Tim Radford reports on new software that could avert PR disasters forever.
Key moment in history: a former pal predicts a series of supernaturally-orchestrated ecological catastrophes culminating in a massive nationwide increase in child mortality.
The official spin doctor has gone fishing and, like any good Pharaoh, you want to avoid a red tide of blood, a plague of frogs and the Angel of Death. You calculate the odds of any of these things, the economic importance of the constituency in dispute, and the likely cost of conceding to importunate demands. So you tell old pal Moses to take a running jump and stand firm. Bad move. You get rivers of blood, plagues of frogs, lice, flies, cattle blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness at noon and the death of the firstborn in every family, not to mention the subsequent loss of army and chariots in the Red Sea, and a public relations disaster people are still talking about 3,000 years later.
For a mere £2,000, and Windows ’98, Pharaoh could have plugged his dilemma into a computer program called Outrage and spared himself a lot of bother.
Outrage, designed to help companies avoid public relations disasters, is based on the teachings of US risk management guru Peter Sandman, who has advised corporations on dealing with popular outcry over environmental matters. Sandman divined that when it came to corporate strategy in the face of hazard, dire was bad but ire was what really hurt the shareholders.
Calamity happened now and again but even more damaging than death and environmental destruction was the subsequent public outrage.
It was also possible to have neither death nor destruction but a huge public furore which left your name in mud for months. Sandman coined an aphorism which swiftly turned into a mantra: risk equals hazard plus outrage. That is, in the poker game of life, you weigh up the actual probabilities of something dreadful happening alongside the public excoriation provoked by that possibility, and then call the sum of those two things the real risk. It didn’t matter that the disaster was wildly improbable: if the contumely was a foregone conclusion, you were on to a loser.
Dr Sandman points out that most of the time, the public attitude to risk is one of apathy. Cigarettes, cars, cholesterol: people just shrug. On the other hand, along comes a tiny new hazard and the response is, unpredictably, one of outrage.
He helpfully identifies a number of ‘outrage factors’. One is diffusion in time and space. Hazard A kills 50 nameless people a year across a whole nation. Hazard B has a one in 10 chance of wiping out 5,000 sometime in the next decade. The expected annual mortality in each case is the same, 50. Guess which one has the high outrage factor, he says? This, however, is a curious game. The probability of death by motor accident in the US and Europe is 1 in 100. The probability of death by lightning is one in 4m, even though lightning hits the ground somewhere on the planet about 100 times every second.
The probability of perishing in an airplane crash is one in 20,000. The probability of being destroyed by a comet or asteroid is also one in 20,000. This is an instance of the diffusion-in-time-and-space argument.
Every few million years, a really big comet or asteroid slams into the Earth. If one did so right now, it would take 6bn people with it.
Divide that by the interval and you get a risk roughly equal to death by aircraft accident. The curious thing is that despite at least one television serial, two Hollywood movies, and at least three separate national committees to raise the consciousness of politicians and people about the risk of death by bolts from the blue, public apathy remains at cosmic levels.
There is, however, a factor that comfortably removes this public relations calamity from Dr Sandman’s calculations. After the impact of a 10-mile wide comet body arriving at 30 miles a second, there would be no public left to have relations with. Mortality would be very high but outrage would be zero.
On the other hand, Pharaoh could have switched on his desktop. When Moses said ‘I shall smite with the rod that is in my hand the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink,’ Pharaoh could have said to himself : ‘A likely story – but just think how Greenpeace would play it’and spared himself a bad press for all time.
Copyright © 1999 by The Guardian