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Coping with a disruptive committee member

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

date:December 27, 2016


I’ve followed your work since I was first exposed to it during a Canadian Society of Safety Engineers Course on “Applied Risk Communication.”

I was wondering how you deal with the disruptive stakeholder, the one on an advisory group who is “pissing all over the tent from inside”!

On our JHSC we have six union and six management representatives. This individual focuses on low-hazard high-outrage (to him) issues. He may have ulterior motives (greed, revenge, attention).

It is to the point where the committee is considering dissolving itself due to this member.

What would be your top 3 tips to move us towards a functioning committee?

  • Pay the individual to leave the company? Buy him out?
  • Kick him off the committee? But then he would be outside the tent pissing in.

peter responds:

There’s a crucial distinction to be drawn when deciding how to deal with a disruptive participant in an advisory committee or any group: To what extent is the group supposed to be making decisions?

This is a sliding scale, not a dichotomy:

  • At one edge is a group whose only real prerogative is self-expression. Participants get to tell you what they think, and then you get to do what you wish. You’d be wise to pay them some heed, both to improve your project and to ameliorate their outrage. But you don’t have to. All you actually have to do is meet with them. Expressive groups of this sort may or may not have influence, but they have no power. And typically they have very few rules; they’re emotional free-for-alls. Insofar as your goal for the meeting is simply to have had the meeting and any actual outcome is just gravy, a “disruptive” participant isn’t actually disrupting much.
  • At the other edge is a group that needs to make decisions and authorize actions. Nothing gets done until the group figures out what to do. So there must be rules of engagement – some groups require courtesy and a show of mutual respect, for example, while others permit more rough-and-tumble sorts of disputation. And there must be a decision-making protocol – consensus or compromise or majority rule or whatever. A participant who keeps violating the rules of engagement and refuses to honor the decision-making protocol makes it hard, or even impossible, for the group to achieve its objectives.
  • In the middle is a group that is expected to make real contributions to real decisions, even though its contributions aren’t necessarily dispositive. The group is only advisory, but its advice has a formal role in the decision and is expected to have impact. So the group needs to reach conclusions; it doesn’t get to decide what to do, but it does get to decide what to advise. This sort of group, too, needs rules of engagement and a decision-making protocol. And a disruptive participant can be a real problem.

I’m no expert in Canadian labor-management law, but it’s clear that (at least in Ontario) Joint Health and Safety Committees are somewhere between my second and third prototypes: not the ultimate decision-makers, but substantively powerful, with prerogatives way beyond self-expression. Which companies are required to have JHSCs is specified by law, as are the procedures for choosing members. The JHSC is required to hold regular meetings, conduct regular workplace inspections in search of hazards that should be addressed, and make written recommendations to the company about how to address those hazards. The company is required to respond to JHSC recommendations in writing within 21 days. It is also required to comply with JHSC demands for information about actual or potential hazards, health and safety practices, etc. If a JHSC can’t reach consensus, minority recommendations can be written, and they too require a company response. All this documentation must be made available to government inspectors.

Even for a decision-making committee, it’s still true that a disruptive member adds value. Management gets to see what its most outraged stakeholders are feeling, thinking, and saying. The disruptor gets to vent. And the other participants get to experience the venting as an irritating disruption – which in keeping with the seesaw principle makes them inclined to be less disruptive and more constructive themselves.

So my standard advice to clients is to try hard to see the value of “disruptive” participation in any meeting – and to tolerate disruptive participants when possible. But if a group has an important substantive role to play – as I think a JHSC does – then the value of the disruptive participant needs to be set against the harm done by the disruption. If the group can’t get its work done, then the disruptive participant is almost certainly doing more harm than good.

That said, I don’t have a clear sense from your comment why the group can’t get its work done – and in particular why you think the JHSC is so fed up that it’s considering dissolving itself if it can’t figure out a way to get rid of its disruptive member. All you said in your comment is that he raises issues the rest of the group considers minor. That makes me want to ask how sure you are that his issues really are minor. Might he be right about the hazard? Have you checked and double-checked the possibility that he is identifying problems that the rest of the committee, blinded by groupthink, keeps missing?

Even if you’re totally certain the hazard is trivial, might he be right about the outrage? That is, does he have a constituency of other employees whose concerns he is representing – however technically unjustified those concerns may be? I get it that he’s an outlier on the JHSC. But are you sure he’s also an outlier in the workforce?

Taking your word for it that his issues are low-hazard and – except in his mind – low-outrage, I still don’t understand why everyone is at their wits’ end about it. Does he insist on his agenda dominating every meeting? Is he personally hard to bear? Typically, I think, committee members who have idiosyncratic bees in their bonnets are genially tolerated when they ride their hobbyhorses (to mix metaphors) from time to time, and then the group gets back to business. There’s got to be a reason why that’s not happening, or not happening anymore, on your JHSC. Diagnosing the reason may point you toward a path forward.

It sounds to me like you probably share the rest of the group’s outrage at this disruptive participant. That may be getting in the way of your ability to address the problem – or even to define the problem. Maybe it’s not the disruptive participant’s disruptiveness that needs addressing, but rather the rest of the group’s outrage … and your own. Think about redefining your situation not as a disruption problem but as an outrage management problem: how to help the JHSC feel less disrupted and less outraged by whatever it is he’s doing that pushes everybody’s buttons.

Also, I’m guessing that your troublemaker is a union rep, and that you’re in management. If that’s right, you may want to test your judgment that the other five union reps on the JHSC are as sick of his involvement as you are. I have no reason to doubt that assessment, but the possibility did occur to me that you might be projecting your own outrage onto the other members. Maybe the participant you’re finding disruptive is simply more outspoken than his fellow union representatives, freeing them to get along with management while he voices concerns they’re more sympathetic to than you realize.

But let’s put all that aside. Let’s also put aside whatever regulations govern what a JHSC has to do vis-à-vis members who quit in the middle of their terms (let alone a JHSC whose members all quit en masse). Let’s just assume that the entire JHSC is desperate to see the last of one of its union reps.

Let’s also assume that there isn’t any specified procedure for kicking somebody off the committee. (I would have thought the union appoints them and can remove them … but maybe not.) And for some reason, everyone is looking to you to solve the problem, even though the troublemaker is a union guy and you’re management.

What’s my advice?

Don’t do it. Instead, try harder to keep him onboard. Concede that you fellow JHSC members seem to want him removed, but keep repeating that it’s important to hear from all points of view, even (maybe especially) unpopular ones. Keep repeating that you’re not convinced he’s got nothing to say worth hearing; keep repeating that you’re not convinced he’s been truly heard yet. Keep repeating that there’s got to be a way to give him the committee airtime he demands without preempting everybody else’s agenda in the process. Keep asking everyone – him especially – to suggest compromises that might do the trick.

Diagnosing his motives may help. He’s expressing outrage about what he says are serious safety problems. So his overt motivators are facility hazards and his outrage about those hazards. By now, though, he’s got to be outraged as well by his sense that everybody keeps ignoring or pooh-poohing his issues … not to mention trying to kick him off the committee. Don’t ignore these additional sources of outrage. You can’t properly manage his outrage – and thereby make him likelier to become the kind of JHSC member the rest of the committee can stand to work with – if you stay focused exclusively on the substantive safety issues he says he’s outraged about. I’ll bet his outrage goes beyond those issues.

Your comment hypothesizes that he might be driven as much or more by other motives besides hazard and outrage. You specifically mention three possibilities: greed, revenge, and attention. These are well worth pursuing. Figuring out why he keeps giving offense is every bit as important as figuring out why the rest of the JHSC keeps taking offense. But remember, you’re not looking for ways to get him off the committee. You’re looking for ways to keep him on.

I also wonder whether your JHSC might need to revise and/or formalize its terms of engagement and its decision-making protocol. For example, maybe you need to hire an outside facilitator to play traffic cop when necessary, so nobody gets shut out and nobody gets to monopolize meetings. Or maybe you need to establish more formal rules about how your agendas are formulated – rules that protect both a minority member’s right to get onto the agenda and the majority’s right not to have the agenda hijacked meeting after meeting.

Much of the time when one member of a group keeps acting in ways that everybody else considers inappropriate, it turns out the group’s formal procedures are vague-to-nonexistent and the troublemaker is “violating” only informal, unwritten and unspoken norms that he or she has never explicitly been asked to obey. And at least some of the time the troublemaker comes from a different culture than the majority, a culture where the unwritten and unspoken norms are different. (As a new, young Ph.D. in the early 1970s, I was elected – by quirk of fate – to the four-person executive committee of my academic institution. I was by several decades its youngest member, and a fish out of water in other ways as well: a New York hippie Jew on a committee of rural Midwestern WASPs. Although I scrupulously adhered to all executive committee rules, I kept running afoul of norms I perceived only hazily. With 40+ years of hindsight, I think they needed more rules.)

I’ve mentioned a number of possible paths forward you might want to consider. A lot of them are probably side paths or not paths at all. So let me refocus. Your main goal as I see it is to keep the JHSC intact, including its disruptive member. That entails two main tasks: trying to make him feel less inclined to act disruptively and trying to make his colleagues feel less disrupted. This is classic outrage management: his outrage and their outrage, and as I suggested earlier, maybe your own outrage as well.

But there’s something else at stake here that might be even more fundamental: not transgressing labor-management boundaries. More than anything else, I urge you to keep insisting that in your view management should have no say whatever in selecting or removing the union’s representatives on the JHSC. That’s the union’s call. You hope the union will find a solution that doesn’t coerce its disruptive representative into leaving. If you can help find such a solution, you’re happy to try. But you don’t want to infringe on the union’s prerogatives in any way.

Your comment mentions a possible buy-out. If anyone ever suggests that “solution,” I urge you to object vociferously. Surely it would be horribly wrong for management to pay an employee to leave the company as a stratagem to get him off a safety committee! God help you if you did that and then there were an accident he might have prevented – or even an accident he might credibly say he might have prevented – if only you hadn’t removed him!

I don’t especially mind if you lose the battle to keep your troublemaker on the JHSC. But I think it would be a huge problem for you to win a battle to get rid of him. In fact, I think it would be a serious mistake for anyone in management to be anything but supportive of the value of outspoken critics of the company’s safety programs. You have to be on the side of keeping him. This can’t be a ruse, either. You have to mean it.

If the union overrules you, insists on replacing him, and finds a legal way to achieve that objective, so be it.

Titrating warnings: a Zika example

name:Ben Duncan
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

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

field:Communication and health policy consultant
date:December 18, 2016


What do you think of European Zika advice: “empowerment” or cowardice?

The U.S. CDC and the Public Health Agency of Canada have both issued rather clear advice that pregnant women, and women trying to become pregnant, should not travel to areas where transmission of the Zika virus has been reported.

The advice in most European countries (e.g. the U.K., France, Spain, Sweden) and from the ECDC is less prescriptive: pregnant women are told to seek medical advice if they are planning a trip to a country with Zika transmission.

There are uncertainties around the risk of infection – it is probably lower in Asia and Africa, where the virus has been around for many years, than in the Americas – and the chances of damage to the unborn child if a woman does become infected. One way of looking at the European approach, then, is that it empowers pregnant women and their doctors to reach individual risk management decisions, based on the exact circumstances of their planned trip and their tolerance of risk.

Another would be that faced with the competing imperatives of warning of a risk while avoiding diplomatic rows with the affected countries (not to mention economic pressure from the travel industry) European health authorities are “passing the buck” to individual doctors. Which view do you tend towards?

peter responds:

Both. It is surely true that advising a pregnant woman to talk to her doctor before traveling to a Zika-affected place is at least a little less likely to arouse political and commercial ire than advising her not to go, period. It’s also true that “Talk to your doctor” is more respectful of her autonomy, her capacity and right to make her own decisions, than “Don’t go.”

The important question, I think, is which advice does a better job of persuading pregnant women not to endanger their babies. The only real way to answer this question is to test the relative effectiveness of the two messages. As far as I know that hasn’t been done. Though there is quite a large literature on warning effectiveness, a surprisingly large percentage of it is devoted to warning signs and labels, especially vis-à-vis cigarettes. I haven’t found anything directly on point. If you have – or if anyone has – I’d be grateful to see it and reference it.

Two principles that show up endlessly in the warning literature and the broader risk communication literature lead in different directions. One says to keep your advice simple and actionable – and clearly “Don’t go” is simpler and more actionable than “Discuss with your doctor whether you should go.” The other says to treat your audience members as partners in the risk management decision, not just as recipients of that decision – which obviously suggests that “Talk to your doctor” is preferable to “Don’t go.”

A different Zika example: “Don’t get pregnant”

What conclusion should we draw from a different Zika example, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice on the childbearing decisions of women in Zika-affected places?

A wide-ranging June 2016 WHO guidance document link is to a PDF file on preventing Zika transmission included a deeply buried recommendation that women potentially affected by Zika “should be correctly informed and oriented to consider delaying pregnancy.” This brief piece of vague advice didn’t get much attention at first.

It got more a few days later, after WHO issued a clarification. The clarification explained that people who visit Zika-affected countries should delay trying to get pregnant until the possibility of infection has passed and the baby isn’t at risk. (Estimates of how long that is, for men and for women, have changed over time.) But this advice is obviously impractical for people living in Zika-affected places. For them, the clarification said, the guidance “means delaying until we have more answers, more evidence, more science.”

And even this “wait for better science” delay was to be left in the individual woman’s hands. WHO spokeswoman Nyka Alexander explained that “this is not the W.H.O. saying, ‘Hey everybody, don’t get pregnant.’ It’s that they should be advised about this, so they themselves can make the final decision.”

Commentators either praised or criticized WHO for recommending that women living in Zika-affected places shouldn’t get pregnant until the Zika epidemic waned. Some Latin American governments had made precisely that recommendation, and were widely accused of hypocrisy for offering such futile advice in societies where contraception was difficult and abortion illegal. But WHO hadn’t actually advised these women to delay getting pregnant – not even “until we have more answers.” It hadn’t even advised them to consider delaying pregnancy. Although issued via a public document, at least in principle its advice had been aimed at governments in Zika-affected places: to inform and orient women to consider delaying pregnancy.

These distinctions were obviously hard to keep straight. Even the New York Times article about the WHO clarification attempt was headlined, “Delay Pregnancy in Areas with Zika, W.H.O. Suggests.” That may have been the outcome WHO sought, but it wasn’t actually the advice WHO gave.

Though WHO had bent over backwards to be non-prescriptive, it apparently hadn’t bent over backwards enough. So in September 2016 it issued a revised guidance link is to a PDF file , still in effect as I write this in mid-December. There were several changes, but here’s the key one for our purposes:

June guidance:“Country health programmes should ensure that … [i]n order to prevent adverse pregnancy and fetal outcomes, men and women of reproductive age, living in areas where local transmission of Zika virus is known to occur, be correctly informed and oriented to consider delaying pregnancy.”
September guidance:“In regions with active Zika virus transmission, health programmes should ensure that … “[s]exually active men and women be correctly counseled and offered a full range of contraceptive methods to be able to make an informed choice about whether and when to become pregnant.”

The language of “delay” and even the concept of delay have disappeared. In the September version:

  • WHO is not advising couples in Zika-affected places to delay pregnancy.
  • It is not advising couples in Zika-affected places to consider delaying pregnancy (perhaps in consultation with their doctors, as per the European travel advice).
  • It is not advising country health programs to advise couples in Zika-affected places to consider delaying pregnancy.
  • It is merely advising country health programs to “correctly counsel” (whatever that means) couples in Zika-affected places so they can make an “informed choice about whether and when to become pregnant.” And – very significantly – it is also advising country health programs to offer couples “a full range of contraceptive methods” so they stand a decent chance of being able to implement their decisions.

Though embedded in a document about Zika, the September guidance is nothing more than WHO’s longstanding advice to Member States about birth control: to give citizens maximum control over their own childbearing decisions by providing lots of contraception information and choices. There is no Zika-specific advice here. Zika is being used as a teachable moment for WHO’s generic birth control policy position.

An interesting article in the Journal of Medical Ethics argues that this change, and others, are ethical improvements: “Through the new recommendations, WHO supports the view that reproductive choices are deeply personal and, depending on one's situation, attempting to get pregnant is a legitimate, albeit risky, option. Such an endorsement reinforces the view that, insofar as possible, health crises should not in themselves deny individuals their full range of reproductive options (including the option to get pregnant).”

In other words, WHO’s revised guidance respects women’s autonomy more. Does it also “pass the buck” (as you put it)? Leave aside the reality that few if any Zika-affected countries offer “a full range of contraceptive methods.” Assuming a woman has a full range of choices, should WHO and country health programs express an opinion on which choices they think are sensible and which are unwise? I think they should.

People considering travel to Zika-affected places usually have a choice. (There are exceptions, such as employees required to make the trip.) Should their governments express an opinion on what they should decide? Again, I think they should.

A hierarchy of warnings

Here’s a hierarchy of warnings from most to least prescriptive:

number 1
Don’t do it or else.
The behavior is prohibited, and there’s a penalty for violating the prohibition.

number 2

Don’t do it.
The behavior is “prohibited” – but there’s no penalty or a very low probability of enforcement. Some people will conclude that the prohibition is pro forma and they’re free to do what they want. Others will make the more legalistic judgment that prohibited is prohibited.

number 3

Please don’t do it.
Does “please” make a difference? You could argue that the word “please” automatically turns a command into a request. But as far as I know, “Please Don’t Smoke” signs are as enforceable as “No Smoking” signs.

I have no idea whether a courteous command-phrased-as-request gets more or less compliance than a straightforward command. There’s a huge literature that suggests good parents and good bosses give as few commands as possible, phrasing most of what they want done in the form of requests and recommendations. There’s a smaller literature that suggests this is hypocritical when the child or employee knows perfectly well the behavior is obligatory, and confusing when it’s hard to tell – and that both the hypocrisy and the confusion reduce compliance.

number 4

We fervently urge you not to do it.
This is clearly just advice, not a command. You’re free to do what you want. There is no penalty for rejecting the advice. But it’s very strenuous advice. You can tell we feel strongly that you’d be unwise to ignore it. You really, really should do what we advise.

number 5

We advise you not to do it.
This is the middle of the hierarchy: your basic warning.

Question: Is “We advise you not to do it” equivalent to “You shouldn’t do it”? Or are “should” and “shouldn’t” interpreted by recipients as more fervent than mere advice? To my ear, “You shouldn’t do it” sounds awfully prescriptive, almost like a command.

number 6

We advise you not to do it, but if you do it, you should take these precautions.
Finally we come to what the U.S. and Canadian governments are telling pregnant women vis-à-vis travel to Zika-affected places: “We advise you not to go, but if you decide to go anyway, here are some things you should do (or can do – a less prescriptive version) to avoid mosquito bites.”

I have written approvingly about this as the X-Y-Z approach to warnings: “At least do X. We recommend Y. If you want to go further, consider Z.” I think it’s useful to have fallback advice (X) for people who choose not to heed your core advice (Y). People are likelier to comply with a recommendation if it’s bracketed between a less burdensome precaution and a more protective one; and if they pick one of the other two, at least they haven’t blown you off, so they’re probably likelier to pay attention to your future warnings.

But at least sometimes the fallback option weakens the core recommendation. Would pregnant women in the U.S. and Canada be less likely to travel to Zika-affected places if their governments didn’t keep implying that meticulous application of mosquito repellent might be sufficient?

number 7

We advise you to consider not doing it.
In principle #7 is a lot weaker than #5 and #6. Advice not to do something leaves implicit the recipient’s right to reject the advice. Advice to consider not doing it makes that right explicit. It almost acknowledges that the recipient might very well reject the advice. Is that how the recipient interprets it, though? Is “Think hard before you make that mistake” really more freedom-giving, less prescriptive, than “Don’t make that mistake”?

