Website Columns by Peter M. Sandman

Every two months or so I write a “column” especially for this site. The columns are usually inspired by something current in the world or in my consulting. Topics have ranged from anthrax risk communication to what to say about tentative research findings.

Between November 2006 and July 2007 I wrote a series of columns especially for CIDRAP Business Source Weekly Briefing, a pandemic preparedness newsletter for industry published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. These columns are listed at the bottom of this page.

2014

  • Tell People What's Going On: Building Trust through Candor

    Posted: May 2, 2014

    One of the core strategies for preventing and addressing stakeholder outrage is to “acknowledge your current problems.” This column covers three reasons for telling people what’s going on – especially telling them what’s going wrong before you get it solved: (1) To establish the rebuttable presumption (accepted until you break faith) that when you haven’t said anything you don’t have a problem. (2) To make your solution believable by letting people watch you figure it out and implement it. (3) To make sure people notice how much of the problem you have solved, so they don’t demand a more exhaustive and expensive solution than they would otherwise have found acceptable. As the column concludes, it all boils down to the counterintuitive recommendation to let your stakeholders – internal and external, and especially the hostile ones – watch you struggle.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Other People’s Crisis: Talking to Bystanders

    Posted: March 5, 2014

    During a health or safety crisis, the most important audience is obviously the people who are at risk. But what about the people who aren’t at risk, but merely bystanders? This column argues that bystanders are also an important crisis communication audience, for six reasons: (1) They may find out about your crisis some other way if you don’t tell them, which could cause them to over-react. (2) They may feel at risk even if they’re not and intellectually know they’re not. (3) They may be feeling miserable about your crisis and what it’s doing to other people. (4) They may not actually be bystanders, but affected in some way you’re not noticing. (5) They may want to help – and helping may be psychologically important for them. (6) Other people’s crisis is a teachable moment, an opportunity to convince them to take seriously the possibility that it could happen to them too someday.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index

2013

  • Fracking Risk Communication

    Posted: December 9, 2013

    The battle over fracking of shale gas and shale oil keeps getting hotter, in large part because the fracking industry does such a lousy job of communicating with its stakeholders. This column lays out some of the pluses (mostly economic) and minuses (mostly environmental) of fracking, and builds a case that the fracking industry should acknowledge the genuine minuses far more than it does, rather than focusing so much on selling the pluses of fracking and rebutting its not-so-genuine minuses. Other ways in which the fracking industry has forfeited trust are also discussed: using a narrow definition of “fracking” to mislead people about environmental risks; refusing to disclose the contents of frac fluid; insisting on nondisclosure agreements. But while it urges the fracking industry to become more trustworthy, the column puts more faith in accountability as a replacement for trust – accountability to neutral third parties, to governments (that is, regulation), and especially to neighbors and activists. The column ends with a list of eight additional recommendations for reducing stakeholder outrage about fracking.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Pre-Crisis Communication: Talking about What-Ifs

    Posted: September 13, 2013

    This column is devoted not to crisis communication but to pre-crisis communication: how to talk to people about a possible future emergency. In building the case for communicating before you absolutely have to, the column examines four principal responses to pre-crisis communication: (1) People who were worried already are usually relieved that the issue is on the table. (2) People who have too many other things to worry about are usually apathetic and hard to reach. (3) People who were already too worried to bear it are usually in denial and hard to reach in a completely different way. (4) People who are hearing the scary news for the first time usually go through an adjustment reaction, a temporary and useful overreaction. If the crisis is actually coming, the column argues, pre-crisis communication has considerable upside and no downside. The column ends with recommendations for minimizing the downside of warning about a possible crisis that fizzles.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index

  • H7N9 Risk Communication: Candor but No Push to Prepare

    Posted: May 16, 2013

    This is a sequel to my April 8, 2013 column, “H7N9: A Tale of Two CDCs.” My focus then was on the ways the U.S. CDC was over-reassuring the public about the possibility of an H7N9 pandemic – even avoiding the word “pandemic” as much as possible. As this follow-up column documents, the CDC has become much more candid about the pandemic risk posed by this newly discovered influenza virus; other officials and experts around the world are being similarly candid. The column then discusses two remaining concerns about H7N9 risk communication: the failure to be candid about the likelihood that we'll face the pandemic, if it comes, without vaccine; and – more important still – the failure to make any attempt to involve the public in pandemic preparedness. The column also documents that public interest in H7N9 has already declined from its (modest) peak in early April.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Orienting Your Audience: Six Signposting Tips

    Posted: April 18, 2013

    I can’t prove it, but I fervently believe that as communicators have become more and more preoccupied with making everything short, simple, and interesting, they have lost track of the need to keep the audience oriented. Individual sentences may be clear enough, but the overall thread of the argument too often isn’t. So I decided to write a column on signposting – on how to keep readers and listeners from getting lost. The six signposting tips in this column aren’t specifically about risk communication. They’re basic communication … but you can’t do good risk communication without them.

