When it comes to communicating environmental risk, business needs to recognize that outrage is as important as hazard. “When people are outraged, they tend to think the hazard is more serious than it is,” says Dr Peter Sandman, the preeminent expert on risk communication. “Trying to convince them that it ’s not is unlikely to do much good until you reduce the outrage.” Business can accomplish that by being open, honest, accountable and sharing control with the public.
The scene has played out countless times in civic meeting halls, public auditoriums, and school gymnasiums.
There’s been an accidental release at an industrial facility and now the company has to explain to its neighbors what the risk is to public health. The plant’s environmental managers present the results of a US$1 million study that show there is more risk from eating peanut butter than from living next door to the plant. After the public hearing is over, the company’s embattled CEO can’t understand why people are still calling him a baby killer, why the press continues to liken his plant to Chernobyl, and why regulators are threatening to shut him down.
“It’s the outrage, stupid,” is what Dr Peter Sandman would have told him – if he’d bothered to ask. It’s a message he personally delivers to many of the business world’s top executives.
Sandman is the United States’s preeminent expert on public outrage and environmental risk communication, His counsel is sought by business, government, and environmental activists. His list of corporate clients includes such names as ARCO, Ciba-Geigy, DuPont, Exxon, Intel and Union Carbide, to list just a few.
Brash, plainspoken and as unflappable as the Energizer bunny, Sandman is to risk communication what fiber optics and satellites are to telecommunications. His theories and innovations have revolutionized how business deals with environmental hazards, “If you make a list of environmental health risks in order of how many people they kill each year, then list them again in order of how alarming they are to the general public, the two lists will be very different,” the effervescent 50-year old explains.
Because risk managers in industry and government often deduce from this that public perception of risk is ignorant or irrational, they tend to change the non-technical factor. “A better way to conceptualize the problem is that the public defines ‘risk’ more broadly than the risk assessment profession.” Sandman explains. “Risk, properly conceived, includes both hazard and outrage.”
According to Sandman, public outrage is as real as any hazard. It is measurable and manageable and dealing with it is as is important as dealing with the hazard itself. To get a company to do that, though, Sandman must change how management thinks.
One of the first things he sets out to do is get company officials to accept that emotions are legitimate – the public’s, and their own. Says Sandman, “I tell them, look, just as the community’s outrage gets in the way of its rational assessment of the hazard, your outrage gets in the way of your rational assessment of the community’s outrage. Just as you wish the community would calm down so they can see that you’re not killing them, you need to calm down so you can see there are more cost-effective strategies for ending the war than the strategies you are pursuing for continuing it.”
Part of his strategy is to keep company leaders from confusing maximizing profits with maximizing self-esteem. “Too often my clients get locked into issues of control, ego and vindication.”
Once Sandman achieves that, his next step is to convince executives that the most effective method for managing outrage is to come clean with the public, admit when they’re wrong and invite the public to have a say in how the company is managed.
A tough agenda, but it can be done, As an example, he points to how British Petroleum handled an oil spill in California following the Exxon Valdez disaster. Although a contract carrier was responsible for the spill, BP’s CEO, when asked on television if BP was responsible, replied, “Our lawyers tell us it is not our fault. But we feel like it is our fault and we are going to act like it is our fault.”
Says Sandman, “Six months later they did a survey and found that BP had gained stature because of how they handled the spill.”
Ironically, Sandman spent his early years trying to alert people to environmental hazards, taking a position at the University of Michigan where he taught students who wanted to become environmental activists how to use public relations to mobilize people. “It wasn’t until 1979. he says, that I got interested in the other half of the question: What do you do when people are excessively alarmed?”
That was the year the United States experienced its worst-ever commercial nuclear energy accident – a meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. The accident, played out on television, touched off an epidemic of public fear the likes of which had never been seen before. A special commission appointed by President Carter invited Sandman to investigate communication issues surrounding the incident.
Sandman’s work led to his development of the nation’s premier think tank on risk communications, the Rutgers University’s Environmental Communication Research Program. With the help of other scholars and graduate students, Sandman produced scores of articles and books on various aspects of risk communication. Increasingly. Sandman found himself being invited to speak to industry trade associations and private business. By 1992 demand for his advice and counsel became so heavy that he left his position at Rutgers to become a full-time consultant.
While most of Sandman’s clients are in the United States, he works abroad as well, primarily in the U.K., continental Europe and Australia.
“There isn’t more outrage about environmental issues in the United States than there is in the rest of the world, it’s just that the dynamics are different,” he says. “Take an issue that is likely to get framed as a control issue in the U.S. In Germany, it will probably be a trust issue. Where people in the United States are basically saying, “How dare you control my life,” in Germany they’re saying, “I want a more reliable parent, a more trustworthy boss.”
European-based companies, he says, face an added challenge that comes with unification. He points to Shell’s original decision to dump Brent Spar as an example. “Shell UK did a good job at determining that the U.K. public was on its side, but it forgot to consider the continent,” he explains. “It’s not that Shell UK judged that the German public wouldn’t be upset, it’s that it didn’t think to consider the German public as relevant.”
Multinationals won’t make that mistake again, he adds.
As a rule, Sandman finds his clients wind up doing about ten percent of what he wants them to do. “Change is invariably slow and less than it might be,” he chuckles. “There’s lots of recidivism, but that’s to be expected. Rhetoric changes first, behavior changes next, and attitudes change last.”
That’s not to say behavior isn’t catching up to rhetoric and attitude to behavior. “Just look at the Chemical Manufacturers Association’s Responsible Care program,” he says. “Look at the growth of advisory committees. Look at the way the electric power industry has handled the EMF issue in the ‘90s and compare it to the way it handled nuclear power in the ‘70s.”
And it’s not all greenwash, he stresses. “More and more companies are realizing that having a good corporate ear is just as important as having a good corporate mouth. In public affairs, it’s not just how you talk, it’s how you listen.”
One thing is for sure: a lot of companies are listening to the progressive ecoadvice of communications expert Peter Sandman.
Six Ways to Reduce Outrage
- Stake out the middle, not the extreme.
- Acknowledge prior misbehavior – repeatedly.
- Acknowledge current problems – dramatically.
- Discuss achievements with humility.
- Share control and be accountable.
- Bring the concerns to the surface.
Twelve Components of Outrage
|Individually controlled||Controlled by others|
|Morally irrelevant||Morally relevant|
|Trustworthy sources||Untrustworthy sources|
|Responsive process||Unresponsive process|
Copyright © 1996 by Tomorrow Magazine