And is “We advise you to consider not doing it” equivalent to “You should consider not doing it”? How about simply saying, “Consider not doing it”? That has the structure of a command, not advice – but the command is simply to give the matter some thought, not necessarily to take any specified action.

number 8

We advise you to consider whether or not to do it.
Unlike #7, this frames the alternatives neutrally, so it’s weaker still. Advice to think about whether or not to do something doesn’t even hint at what the source believes is the right answer. It’s not a warning at all; if anything, it suggests that whether you should do it or not is pretty much a toss-up. But does the recipient actually respond to “Think about whether or not you should avoid Zika-affected places” as way less prescriptive than “Think about whether you should avoid Zika-affected places”?

If so, how about “Think about whether you should travel to Zika-affected places”? Does that tip the balance in the other direction, implying that you really should go? I doubt it.

And are “You should consider whether or not to do it” and “Consider whether or not to do it” equivalent to “We advise you to consider whether or not to do it”?

number 9

We advise you to talk to your doctor about whether or not to do it.
The distinction between #9 and #6 is the focus of your comment: The U.S. and Canadian governments advise pregnant women not to travel to Zika-affected places, while European governments advise them to talk to their doctor about whether they should travel. (Both offer fallback guidance on avoiding mosquito bites.) I guess #9 is weaker advice than #6. But I’m not at all sure it’s weaker than #7 or #8. Advice to “consider” something is less concrete and therefore less actionable than advice to talk to your doctor about it.

There’s even a case to be made that #9 might work better than #6. Most people trust their doctors a lot more than they trust some anonymous, bureaucratic government agency. The agency’s advice to check with your doctor may be harder to shrug off than the agency’s advice to cancel your trip. “Passing the buck” to a third party is sound persuasion strategy when that third party is more credible than you are and pretty much guaranteed to give the same advice you’d have given.

number 10

Here’s some information for you to consider if you’re trying to decide whether or not to do it.
This is what WHO wound up advising governments to say about whether pregnant women living in Zika-affected places should delay pregnancy. Don’t advise any particular decision. Don’t even advise making a decision. Don’t advise anything at all. Just provide information, so people who are trying to make a decision will have a better fact basis for deciding.

That leaves open, of course, whether the information provided is balanced or not – whether the source is truly just informing the decision or trying to influence the decision in a specific direction without coming out of the closet and actually saying what it thinks is best.

Constructing this hierarchy was fun for me. But is it worth anything? Certainly it raises more questions than it answers. But I think it does help us understand that there are subtle differences at work here – differences that may or may not make a significant difference in message effectiveness. That’s why message testing is the universal recommendation of all precaution advocacy experts. Different target audiences may well respond differently to these various formulations. And none of them necessarily responds the way we imagine they will when we’re writing our messages.

Moreover, the hierarchy misses a lot that’s important. Tone matters enormously. So do empathy and compassion. Many ways of framing a warning don’t fit readily into the hierarchy. Consider this one:

We realize how hard it is for people to give up a vacation or a visit to relatives that they’ve already paid for and have been looking forward to for months – but if you’re pregnant it’s really, really dangerous for your baby to travel to a place where Zika is circulating.

That’s arguably just information (#10), with no explicit advice. But it certainly takes a stand; it’s pretty fervent, even though it’s also respectful and empathic. If we just tacked on one short sentence, “So we urge you not to go,” the example would zoom all the way from #10 to #4. But isn’t the urgent recommendation not to go implicit without that last sentence?

As readers of this website know, I believe that messages are received better when they are humanized, combining feelings and empathy with information and (sometimes) advice or even commands.

Still, I think the command-versus-advice-versus-information distinction adds value when you’re trying to decide how to frame a warning. Here are a few tentative conclusions – bearing in mind that I haven’t found a lot of research to lean on:


Commands are the clearest sorts of warnings. They’re least likely to be missed or misunderstood. They cut through message clutter. So if the recipient is feeling compliant, commands work best. Commands also work best in acute emergencies: “All hands on deck” or “Evacuate the building.”

But if the recipient is inclined to feel a little rebellious, given the particular source and topic, then commands may arouse more rebellion than their clarity is worth.


Advice is more respectful than commands, and provokes less rebellion. But by definition, advice puts the control in the recipient’s hands. With a command, the recipient’s only choice is whether to obey or rebel. But advice reframes the choice from “Are you going to obey or not?” to “Do you agree or not?” Disobeying a command is misbehavior. Disagreeing with advice is perfectly fine.

If you think the recipient is likely to agree, turning the obedience question into an agreement question is probably sound strategy. But if he or she is likely to reach a different conclusion, you might be better off with a more prescriptive, more “commanding” sort of message.


Information is most respectful of the recipient’s autonomy. It’s often too respectful to constitute an effective warning. In the absence of advice, information doesn’t even ask the recipient to decide yea or nay. So recipients who don’t already feel a need to decide can just absorb the information (or not) without actually grappling with it.

For people who are already motivated to make a decision, I’m okay with fervent advice phrased as mere information, as in the example above – but you’d best test to make sure the target audience perceives the message accurately. We are all shockingly capable of drawing entirely different conclusions from an informational message than the conclusions the source intended. If you actually care what recipients decide, I advise advice. Not information-free advice, obviously: You still need to tell people why you’re giving the advice you’re giving.

There’s obviously lots of variation within these three categories. Your comment had nothing to do with commands or information. It centered on two different sorts of advice: advising pregnant women not to travel to Zika-affected places versus advising them to talk to their doctor about it. I suspect that distinction has less impact on message effectiveness than other messaging variables such as tone and empathy.

Again, I don’t have a lot of data to support these guesses. Take them with a grain of salt.

I’m not very confident about my hierarchy of warnings. I’m certainly not sure that the U.S. and Canadian governments’ advice that pregnant women shouldn’t travel to Zika-affected places works any better or worse than European governments’ advice that pregnant women should talk to their doctors about whether to travel to such places. If I had to pick, I’d guess that the U.S./Canadian approach works better with most of the target audience because it’s more prescriptive but still not too prescriptive. It tells pregnant women what the government thinks they should do – leaving them free to comply or not, but leaving them in no doubt whatever about the government’s advice.

There’s undoubtedly a small subset of the target audience that finds this advice too command-like, too much of a government intrusion on a personal decision, and responds better to the European approach. I remember a comparable backlash in February 2016 when the CDC advised pregnant women to avoid alcohol. But I suspect most pregnant women who are open to the message at all – who are Googling Zika and reading public health agency websites – want to know what the experts think they should do. A lot of them can figure out that their doctor is getting his or her Zika information from the same websites, and may see “Ask your doctor” as an irritating cop-out rather than a sign of respect.

The impact of the “Ask your doctor” message may also depend on what the surrounding language suggests about what your doctor is likely to say. “You don’t have to trust us – your doctor will tell you the same thing” is a very different implicit message than “This is a tough call, so let your doctor help you consider all the pros and cons for your individual situation.” Recipients who “hear” the first implicit message are a lot likelier to cancel their trips than recipients who “hear” the second, whether or not they talk to their doctors.

Bear in mind that all these distinctions apply only to pregnant women who are thinking about travel and conscientiously trying to find out whether there are any medical reasons why they shouldn’t go to a particular destination. None of it matters for lots of women travelers, including:

  • Those who don’t know they’re pregnant.
  • Those who don’t realize their travel destination is on the list of Zika-affected places.
  • Those who aren’t worried about possible health impacts on their babies.
  • Those who are taking so many pregnancy-related precautions already (giving up coffee and alcohol, etc.) that they’re unwilling to consider any additional ones.
  • Those who doubt that Zika is anywhere near as dangerous as the media are claiming.
  • Those who see their travel plans as obligatory or essential rather than discretionary.
  • Those who don’t have the skill, inclination, or equipment to check out what public health agencies are saying.

As always in precaution advocacy, a lot of the target audience gets missed. Figuring out ways to reach the groups we’re missing is probably a higher priority than tinkering with wording for the groups we’re reaching.

Simultaneous warnings with differing urgency: Zika in Florida

Let me close with something I’m actually confident about. People may or may not respond differently to different ways of phrasing the same warning. But they are very sensitive to warnings expressed with different levels of urgency and prescriptiveness in the same message. Consider these two examples:

We advise you to do X. We advise you to consider doing Y. [Obviously the source thinks X is a no-brainer whereas Y is more debatable.]

We advise people in Group A to do X. We advise people in Group B to consider whether they should do X too. [Obviously the source thinks Group A faces a higher risk than B and is more in need of the recommended precaution X.]

The U.S. CDC had an opportunity to make use of simultaneous warnings with differing urgency when locally transmitted Zika was reported in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Before local Zika transmission was reported in the continental United States, the CDC had advised pregnant Americans not to travel to any country where Zika transmission had been reported. (There was also advice for Americans who were trying to get pregnant or likely to get pregnant, and for their partners.) It made an exception for the high-altitude parts of some Latin American countries, where there were no mosquitoes to transmit Zika. But with that exception, the criterion was simple: Any local transmission anywhere in the country put that country on the CDC’s “don’t travel” advisory list for pregnant women.

But in July 2016, the first locally transmitted Zika cases turned up in two South Florida counties. Obviously, the U.S. CDC couldn’t put the United States on the “don’t travel” list because of a handful of cases in South Florida. Nor did other countries wish to do so. Their rationale was partly political and economic: Restricting travel to the U.S., even just for pregnant women, was a much bigger deal than restricting travel to a Latin American country or a Caribbean island. But their rationale had a scientific basis as well. The mosquito responsible for most Zika transmission is Aedes aegypti, which is seldom found in much of the U.S. And disease surveillance in the U.S. is presumably better than disease surveillance in most other Zika-affected countries. So the CDC and its peer agencies around the world had to come up with criteria for imposing travel warnings on small bits of the U.S. instead of the whole country.

Leaving aside the oft-mentioned but low-probability scenario of “migrating mosquitoes,” local transmission in South Florida meant that some human traveler got infected in a Zika-affected place outside the continental U.S. and brought the infection to South Florida; then a local mosquito bit the traveler and got infected; then the mosquito bit a local non-traveler and passed on the infection.

The important question was whether the chain stopped there or continued. Did the one mosquito that passed on the infection to one local person die before passing it on to anyone else? Did the one local person who was infected by that mosquito recover before any other mosquitoes bit that person and got infected too, ready to pass it on to others? Or was there a continuing chain in South Florida of Zika-infected mosquitoes and Zika-infected people?

This was the key question that had to be answered (and still has to be answered) with regard to every case of local Zika transmission: Is it a “singleton” – a dead end – or part of a chain of transmission? And if there’s a chain, has it run its course or is it continuing?

To find out, epidemiologists started tracking where exactly in South Florida the known infected people had been – the ones who came to the attention of public health officials, probably because they had symptoms, went to the doctor, and got tested. If investigators could find a cluster of infected people who lived or worked or hung out in the same small neighborhood, that suggested the neighborhood might be a “transmission zone.” Once a transmission zone was identified, the epidemiologists could investigate whether others in the zone were also infected, and when (if ever) their symptoms appeared – which in turn provided evidence about whether the transmission chain had died out already or there was likely to be ongoing transmission.

In the months that followed, four transmission zones were identified, all in Miami-Dade County: Wynwood, Little River, South Miami Beach, and North Miami Beach. Each time a transmission zone was identified, the CDC added that transmission zone to the list of places pregnant women were advised not to travel. This was the first time – now the first four times – that the CDC had ever imposed a domestic travel warning.

All four transmission zones have since been declared “cleared” – that is, no new cases have been found with symptom onset less than 45 days previously. But as long as the zones were considered active, they were subject to exactly the same CDC warning as countries with ongoing Zika transmission.

The continuing Miami-Dade problem is this: As of December 13, at least 114 locally transmitted Zika cases have been found in Miami-Dade County that couldn’t be tied to any of the four transmission zones. It seems unlikely that all these cases are singletons: transmission dead ends in which one mosquito bit one infected traveler and then passed the infection on to one local resident … and the chain stopped there. Why would Miami-Dade have so many singletons when only a handful have been reported anywhere else in Florida – and until late November 2016, none anywhere else in the continental U.S.?

True, the Miami area has a lot more infected travelers than most places, giving local transmission chains a better chance of starting. But other vulnerable cities like Houston aren’t that far behind. To most expert observers, it seems a lot likelier that there are undiscovered transmission chains in Miami-Dade – that Miami-Dade is one big transmission zone. It wouldn’t be especially surprising if the only big transmission zone in the U.S. happened to be Miami-Dade County, Florida. By contrast, it would be a huge coincidence if Miami-Dade happened to have 100+ transmission dead-ends when so few were popping up anywhere else in the country.

This is the logic that led the CDC to announce a travel warning for all of Miami-Dade County – but a less intense travel warning than the ones announced for Wynwood, Little River, South Miami Beach, and North Miami Beach. The CDC invented useful new terminology for the purpose – red zones and yellow zones. The four neighborhoods with documented clusters were decreed to be red zones, to which pregnant women were advised not to travel. All of Miami-Dade County was pronounced a yellow zone, to which pregnant women were advised to consider not traveling.

Now that the four red zones have been cleared, the only remaining advice is for pregnant women to consider staying away from all of Miami-Dade County, including the four former transmission zones.

On November 28, 2016, Texas became the second U.S. state to report local Zika transmission. One locally transmitted case was reported in Brownsville, Texas. On December 9, four more cases were reported in the same small Brownsville neighborhood. And on December 14, the CDC designated Brownsville – all of Brownsville – as a yellow zone. The travel advice in the CDC announcement: “Pregnant women who live in other areas should consider postponing travel to Brownsville.” At least so far, the CDC hasn’t designated the neighborhood as a red zone.

Though it sounds sensible, I have no way to know whether the red-versus-yellow distinction is strictly science-based. Maybe the CDC wanted to make all of Miami-Dade a red zone and was talked out of it for political or economic reasons. Either way, I think the existence of a county-wide yellow zone made the smaller neighborhood red zones more powerful and more convincing by contrast.

Public health agencies in other countries didn’t necessarily follow the CDC’s lead. As of December 14, the United Kingdom government website says all of Florida is “moderate risk” for Zika and pregnant women “should consider postponing” travel there. It says all of Miami-Dade County is “high risk” and pregnant women “should postpone” travel there. And it says Cameron County, Texas, in which Brownsville is located, is “moderate risk” and pregnant women “should consider postponing” travel there.

All of these designations are more conservative – that is, more risk-averse – than the CDC designations.

As far as I know, the CDC hasn’t done any empirical testing of its Zika travel advisories for pregnant women. But I’d be surprised if recipients didn’t notice the difference between a red zone that pregnant women should avoid and a yellow zone that they should consider avoiding. The CDC was sending two powerful, simultaneous signals of relative risk: the differing advice (“Don’t do it” versus “Consider not doing it”) and the color coding. Now that there are no longer any red zones, the difference between the two pieces of advice is a lot less salient.

But the CDC is still using the color coding, at least so far. As of December 14, 2016, the CDC webpage “Advice for people living in or traveling to South Florida” still has sections entitled “Guidance for Zika cautionary areas (Yellow areas)” and “Guidance for previous Zika active transmission areas (Red areas) – even though it’s the same guidance insofar as travel is concerned: “Pregnant women should consider postponing travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County.”

The section on red areas defines a red area as “[a] geographic area where local, state, and CDC officials have determined that the intensity of Zika virus transmission presents a significant risk to pregnant women.” It defines a yellow area as “[a] geographic area where local transmission has been identified, but evidence is lacking that the intensity of transmission is comparable to that in a red area.” The CDC guidance continues:

The intensity of Zika virus transmission is determined by several factors including geographic distribution of cases, number of cases identified, known or suspected links between cases and population density. There are currently no red areas designated in the United States.

The guidance for yellow areas now applies to the identified areas in Wynwood, North Miami Beach, South Miami Beach, and Little River, FL, where the risk of Zika remains but is no longer greater than that in the rest of Miami-Dade County.

The key generic point here for titrating warnings is this: The easiest way to make the intensity or urgency of a warning clear to recipients is to put it in the context of other, simultaneous warnings that are stronger or weaker. People may or may not interpret the wording of a warning the way its source intended. They may or may not notice the difference between “Don’t do it” and “Consider not doing it,” for example. But they are far likelier to notice that difference when the two warnings are in the same message – “Don’t do X and consider not doing Y” – especially if X and Y are color-coded red and yellow.

Labeling a risk: scary words versus neutral words versus euphemisms

name: Peter Rembischevski
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Pesticide regulation
date:September 24, 2016


I work with pesticide regulation in Brazil, and as you certainly know, this issue frequently generates controversy and heated debates (or outrage).

When dealing with pesticide risks (and perceptions), we observe an interesting paradoxical situation operating. The rural workers, who use these products in their routine, in general don’t care. They don’t perceive the risks they are exposed to as serious. So they resist using PPE. For them the pesticide risk is relatively high-hazard and low-outrage. On the other hand, the general population fears tiny amounts of pesticide residues in the food. For them the risk is relatively low-hazard and high-outrage.

That’s a typical situation. In your terms, we should do outrage management for the general population and precaution advocacy for agricultural workers.

But the point I want to get to is specifically regarding the terminology used to designate these substances. We have in Brazil a unique situation. To the best of my knowledge, Brazil is the only country in the world that officially defines in federal law the term “agrotoxico” (a neologism, something like “agro-toxin”). Since 1989, this is the term we use in Brazil to describe the substances known as “pesticides” in all English-speaking countries. Even in our Spanish-speaking neighborhood countries, the term employed is “plaguicida,” which is the correct technical term, translated as “pesticide.”

At this point you may be wondering why Brazil has adopted such a peculiar terminology, different from the rest of the world. The historical context is complex, but the reason was basically to convey the idea of hazard/risk in order to alert people about the dangerousness of these substances. The term Brazil used before the 1989 law was enacted would translate in English as “agricultural defensive” (i.e. “plant protection product”), a term that extolled these products’ efficacy but ignored their health and environmental hazards.

The term “agrotoxico” was coined to be a primitive tool of risk communication for both workers and the general population.

I am trying to resist the temptation to consider pesticide residue risk assessment an “objective” (calculation) matter, and the perception of pesticide risk as a “subjective” one. I simply want to refute the claim that the neologism “agrotoxico” is effective risk communication. To me it seems to be much more “fear communication” than “risk communication.” I believe it doesn’t work as a tool for proper risk communication, as intended over 25 years ago.

The intention of the legislators was to promote “food awareness.” But in my opinion it just promoted “food fear” – that is, fear of pesticide residues – amongst people.

Moreover, I think this tactic didn’t have the desired effect on the behavior of rural workers. In fact, Brazil has always been, and remains, a world leader in the use (and misuse) of pesticides. Rural workers simply don’t care how frightening the name you put on the products they utilize; if they need them, they use them. It’s as simple as that. Of course, enthusiasts for the term “agrotoxico” will say that pesticide (mis)use in Brazil would be even worse if the official terminology remained “plant protection product,” as in the past. There is no way to prove them wrong.

I wish I could somehow measure what kind of impact (negative, positive, or neither) results from the use of a creepy term like “agrotoxico” as an “educative” way to describe the substances used to control agricultural pests. Does it raise the awareness of rural workers in useful ways? I doubt it. Does it frighten the general public in undesirable ways? I think so.

I would appreciate receiving any comment from you.

peter responds:

It is familiar ground that workers often shrug off a significant risk while bystanders with much less exposure and thus much smaller risk overreact to the same hazard.

This is inexplicable in hazard terms. (You call it “paradoxical.”) But it is perfectly sensible in outrage terms. Among the outrage-based explanations are these:

  • Familiarity – workers are more familiar with the risk than bystanders, so workers are less outraged.
  • Voluntariness – workers chose and keep choosing to take the risk, while bystanders are exposed involuntarily, so workers are less outraged.
  • Fairness – workers are paid to take the risk, while bystanders see no benefit, so workers are less outraged.
  • Control – workers may be able to reduce their risk with personal protective equipment, while bystanders are less able to control their exposure (if they know about the risk at all), so workers are less outraged.

There are rebuttals to these arguments. If management keeps a risk secret, for example, then it is neither familiar nor voluntary for the workers who are exposed. Workers may have few employment options other than the risky one. Bystanders may benefit economically from a risky industry in their neighborhood. And so forth.