  • H7N9: A Tale of Two CDCs

    Posted: April 8, 2013

    As I write this on April 8, 2013, I have no idea – nor does anyone else – whether H7N9 will launch a devastating pandemic, or become endemic and minor, or disappear without a trace, or what. What we all know so far is that a strain of flu never before seen in humans has made a sudden appearance in eastern China, where it has infected 24 people and killed seven of them so far. This column reports on the first week of H7N9 messaging of two national health agencies: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in China and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. China CDC was surprisingly candid in its prompt release of information and its avoidance of the temptation to over-reassure the very anxious Chinese public. The U.S. CDC, faced with a much less anxious (and perhaps even skeptical) U.S. public, chose to go along with the mood of mild, casual interest. It didn’t withhold any information that I am aware of, but it certainly didn’t seize the opportunity to warn people to prepare for a possible pandemic. Its first H7N9 press briefing sounded much less concerned than I believe its experts actually are.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Postscript: The CDC Is Up to Its Old Tricks Again re Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

    Posted: February 24 , 2013

    On February 1, 2013 I posted “The CDC Tells More of the Truth than Usual about Flu Vaccine Effectiveness,” praising the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for unusual candor about some disappointing flu vaccine effectiveness data. Sadly, the CDC’s new spirit of candor about flu vaccine effectiveness didn’t last. The research the agency was so candid about in January 2013 continued. By February, with a larger sample, it was possible to analyze effectiveness separately for different age groups – and the data for people 65 and older turned out very disappointing. The updated study showed only 9% vaccine effectiveness for seniors against H3N2 – that is, virtually no protection for the most vulnerable age group against the most dangerous flu strain now circulating in humans. To its credit, the CDC didn’t suppress this discouraging new evidence. It published it. But it did everything it could to spin it in a more positive direction.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • The CDC Tells More of the Truth than Usual about Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

    Posted: February 1, 2013

    Though far better than nothing, the influenza vaccine is surprisingly ineffective, working only 50–70% of the time in healthy young adults and significantly less than that in the people who need it most, the sick and the elderly. For years the CDC and other public health agencies have hyped flu vaccine effectiveness. And for years Jody Lanard and I have criticized the hype, fearful that it could ultimately undermine the credibility of flu vaccination, vaccination generally, the CDC, and public health itself. So we were surprised and delighted at the tenor of the CDC’s January 11, 2013 flu press briefing, which showcased a preliminary CDC finding that the 2012–2013 flu vaccine was only about 62% effective. It remains to be seen whether the CDC’s unprecedented candor is a one-off or the start of a new era. Either way, this column annotates the press briefing, finding much to praise and, inevitably, some things to criticize as well.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

2012

  • Managing Risk Familiarity

    Posted: November 3, 2012

    Familiar risks lose their capacity to provoke outrage, and people get careless. Unfamiliar risks, on the other hand, are likelier to be upsetting. So if you’re doing outrage management – if you’re a factory manager trying to keep your neighbors calm, for example – familiarity is your ally. But if you’re doing precaution advocacy – an activist trying to arouse public concern, or a safety professional trying to motivate employees to wear their hardhats – familiarity is your enemy. Either way, managing familiarity is a significant part of the risk communication job. Those are the basics. But this column goes beyond the basics, getting down in the weeds of managing risk familiarity. It focuses especially on two distinctions: the distinction between familiarity and perceived familiarity (fluency); and the distinction among familiarity with the overall situation, familiarity with the risk, and familiarity with the bad outcome (memorability).

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index link to Outrage Management index

  • Seven Sources of Your Safety Problem:  Where Does Risk Communication Fit?

    Posted: September 5, 2012

    I started my career doing what I now call “precaution advocacy,” helping activist groups figure out how to arouse environmental concern in apathetic publics. But the bulk of my corporate consulting over the past 40 years has focused instead on “outrage management,” figuring out how to calm people who are excessively concerned. Most of my outrage management clients have never asked my advice on precaution advocacy, not even in its most obviously relevant manifestation: improving worker safety. This column addresses seven sorts of safety problems, and outlines where I think risk communication can help with each. I’m particularly interested in the last of the seven: whether my signature concept of outrage might conceivably be the next new thing in occupational safety.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index

  • Misoversimplification: The Communicative Accuracy Standard Distinguishes Simplifying from Misleading

