that vivid. Wait a month and ask the kids what they remember about your New Year’s Eve fireworks. There’s a good chance they’ll remember the extra unexpected explosion as a happy highlight.

Warning versus false alarm:

As outlined in the column, my hypothesis is that safety professionals are already convinced that X is pretty damn dangerous, so they see a near miss as a warning that they almost had an accident. But most people don’t know how dangerous X is, so they see a near miss as evidence that X-related accidents are rare. So when safety professionals try to use near misses to increase other people’s concern about X, their precaution advocacy typically backfires.

So imagine a fireworks safety professional running through a list of 2014–2015 New Year’s Eve fireworks near misses with an audience of people like your cul-de-sac neighbors. The speaker’s message: “Look at all those near misses. Those people are courting disaster. Sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt!” The audience’s reaction: “Look at all those near misses. Again and again nobody got hurt. Fireworks are less dangerous than they say.”

Copyright © 2015 by Peter M. Sandman

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