Still, the view that the same level of hazard is more acceptable when borne by employees than when borne by community members is nearly universal. It is often built into regulatory standards. In the U.S., and I assume in Brazil as well, the maximum permitted occupational exposure to a hazardous substance is often very substantially higher – even orders of magnitude higher – than the maximum permitted community exposure.

As your comment points out, that’s the situation with regard to pesticides used in agriculture. It follows that quite often employees need to be warned and bystanders need to be reassured. In both cases the goal is to bring your audience’s perception of a hazard closer to the experts’ perception of that hazard.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t easily aim two different hazard messages at these two very different groups of stakeholders. Telling people whose exposure is high and whose outrage is low that X is dangerous to them, while simultaneously telling people whose exposure is low and whose outrage is high that X is safe for them, is an oversimplification, but it’s basically true: X is relatively dangerous for people who are highly exposed and not taking precautions they should take, and relatively safe for people whose exposures are tiny and who are already taking steps (reasonable or excessive ones) to avoid those exposures.

The problem of communicating these two apparently inconsistent messages is logistical, not ethical. The two target audiences will see each other’s messages too often. Non-employee neighbors of a facility may be friends or even family members of employees. Websites and fliers are accessible to all. A company or government agency that simultaneously tries to arouse outrage in workers and reduce outrage in bystanders about the same hazard risks accusations of dishonesty.

You can still target some messaging, and you should when you can.

But the wiser course is usually to tell both audiences that the dose makes the poison, and that X is therefore a serious risk to employees but a tiny risk to bystanders. And then share your dilemma. Explain that you’re worried that both audiences may misunderstand their risk in opposite directions: Workers too often shrug off their sizable risk from X because they’re so used to it and because they get paid for it, while bystanders too often take X too much to heart because it’s involuntary, uncompensated, and unfamiliar, even though for them it’s a very small risk.

In short, craft identical messages for your two audiences – messages that explicitly say that you are simultaneously addressing two audiences whose risk profiles are very different.

One other basic principle before I turn to your terminology concerns: Insofar as you have to choose between warning people who face a serious risk and reassuring people whose risk is tiny, the former is the more important task. Of course you should try to do both, and I think you usually can do both. But when you have to choose, it’s not “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” It’s damned if you fail to warn successfully and merely darned if you fail to reassure successfully. In other words, risk communicators should always prioritize warning the audiences whose hazard is greater than their outrage – then try to do the best they can to reassure the audiences whose outrage is greater than their hazard.

Terminology choices

Now, what about labels? You’re unhappy with “agro-toxin” because it sounds like a scary word. That’s why Brazilian authorities picked it in the first place. So they were prioritizing warnings over reassurances, prioritizing the insufficiently concerned worker audience over the excessively concerned bystander audience – just as I think they should. The collateral damage, you fear, is that the word contributes to the Brazilian public’s excessive concern about pesticide risk.

I have to tell you that in the U.S., the word “pesticide” – which you think is more neutral and less scary than “agro-toxin” – is considered scary too.

And if a genuinely neutral term could be found, a new word nobody in the audience had ever heard before, that new word would soon take on the same scary connotations. I have watched this happen in recent months with the word “naled,” first in Puerto Rico and then in Miami Beach.

As you know but other readers may not, naled is an agricultural pesticide/agro-toxin, an organophosphate with a long history of use against insects. But very few people in the U.S. except farmers and entomologists had ever heard of naled until the U.S. CDC recommended its use against Aedes aegypti as part of the effort to reduce the risk of Zika virus disease. It took very little time for the brand-new word “naled” to take on sinister overtones in the minds of people who worry about pesticide exposures.

The source of outrage isn’t the word used to designate a risk. It’s other aspects of that risk.

With regard to naled, for example:

  • Proponents consistently overstated its effectiveness and understated its risks.
  • Too often they decreed naled to be “safe” and “effective” – as opposed to making a more nuanced case that despite its safety drawbacks and the limitations on its likely efficacy against Zika, it was still safe enough and effective enough to be worth trying in the hope of reducing the devastation Zika causes in the babies of women infected while pregnant.
  • They typically emphasized the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had decided that naled was safe and effective enough to justify its use in a wide range of applications, though not all. They usually framed this as “EPA says naled is safe.”
  • But they usually neglected to mention that the comparable government decision-maker in the European Union had reached precisely the opposite conclusion and banned naled from further use.
  • The Florida Department of Health, which faced opposition for its decision to spray naled in Miami Beach, actually denied that naled was banned link is to a PDF file in the E.U.; its website continues to claim, falsely, that the chemical’s manufacturers simply decided not to apply for an E.U. license.

I am not claiming that the untrustworthiness of naled’s proponents is the sole factor responsible for the passion of its opponents. Nor am I claiming, more broadly, that people’s aversion to pesticides/agro-chemicals results solely from the untrustworthiness of the proponents of those chemicals. But I am very confident that trust is a bigger issue in pesticide/agro-toxin controversies than what term is used to describe chemicals that are designed to kill unwanted organisms.

In fact, the word “pesticide” is a good example of what I’m talking about. Despite the word’s linguistic origins referring to one of the most devastating diseases of all time, the plague, at least in English “pest” now usually means something or somebody that is trivially irritating; our children and grandchildren are sometimes pests. “Nuisance mosquitoes” that ruin your outdoor barbecue are pests, even if they do not transmit disease. So when agriculture calls an insect that devastates crops a “pest,” in ordinary language that is something of an understatement. And calling an insect that kills people or causes birth defects (or that transmits a pathogen that does so) a “pest” is such an understatement that many would find it offensive. In your country and even in mine, Zika and the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits it are a scourge, not just a pest. And yet the term “pesticide” doesn’t sound like an understatement at all. We all know the word applies to chemicals that can sometimes do great harm, not just to target organisms but to human bystanders as well.

“Pesticide,” in short, is a scary word even though “pest” isn’t – because pesticides are scary chemicals no matter what you call them. And pesticides are especially scary chemicals when their proponents cannot be trusted.

Another example from a field related to mine is the unending effort to find a name that isn’t pejorative for the practice of emphasizing positive news and suppressing or minimizing negative news. “Publicity” became pejorative in people’s minds, so it was replaced with “public relations,” which was replaced with “public affairs” and “communications.” Nothing works for long. It doesn’t really matter what you call a spin doctor. It’s what spin doctors do that makes any new label pejorative in a short time.

I have written about this issue before, usually in the context of risk-related euphemisms. “Pesticide” isn’t a euphemism the way “plant protection product” was. To your credit, you’re not arguing for a positive term, just a neutral one.

But the principle is the same, and so is my advice: Grab the bull by the horns.

When talking to people who are worried about something, call it what they call it:

  • “tar sands” not “oil sands”
  • “fracking” not “hydraulic fracturing”
  • “sewage” not “biosolids”
  • “explosion” not “rapid oxidation”
  • “swine flu” not “pH1N1"
  • “horrific side effects” not “serious adverse events”
  • “incineration” not “thermal treatment”
  • “profit” not ROI
  • high fructose corn syrup” not “corn sugar” (a good example of a neutral term that took on pejorative meaning, so the industry went searching for a positive term)
  • “Chemical Manufacturers Association” not “American Chemistry Council”
  • “food irradiation” not “cold pasteurization”
  • “mine waste dump” not “tailings impoundment” or “tailings pond”
  • even “pink slime” not “lean, finely textured beef” or “LFTB”

My perennial advice to clients faced with an outrage management challenge: Use the terminology that disquiets your stakeholders, acknowledge why it disquiets them, concede that the disquiet is at least natural and perhaps partly justified, and then address the issue on its merits – why you think the reality is less alarming than the pejorative term implies.

Once we agree that avoiding scary labels isn’t really useful even when dealing with excessively outraged audiences, the terminology problem you have raised disappears.

You are right, I think, that using a scary word probably doesn’t help much (if at all) to alarm apathetic audiences – agricultural workers who are apathetic about pesticides/agro-toxins, for example. At best it may occasionally remind them that they ought to take the risk more seriously.

But I think you’re wrong to worry that using a scary word can exacerbate the outrage of audiences that are taking the risk too seriously – such as food consumers who over-worry about pesticide/agro-toxin residues. Rather, the scary word puts the risk issue forthrightly on the table for candid discussion. A euphemism or even a neutral term can’t do that nearly as well.

Peter Rembischevski responds:

I fully agree when you say that, if we have to make a choice, we should prioritize warning people about serious risks instead of reassuring them in case of high outrage for low risks.

However, I think it might be pertinent to reflect more on the case of people fearing pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, considering the benefits of consumption of these healthy foods. In Brazil, a tropical and fertile country, the rate of consumption of fruits and vegetable is far below the five daily portions recommended by the World Health Organization. Less than 20% of the adult population eat that much, and the situation is worse for the low-income population.

If the terminology used to describe pesticides is scary enough to discourage people from consuming a healthy diet, then finding new terminology is not just a matter of reassurance. And saying that people should turn to organic food does not help, since low-income people simply can’t afford it.

And what about contradictory messages from the same source? The government tries to encourage people to consume healthy fresh foods (and avoid excess salt, sugar, etc.). But at the same time people hear everywhere a kind of subliminal propaganda saying that these allegedly healthy foods may not be so healthy, as they contain exogenous synthetic substances called “agro-toxins” by their own government. The problem gets worse when the results of the national food monitoring program are massively divulged by the big media, pointing to each vegetable that contains “agrotoxicos,” and suggesting that these vegetables are unsafe to eat.

Another subliminal (unintentional) message can result from calling only this specific class of substances toxic: People may decide that other classes of substances (e.g. medicines) are nontoxic, since the government doesn’t expressly label them as “toxics.”

On the other hand, your point that the term “pesticide” evokes the same scary sensation in U.S. individuals (and probably also in the U.K., Australia, and so on) is quite interesting. It suggest that if we change the name from “agrotoxico” to “pesticida” in the Brazilian law, people probably would get just as scared or even more scared with the brand new name.

By the way, the National Congress is currently discussing considerable changes in the law, including altering the terminology (again!) from “agrotoxico” to “defensivo fitossanitário” (phytosanitary defender), which I see as clearly a throwback.

Peter Sandman responds:

You’re worried about two sorts of double-messages:

  • That people are being told to eat healthy fruits and vegetables but also being told to avoid dangerous pesticide residues on those fruits and vegetables.
  • That people are being warned about pesticide residues but not about other risky chemicals such as medicines.

I wonder whether if it’s really true that people’s fear of pesticides is a significant disincentive to eat healthy foods (as opposed to an incentive to wash them). I also wonder whether people feel the government is talking out of both sides of its mouth when it warns about pesticides while urging fruit-and-vegetable consumption, or when it warns about pesticides in a scarier way than it warns about medicines.

I assume the Brazilian government, like the U.S. government, does warn people that medicines can be dangerous – while simultaneously urging them to take the meds their doctors prescribe. I’m not sure people see this as a double message. They may simply see it as a dilemma, which it is.

People often decide not to take particular medicines because of the harmful side effects they’ve been warned about. Sometimes that’s a wise decision; the side effects are a good reason to choose a different drug, or no drug at all. Other times they’re overreacting to their fear of side effects and would be better off accepting the risk of the medicine than the risk of going unmedicated.

There is even the same debate over terminology. My clients in public health don’t like the term “side effects,” especially when it’s applied to unlikely bad outcomes of treatments they vehemently recommend (vaccinations, for example). So they often substitute what they consider a more neutral (and more technical) term like “adverse events.” Instead of reassuring worried people, I think the latter term makes them feel like their worries are being disrespected.

Assuming the problems you describe vis-à-vis excessive pesticide fears are real and serious, I doubt a name change from “agrotoxico” to “pesticido” or “defensivo fitossanitário” will help. The switch to neutral or positive language for a negatively loaded class of chemicals might even make things worse.

Remembering Enron: law versus ethics versus outrage

name:Leesa Soulodre
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Reputation risk
date:July 25, 2016


I recently had the opportunity to dine with Andrew Fastow, former Group CFO of Enron. It was an enlightening conversation.

I was astounded, having recently completed a desktop audit of listed Asian companies, to note that despite today’s more regulated and enlightened business environment, we continue to witness Enron-esque failures of corporate governance such as aggressive accounting practices.

Perhaps the one thing that surprised me most about Andrew’s case which was dated more than ten years ago, was that he was not jailed for breaking the law, but rather for abusing the principle of law. The Board or CEO had indeed signed off on every action.

Fastow observed that it is often the ambiguity and complexity of laws and regulations that breed opportunities for loopholes and problematic decisions. In his time as Chief Loophole Officer, these were Enron bonusable events, not corporate ethics or conduct violations.

While I appreciate that corporate directors, management, attorneys, and auditors should all ask the hard questions in order to ensure that companies not only follow the rules, but also uphold the principles behind them, my question to you is how you believe it’s best for Chief Reputation Risk Officers to proactively steer their companies through the global outrage battlefield when their operations are largely “distributed operations” – e.g. joint ventures, licensees, agents etc. operating in largely unregulated markets or in markets where Group Ethics and Conduct Standards cannot be easily enforced.

Given that these emerging markets are often the ones fueling growth for our global enterprises, the answer clearly isn’t just don’t operate there. I know our peers would be grateful to hear your expert opinion.

peter responds:

Readers unfamiliar with the Enron scandal of 2001 might want to read the Wikipedia articles on:

In a nutshell, Enron looked like a hugely successful corporate giant making gargantuan profits out of innovative strategies of energy trading. But the company’s profits turned out to be illusory, a product of “innovative” and thoroughly dishonest financial recordkeeping that hid the company’s losses from shareholders, regulators, and everyone else – while top company officials including Fastow siphoned off millions of dollars for themselves. When the house of cards started to unravel, Enron’s share price plummeted to near-zero, leading to what was then the biggest corporate bankruptcy in history. Tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs and pensions. Enron’s auditor, the Arthur Andersen company, had okayed the creative bookkeeping; it also went out of business after losing its public accountancy license for shredding Enron documents. Fastow was a cooperative witness in civil and criminal cases against his former colleagues, so he received a comparatively light sentence of six years in prison.

Your question to me isn’t really about Fastow or Enron. You want my take on how to manage reputation and avoid outrage in a decentralized organization that does business in many different cultures with different legal systems, different ethical norms, and different outrage hot buttons.

I’ll get to that, but first I want to address what you say about Enron and Fastow, particularly that Fastow “was not jailed for breaking the law, but rather for abusing the principle of law.” You add:

Fastow observed that it is often the ambiguity and complexity of laws and regulations that breed opportunities for loopholes and problematic decisions. In his time as Chief Loophole Officer, these were Enron bonusable events, not corporate ethics or conduct violations.

Even leaving aside the added complications that result from decentralized operations in a single global economy that is far from a single global culture, you’re raising a very tough issue: the porous boundaries separating – but not really separating – law, ethics, and outrage.

Illegal versus unethical versus unacceptable

I read your June 3, 2016 LinkedIn article on Fastow, “Financials hidden in plain sight – Ask ‘Why?’” At the end of that piece, you briefly mention the LEADS mnemonic developed by Mike Love:

  1. Is it Legal? (Both locally and internationally)
  2. Is it Ethical? (Is it regarded as unethical behavior by stakeholders even if legal?)
  3. Is it Acceptable? (Is it criticized by some, but regarded as acceptable by most who matter most?)
  4. Is it Defensible? (Could we defend our action if this became front page news?)
  5. Is it Sensible? (Even if it failed all or some of the EAD criteria, does it still make good business sense?)

Love’s complaint is that too many decision-makers ask only the first question and the last, neglecting to consider whether their intentions are ethical, acceptable, or defensible. No quarrel there. But I want to tinker a bit with Love’s definitions. Here is my version of LEADS:

  1. Is it Legal? (Both locally and internationally)
  2. Is it Ethical? (Even if it’s legal, does it pass muster according to your own ethical standards?)
  3. Is it Acceptable? (Even if it’s legal and you consider it ethical, will stakeholders, especially those you do or should care most about, be outraged that you did it?)
  4. Is it Defensible? (If it provokes outrage in some stakeholders, could you defend it against their public opposition to the satisfaction of most stakeholders, especially those you do or should care most about?)
  5. Is it Sensible? (Even if it passes all of the LEAD criteria, it might still be dumb. And even if it fails some of them, it might still be smart. Does it make good business sense?)

As your comments about Fastow suggest, it is hard to be sure that he and Enron’s other top managers broke clear laws they knew they were breaking, and thus deserved to be imprisoned. The principal alternative possibility is that they exploited loopholes, misbehaving in ways that were clearly unethical but weren’t clearly illegal (though probably they should have been) – in which case they merited shaming rather than imprisoning. Some of what they did might even have been considered ethical if it hadn’t turned out so badly, though some of it, at least, was clearly unethical.

But was it actually illegal? Answering that question would take a thorough knowledge of the details of Enron’s byzantine financial manipulations and an equally thorough knowledge of the relevant laws at the time. Even then, I suspect a fair analyst would end up concluding that there was a case to be made that Fastow and his colleagues broke the law and a contrary case that they cleverly, if unethically, evaded the law. It’s relevant to note that a major change in U.S. law, the multi-pronged Sarbanes-Oxley Act, resulted directly from the Enron scandal. The fact that Congress responded to Enron with a slew of new prohibitions at least suggests that maybe much of what Enron did wasn’t so clearly illegal at the time Enron was doing it.

Here’s what we know for sure. Enron’s collapse aroused widespread public outrage. When public outrage is high, officials look for people to blame – especially if the officials fear being blamed themselves (for legislating unwisely, failing to regulate properly, under-reacting to warning signs, etc.). The most effective way for officials to outsource blame is to find a law that somebody can be prosecuted and convicted for violating. And laws are vague enough that it is usually possible to accomplish this task, all the more so when juries and even judges are experiencing the same outrage as the general public.

Prudent corporate managers know that the boundaries are porous between “legal” and “ethical” and between “ethical” and “acceptable” in the LEADS mnemonic. Unacceptable outcomes arouse outrage, which causes the public to judge that somebody must have behaved unethically, which causes officials to look for a legal basis for punishing the miscreant or miscreants.

I suspect that society is more and more inclined to ignore the distinctions among unacceptable, unethical, and illegal. In the U.S., at least, we used to complain wryly that “there oughta be a law” to right every possible wrong, but we didn’t actually think there was one. Now we insist on it. In a society that distinguishes less and less between outrage-inducing and illegal (think “hate speech,” for example), arousing public outrage is more legally dangerous than it used to be.

Criminal prosecution isn’t the only legal risk increased by stakeholder outrage. Like prosecutors, regulators, too, are greatly influenced by community outrage. An infraction that arouses widespread controversy is far likelier to get regulatory attention than one that nobody notices or nobody minds. It’s also far likelier to get a tough penalty. It leads to more aggressive future oversight. Absent the controversy, in fact, the regulator might not have considered it an infraction at all.

Outrage has non-legal costs as well, of course. Corporate reputation is an asset; it is both a significant component of a company’s valuation and a significant contributor to the company’s profitability. That too is truer than it used to be. For a variety of reasons, customers, neighbors, shareholders, prospective investors, and other stakeholders are all increasingly responsive to a company’s reputation.

To a company’s reputations, rather. It has at least two: its good reputation (how loved it is) and its bad reputation (how hated it is). Seeing these two as opposite extremes on a single spectrum is a conceptual error. It is possible to be both much-loved and much-hated. Moreover, the public steps companies can take to burnish their positive reputation (philanthropy, for example) are entirely different than the steps they can take to ameliorate their negative reputation (apologizing, for example). Often the two are in direct competition: The things you do to calm your critics may irritate your supporters, while what you do to rally your supporters may enrage your critics.

There are other things companies can do that should please allies and opponents alike, such as improving working conditions or reducing dangerous emissions. But much of the time they have to choose whom to please. For a detailed argument that ameliorating negatives matters more than burnishing positives, see my 2010 column on “Two Kinds of Reputation Management.”

Enron neglected to look after its negative reputation. This is one way to view the company’s demise and the conviction of some of its senior managers: as outcomes of its failure to anticipate and manage stakeholder outrage.