    Posted: June 5, 2012

    The need to simplify technical content is not an acceptable excuse for “simplifying out” information that is essential to credibility – especially information that seems to contradict your message, and that will therefore undermine your credibility if you leave it out and your audience learns it elsewhere. The obligation to include that sort of information is called the communicative accuracy standard; the failure to include it might appropriately be called “misoversimplification.” The column distinguishes three levels of misoversimplification, depending partly on how controversial the issue is and partly on whether you’re on the warning (precaution advocacy) or reassuring (outrage management) side. The three levels are illustrated with infectious disease examples: whooping cough, bird flu, and polio.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index link to Precaution Advocacy index link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Motivating Attention: Why People Learn about Risk … or Anything Else

    Posted: March 31, 2012

    The audience of precaution advocacy messages is quite likely to be apathetic, to find the information (safety information, for example) boring. This column outlines the only four ways I know to get people to learn risk information or any information. The first answer, learning without involvement, requires more budget than precaution advocacy campaigns usually have. The second answer, interest/entertainment, is also tough to achieve, though it’s always worth trying. So the column focuses mostly on the remaining two options. Giving people a “need to know,” such as a pending decision that requires the information, is a powerful tool of precaution advocacy. Also powerful, and psychologically much more complex, is getting people to see the information as ammunition – for example, motivating them to do something they’ve never done before, and then offering the information as a rationale that helps them makes sense of the new behavior.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index

2011

  • Over-Reassuring Thai Crisis Communication about the Great Flood: When “Restoring Trust” Is Too Much to Expect

    by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

    Posted: December 8, 2011

    The flooding that began in northern Thailand in late July 2011 has been Thailand’s worst flood in at least five decades. This column assesses the Thai government’s crisis communication at the height of the flood, especially its tendency to over-reassure. The column puts this performance into context by reviewing other examples of Thai over-reassurance from our files, and speculates on whether and why over-reassuring the public during emergencies might be more characteristic of Thai crisis communication than of crisis communication in other countries. A final section addresses how the Thai government (or any government or company) might begin to dig itself out from such a history – that is, what to do when your audience has learned to expect dishonest over-reassurance from you.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index

  • Advice about Advisory Groups

    Posted: October 21, 2011

    One key purpose of advisory groups is to provide a credible accountability mechanism, especially in situations where regulators are not so credible. Advisory groups are also both a conduit and an early warning system for stakeholder outrage; they’re a two-way communications medium and a venue for visibly giving in; and of course they give advice. After reviewing the purposes of advisory groups, this column focuses on two contentious issues: who should be in the advisory group, and what its prerogatives should be. The column makes a case for flexible membership (“chaotic is probably better than stultified”) and for inviting extremists to join. Among the prerogatives discussed are the power to investigate, the power to publicize, and the power to manage themselves – but not the power to keep you from dialoguing with stakeholders in other venues as well.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Explaining and Proclaiming Uncertainty: Risk Communication Lessons from Germany’s Deadly E. coli Outbreak

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: August 14, 2011

    Together with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I have long advised clients to release risk information early – and since early information is almost always uncertain, to acknowledge the uncertainty. But even when clients (and non-clients) do what we consider a pretty decent job of acknowledging uncertainty, they often end up in reputational trouble when they turn out wrong, largely because journalists and the public misperceive and misremember their statements as having been far more confident than they actually were. So we have come to believe that it’s not enough to acknowledge uncertainty; you have to proclaim uncertainty, repeatedly and emphatically. This long column uses a severe German E. coli food poisoning outbreak in 2011 to explore the complexities of proclaiming uncertainty: the myriad ways government agencies and industry spokespeople get it wrong, and some recommendations for getting it right … or at least righter. Proclaiming uncertainty is important in all kinds of risk communication – outrage management as much as precaution advocacy and crisis communication. But our focus here is mostly on how to warn people about an imminent, uncertain risk: in this case, how to tell people which foods not to eat because you think they might be contaminated and deadly.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Crisis Communication index   link to Outrage Management index

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  • The Law of Conservation of Outrage: Outrage Is Limited – Do You Need More or Less?