Legal punishment for outrage offenses

I feel very queasy about your assertion that Enron executives were punished for violating principles, as opposed to actual laws. Legal systems do punish people for that. But I think they shouldn’t.

Sometimes it’s not even principles, it’s outrage masquerading as principles. When the whole society feels outraged at an outcome, it tries to figure out whom to blame. It wants to blame somebody! So outrage sometimes leads to the enunciation of “ethical principles” that not only were never codified into laws; they weren’t even seen as ethical principles until something bad happened that got people outraged. Sometimes, in fact, these new, ad-hoc ethical principles would look pretty questionable if expressed as abstractions; they’re made-to-order to punish the perpetrators of a particular bad outcome. And then prosecutors and regulators are motivated, or even pressured, to find a legal way to punish the person or company everybody’s trying to blame.

Enron aside, there are far too many instances of that process at work in the U.S. – so there are undoubtedly even more instances in societies with weaker traditions of the rule of law.

See for example the 2010 dialogue on this website entitled “What Did Goldman Sachs Do Wrong?”, in which I argue that widespread outrage at an awful outcome – the Global Financial Crisis – triggered a search for scapegoats that ended in prosecutions for finance industry behavior which, absent the outcome, would have been considered neither illegal nor unethical. My point in a nutshell: It made far more sense to be angry at government for deregulating the finance industry than at the industry for maximizing profit in ways permitted by the (deregulated) laws. Just as the Enron scandal led to the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, the Global Financial Crisis led to a multitude of new laws and regulations. That’s at least a strong hint that the crisis was a product more of under-regulation than of corporate malfeasance.

Of course it’s not that simple. Companies lobby. They persuade or push or sometimes even pay government officials to make something legal or keep something legal that ought to be illegal (ought to be illegal because there’s a consensus that it’s unethical, perhaps; or for some other reason, such as because it’s too dangerous to allow whether it’s ethical or not – because it’s dangerously likely to trigger a global economic disaster, for example). Having successfully opposed laws and regulations that would have stopped them from doing what they want to do, companies do it; it leads to bad outcomes; people get outraged; everyone looks for ways to punish the companies – and then someone like me comes come along and say that’s not fair; they just followed the incentive system; we should blame the government, not them. I don’t for a moment dispute that companies have too damn much control over the incentive system.

Once we accept that the distinction between companies and governments isn’t so rigid, that they’re in it together, then outrage is one of the public’s key lobbying tools – a way for the public to counterbalance corporate power. Companies too often lobby governments to make undesirable behavior legal. Public outrage too often motivates governments to treat that behavior as if it were illegal anyway. There’s a kind of balance there.

Still, consider the current effort to prosecute ExxonMobil for “hiding” global warming research. Decades before climate change became a hot public issue, in-house researchers at the company found preliminary evidence that global warming might get bad. They published their studies freely. Their findings also helped convince management to make some internal policy changes in case they were right. But they didn’t convince management to abandon the company’s core business, fossil fuels. In many of its internal decisions and nearly all of its public positions, the company continued to see the threat of climate change as comparatively minor. The company also supported organizations dedicated to pooh-poohing climate change concerns; sometimes the support was public and sometimes it wasn’t. Only much later did ExxonMobil start taking global warming more seriously in its strategic decisions and public statements, for example by supporting a carbon tax.

I find it hard to see misbehavior here – even ethical misbehavior, much less legal misbehavior. ExxonMobil funded research, published the research, considered the research, rejected most of its implications, and tried to convince everybody else to do likewise. I find it especially hard to see this as a violation of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, designed to facilitate the prosecution of mobsters. For sure ExxonMobil is accountable in the court of public opinion for its long history of doubting the seriousness of climate change and promoting the interests of fossil fuels. But if it were a crime for a company to pay for research, publish the research, and then promote policy positions to the contrary, what company would dare ask its scientists to investigate difficult questions?

I can’t judge if the ExxonMobil prosecutions are showboating or if they actually stand a reasonable chance of succeeding. But public outrage at the company never entirely subsided after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. There are plenty of climate change reasons and other reasons for millions of people to see ExxonMobil as a bad guy. And outrage leads publics, politicians, and juries to want to get the bad guy. At a minimum, legal proceedings are being used to make ExxonMobil pay a reputational price for its policy positions – and to serve notice on other companies that they may pay a similar price if they espouse viewpoints that a later consensus judges to be wrong.

Readers who have trouble sympathizing with ExxonMobil or entertaining the possibility that ExxonMobil is be being unjustly prosecuted can consider instead the various legal actions against Planned Parenthood for (supposedly) selling fetal body parts. Like ExxonMobil, Planned Parenthood behaved in ways that aroused some people’s outrage, and found itself in outrage-motivated legal hot water, despite the scarcity of evidence that it violated any actual laws

Or think about the crusade the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is conducting against electronic cigarettes (e-cigs). The weight of the evidence, I believe, supports the view that vaping e-cigs is much, much safer than smoking real cigarettes. CDC periodically publishes research on smoking and vaping. Some of that research arguably contradicts CDC’s anti-vaping policy stance.

As far as I know the research is honest, but there are times when CDC is less than honest in how it interprets the research for the general public. One of those times is detailed in my 2015 column, “A Promising Candidate for Most Dangerously Dishonest Public Health News Release of the Year.”

Sounds like ExxonMobil, doesn’t it? CDC publishes unbiased e-cig research, then spins the results to support its anti-vaping bias. I believe CDC’s opposition to electronic cigarettes is killing people. But CDC presumably believes it is saving lives. And even I wouldn’t support a criminal prosecution under RICO against the agency or its leaders.

As a citizen, I am outraged that outrage motivates criminal prosecutions. But as a consultant, I take that as a given – as one of the many costs of outrage. As I tell my clients, you might just as well be outraged that acid has such a low pH.

I see five bottom-line lessons so far:

number 1
Companies are entitled to try to influence what the laws are, just like everybody else. But companies have too much influence, which is itself a source of outrage.
number 2
Still, the distinction between doing something illegal and doing something outrage-provoking should be more respected than it is. I don’t support finding (or inventing) ways to prosecute behavior that made people mad but wasn’t clearly illegal.
number 3
I’m fine with an outrage punishment for an outrage infraction. Shame people and companies you think should be ashamed. Don’t do business with them. Attack their reputations. But don’t try to imprison them.
number 4
I’m also fine with using outrage as an impetus to new laws. If you think there oughta be a law, fight for one. But don’t imprison people for disobeying the law you think there oughta be.
number 5
But I’m on the losing end of this debate. In the real world, outrage often leads to prosecution. So smart companies should avoid behavior that’s legal but nonetheless likely to provoke a lot of stakeholder outrage. They should avoid it because they should fear both reputational damage (which they deserve) and legal repercussions (which they don’t deserve).

What about ethics?

So far I have focused mostly on the relationship between law and outrage. Where does ethics fit?

Other people’s ethical standards are vital contributors to both law and outrage. When some people’s ethical standards are violated, they often get outraged. And when enough people’s ethical standards are violated, their outrage can drive the effort to make new laws.

Your own ethical standards are moot if they cover things already covered by law and/or outrage. If something is illegal, that’s reason enough not to do it – and it’s weird to hear you attribute your legally obligatory behavior to your own high ethical standards, as if you were obeying the law only because you happen to agree with it. And if something outrages your stakeholders, that’s reason enough not to do it – and it’s insulting to hear you take ethical credit for giving in to stakeholders’ outraged demands, as if you were giving in only because you happen to think they’re right.

The latter point is worth emphasizing. “We’re being responsive, doing what you think is right” is a much better message in mid-controversy than “We’re being responsible, doing what we think is right.” When a company caves in to stakeholder demands, it is in fact being responsive, not responsible (except to its shareholders). Because it’s the truth, the responsiveness claim is far likelier to be credible, and a whole lot less likely to be offensive. It is a huge and all-too-common mistake to respond appropriately to stakeholders’ outrage and then claim you’re adhering to your own values rather than deferring to theirs, thereby undermining your credibility and stealing their credit. For more on this, see my 2006 column on “Giving Away the Credit: Managing Risk Controversies by Claiming You’re Responsive (though maybe not responsible)” or my video or audio link is to an audio MP3 file on the same topic.

But sometimes your ethics are the only standard in play. There’s no relevant law and no likely outrage, and you are genuinely guided exclusively by your own sense of right and wrong. That’s why ethics belongs in the LEADS mnemonic, to remind us all that we should be guided by our sense of right and wrong even when there’s no relevant law and no likely outrage. I doubt it’s useful to do a lot of messaging about it, though; just do the right thing.

There’s one final possibility: when your ethical standards tell you to do one thing but the prevailing law or your stakeholders’ outrage tells you to do something else entirely. Obeying the law or deferring to outrage will force you to violate your own ethics. Adhering to your ethical standards will force you to break the law or outrage your stakeholders. This dilemma doesn’t come up all the time. But it does come up, particularly in cross-cultural and cross-national settings.

And it can be excruciating. Consider these two examples (or, more likely, consider just one of them, the one that honors your own ethical principles):

number 1
Your ethics tell you that gay marriage should be legal – that it’s a horrible injustice to deprive gay people of the legitimacy that marriage bestows. But you’re doing business in a time and place that considers gay marriage unthinkable (most of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East today, for instance). Should you take a stand of conscience against the prevailing law and values?
number 2
Your ethics tell you that gay marriage should be illegal – that blessing what you consider the sin of homosexuality with the sacrament of marriage is itself a sin. But you’re doing business in a time and place that considers opposition to gay marriage unacceptable (much of Europe and the United States today, for instance). Should you take a stand of conscience against the prevailing law and values?

I don’t have an easy answer to this dilemma. A piece of the answer depends on how fundamental you think the ethical issue is. Another piece of the answer depends on whether it’s feasible to stay out of the conflict or you have to take a stand one way or the other. We all hope that if we had been 17th century ship captains we would have refused to traffic in slaves, and that if we had been 20th century German chemical company executives we would have refused to manufacture gas for the concentration camps. But we see lesser injustices and feel entitled to “mind our own business” rather than undermining our businesses by speaking out.

If you want to read more along these lines, see my 1999 correspondence with John Elkington and Chris Marsden, “Responsible or Responsive?

As a sort of summary, let me return to where we started: Enron and Andrew Fastow.

Fastow now gives ethics lectures to business executives and business schools. One of the key points he makes over and over is the same one you made in your comment, that he was imprisoned not for breaking the law but for abusing the principle of law. In other words, he was imprisoned for being unethical.

As CFO of Enron, Fastow found profitable legal loopholes. For a while, he was lionized in business circles for finding profitable legal loopholes. But when everything went sour and some $40 billion in market value disappeared overnight, the whole society became outraged, and Fastow transitioned instantly from famous to infamous. So everyone looked again, more critically, at Fastow’s loopholes. The universal outrage motivated prosecutors, judges, and juries to decide that at least some of the loopholes weren’t loopholes after all; they were actually illegal all the time. So Fastow and his colleagues went to prison.

The moral of Fastow’s story: Loopholes aren’t reliable. If things go sour, stakeholder outrage will cause “just barely legal” to morph into “illegal” before your eyes, and you’ll go to prison. Your only protection, Fastow says, is ethics. You need to create a corporate culture that doesn’t seek out just-barely-legal loopholes in the first place.

Consider this excerpt from a 2015 article – one of dozens of articles on Fastow’s many speeches – entitled “Here’s a Simple Lesson on Business Ethics From the Former CFO of Enron”:

The point he makes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that business ethics can be a tricky thing. Practices that are perfectly legal and widespread can be unethical. While the off-balance sheet transactions that triggered Enron’s collapse were approved by the company’s lawyers, accountants and management, Fastow said, he nevertheless deserved to go to jail for misleading investors.

As Fastow said at the event on Wednesday: “I wasn’t the chief finance officer at Enron, I was the chief loophole officer.”

To illustrate his point, the former CFO now-turned business consultant outlined a few accounting scenarios that one may or may not think are misleading. He points out that many of them are in wide use and are perfectly legal under current regulations.

I’m not sure I agree with Fastow that ethics is the only protection. Understanding how outrage affects the way law gets interpreted might help too. Both together would be best.

Outrage management for a decentralized global enterprise

As if all the above weren’t complicated enough, it gets a whole lot more complicated when a business operates across a wide range of countries, each with its own legal standards (or absence of legal standards) and each with its own cultural values and outrage hot buttons.

How can a decentralized multinational corporation with global reach into wildly different countries and cultures police the outrage management practices of its many arms?

This wasn’t a major issue for Enron. Although Enron did have operations in other countries, it was an American-run corporation whose sudden collapse outraged the American public, provoking American criminal prosecutions.

But it is a major issue for many of your clients, as it has been for many of mine. I don’t have a comprehensive answer, a blueprint for global outrage management. But the following four points might be a step toward such an answer.

number 1
Keep the outrage management function centralized.

Like many other complex organizations, multinational corporations seem to “restructure” periodically from centralized to decentralized and back again; each new structure has disadvantages that eventually convince management to reshuffle the deck. Clients I have worked with for decades have gone through several restructuring cycles while I watched.

Whatever the pros and cons of centralization versus decentralization, I am convinced that reputation is a core corporate function that needs to be managed from headquarters. And stakeholder outrage is a core determinant of reputation; it is virtually synonymous with “bad reputation,” how hated you are. It follows that outrage management must be centralized.

The reason is very straightforward. The local manager of an individual facility or subsidiary rightly judges that his or her career depends on the success of that single operation. So he or she will understandably do whatever it takes to keep that operation functioning and in the black. All too often, “whatever it takes” includes taking reputational risks that endanger the whole enterprise.

From the local manager’s perspective, that’s entirely rational. If you’re in charge of just one mine in one country, shutting down that mine is your worst case scenario. Arguing with critics, calling the police to arrest protestors, lying about opponents, lying to opponents, betraying promises – none of that is too high a price to pay to keep your mine open. You don’t quite notice that activists are at least as globalized as mining companies, and that your local battles with local stakeholders are fueling controversies around the world, damaging your parent company’s reputation and damaging its bottom line far more than your single mine is worth.

It’s even worse if the mine is a joint venture, diffusing decision-making in ways that are extremely dangerous to corporate reputation. If you’re partnered with an autocratic government that routinely “disappears” its critics, you will rightly share the blame for your partner’s depredations. Ditto if you’re partnered with a company that has nothing to lose because its awful reputation is already a sunk cost, or with a company that has everything to lose because its partnership with you on this one venture is its only possible path to profitability. Neither of these partners will see reputation as a serious issue the way your parent company does (or should), so they will respond to stakeholder outrage without sufficiently considering the reputational implications of their response. A company that establishes individual ventures as legally separate corporations in hopes of avoiding liability if something goes badly wrong is also taking a bigger reputational risk than it may realize. Once again, the top people of each local corporation will prioritize the survival of their little company ahead of the reputation of your big company.

Every sentence in the preceding paragraphs is grounded in real cases – clients that learned to their sorrow how decentralization can undermine reputation. Virtually every “local” controversy of a multinational corporation that I have worked on in recent decades wasn’t really local. Local opponents were in touch with opponents elsewhere, relying on them for tactical advice and substantive ammunition. The parent company’s reputation significantly affected the supposedly local dispute, and how local management handled the dispute significantly affected the parent company’s reputation.

In short, local outrage often doesn’t stay local. So local outrage management shouldn’t stay local either.

And yet implementation has to be local. If somebody attacks your company on Facebook for something local management did yesterday, you can’t refer the problem to some corporate reputation management official on another continent. What’s needed is a quick response from a local person who knows the situation, knows the environment, and ideally knows the author of the attack. And knows the basics of outrage management. And knows that the response may well reverberate around the world and across the years, and therefore needs to be crafted with more than the local controversy in mind. And knows that somebody at headquarters will see the response, assess its impact both locally and globally, and reward or punish the responder accordingly.

number 2
Assess outrage in ways that are culture-specific. Then consciously decide which culture’s outrage to prioritize.

The core of the problem posed in your comment is that outrage is culture-specific. What one culture sees as an egalitarian approach to gender another sees as impious. What one culture sees as a totally conventional tip that enables a minor government official to support his family another culture sees as a bribe. What one culture sees as free expression another culture sees as moral decay. Major questions like whom you hire and minor questions like what food and drink you serve at an office party are all dependent on where you’re doing business.

So how should you reconcile these conflicts if you’re doing business in lots of places with discrepant values? This is a can of worms, but let me propose five rules-of-thumb that might help a little:

Rule One: Think explicitly about these outrage-versus-outrage conflicts. You can’t decide how to reconcile them if you haven’t properly formulated them: “Stakeholders here want us to do this whereas stakeholders over there want us to do that, and they’re both likely to get outraged if we don’t do it their way.” For obvious reasons, headquarters executives tend to assume that the only values in play are the values that characterize the place where the company is headquartered. Local managers wear a different set of blinders; they tend to assume that only local values are in play. Get in the habit of assuming that several sets of values are likely to be in play, that there will be culture-related conflicts. Take it as a given that outrage is culture-specific, rarely universal. When people proclaim a universal value, they usually mean they think it ought to be universal. Even if they imagine or pretend it already is, you need you know it very often isn’t.

Rule Two: Most of the time local values and local outrage should preempt distant ones. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That’s the default. You don’t need a reason to defer to local outrage. You need a reason not to. This rule is purely empirical. Offending local values and outraging local stakeholders is usually more costly than offending and outraging people far from the scene. Note, however, that this is becoming less and less true as the world gets smaller and more integrated. If most of your shareholders or most of your most powerful opponents are in Country X, far away from your local operation, then flouting the values of Country X may be more costly than flouting local values.

Rule Three: The most common exception to Rule Two arises when local values are unusual and local outrage is likely to seem unjustified everyplace else. This is especially the case when people everyplace else don’t know or don’t care that your particular group of locals have unusual values, when they mistakenly think their own values are universal or fervently think they should be. Deferring to weird local values that the rest of the world is unaware of or disapproves of is likely to arouse too much outrage everyplace else. And the reputational cost of local outrage goes down if people everyplace else admire your courage for refusing to “do as the Romans do.” (Even so, the operational cost of local outrage may be decisive. Imagine Barrick hiring women to drive the ore trucks at the Jabal Sayid mine in Saudi Arabia. Global admiration notwithstanding, the mine would quickly be shut down.)

Rule Four: In close calls, favor the side that imagines its values are universal. That’s the side that will get most outraged if its values are flouted.

Rule Five: It sometimes helps to share the dilemma – that is, to tell both groups of stakeholders that you’re being hung out to dry between two inconsistent sets of values, and somebody’s going to be outraged whatever you do. That may not do much good with people who think their values are or should be universal. But especially in the democratic West, cultural diversity and cultural relativism are themselves revered values that you can usefully appeal to. You can dilemma-share even after you’ve done something and are getting flak. “We felt we had to do that because….” But it’s more effective to dilemma-share beforehand, and even to seek counsel: “How should we reconcile respect for local values in Country X with the quite different values in our home country? We used to think that our own values were universal, until we got to Country X and found that they see things very differently.”

number 3
Assess outrage in ways that are stakeholder-specific. Then consciously decide which stakeholders’ outrage to prioritize.

Virtually every client I’ve ever had maintained a list of its stakeholders. The list might be detailed or sketchy, prioritized or just alphabetized. But there was almost always a list. Even clients who knew next to nothing about outrage management knew that outrage is stakeholder-specific.

Sometimes you can address the outrage of one stakeholder group without needing to think about any of the others. Only the one group is upset about what you did, and you can find ways to satisfy that group that won’t upset some other group. But lots of times you have to choose which group to upset. The most obvious example: What appeals to your supporters usually angers your opponents; what conciliates your opponents probably irritates your supporters.

This is where my distinction between “good reputation” and “bad reputation” becomes crucial. Most of my clients take their reputations seriously. And they know they have a multiplicity of stakeholders with competing expectations and values. They know they have to decide whose outrage to prioritize. But I think they’re paying much too much attention to their “good reputation” and much too little to their “bad reputation.” They’re working hard to be more loved (“We’ll build them a park!”), and shrugging off what I consider the more important task: working to be less hated.

Whether or not they explicitly prioritize among stakeholders, my clients almost invariably have an implicit priority order. Financial analysts and shareholders are at the top. Then come customers, regulators, politicians, employees, suppliers, neighbors, and the general public (via the media) – in roughly that order. If activists and critics are on the list at all, they’re usually at the bottom. Surprisingly often they’re omitted entirely.

When I ask clients why they’re giving opponents such short shrift, I get two answers. “Opponents hate us already, so they’re a lost cause” and “it’s more useful to build and sustain support than to try to calm the opposition.” I disagree on both counts.

I won’t reiterate here everything in my “Two Kinds of Reputation Management” column, but let me make one key point. There’s a huge difference between disliking you and deciding to do battle against you. Activists have insufficient resources to go after all the potential targets for their activism. They have to choose – and that’s a competition you don’t want to win. One of the main goals of outrage management is to lessen the odds that opponents will choose to go after you (or to keep going after you) instead of picking a different target.

(I’ve always thought my clients’ real reason for focusing on mobilizing support at the expense of ameliorating opposition was simply that mobilizing support feels better. Plotting with allies is easier on the ego than apologizing to enemies. I can’t argue with that.)

My case that “bad reputation” affects a company’s bottom line more than “good reputation” is strongest in the multinational, multicultural arena. Bad news travels fast. Nobody in Malaysia cares if your company is greatly admired in Italy, and vice-versa. But if opponents in Malaysia or Italy are raising hell about your horrible actions there, activists and maybe even journalists in the other country perk up their ears. It’s arguable that strong support on your home turf does as much good as strong opposition does harm. I don’t think so, but it’s arguable. For sure, strong support in your far-flung outposts matters hardly at all anywhere but there. Strong opposition in a far-flung outpost resonates everywhere.

number 4
Don’t neglect the rest of the LEADS mnemonic, especially law and ethics.

As I’ve tried to suggest throughout this response, law, ethics, and outrage are separate, successive sieves through which a wise company filters its plans. You filter out what’s illegal; then you filter out what’s unethical even though it’s legal; then you filter out what’s going to arouse excessive outrage even though it’s legal and ethical.

The legal sieve is paramount. Law trumps outrage, period. If something is illegal in Country X, you can’t do it in Country X – regardless of whether or not there are stakeholders likely to become outraged that you didn’t do it. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that doesn’t permit women to drive. In Saudi you don’t hire female drivers.

If obeying the law in Country X is likely to arouse enormous outrage elsewhere, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing business in Country X. Or maybe you can lobby to get the law changed. Or maybe you can take steps to ameliorate the outrage. This last point is worth underlining. Anticipating that some action is going to arouse outrage always means you should reconsider whether it’s good business to take that action. But sometimes after reconsidering you decide to go ahead, ameliorating the outrage as best you can.

What if the law in Country X prohibits your company from taking some action anywhere, even in Country Y where it’s perfectly legal? In the U.S., for example, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act criminalizes as bribery what is considered in much of the world to be merely “grease” or a “facilitation payment” or a “tip.” This obviously puts U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage in those countries. Too bad. They can lobby to change the law, but they would be very foolish indeed to flout the law.

The ethical sieve is the weakest. It’s the toughest to implement because it doesn’t have obvious repercussions. Breaking laws or outraging stakeholders does a company obvious harm. Behaving unethically doesn’t (unless it also breaks laws or outrages stakeholders). That’s why societies work so hard to codify consensus ethics into law – and why law enforcement sometimes succumbs to the temptation to punish ethical violations that aren’t actually illegal. And it’s why we all instinctively understand that if we want other people (and companies) to behave in ways we consider ethical, we have to voice our outrage when they don’t.

I’m frankly not convinced that “business ethics” has all that much influence on how businesspeople behave. I have a lot more faith in the power of law and outrage. I have consulted maybe a half-dozen times on the drafting of corporate ethics or values statements. It always seemed to me that most of the specific prohibitions in those statements were things that were already illegal or likely to arouse stakeholder outrage, making the ethical injunctions almost superfluous; the remainder were too-vague-to-be-actionable generalizations.

But I’m not so cynical as to believe that ethics – and even corporate codes of ethics – never add value. And they add the most value in what your comment calls “largely unregulated markets” – that is, countries without effective rule of law.

The corporate manager who is least constrained by law and outrage is the one who’s doing business on the company’s behalf in some far-flung outpost that isn’t on any activists’ radar. In a worst case scenario, rule of law is weak. Local outrage is impotent because the company is in bed with the government. Or local outrage is unlikely because the company keeps quiet and virtually invisible. International outrage is always a possibility, but to a mid-level manager on the periphery, it may seem too unlikely to worry about. Just about the only thing deterring that mid-level manager from cutting corners is the internal chain-of-command enforcing the company’s ethical code and ethical values.

Managers who value their careers pay attention to whether their companies are serious about their ethics statements. They get a clear signal that cutting corners is career suicide or that cutting corners is a good way to get ahead.

Companies that take ethics seriously have little trouble signaling that fact to their middle managers around the world. Middle managers have little trouble picking up the signals. Your comment mentions the problem of countries where “Group Ethics and Conduct Standards cannot be easily enforced.” If a corporate official charged with “enforcing” ethical standards is having a tough time convincing employees that “ethics matter in this company,” my starting hypothesis would be that top management has already signaled otherwise.

One final point: It’s not always easy to tell when a company policy is motivated by ethics, law, or outrage – or a fourth possibility, public relations (“good reputation,” basically). And maybe it’s not important to figure out which it is.

For example, companies sometimes decide to impose worldwide standards on themselves, even though no law requires them to do so. A company might adopt the toughest legal standard of any country in which it operates as its voluntary standard wherever it operates. Or a company might adopt a code promulgated by an international NGO, committing itself to obey the code as if it were international law. Some companies have adopted these kinds of worldwide standards governing pollution, safety, corruption, transparency, etc.

Why do many multinational companies impose worldwide standards on themselves when they don’t have to?

  • In part, they’re seeking the simplicity and efficiency that comes with a one-size-fits-all set of rules.
  • In part, they’re motivated by considerations of traditional public relations. Companies with tough voluntary standards typically showcase those standards and hope to reap “good reputation” benefits.
  • In part, they’re in pursuit of a legal safe harbor. Regulators often see a company’s voluntarily adopted standards as a sensible reason to focus their regulatory efforts elsewhere. If a company is holding itself to a set of standards tougher than your country’s laws, why spend a lot of time looking for violations of your laws?
  • In part they’re truly enforcing their own ethical values – especially about safety. When I talk to certain clients about their tough worldwide safety standards, I really get the feeling their commitment to those standards is heartfelt.
  • And in part – often the largest part – they’re trying to manage outrage. I have helped clients negotiate agreements to adhere to some code promulgated by an NGO. Usually the companies that were interested in signing up were already under attack or trying to avoid coming under attack.

It’s only in theory that law, ethics, and outrage are separate sieves. In practice they’re often entangled.

Trump, Brexit, and riding the risk communication seesaw

name: Diane MacEachern
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Still an environmental activist after all these years –
and still using the communications skills I honed
in Ann Arbor!
date:July 5, 2016
location:Maryland, U.S.


What strategies and tactics could the Clinton campaign and others use to communicate the risks posed by a Trump presidency?

To date, Donald Trump is the ultimate Teflon candidate. Despite his racism, sexism, misogyny and crudeness, and the violence and physical brutality he condones, his support is growing among voters. Point-by-point rebuttals don’t seem to diminish his standing. Even comparisons to Hitler don’t stick.

Where is the chink in his armor? Or, where is the opening in voters’ minds that will allow them to grasp the threats they face if Trump is elected?

name:Ben Duncan
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Freelance expert, former EU civil servant
date:July 5, 2016
location:Scotland, and sometimes Belgium and France


Over the last few weeks and months a variety of experts, international organizations and even the President of the United States have lined up to warn the British public of the economic and political risks involved in leaving the European Union (EU).

Polling evidence and the media echo during the campaign showed that these warnings were failing to resonate with voters. On 24 June, 52% of voters opted to leave the EU.

Of course this all happened during a highly charged political campaign, and to a large extent the result can be put down to the success of the “Leave” campaign. Nonetheless, are there some risk communication lessons to be drawn from the failure of the “Remain” campaign? Could the very real risks of leaving the EU have been better communicated?

peter responds:

Diane MacEachern was my graduate student in environmental communication at the University of Michigan 40 years ago, before she went on to found Vanguard Communications and then Big Green Purse. Her Guestbook comment on how to defeat Donald Trump arrived in early May. I postponed responding, thinking maybe I’d get one on how to defeat Hillary Clinton and could tackle them together. Instead, I received a Guestbook comment about the defeat of Brexit from Ben Duncan, a more recent friend and colleague from when he managed risk communication at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Tackling Trump and Brexit together works too.

The U.S. phenomenon of Donald Trump’s success (so far) and the U.K. phenomenon of Brexit’s success (probably irreversible) have both been analyzed ad nauseam.

Even the relationship between the two has received more-than-ample attention, as a Google search for “Trump Brexit” reveals. Many articles are about Trump’s June 24 Brexit news conference. But more are about the various commonalities between the Trump phenomenon and the Brexit phenomenon, and the question of what if anything Brexit’s surprise victory might foretell about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Brexit polls showed “Remain” ahead of “Leave”; election polls show Clinton ahead of Trump. “Leave” won. Will Trump?

More fundamentally, both Trump and Brexit are (partly, not entirely) manifestations of the same forces, especially anti-immigration, anti-free trade, and anti-Muslim fervor. Even more fundamentally than that, both are (again partly) manifestations of an anti-elite revolution. As income inequality has worsened in both countries, working class people in the U.S. and the U.K. have become increasingly convinced that public policy is formulated by and for elites; that people like them neither participate in key decisions nor benefit from the outcomes of those decisions. There may be debate over whether they’re right in thinking that (I believe they are), but it’s pretty clear that that’s what they believe. For many in the pro-Trump and pro-Brexit ranks, “taking back their country” – from liberals, from secularists, from bureaucrats in Washington or in Brussels, and especially from elites – is more than a metaphor; it is a passionately felt mission.

And it’s pretty clear that in 2016 they are prepared to act in accord with their beliefs. Again, there is room for disagreement over the extent to which Trump and Brexit supporters are acting out of their ideological convictions and policy preferences or out of their anger and frustration – and how happy or unhappy they’re likely to be with the outcomes they’re seeking. Either way, they’re no longer acceding to elite judgments about what’s good for them. Trump’s imminent nomination is the result in the U.S. Brexit is the result in the U.K.

All that has been said and said and said. So what can I add?

The two risk communication questions being posed to me are these: What can Clinton supporters do to convince people about the risks posed by Trump, and what could “Remain” supporters have done to convince people about the risks posed by Brexit? I think these are largely the same question.

Warning people about the risks of Trump or Brexit is of course a precaution advocacy task. All risk warnings are precaution advocacy: “This is dangerous, and here’s what you should do to prevent or ameliorate or respond to the risk.”

But Trump and Brexit warnings are different in an important way from most of the precaution advocacy I have written about. The paradigmatic barrier to most precaution advocacy efforts is apathy: People aren’t upset enough about the risk. I’ve also written a good deal about the opposite barrier, denial: People are so upset about the risk they can’t bear to deal with it.

But the core problem when you’re trying to warn people about Trump or Brexit is neither apathy nor denial. It is the attractiveness of Trump and Brexit despite (or even because of) their riskiness.

Warning people about Trump or Brexit, in other words, isn’t like warning people about the problem of antibiotic resistance or the danger of dehydration if you don’t drink enough fluids during a heat wave, unequivocally bad things you want them to pay more attention to. It’s more like warning people about seductive but unwise life choices – for example, warning your best friend about his drug habit or her loser boyfriend. Or it’s like warning your pregnant colleague to skip her cousin’s wedding in Rio that she’s been looking forward to for months because Zika poses too high a risk to her baby. The problem isn’t that people don’t know Trump/Brexit is dangerous. The problem is that they have strong reasons to want to take the risk.

Not only that. Much of the appeal of Trump/Brexit is grounded in outrage – outrage at decades of being ignored or disdained by elites of all political stripes. Trump and “Leave” campaigners validate, respect, and empathize with this outrage. And then they stoke it, harness it, and steer it. This makes Trump and Brexit hugely attractive to their supporters, regardless of the risks. Doing precaution advocacy with a target audience of outraged stakeholders is especially difficult.

The solution, I think, is grounded in the risk communication seesaw, including some aspects of the seesaw that I haven’t sufficiently addressed previously.

Identifying the target audience

In the case of both Trump and Brexit, we can simplify and clarify the question by figuring out who the target audience ought to be.

I’m not talking here about the target audience for the entire Clinton or “Remain” campaign – just that portion of the campaign focused on the precaution advocacy message that Trump/Brexit is unacceptably risky.

These three points are fundamental, I think:

number 1

Don’t focus the riskiness message on your own committed supporters.

There is little need to convince Clinton supporters that Trump is dangerous, and there was little need to convince “Remain” supporters that Brexit is dangerous.

This isn’t entirely true. As I wrote recently in my column on “Three Ways to Manage Controversies,” political campaigns are right to put energy into mobilizing supporters, “thus making them more likely to speak up on your behalf in conversations with neighbors or coworkers, more likely to … contribute time or money, etc.” And showcasing the risks posed by the other side is a sound, conventional way to mobilize supporters. Clinton’s campaign has told supporters again and again how dangerous a Trump presidency would be. Clinton labels Trump a “loose cannon” with nearly the same frequency that Trump talks about “crooked Hillary.” The “Remain” campaign similarly emphasized the dangers of Brexit as a way to mobilize support.

It’s possible the two campaigns may have taken these themes too far, neglecting to make enough of a positive case to their own side for a Clinton presidency and a European Union that includes the United Kingdom. But surely it would have been a huge mistake to make only a positive case. Many Clinton supporters are more fervid in their fear and loathing of Trump than in their enthusiasm for Clinton. Many “Remain” supporters were more anxious about Brexit than fond of the E.U. Both the Brexit decision and the 2016 U.S. presidential race have been widely described as choices between evils. So stressing the negative case was (and in Clinton’s case still is) a sensible way to keep supporters onside and committed.

But I don’t think hanging onto supporters is what Diane MacEachern and Ben Duncan had in mind when they asked me how to convince people about the riskiness of Trump/Brexit. That’s crucial to any political campaign. But it’s not where the “Remain” campaign went wrong and it’s not where the Clinton campaign faces its toughest challenge.

number 2

Don’t focus the riskiness message on the other side’s committed supporters either.

Core Trump supporters either don’t see Trump as a risky choice or see the risk as part of the rationale for their support. Disrupting the status quo, upsetting the applecart – that’s a big piece of Trump’s appeal in the first place.

Similarly, core Brexit supporters either think leaving the E.U. isn’t dangerous or covet the danger.

In both cases, it would be largely a waste of effort to keep trying to convince them that Trump/Brexit is unacceptably risky. Of course if they haven’t heard the riskiness argument yet, it’s worth the effort to take a shot. But how many Trump or “Leave” supporters haven’t heard that argument?

To be fair, some core supporters of Trump or “Leave” would concede that their choice has risks. But they’re unambivalently convinced that the alternative (Clinton or “Remain”) is riskier still. Or they’re unambivalently convinced that the alternative is unacceptable for reasons other than risk – and given that judgment, they’re unambivalently convinced that the upsides of their choice far outweigh its risks. The point is, they’re unambivalent. This Guestbook response is about how to communicate with ambivalent Trump/“Leave” supporters, for whom the tradeoff between risk and appeal is a tough call.

The core proponents of any position in a controversy are pretty much immune to the opposition’s arguments. Conversion from one extreme to the other isn’t entirely unheard of, but it’s far too rare to constitute a useful campaign objective. That’s what makes core supporters core supporters: Everyone can count on them remaining faithful to the cause.

I should add that this is why political campaigns seldom have use for my outrage management expertise. A big piece of my reputation has to do with helping clients figure out how to lessen the passion of opponents’ opposition. That’s valuable in policy controversies – regulatory proceedings, for example – but much less valuable in electoral contests. A small group of passionate opponents can win a regulatory battle, while the vast majority of the public sits the issue out. If you can calm some of those opponents so they oppose you less passionately, they may decide to devote less time and effort to the cause. In an election, on the other hand, even mild opponents are bound to vote against you.

number 3

Focus the riskiness message on ambivalent voters.

What audience is left when you rule out core supporters on both sides? The people often termed “neutrals.”

Neutrals are not a homogeneous group. They are worth subdividing.

Some are neutral because they’re not very interested. Maybe they’ve been paying casual attention to the issue; they’re “browsers” rather than “attentives.” Maybe they’re total newcomers who haven’t yet decided whether to get interested. Low-interest neutrals are generally not fertile ground for advocacy. Since they’re not paying much attention, they’re hard to reach. Their votes may end up being cast casually, for weakly felt and unpredictable motives. And that’s if they vote at all.

The neutrals who are most worth focusing on are ambivalent rather than uninterested. They’re torn.

Let me be more specific. The people the Clinton campaign can most usefully target with “Trump is risky” messages are those who have strong reasons to like Trump but worry that he might be risky. The people the “Remain” campaign could have most usefully targeted with “Brexit is risky” messages were those who had strong reasons to like Brexit but worried that it might be risky.

I haven’t studied the mammoth accumulation of Trump and Brexit poll data – and poll data rarely dig deeply enough to document ambivalence anyway.

But I have seen polls that showed a significant cohort of people who consider Trump unqualified to be president but who nonetheless plan to vote for him. No doubt this is partly because they dislike Clinton so much, but I think it’s mostly because they find Trump’s positions, style, and capacity to disrupt the status quo sufficiently attractive that these virtues outweigh that potent negative.

A June 25 Washington Post – ABC News Poll, for example, found that 64 percent of Americans consider Trump unqualified, including nearly a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. But 11 percent of those who said Trump is unqualified also said they intend to vote for him anyway. If the election is at all close, they’re potentially a decisive bloc.

“Unqualified” is a very strong condemnation for a presidential candidate. You’d think if any negative would be dispositive, that one would!

So weaker criticisms of Trump – including risk-related words like “bullheaded” or “intemperate” – are presumably even more compatible with deciding, on balance, to vote for him anyway. (This isn’t unique to Trump, of course. Plenty of people who plan to vote for Clinton consider her untrustworthy.)

There are millions of Americans who really think a President Trump might do the country and the world enormous good – break the logjam in Washington, force the elites to pay attention to ordinary people, knock some heads nationally and internationally, make America great again. But they also think he’s a huge risk. Clinton seems to them the wrong sort of leader, but wrong in a very familiar way, following in the footsteps of her husband and her predecessor. They don’t like the directions they think a Clinton presidency would take us, but she’s not likely to be catastrophic as President. Trump might be. Or he might be exactly the shock therapy the country needs. They long for that, but worry, really worry, about the possible catastrophe.

That’s who you need to be talking to.

An October 22, 2015 Peggy Noonan Wall Street Journal column captured this ambivalent audience perfectly:

A relative and early Trump enthusiast said Wednesday on the phone, “He’s – he’s not going to go in there and say, ‘I’ll bomb someone,’ right? I mean he’ll have the regular professional generals and all the military people surrounding him, giving him advice – right?” I could hear a certain wavering. But then he stopped talking because he didn’t want to wind up in a column.

I think (as Noonan obviously does) that her relative represents a sizable and important slice of the American electorate: people who like many things about Trump, perhaps including his capacity and inclination to disrupt the status quo, but nonetheless worry about the risks a Trump presidency might pose. For an audience of people who consider Trump both attractive and risky, the task of Clinton supporters isn’t to convince them that Trump is risky. It certainly isn’t to berate them for finding Trump attractive. The task is to bring to the fore the side of their ambivalence that is already worried about the risk.

Noonan’s relative is a Trump supporter, albeit an anxious one who might be persuaded to switch sides if his anxiety about Trump came to overshadow his enthusiasm. That’s the core ambivalent audience I’m talking about.

It’s worth mentioning that there are ambivalent Trump opponents as well – people who plan to vote for Clinton even though there are some things about Trump that they like. This may be a reasoned, conscious decision: “Trump says things I wish I felt free to say. I like his spontaneity, emotional intelligence, authenticity, and candor – and even some of his positions. But he’s too unreliable, too uninformed to be president. And too intemperate – what if he launched a nuclear war! I might be tempted to vote for him if only I could reassure myself that he’s not an unacceptably risky choice.” The ambivalence of other Trump opponents may be unconscious and disavowed. I’m sure there are people who genuinely disapprove of Trump and fully intend to vote for Clinton, no question – but there’s still something about Trump they find riveting, and they keep checking him out, almost against their will, out of the corner of their eye.

Ambivalent Trump opponents also deserve some attention from Clinton campaigners. But I think ambivalent Trump supporters are paramount.

Were ambivalent “Leave” supporters similarly important in the Brexit referendum? I think they were, but I’m not sure.

One sign of Brexit ambivalence was the closeness of the polls, with lots of people saying they were undecided – 18% two months before the referendum and 9% just a few days before.

And U.K. media kept quoting voters who explicitly said they were torn – in their hearts they wanted out, but in their heads they worried about what might come next. An apparently big bloc of voters accepted the arguments of the “Remain” campaign that leaving the E.U. would pose serious risks to the economy, jobs, trade, security, etc. But they disliked the loss of sovereignty that E.U. membership represented to them; they disliked many of the laws, regulations, and policies that E.U. membership had forced on them; and they absolutely hated what felt like the disdain of those bureaucrats in Brussels. The choice they faced – to reluctantly vote “Remain” or anxiously vote “Leave” – was a tough call.

Perhaps another sign of ambivalence is the extraordinary number of “Leave” voters who indicated in the days after the referendum that they had changed their minds and wanted a do-over.

I can’t quantify how many ambivalent Brexit supporters there were, nor how many ambivalent Trump supporters there are. But I suspect ambivalent “Leave” voters were pivotal in the passage of Brexit – which might not have passed if “Remain” campaigners had understood better how to address their ambivalence. And I suspect ambivalent voters will again be pivotal in the outcome of the U.S. presidential race.

So let me turn, then, to the question of how to talk to ambivalent people.

Targeting an ambivalent audience: riding the seesaw

I’m postulating a cohort of ambivalent voters: people who are seriously concerned about the riskiness of Trump or Brexit, but still find other things about Trump/Brexit exceedingly attractive (though they may hesitate to say so … to pollsters among others). Some days they’re anxiously planning to vote for Trump or for “Leave”; other days they’re reluctantly planning to vote for Clinton or for “Remain.”

The key risk communication tool for targeting an ambivalent audience is the seesaw. This is how I put it in a 2005 column (with most of the juicy examples removed for the sake of brevity):

Seesaw … is the game to play when people are ambivalent – when they believe X and Y simultaneously, even though X and Y are not entirely compatible..

Here’s the paradox of the seesaw: When people are ambivalent, they will tend to resolve their ambivalence by emphasizing the half of it that everyone else seems to be neglecting. If you say X, in other words, I’ll say Y. If you say Y, I’ll say X. (Those who have raised teenagers understand this phenomenon. Teenagers are ambivalent about almost everything.)…

So how do you get an ambivalent audience to end up on the X seat? You take the Y seat, all the while providing lots of evidence to support X. “Even though we have pretty good understanding of this and this and this, there is still so much we don’t know!” Or as the World Health Organization’s David Heymann said during the SARS crisis: “We are building our boat and sailing it at the same time.” People tended to have a lot of confidence in Heymann. It wasn’t despite his acknowledgments of uncertainty; it was because of them. …

[S]eesaws are intrinsically unstable. When you take the Y seat on the seesaw, that temporarily inclines me to the X seat, where you wanted me. But I’m still ambivalent; I’m just expressing the half of my ambivalence you didn’t emphasize much. For a longer-term resolution, consider inching your way from your seat toward the fulcrum. In keeping with the exquisite geometry of the seesaw, my response will be move toward the fulcrum too. We can meet in the middle, where grownups live, able to keep in mind simultaneously the truth of X and the truth of Y.

What does the seesaw teach us about what sort of messaging stands (or in the case of Brexit, stood) the best chance of helping ambivalent voters resolve their ambivalence about Trump or Brexit in the direction of a Clinton or “Remain” vote?

number 1

You can’t just say that Trump/Brexit is risky.

They know that already, but they’re torn between avoiding the risk by voting for Clinton/“Remain” and tolerating the risk for the sake of other things about Trump/Brexit that they like. Paradoxically, harping insistently on one side of people’s ambivalence just provokes them to argue back on behalf of the other side. Since you’re standing tall for X, they feel impelled to advocate (in their minds, at least) for Y. So instead of being swayed in your direction, they are inadvertently pushed toward the “wrong” seat on the seesaw.

This is the most fundamental lesson of the risk communication seesaw, the one I emphasize endlessly in seminars and consultations. When your audience is ambivalent, one-sided messaging will typically push them to the other side. Extreme one-sided messaging – for example, some of fearmongering deployed by “Remain” supporters in the last days of the campaign – backfires all the more.

number 2

Nor can you just say that Trump/Brexit is appealing for other reasons.

The seesaw doesn’t tell us to neglect our cardinal message. Rather, it tells us to subordinate our cardinal message to the other half of our audience’s ambivalence. Thus: “Even though voting for Trump/Brexit is a very risky choice, it’s easy to see why so many people find it an attractive choice.”

The goal is to remind your audience of their concerns about the risk, but without making your risk message the target of their oppositionality – the oppositionality that ambivalence normally arouses. If you do it right, they should be arguing back – in their heads, at least – that the riskiness of Trump/Brexit is a very good reason to vote for the other option.

number 3

Reversing the priority order isn’t disastrous.

What about straddling the seesaw with the opposite subordination: “Even though it’s easy to see why so many people find voting for Trump/Brexit an attractive choice, it is a very risky choice”?

That order is second-best. Paradoxical though it seems, it is sounder seesaw strategy to de-emphasize the position you favor and want your audience to favor. You’re trying to entice your audience to your chosen seat on the seesaw … which is hard to do if you’re sitting in that seat already. So the best seesaw formulation subordinates the position you’re advocating to the one you’re acknowledging.

But a lot of my clients can’t bear to do that. It feels uncomfortable on too many levels. In recent years I have become less insistent on the best seesaw formulation and more tolerant of second-best. What matters most is to craft messages that embrace both sides of the audience’s ambivalence.

number 4

A perfunctory bow to the other side isn’t enough.

It’s not sufficient to punctuate your mostly one-sided pro-Clinton or pro-“Remain” advocacy with an occasional brief, vague, generic reference to people’s reasons for wanting to vote for Trump or “Leave.” A lot of Clinton and “Remain” campaigners have forced themselves to do that, usually with a phrase like this: “We understand why some people are angry and frustrated. But….” I doubt that helps much. It may even backfire if it comes across as condescending.

To ride the seesaw properly, you need to acknowledge, respectfully and empathically, your audience’s main reasons for wanting to do what you don’t want them to do. My rule of thumb: Count words. Make sure you devote at least as many words to acknowledging the other side as you do to supporting your side.

number 5

Consider posing the question instead of offering your answer.

One approach to the seesaw that is increasingly appealing to me is to serve up the seesaw choice as a question – almost a challenge – rather than a proposed answer. “I get it that you like this and this and this about Trump/Brexit. Those are powerful appeals. So what’s making you hesitate? Why aren’t you all in?” The goal here is to stay out of the way of the seesaw. Let your ambivalent audience tell you – in their heads, at least – that Trump/Brexit poses daunting and maybe unacceptable risks.

I haven’t used this particular seesaw strategy enough to recommend it with confidence. It might backfire for audience members who aren’t prepared to acknowledge their own ambivalence; your challenge might make them decide they are all in after all. I find the pose-the-question strategy appealing, but risky.

number 6

At a minimum, don’t trash the valid reasons for liking Trump/Brexit.

This ought to be obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway. The least effective of all possible messages for an ambivalent audience is to insist that half their ambivalence is nonsense – that Trump is a monster, that Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster, and that only a fool or worse would support either. This is especially self-defeating if you don’t even get around to raising the point on which you and your audience agree – that Trump/Brexit is a big risk.

The temptation to attack your audience is real; it comes from your own strong feelings and the implicit demands of your supporters. But it’s the opposite of sound seesaw strategy. In her Guestbook comment that launched this response, Diane MacEachern seems surprised that “Even comparisons [of Trump] to Hitler don’t stick.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

number 7

Save the seesaw for ambivalent audiences.

Just as one-sided messaging backfires with ambivalent audiences, seesaw messaging can backfire with supporters and low-interest newcomers. Supporters get irritated when you say anything even remotely positive about the other side. And newcomers may learn things they didn’t know about the pro-Trump or pro-Brexit case from your acknowledgments. Or they may get confused; why are you telling them all those reasons to be pro-Trump or pro-Brexit when you’re on the anti side?

This is a significant downside of the seesaw strategy, but it’s not a deal-breaker. You can mitigate your supporters’ irritation by explaining to them why it’s important to acknowledge the other side’s valid concerns. As for newcomers, if they become more interested in the issue they’re going to hear the other side’s best arguments anyway.

Still, it’s a real problem. When you can, partition your various audiences and talk to them in separate venues: your supporters; your committed opponents (if you think they’re worth talking to); low-interest neutrals and newcomers; and the ambivalent audience for whom the seesaw is crucial. (Of course the messages need to be compatible. It’s neither ethical nor effective to say one thing to one group and something completely different to another.)

Based on these rules-of-thumb, we can rank-order the messaging strategies for ambivalent audiences from best to worst:

1 Best
Subordinate the side of your audience’s ambivalence you favor to the side you oppose: “Even though voting for Trump/Brexit is risky, I get why it’s attractive.”
2 Subordinate the side you oppose to the side you favor, but give them equal attention: “Even though I get why it’s attractive, voting for Trump/Brexit is risky.”
3 Focus on the side you favor, with a perfunctory bow to the side you oppose: “Here’s my long disquisition on why voting for Trump/Brexit is risky, and by the way I get why some people think it’s attractive.”
4 Focus exclusively on the side you favor: “Voting for Trump/Brexit is risky.”

Focus on the side you favor and attack the side you oppose: “Voting for Trump/Brexit is risky, and only a fool or worse would find it an attractive option.”
6WorstJust attack the side you oppose: “Only a fool or worse would find it attractive to vote for Trump/Brexit.”

In the Brexit referendum, “Remain” campaigners made by far the greatest use of #4, or at best #3. They endlessly insisted on the dangers of Brexit, with only an occasional pro forma acknowledgment of its appeals.

In an analysis written two weeks before the vote, one pro-“Leave” pollster and commentator wrote:

It was probably a mistake for the “Remain” campaign to go nuclear so early. Their claims that leaving the E.U. would be a catastrophe for Britain’s economy and security, and the lurid terms in which they were made, probably weakened their case rather than strengthened it. The approach undermined the campaign’s believability; as wavering voters in my final round of focus groups said last week, the warnings became “white noise.” A less frantic tone, arguing that the E.U. had plenty of faults but on balance we were better off in – rather than that calamity would ensue were we to leave – might have sounded more credible and, particularly from David Cameron, more convincing.

Worse yet, I am stunned by how often Clinton campaigners have opted for #5 on my list – and then wonder why it doesn’t work well.

If I think Trump is risky even though he’s appealing, and you say he’s both risky and unappealing, the first thing I hear is that you don’t get Trump’s appeal. Instead of feeling reinforced in my view that he’s risky, which we share, I end up disputing in my mind your claim that he’s unappealing.

Both ambivalent Trump supporters (he’s risky but so damn appealing) and ambivalent Trump opponents (he’s appealing but so damn risky) are unlikely to be responsive to any argument about Trump’s riskiness that keeps company with insistence that he’s not in the least appealing – or, worse yet, insistence that anyone who finds him appealing in any way is … whatever: racist, rightwing, wacko, misogynist, anti-Semitic, ignorant.

The best messenger for the message that Trump is unacceptably risky is someone who wishes he weren’t, who has cherished the hope that the campaign would mature him, who has reluctantly and gradually decided it’s impossible to vote for the man despite his appeal.

That’s how the seesaw works.

Playing seesaw is a lot to expect of a committed campaigner

Maybe I shouldn’t be so stunned that Clinton campaigners have trouble acknowledging any way in which Trump is appealing. Most Clinton campaigners don’t see any way in which Trump is appealing.

If you genuinely think support for Trump is incomprehensible-bordering-on-evil, it’s hard to see the ways in which a reasonable person might find him an appealing candidate. It’s even harder to make yourself try to “acknowledge” those ways. And it may be impossible to sound sincere, respectful, and empathic when doing so.

This is a symmetrical problem. Here is a key finding from a May 2016 poll that asked people whether they understood why somebody might choose to vote for Trump or Clinton. Sixty-five percent of Democrats said they couldn’t understand why anyone would vote for Trump. Seventy-two percent of Republicans said they couldn’t understand why anyone would vote for Clinton.

Presumably an even lower percentage of campaigners for Clinton, tasked with selling the message that Trump is risky, would have a decent understanding of Trump’s appeal to the key ambivalent audience.

It is tempting to comment at length about aspects of Trump’s appeal that I think Clinton campaigners have difficulty seeing, much less acknowledging. I am going to resist this temptation for several reasons. One, I can’t really expect Clinton campaigners (for example my old friend Diane MacEachern, who launched this Guestbook response in the first place) to find any disquisition on Donald Trump’s virtues enlightening or even acceptable. Two, since I am by no means a Trump supporter, I don’t want to attract anti-Trump vitriol by saying nice things about him. And three, I want to keep my focus on risk communication and especially the seesaw, not on the merits of the presidential candidates.

But I can’t resist mentioning two key elements of Trump’s appeal that Clinton campaigners seem unable to detect:

  • Political incorrectness. Beyond doubt, he says a lot of untruths (some of them offensive). But he also says, often in an exaggerated way, a lot of true or somewhat true things that aren’t conventionally “allowed” to be said (some of them offensive as well). Yet I suspect many Clinton campaigners can’t think of a single thing Trump has ever said that had a grain of inconvenient truth in it.
  • Charm. There are millions of people who can’t see past his boastfulness, his insults, and his all-too-frequent sneer. But millions of others find him likeable – a rich, irrepressible Everyman. Both Trump and Clinton are apparently warm on a one-on-one basis. Clinton seems unable to project that warmth to crowds or TV audiences. Trump does so with ease. Whether you respond to Trump’s charm or are immune to it is a kind of litmus test.

In the Brexit campaign, I suspect, “Remain” proponents also had blind spots for some of the appeals of leaving the European Union. Certainly they had trouble acknowledging those appeals respectfully and empathically. It’s easy to find arrogant, disdainful quotes from the “Remain” side of Brexit about the “Leave” side. And there’s no question in my mind that many “Leave” supporters felt their patriotic impulses were being stereotyped as intolerant and nativist. The progressive establishments in Europe and the U.K. are typically more respectful of non-European movements for national self-determination than they were of the Brexit movement.

But I have spent a lot more time reading and thinking about these issues with regard to Trump. So I need to leave open the question of how able and willing at least some “Remain” proponents were to acknowledge the appeal of “Leave.”

I am not recommending that opponents try to fake a respect and empathy they don’t actually feel for the reasons and feelings underlying support for Trump or Brexit. People can tell when they’re being insincerely patronized. Try to develop that respect and empathy. Or find spokespeople who have it.

In a nutshell

In the U.S. presidential race, there are millions of people who are torn between two almost identical ambivalent positions:

  • I like a great deal about Trump that I don’t like about Clinton. But the bottom line is that he’d be a dangerously unpredictable president, and that’s too big a risk to take. I think I will probably vote for Clinton, but reluctantly.
  • Trump would be a dangerously unpredictable president. But I like a great deal about Trump that I don’t like about Clinton, and that’s too big a factor to ignore. I think I will probably vote for Trump, but nervously.

(Remember: None of this applies to unambivalent, all-in supporters of Trump or Clinton.)

If you want to talk this ambivalent audience into voting for Clinton – the first instead of the second of these two positions – you need to acknowledge what they like about Trump that they don’t like about Clinton. You don’t have to agree with their reasons for preferring Trump; you can still be an enthusiastic, unambivalent Clinton supporter. But you have to show that you get why they are so attracted to Trump – sincerely, respectfully, and empathically.

The Clinton campaign and too many Clinton supporters come across as contemptuous of just about everything that others find appealing about Trump. That makes it difficult or maybe even impossible for them to be credible or persuasive when warning about the riskiness of a Trump presidency.

Similarly, Brexit was (and is) simultaneously scary and appealing to many Brits. The result was ambivalence. “Remain” campaigners may have failed to see the appeal of the “Leave” position. They mostly failed to acknowledge it with anything like sincerity, respect, and empathy. Those failures undermined their efforts to assert the dangers of Brexit, and contributed importantly to the success of Brexit at the polls.

Ben responds:

You make a compelling case for the use of the seesaw as a way to reach out to ambivalent voters. My two takeaways from your article are:

  1. David Cameron and his Conservative colleagues campaigning for “Remain” should have made more use of the seesaw when reaching out to ambivalent voters.
  2. The chances of the Democrats making use of the seesaw in reaching out to ambivalent Trump supporters are slim.

Point 2 is rather depressing as there are Democrats, particularly from the “Rust Belt” states, who could credibly reach out to some of the ambivalent Trump supporters. However, as you rightly say, they won’t do this because they fear being demonized by others within their party. Maybe, in any case, it simply is not possible to attempt this type of segmentation in the full glare of media scrutiny during an election campaign.

The irony is that David Cameron and most of the other “Remainers” were in the perfect position to say they saw the attraction of leaving the E.U. Cameron has never been an E.U. enthusiast and up to February this year he was still saying he was prepared to back leaving the E.U. if he didn’t get enough concessions in his “re-negotiation” of Britain’s relationship with the E.U. Indeed, these statements came back to haunt Cameron during the referendum campaign and served to undermine his credibility in warning of the dangers of leaving the E.U.

Another important factor in the campaign was that the “Leave” campaigners warned of the risks of Britain staying in the E.U. They linked this to the issue of migration in a very low, untruthful but effective way. They said that Turkey was about to join the E.U., opening up the U.K. to millions of more migrants. They said that the U.K. might be forced to contribute to future E.U. bailouts of countries such as Greece. And they portrayed the U.K.’s public services (schools, hospitals) as being at the breaking point because of the current “burden” of immigration.

The winning side in the Brexit referendum brought down the U.K. Prime Minister but they themselves did not then become the Government. They do not now have to try and deliver on the wild promises they made. During the campaign and immediately after the vote, the Brexiteers gave out lots of false reassurance about the impact of leaving the E.U. on Britain’s economy and its place in the world. For example, on the day after the vote the most prominent Brexiteer, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, said “Let me be clear. The United Kingdom today is no less united and no less European.” I had thought about writing an article on how such reassurance breaks the most basic laws of risk communication and could come back to haunt Mr Johnson. But when he then pulled out of the contest to become U.K. Prime Minister I realized they would not!

Diane responds:

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks in “Trump Country,” along Virginia’s Atlantic coast. Many ambivalent voters seemed motivated to vote for Trump by their desire for change. “Spanky,” a retired school teacher who also owns and manages an ice cream parlor, was representative of several likely Trump voters I met. While not particularly attracted by Trump’s boorishness, he wants things to be different.

When I pointed out that life in a variety of important ways is not only different but better now than it was eight years ago – more health care, less crime, more jobs – he dismissed those advances in favor of some vague notion of “change” he couldn’t quite articulate. He also noted that while life in the U.S. might be better for “other people,” it wasn’t necessarily better for him. What he wants is “change” – whatever that means – that will improve his own existence.

I find this a particularly vexing issue to address because Hillary Clinton is primarily offering continuity, not change (which also, by the way, is what drove so many folks to support Bernie in the primary).

On the seesaw, I might be able to get Spanky to inch towards the fulcrum if, in addition to acknowledging his desire for change, I could point to some tangible changes Clinton is proposing. But the changes she does support – on trade and immigration, for example – just aren’t speaking to an ice cream parlor owner’s need for changes he thinks will actually make a difference to him.

Of course, Clinton will never advocate changes as drastic as Trump’s. But I do think her campaign would be wisely served – and would attract more ambivalent voters – if she could counter the risks these voters associate with Trump by offering them some specific and meaningful ideas for change that would give them a reason to vote for her.

peter responds:

I like your notion that Spanky might move some on the Trump riskiness seesaw if Clinton could acknowledge that she represents less change than Trump (the downside from Spanky’s perspective) but also point out that she’s a safer agent of change (the upside).

Arousing concern about cyber attack risk to the U.S. electrical grid

name:Peter Eisner
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

field:Journalist and author
date:June 23, 2016
location:Washington, D.C.


I’ve just been shanghaied by Northwestern University Medill Journalism School to lead a seminar on the security of U.S. infrastructure. It seems to be moving toward dealing with the safety and protection of the U.S. electrical grid.

In his book Lights Out Ted Koppel makes a Chicken Little argument that a cyber attack on the grid is likely to happen, even inevitable, and could bring down the grid to millions of people for months, or longer.

Others say that is overstated and the greater threat – eventually – is an electrical magnetic pulse from the sun.

We’re going to look at the various aspects of this: threat, types of threat, preparedness, etc.

An important element of this is right up your alley. Have you ever worked on this in particular and/or do you have any suggestions?

peter responds:

Coincidentally, I was in Tallinn, Estonia a couple of weeks ago and got interested in the (almost certainly Russian) distributed-denial-of-service cyber attack on Estonia’s access to the Internet in 2007. This was an especially big deal in Estonia because that country has made Web connectivity the core of pretty much all commercial, industrial, and governmental activity. Russia brought life in Estonia to a halt for weeks.

So I’m in a frame of mind to buy Koppel’s argument that a cyber attack on the U.S. electrical grid is a high-magnitude high-probability risk. And given how little impact this and other warnings have had on public opinion (and public policy) in the U.S., I’m also in a frame of mind to believe that it won’t be easy to arouse concern about this risk. Odds are it will take a high-profile scary domestic news peg.

Your effort at Medill to get journalists more aware of the issue may help. It can’t hurt, certainly. On the one hand, the agenda-setting function of the media is thoroughly documented. The news media are far better at determining what people think about than at determining what people think. On the other hand, most of the agenda-setting documentation preceded the advent of social media and the downsizing of journalism. More than ever before, reporters now try to cater to the interests of the audience rather than hoping to influence those interests.

I have never worked specifically on this issue. But I suspect one important barrier to convincing people that it’s a big problem is convincing them that it would be useful for them to worry about the problem – that is, that there’s something to be done about it and some role for them to play in getting it done.

In the literature, this issue usually goes under the labels “efficacy” (can the problem be solved or at least ameliorated) and “self-efficacy” (can I do anything meaningful to protect myself or help solve the problem). When efficacy and self-efficacy are low with regard to a specific risk, people are motivated to shrug off that risk in any of several ways. Some resolve their cognitive dissonance by convincing themselves it’s not really serious; others accept that the risk is high but don’t do anything about it (not even try to learn more) because they feel paralyzed or hopeless about it. Perhaps the most damaging defense is reactance: When we feel powerless to mitigate a risk, we may get angry at the source of warning messages about it, and our attitudes and behaviors tend to move in the opposite direction.

These sorts of reactions are understandable and sometimes even sensible when there really is nothing to be done or nothing I can do. They’re unwise but nonetheless powerful if I mistakenly feel/believe that there’s no point in becoming more involved or even more interested.

Efficacy messaging can have a significant impact. This is particularly relevant to fear appeals – messaging that tries to frighten people into precautionary action. Early in my career, the conventional wisdom among psychology and communication experts was that fear appeals tend to backfire. But evidence has accumulated in the past couple of decades that fear appeals work fairly well – if and only if they don’t run up against an efficacy or self-efficacy barrier.

See for example this article link is to a PDF file by Kim Witte and Mike Allen, tracing the evidence that fear appeals motivate precautionary action when people are encouraged to feel efficacious, whereas trying to frighten people about a risk they feel incapable of protecting themselves against is likely to arouse their defenses.

In a nutshell, we are all constantly doing triage on a universe of things we might worry about. Efficacy and self-efficacy are key sorting variables that help us allocate our time and emotional energy.

I’m pretty sure efficacy and self-efficacy are relevant to getting people to focus on cyber attack risk.

But for many people, I suspect, that’s not the main barrier yet. The decision to take precautions about a risk (or to urge policymakers to take precautions) occurs in stages. Different stage models define them differently. The Precaution Adoption Process Model link is to a PDF file (PAPM), which I helped develop back when I was an academic, defines seven stages between ignorance and completed preventive action (or an established habit):

  1. Unaware of the issue
  2. Aware of the issue but not personally engaged
  3. Engaged and deciding what to do
  4. Planning to act but not yet having acted
  5. Having decided not to act (a dead end, obviously, an alternative to the progression from 4 to 6)
  6. Acting
  7. Maintenance (continuing to act as needed)

Efficacy and self-efficacy are particularly relevant to the transitions from Stages 2 to 3 and 3 to 4. For people still at Stage 1, though, they’re not yet a significant part of the problem. And most people may be still at Stage 1 vis-à-vis cyber attack.

But as soon as people are aware of an issue, getting them engaged requires convincing them that getting engaged won’t be futile.

If you’re interested in the PAPM, you’ll find plenty of information about it, on my website and elsewhere. You might also look at something I posted on the website a month or so ago, “Car Crashes and Mass Extinction Events.” The part on how to arouse concern about mass extinction events (from climate change to asteroid crashes) has some relevance for cyber attacks.

Let me know what you end up saying in your seminar about risk communication aspects of the cyber attack problem.

Property value protection programs

name:Etienne and Myriam
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Mining industry public affairs
date:May 19, 2016


We both attended the workshop you gave for our company last December and remember you saying we could follow up with you should we have questions. So here we are!

First, let us tell you – and this is not an overstatement – that your training has transformed the way we've been approaching community outrage in our residue site project. The results have so far been pretty outstanding and fascinating in many ways.

This has also been VERY useful in helping us explain to senior management what needed to be done – the desired attitude and behavior – and that our most vocal opponents should be treated with utmost respect. Your work has also helped us explain that being “trashed” in the mainstream newspapers is not a problem as long as we are progressing toward our goal.

We are currently seeking to address the issue of potential property value impacts. There is concern about future claims for expensive compensation resulting from the expansion of our residue site in the local town, near where our neighbors live.

We remember you mentioning that fears and outrage related to property value loss were a common problem that many companies had. In response to such fears and as a way to mitigate the outrage, you suggested making a commitment to compensate impacted home owners, should it be proven that property value losses were caused by the company. In the end, you noted, the compensation requirements were typically nil or close to nil.

Our questions:

  1. Is this a fair representation of what you said?
  2. Is there any documentation available to support this view?
  3. Any suggestions you could make? Opportunities to deepen our understanding of the problem and possible options?
We are currently framing our proposal to senior management and constructing our business case. So all comments/questions/suggestions are welcome!

peter responds:

Thank you for your kind words about my seminar and its impact on your company and your work.

Some brief answers to your three questions.

number 1

Is this a fair representation of what you said?

Yes, you understood what I said perfectly.

number 2

Is there any documentation available to support this view?

I haven’t written anything public about property value protection programs, except for this short passage in my 2010 column, “Hostile Meetings: When Opponents Want to Talk”:

When people are reasonably but mistakenly worried that X might happen, and you are confident that it won’t, why not guarantee that it won’t? Write a contract with a stipulated penalty – money damages that go automatically to your stakeholders if you turn out wrong. That may not convince opponents that you’re right, but it will go a long way toward convincing them that you’re sincere.

If you think your neighbors’ property value worries are baseless, for example, the conventional response is to tell them so: “We don’t think our proposed expansion will hurt your property values. It’s a brownfields site that’s now lying fallow, a community eyesore. The expansion will mean a year or so of construction hassles for our neighbors, but once that’s over the greenbelt around the plant should be a big improvement over the way things look now. And of course the new ratable should help keep property taxes low.”

That’s good as far as it goes. But consider putting your money where your mouth is: “Just in case we’re wrong, we’re happy to work out a Property Value Protection Program. If you want to sell your property and can’t get what an appraiser says it would have brought if not for our expansion, we will either pay the difference or buy it ourselves at what would have been the fair market value … and then we’ll resell it – we’re betting for more than we paid for it – when the expansion is done.”

There is a relevant literature, though. I don’t know what it says in any detail, but you can access it easily by Googling “property value protection” and similar terms.

number 3

Any suggestions you could make? Opportunities to deepen our understanding of the problem and possible options?

Of course sometimes a company’s activities genuinely damage property values – for example, if pollutants from a facility make residential well water no longer potable. If that happens, the company is usually liable for the damage anyway – and the resulting legal proceedings do additional reputational harm and may yield excessive jury awards. So having an agreement in place beforehand doesn’t add to the cost to the company if its actions damage local property values; rather, the agreement simultaneously reduces the cost to the company and protects the neighbors.

But often people have groundless fears that their property values could be damaged by something that the company does, or that it might do, or that they worry it might do. Instead of debating whether their fears are justified or groundless, it’s fairly simple to guarantee their property values. The agreement protects them if they’re right. The agreement costs the company next-to-nothing if the company is right.

And as I noted in the website column excerpted above, the company’s desire to negotiate a property value protection agreement immediately convinces neighbors that the company genuinely doesn’t expect its activities to damage local property values. They may continue to think you’re mistaken, but at least they stop thinking you’re lying!

The more convinced the company is that its activities pose no risk to neighborhood property values, the more willing it should be to embed its conviction in a negotiated agreement to reimburse property owners if it turns out mistaken. Sometimes I have urged especially confident clients to go even further – for example, to guarantee that they will pay some multiple of actual property values if the outcome that neighbors fear actually occurs. “If X happens we’ll pay you ten times what your home is worth” is extremely convincing evidence that the company doesn’t expect X to happen and will move heaven and earth to make sure X never happens.

There is also an important middle case between justified neighborhood fears and groundless neighborhood fears: self-fulfilling neighborhood fears. Suppose I’m not the only person in the neighborhood who’s worried that a facility’s emissions will pollute my well water and thus reduce the value of my home. Many of my neighbors have the same worry. Some are trying to sell out and move before the disaster materializes, so there are many homes in the neighborhood on the market simultaneously. Prospective buyers have heard about the worry too. Home prices are declining because so many homes are on the market and so many people are worried. The impact on property values isn’t from the facility’s emissions. It is from the neighborhood’s fears, and the stigma caused by the neighborhood’s fears. Even people who don’t share those fears can see their property values decline as a result of others’ fearfulness.

A well-designed property value protection program should prevent this from happening. If I know the agreement protects me if my well water were to become contaminated, I don’t need to sell in order to protect my investment. My neighbors have the same agreement and the same confidence, so they don’t need to sell either. If a few of the neighbors want to sell for whatever reason, prospective purchasers will inherit the agreement. So home values don’t decline, and the agreement doesn’t need to be invoked.

Some property value protection programs embed even more effective bulwarks against self-fulfilling neighborhood fears. I helped design one several decades ago with an interesting provision. (I think I may have discussed this at the seminar you attended.)

The basic plan provided that neighbors within a specified radius of the facility were guaranteed that their home value would not sink below what it would have been without the facility (or without whatever facility misbehavior was feared – in my hypothetical example, the well water contamination). If neighbors tried to sell their home and failed to get their asking price, they could call on the agreement, under which the company had two choices: Either buy the home for what would have been its fair market price (as decided by a team of appraisers) or pay the seller the difference between that price and the price a third party buyer is willing to pay. This is the typical sort of arrangement I described in the column excerpt above.

The additional provision I’m especially proud of was this: Every year that a home within the specified radius was not put on the market, the company paid the homeowner a relatively small sum, on condition that the money must be spent on home improvements. Because of this provision, the neighborhood kept looking better and better, home values kept going higher and higher, and the company never needed to buy out any homeowner.

I hope this helps. Please let me know what else you learn as you look into the concept further, and how senior management reacts to your proposal.

Delivering outrage-arousing news

name: Nicole Hunter
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Engagement consultant
date:May 6, 2016
location: Australia


In brief here is the situation:

  • A local community committee of management has recently had to publicly tender for the ongoing management of a site they have managed for over 15 years. (A significant increase in the funding provided by local government to the site required a change in contractual arrangements.)
  • They didn’t win the tender. Instead, their “nemesis” in the space won it – an organization that has never “played well with others” in this space.
  • They didn’t win it because they couldn’t show they had the governance skills that the Council required. (Council have been working with the local community committee for close on four years trying to get them to be better at governance.)
  • The local group was apparently quite happy for an open tender when that was announced at the end of last year. But now they have been told they haven’t won and are outraged at the process.
  • The local group has good connections. They can mobilize and galvanize a community. And they have threatened legal action.
  • Both the Council and the local group have issues in the way they have handled this. They both have faults.
  • The process appears to have been run with fairness and equity.
  • There is a possibility that the Councilors may decide to rescind or recall the vote to award the tender. So that needs to be factored into the possible processes going forward.

My client is the Council.

I see many outrage factors link is to a PDF file in play here. We obviously have a situation of the local group feeling forced into a situation that they don’t want to be in, so it is “controlled by others”; it’s an unknowable situation (what will happen next?); it’s morally relevant; the Council may be seen as unresponsive. But it’s the unfairness that seems to reign.

How can the Council best communicate their decision to the local group and to the broader community who use this site?

I think acknowledging the mistakes of Council is key to future conversations. But there are also mistakes on the part of the local group. They contributed to this situation. How do we best balance this when talking with the group and the locals?

I also think the local group has potentially been asked to do too much, be too professional. And the Council underestimated the response to the announcement from the local group.

peter responds:

I know next to nothing about Australian legalities regarding tender offers, government contracts, and the like. So I’m putting aside the distinct possibility that your client cannot legally say some of what it would ideally say from an outrage management perspective. Insofar as Australian law permits, what do I think Council should say to address the outrage inherent in this situation?

The core problem here is a common one: how to deliver outrage-arousing news without exacerbating the outrage.

One important piece of the answer is negative, what not to do. When you’re telling people something you know is going to make them angry, don’t try not to make them angry. My wife and colleague Jody Lanard used to be a university student health psychiatrist. Pretty often an undergrad would tell Jody that she wanted to break up with her boyfriend “but I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Jody’s advice to these students was identical to my advice to your Council: You can’t skip that part.

Council is in essence firing the community group from its position managing the site. So not making the group members angry isn’t a feasible or sensible goal. But not making them angrier than necessary is. Some concrete recommendations follow.

Notice that four of my five points below are framed in terms of “show,” not “tell.” Sometimes it helps to say these things outright and sometimes it doesn’t. In general, I prefer explicit acknowledgment to hinting. But just as seeming oblivious to how people feel can exacerbate their outrage, it can also exacerbate their outrage to rub their noses in how they feel. Delivering outrage-arousing news calls for empathy – and empathic communication requires finding a middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness.

So some of what follows your client should say. And some of it your client needs to find ways to show without necessarily saying.

number 1

Show you know the news is outrage-arousing.

”We don’t see why you’re so upset” – or anything along those lines – would literally add insult to injury. Of course the group members are upset. Anyone would be. Seeming not to realize your news is upsetting is sure to exacerbate the outrage.

On the other hand, pointing out how upset they are is too intrusive, and may also exacerbate the outrage. That’s true even if they’re aggressively expressing the outrage themselves. People are entitled to act emotional. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for others to put labels on their emotions. So consider using an empathic communication strategy like deflection. Instead of directly telling the group members how outraged they are, deflect the point, so you’re legitimating the outrage without “accusing” the group of being outraged:

  • “I can imagine it could be really upsetting to lose a contract like this.”
  • “When Council changes contractors for any piece of work, it’s pretty common for the outgoing contractor to be angry.”
  • “A lot of community groups would be unhappy to lose a contract like this.”

Without ever saying the news is upsetting, you can certainly point to the reasons why it is upsetting. The group managed the site for over 15 years. Now it’s going to have to turn the site over, not to a neutral third party, but to a group it may see as the opposition, even the enemy. And the decision may come as a shock; group members seemed pleased when the tender process was first announced and may have expected to keep the contract.

To show you know the news is outrage-arousing without talking too much about other people’s emotions, openly acknowledge what they might do instead of telling them what they might be feeling:

  • They might sue.
  • They might protest.
  • They might even win… and get Council to rescind the decision.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s always wisest to sound like your decisions are irrevocable, never mentioning what opponents might do to fight back, much less suggesting that they might succeed. But it’s not as if the group doesn’t already know what its options are. Nor are those options illegitimate; lawsuits and protest demonstrations are part of how democracies work. I think there’s far more to be gained than lost by saying so.

number 2

Show you wish you had a different option.

I don’t really know, but I’m assuming here that Council isn’t trying to upset the group – that it isn’t getting even for past slights and relishing the outrage it is provoking. But people on the receiving end of bad news pretty frequently impute bad motives to the decision-maker. It’s part of the decision-maker’s job to demonstrate that the decision isn’t vindictive. If you can’t satisfy the group itself on this point, at least you need to satisfy the rest of the community.

The most direct way to show you wish you had a different option is to say so. Expressing wishes is a tried-and-true strategy of outrage management and crisis communication. But in this case, I’m not sure whether “We wish we didn’t have to do this” would sound credible – and I’m also worried about how it would sound to the new contractor! The goal, I think, is to sound positive about the change you’ve decided to make but sad about its impact on the group that’s losing the contract.

Even if Council decides to express the wish directly, it should be careful not to go overboard. For example, it shouldn’t suggest that “this hurts us more than it hurts you” or that “we feel your pain.”

number 3

Show you’re looking for ways to mitigate the outrage.

You may or may not be able to come up with an actual compromise that at least partially meets everybody’s needs. For sure you should be visibly trying to do so – to figure out how to do what you have decided to do in the least hurtful way to the group.

Judging from what you’ve said about the situation, I think there may be a win-win possible here. I would look for ways for the group to segue from its current site management role into an oversight role. This makes sense not only because the group is “from the community” and not a mere outside contractor, but also because it is the former contractor. Group members know the history of the site; they know what they’ve done, what worked and what backfired, etc. Even their contentious relationship with the new contractor can be reframed as a benefit: They will be monitoring the new contractor’s performance skeptically and reporting back to Council on any problems they see.

So maybe Council can repurpose the group as an advisory/oversight committee. Better yet: Get the group to craft a new role for itself. Even better: Make the new contractor and the old one work together on the old one’s new oversight role. Council can make clear that it won’t approve a path forward for the new group unless the old group is appropriately involved. If the new group isn’t willing to do that, Council may want to reconsider its tender decision (which you told me Council may reconsider anyway).

Proposing a viable compromise is just one way to show you’re looking for ways to mitigate the outrage. Even if no compromise turns out viable, it will help some if Council is trying to find one.

number 4

Be candid – but gently.

Losers in a competition are typically ambivalent about how much detail they want to hear about why they lost. If you don’t give your reasons the decision feels arbitrary. But dwelling on your reasons means dwelling on their inadequacies, which is hard for them to listen to.

I would be candid that Council thought the group wasn’t meeting the growing governance demands of the project, and that this raised serious concerns. Could doubts about governance undermine public confidence in the safety of the site? Could it actually endanger site safety? Could it entail legal liability for Council, and for the group itself? I would give an example or two to clarify what you mean when you say there were governance problems.

And then I’d make it clear that Council is prepared to explain its decision in greater detail if the group wants that – privately or publicly, as the group prefers.

Insofar as it’s true, try to explain the group’s inadequacies in ways that don’t reflect badly on the group. “Financial accountability requirements got more and more onerous over the years, and eventually they were just too much to expect from a local volunteer organization” goes down easier (if it’s true) than “We kept warning them, but they just couldn’t be bothered to keep good records of where the money went.”

I would also leaven the criticism with praise. What are some of the group’s signal accomplishments in the 15 years it managed the site? What sort of debt of gratitude is owed to the group by Council and community for taking on the burden, back when nobody else was rising to the occasion? Is it fair to say the group carried the load longer and better than anyone had a right to expect? Make sure what you say is true and sounds sincere; false praise is worse than none at all. But now is a very good time to reflect publicly on how much has improved under the group’s management.

number 5

Show you accept your share of the responsibility.

This is twofold. You’re not just delivering the outrage-arousing news; you made it happen – so don’t pretend you didn’t. And some of what necessitated your decision is your fault; there are things you’d do differently if you had it all to do again. Show you know that too.

Owning the decision is essential. Even something as seemingly trivial as active versus passive voice can make a big difference. “It was judged necessary to...” sounds more evasive and arouses more outrage than “We decided to…”

Part of owning the decision, I think, is defending it. You regret its downsides; you especially regret that it may damage, offend, anger, and disappoint a community group you respect. But you think it’s the right decision.

Your comment suggests several ways in which Council may have contributed to the problem:

  • Council may have expected too much of the group. It’s amazing sometimes how much volunteers can accomplish – but they do have day jobs, and they may lack some necessary professional skills.
  • Council worked for several years trying to improve the group’s governance ability, and failed. That’s Council’s failure at least as much as the group’s. But be careful how you say this. “We failed to bring you up to snuff” can easily sound more like a criticism than a confession.
  • Council may have given the group the misimpression that the new tender was just paperwork and the group was a shoo-in to get the contract renewed.

The third bullet point deserves a little elaboration. Your comment notes that the tender process was “run with fairness and equity.” But you also say that among the many outrage factors in play, “it’s the unfairness that seems to reign.” So the process was objectively fair but now feels like it was unfair to the group that lost. My guess is that the group expected an unfair process in which they were the foreordained winner. So a fair process that didn’t give them a leg up feels like a betrayal, and thus feels unfair.

When the group didn’t object to the process at the outset, that was a hint that it was underestimating its risk of losing the contract. Council probably let the group underestimate its risk in order to avoid conflict – postponing and thus exacerbating its eventual outrage. If so, Council should now take some responsibility for having misled the group.

My risk communication legacy

name: Kerry Chamberlain
field:Public health
date:April 30, 2016
location:Michigan, U.S.


What do you want your legacy to be?

peter responds:

The last time I updated my webpage entitled “Working toward a Legacy” was June 2014. Here are some additional musings.

Students as legacy

Early in my academic career, I saw graduate students as my legacy, especially doctoral students but also master’s students. They spent years under my guidance, aspiring to acquire what I had to offer and then take it further. And many did … in academic careers, activist careers, etc.

But after a difficult divorce I left Michigan for Rutgers, where I had no graduate students. I loved the pleasure of teaching undergrads. And every so often, still, I hear from a long-ago Rutgers student I hardly knew who’s writing to tell me some way I made a difference in his or her life. Still, undergrads weren’t a legacy in the way grad students had been; I was a tiny piece of any undergraduate’s education. So when my consulting work began to flourish and compete with my university responsibilities, it was a fairly easy decision to leave academia for consulting.

Clients as legacy

So then I figured my legacy was my clients – the people and organizations I had helped, and perhaps launched on a new path, maybe even inspired. And that’s true up to a point. There are several thousand people out there in government and industry who have sat in a “Sandman seminar” or a consultation and took something away from it.

But my speaking and consulting style was more Johnny Appleseed than long-term mentor. Clients were more adult and more motivated than undergraduates – but I had only a few days with them, typically – less time than I had spend with my undergrads and far less than I had spent with my grad students.

I do hear from former clients pretty frequently, and I have learned from them that I’m an awful judge of my own impact. Sometimes I have come home discouraged from a piece of client work, having sensed that they didn’t buy my approach – only to hear years later that my day or two with that organization was a watershed, that old-timers still speak of “pre-Sandman” versus “post-Sandman” thinking. Other times I have come home excited about the impact I thought I had – only to hear years later that nothing changed. Still oftener, what I hear years later is that things changed only a little and only for a little while.

I used to have former clients I thought of as “alumni organizations” – organizations I figured had absorbed my approach (or as much of it as felt right to them) deeply enough that they no longer needed even periodic contact with me to stay on course. Then I watched several of those alumni organizations go badly off-course. They neither adhered to my approach without me nor saw fit to bring me back. (Or maybe nobody was left who remembered me.) Sometimes that happened after a change in senior management; but sometimes it just happened.

It’s not hard to find examples of what I would consider risk communication “worst practice” in the records of some organizations included in the partial list of my former clients on this website.

If I had my career to do over again, I think I would divide my work about in half: half by-the-hour work for clients I hadn’t worked with much before, helping them through a current controversy or giving them a basic seminar; and half multi-year retainer contracts with clients committed to investing substantial time and resources working with me, with the goal of integrating my approach to risk communication into the organization’s culture, its DNA. I realized early on that I should do that. I even wrote about “The Four Stages of Risk Communicationlink is to a PDF file (with a 1991 copyright!), and labeled the final stage “the organizational stage” – but I never really embraced the challenge of marrying risk communication and organizational development.

Business as legacy

The normal way for a consultant to leave a more permanent legacy than his or her clients is to build a business. You take on employees and become a manager and a rainmaker. Eventually you develop a succession plan: Who will take over the reins when you retire? Or you sell your thriving business to a larger outfit and become salaried head of a wholly owned subsidiary. Or you sell out altogether and start something new.

I had chances at these legacy options. But I always turned them down.

Partly it was about preferences. I loved consulting and speaking and writing, but was pretty sure I would hate management. I loved being responsible only for myself and only to myself, with nobody I had to boss (and find work for) and nobody who could boss me. I had and have the soul of a sole practitioner. (I do enjoy collaborating sometimes, especially with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard. But nobody’s boss there.)

But it was also about capabilities. I’m not a good manager. The few times I’ve been an actual boss in the past (such as running the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers back in the late 1980s and early 1990s), I didn’t do especially well. I don’t have good intuition for when to exert my authority and when to back off and let my employees fend for themselves. I’m quite skillful at exercising influence – for example, advising a CEO with many thousands of employees and an ego to match. But I’m not so skillful at exercising power.

Bottom line: I ran a thriving one-person consulting business. Now I’m letting it slowly fade away. No legacy there.

But prospective clients take note: I still say yes when I want to. Feel free to make me enticing consulting offers.

Apprentices as legacy

The other thing I might do if I had it all to do again is take on apprentices. I have had many inquiries over the years from young people who wanted to work with me and learn from me – be my grad students, in essence, without paying tuition or getting a degree.

I yearned to say yes. But I couldn’t figure out the logistics. At the height of my consulting career I was on the road as much as 200 days a year. I couldn’t pay the airfares and hotel bills of apprentices; they couldn’t either; I couldn’t really expect clients to do so. And I wasn’t sure what I would ask an apprentice to do – what the risk communication equivalent should be of a Renaissance artist’s apprentice work – cleaning brushes and crushing pigments, then filling in the sky, then painting the crowd, then slowly graduating to foreground. Other issues were thorny as well: the confidentiality problems of giving my apprentices access to client secrets; the awkwardness of traveling alone with a younger person (especially if female) with whom I had an authority relationship; etc. So it never happened.

Now, of course, I have exactly the opposite problem: I don’t do enough work to keep an apprentice busy.

Case studies as legacy

Now if anything I would need not an apprentice but an archivist/scholar, someone who would read through my hundreds of client files and turn them into publishable case studies. But think of the confidentiality issues that would raise! Every case study would need to be thoroughly anonymized – which would greatly reduce its interest and value … and at the end of the day I’d still be vulnerable to liability suits if an ex-client recognized itself and worried that others might recognize it too.

Still, I’d love to find a way to get some of the hundreds of memos I have sent to clients – “Here’s why you should do X in this situation instead of Y” – in shape for third parties to read (and want to read).

Website as legacy

Meanwhile, my main legacy is this website. As little as a year ago I was adding to it frequently; now I am adding to it only occasionally. I can’t tell yet if this is a lull or a retirement.

I didn’t decide not to spend a lot of time writing for the website. I thought cutting way back on my consulting work would leave me more time for the website. Instead, I discovered that that’s not how I’m using my time. I have a long list of topics I want to write about. I even have a pile of half-written website columns. But I have added very little so far in 2016.

Maybe I stopped writing so much for the website because I was increasingly making familiar points about new examples rather than doing a lot of new thinking. And a lot of the new examples were ones that would make me sound querulous. I’m finding myself especially critical of how public health does risk communication: about flu, about measles, about the anti-vaccination movement, about Ebola quarantine, about lead in Flint, about Zika. In each case, as I see it, public health is mostly in the right but unduly self-righteous and sometimes even dishonest in attacking its opponents. (Climate change activists are in the same boat, I think.) I could write a series of articles criticizing public health agencies and professionals for pretending 95% right is 100% right and trashing the 5% of the truth that cuts the other way. But I don’t think that’s the legacy I want: “He did a lot of good work when he was younger, but then he became an old, crotchety, hostile purist, and ended up helping the bad guys by endlessly criticizing the good guys.” So I go play with my grandchildren instead.

What’s already on the website gets a lot of use – roughly 1,000 visitors a day. They come in three groupings, I think.

  • Some are interested in risk communication. They read articles on riskcomm principles. When they read case studies about particular hazards or controversies, it’s to extract the riskcomm principles.
  • Others are interested in a particular hazard or controversy. When they figure out that the article they have stumbled on is focused on how the specific issue is communicated rather than on the issue itself, they often exit quickly. But sometimes they decide the communication aspect of their issue matters to them. Occasionally they even start exploring the rest of the website.
  • The third and smallest group is the regulars, who come to my site often and maybe have it on RSS. These are as close as I’m ever going to come now to graduate students. I’m pretty sure you’re one of them.

Anyone who wants to learn my approach can come to the website and read what I’ve written (and watch the videos – but mostly just read what I’ve written). I have tried from time to time to get a 501(c)3 organization – ideally a university – to take ownership of the website. So far several organizations have expressed tentative interest but none has made the firm “in perpetuity” commitment I specify. My fallback is already in place; when Jody and I are both dead some of our assets will roll into a foundation charged with perpetuating the website so everything that’s on it remains readily available to anyone who wants to use it (or rediscover it, if that’s how things go).

And sometime in the next year or two I hope to craft a curriculum that organizes the content already on the website, as an alternative to just diving in and reading whatever catches your eye.

Master class as legacy

My “Working toward a Legacy” page goes into some detail about my master class idea, and I won’t repeat it all here. I think it may be an idea whose time has passed.

I was poised to launch the master class some years ago. I had a list of 100-odd people around the world who already knew a lot about risk communication and thought they might want to pay me to spend a week a year for several years with each other and me, learning the finer points of my approach via collaborative strategizing on each other’s actual pending problems. I even had 20 or so signed up, with others pondering whether to sign up or not; I wanted 30-50 total.

And then the Global Financial Crisis hit. I worried less than people would renege than that they wouldn’t when they probably should, given the tenuousness of everybody’s jobs right about then. So I canceled and returned the fees of the early signers.

Now I’m older and tireder. I don’t think my expertise is out of date (though I’d be the last to know), but I’m surely not the hot ticket I was a decade ago. And a big piece of my original concept was to run the master class year after year with a mix of alums and newcomers. Assuming I still have enough energy to run an intensive week-long class in 2016 at age 71, will I in 2021 at age 76?

I haven’t entirely given up on the master class. If someone – some university, maybe – were to say, “We’ll find the students and handle the logistics, you just run the damn thing,” I’d probably say yes. But I doubt I’ll ever send an email to the 100-odd people on my list asking if they’re still interested. And who knows how many are even at the same email address, much less still interested in a Sandman master class?

Partner as legacy

The final legacy option I’ve been considering is to sign a partnership agreement with a public relations agency or a management consulting firm – or ideally one of each. I would teach my bag of tricks to as many people as possible inside the partner organization; I would help them apply my approach to their clients’ problems, working directly with the clients when needed; at the end of 3-5 years the organization would have made my approach an integral part of its approach and a competitive advantage vis-à-vis its competitors.

Negotiations along these lines with two companies fell through when it became clear to me that they wanted me to bring them my clients more than my approach, and it became clear to them that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that.

Now a third company is mulling whether to make me a partnership proposal. It is supposed to get back to me soon with some kind of draft. I’m somewhere between skeptical and hopeful.

The key role of communication and reputation in food recalls

name:Timothy Sly
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Outrage Management index

field:Emeritus Professor, Epidemiology & Risk Studies,
Ryerson University
date:March 20, 2016


I thought you might be interested in a March 15, 2016 article by Brent L. Reichert, just released in Food Safety Magazine.

The article purports to advise food company execs the step-by-step approach to managing a food safety crisis involving a recall.

I scanned the essential steps, searching of course for the obvious acknowledgment of culpability, the apologies (profuse and sincere), and the expressly stated admission to the public that it was “our fault,” “my responsibility,” etc.

Sadly, this seemed to be completely omitted from the priority list presented by Brent Reichert.

I am assuming you are well aware of the Listeria outbreak in the Canada Packers (Maple Leaf) plant in Toronto three years ago. I would have thought that the approach employed in that unusually well-managed episode might have been written into such guidelines.

peter responds:

I agree with you about the Reichert food recall guidelines. These guidelines put an awful lot of emphasis on legal and insurance considerations, and except for mentioning that a communications person should be part of the crisis management team, they say nothing about how to talk to the public.

Reichert does point out that “protecting and maintaining” the company’s reputation (“rebuilding” might have been more to the point) is one of three key goals in a recall. But his advice really doesn’t speak to reputational issues. Maybe he figured those issues needed to be addressed in a different article by a different author. But if so, he should have said so, rather than leaving the impression that his guidelines were meant to cover the waterfront.

Surely an article that addressed reputational issues would have discussed the importance of taking responsibility and expressing contrition.

As you note, Maple Leaf Foods is among the best examples (the best Canadian example I know) of a well-handled recall of food that has turned out deadly – in this case because of Listeria contamination. CEO Michael McCain’s televised apology for the company’s 2008 Listeria outbreak is iconic.

Of course there’s more to recall risk communication than a prompt, heartfelt apology. Three other key components (by no means the only three) are these:

  • Provide easy-to-use guidance for consumers on what lots are being recalled, how to tell if the food in their kitchen comes from one of the recalled lots, and how to return it or dispose of it safely if it is.
  • Describe the contaminant or disease that has necessitated the recall – what it is, what its health effects are, who is most at risk (for Listeria it’s mostly the elderly), what the symptoms and treatments are, etc.
  • Explain what went wrong that led to the contamination, and what the company proposes to do to help prevent such problems in the future. (Some of this information isn’t available until later – but companies shouldn’t wait; they should say what they’ve discovered and decided so far.)

I didn’t work on Maple Leaf’s 2008 Listeria recall, but I watched it and admired it. I had done an earlier food risk communication seminar in Guelph, Canada link is to a PDF file that some of the key Maple Leaf people had attended, and they told me later it was instrumental in how they managed recall communications (and how they tasked the external PR people they brought in to help). In 2009 and 2010 I did work extensively with Maple Leaf on its reputational/recovery efforts after the recall, including its determination to become the poster child in Canada for Listeria risk management.

You mention a Maple Leaf Listeria outbreak three years ago. I was no longer working with Maple Leaf by then, and confess I don’t remember that later outbreak. I’m glad to hear you think the company handled that one well too. Or maybe 2008 feels to you like three years ago? I can relate to that. I worked on the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 recall in 1993. (I worked not for Jack-in-the-Box, but for its meat supplier.) That feels to me more like three years ago than 23 years ago! Fonterra’s botulism recall was three years ago. (I worked on that one too.) Maybe you’re thinking of that.…

Apart from Reichert’s neglect of communication/reputation issues, some of his advice conflicts with what I consider good food recall risk communication. For example, he seems to think that the decision about whether a recall is necessary at all should be made chiefly by the company’s “regulatory counsel,” and that the extent of the recall (“how wide a net to cast”) should also be determined mostly by legal and technical considerations.

But I see huge communication implications in both these decisions. Companies advised by their lawyers that a recall isn’t needed may be advised a day or two later that a recall is required after all; their communicators would have warned that a belated recall can be far more disastrous than one that turns out unnecessary. Similarly, it is devastating to reputation if a recall expands several times as the company discovers more and more lots that might be contaminated; it is far wiser to encircle the problem, so there are no “worse than we thought” revelations in follow-up news stories. (I tell clients to aim for later being accused of having overreacted.)

Just yesterday, coincidentally, I read an article recommending that a company in the middle of an applesauce recall should remind website visitors of all the good things it is doing, and perhaps launch a recipe contest. The author, Karen Masullo, is a crisis communication consultant – but I couldn’t disagree more with this piece of advice. I’d rather see a client explicitly stating that it will sponsor no new recipe contests or other “positive” marketing efforts until its health emergency is over. Seeming to be trying to distract consumers (and yourself?) from your serious current problem is horrible outrage management.

Masullo also criticized the applesauce company for mentioning a prior recall. The company had issued a statement that said in part: “Many of you know that last year we had a recall for a different reason, and as a result, we understand you may be losing patience with us.” Masullo’s point was that it’s foolish to tell “persons who may be unfamiliar with them that they had an issue last year.” I wouldn’t be terribly worried about the downsides of letting newcomers know the history. I’d be much more preoccupied, as the company obviously was, with coming across as honest and determined to longtime customers whose loyalty may be shaken.

But at least Masullo’s article addressed recall communication issues – even if I thought some of her advice about those issues was pretty awful.

Tim responds:

You are correct of course: In my mind 2008 clearly seems only three years ago instead of eight! I should have recalled the year more closely, as I had to amend my teaching examples at that time to include Maple Leaf’s Michael McCain’s most refreshing response, which he did “right off the bat.”

It still stands in stark contrast to BP’s continued response throughout the saga in the Gulf of Mexico, Exxon’s response in Prince William Sound, the Canadian Red Cross in 1986, the Dalkon Shield, Dow-Corning’s silicone breast implants.… the list goes on. You know of course that the Red Cross are now completely out of the blood transfusion business in Canada; despite a full-scale, very public Krever Inquiry in 1993 (delayed by their unsuccessful legal battles to defend their name), not once did anything sounding like an apology escape the agency’s lips.

In contrast, the “star” acts are few and far between when demonstrating responsiveness as the route back to trust: J&J in South Chicago, Maple Leaf, some aspects of Jack-in-the-Box, several others.… But in general, the corporate mindset, sharp and brilliant in short-term matters of protecting the bottom line, remains astonishingly sluggish in recognizing the longer-term leverage to their bottom line that can be achieved by being – and appearing to be – immediately responsive, sincerely repentant, and utterly transparent and accountable in their actions.

I seem to detect your fingerprints all over the good ones!

Some years ago, I was working with the team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, doing field work gathering views and opinions from rural folk surrounding a large, state-of-the-art landfill site (one that you could put on a picture postcard without any signs that a landfill actually existed behind the well-managed berms – no seagulls, smells, blowing paper, dust, etc.). The local population had dug in their heels and delayed the opening by eleven years, despite the fact that the expected life of the site was only ten years! Their main grievance was that nobody consulted them.

But what I found was quite astounding: The most often-repeated complaint from these farmers and their rural neighbors was that the local regional government (which operated the site) still expected them to pay the usual $5 per bag rate for using the site. “They could have allowed us, within a two-kilometer radius of the site, to dump domestic items free if we wanted to!” they said. “They could have issued a decal for the car window allowing dumping without charge!” My sense was that if the local authority had permitted that, the resistance would have melted away a decade earlier! How easy and inexpensive a solution it would have been!

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