    Posted: April 14, 2011

    I speak and write endlessly about ways to increase people’s outrage when you think they’re insufficiently upset about a serious risk and ways to decrease their outrage when you think they’re excessively upset about a not-so-serious risk. I call these two kinds of risk communication “precaution advocacy” and “outrage management” respectively. This column makes a point I too often forget to mention: Except in emergencies (real or imagined), it’s impossible to get people more or less outraged. Mostly what we do is reallocate their outrage. The column calls this “the Law of Conservation of Outrage,” and discusses six corollaries that are fundamental to risk communication: the natural state of humankind vis-à-vis any specific risk is apathy; outrage is a competition; there’s no reason to worry about turning people into scaredy-cats; if people are more outraged at you than the situation justifies, you’re doing something wrong; excessive outrage aimed at you isn’t your critics’ fault; and outrage causes hazard perception – and we know what causes outrage.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Introductory articles   link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Outrage Management index

  • Full Disclosure: The Risk Communication Case for Revealing Small-but-Scary Risks

    Posted: January 30, 2011

    One of the toughest questions in risk communication is what to say – if anything – about the strongest arguments against the position you’re advocating for. The aspirational goal is presumably full disclosure. But most risk communicators fall far short of that goal, preferring to ignore or dismiss opposition arguments. The temptation not to disclose is especially powerful when you're urging people to do something that entails small-but-scary risks; when you’re confident that the benefits to your audience greatly exceed the risks; and when you’re worried that the audience won’t see it that way if you’re completely candid. This column offers two examples: trying to convince a community to accept a new chemical factory and trying to convince parents to vaccinate their children against polio. The column discusses eight reasons why full disclosure of small-but-scary risks isn’t just the most ethical strategy. In many cases it is also the most effective.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

2010

  • Two Kinds of Reputation Management

    Posted: December 3, 2010

    Just about everything I have read about reputation assumes that it’s a single variable. Good reputation is on one side of the scale, bad reputation is on the other side, and zero is in the middle. I don’t buy it. I think it makes much more sense to conceive of “good reputation” and “bad reputation” as separate variables. How loved you are is virtually unrelated to how hated you are; plenty of companies (and individuals) are both much-loved and much-hated. So which is more important, increasing your positives or decreasing your negatives? This column argues that buffing your good reputation has upsides and downsides, while ameliorating your bad reputation is all upside. It argues that when a controversy or a crisis arises, a prior bad reputation is sure to make things worse, while a prior good reputation may or may not provide some protection. And it argues that talking about your reputational strengths always backfires when the audience is focused on your current misbehavior.

    A Polish translation was published in two parts in September 2011 and December 2011 in Bezpieczeństwo i Technika Pożarnicza (Safety & Fire Technique).

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Risk Communication Lessons from the BP Spill

    Posted: September 13, 2010

    This is my eighth (but probably not my last) website commentary on the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This one also appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Synergist, published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. So it starts with two risk communication lessons especially appropriate to industrial hygienists: Don’t believe your own propaganda about safety and emergency preparedness, and work to build a safety culture where employees are willing to blow the whistle about unsafe conditions. Then it discusses four more traditional crisis communication lessons: Don’t over-reassure; make contrition credible; make compassion and determination credible; and say how stupid you feel.

    An Italian translation was published in Darwin, November–December 2010, pp. 26–31.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index

  • The “Fake Pandemic” Charge Goes Mainstream and WHO’s Credibility Nosedives

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: June 29, 2010

    In June 2010, one year after the World Health Organization declared swine flu a full-fledged pandemic, WHO’s credibility nosedived as even mainstream sources began to take seriously the absurd allegation that WHO had invented a “fake pandemic” in order to enrich the pharmaceutical industry. This column assesses at great length the three main reasons why this allegation made the move from fringe to mainstream: (a) WHO’s failure to acknowledge the ongoing mildness and current low incidence of the pandemic; (b) WHO’s failure to acknowledge that it changed some flu pandemic definitions and descriptions just as H1N1 was emerging; and (c) WHO’s failure to acknowledge until recently the legitimacy of concerns about transparency and conflict of interest. In a nutshell, the credibility of the World Health Organization crashed and burned because WHO mishandled some essential aspects of pandemic risk communication.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Empathic Communication in High-Stress Situations

    Posted: June 8, 2010

    These are the notes I developed for a multinational management consulting firm that asked me to help give empathy training to its top consultant-managers. Though applied (as best I could) to a management consulting context, these notes are based largely on my 2007 column “Empathy in Risk Communication,” supplemented with such risk communication basics as the “donkey” game, the risk communication seesaw, and acknowledging uncertainty.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index   link to Outrage Management index

  • What Did Goldman Sachs Do Wrong?

    by Peter M. Sandman, Daniel, and Jody Lanard

    Posted: May 2, 2010

    I have been following the Goldman Sachs controversy with considerable outrage – not at the company but at the widespread conviction that it obviously did something both wrong and illegal. In a series of email exchanges with my daughter’s fiancé, a banker named Daniel, and my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I have been trying to figure out what Goldman Sachs did wrong. This column consists of the emails themselves (lightly edited), preceded by an introduction that addresses why people interested in risk communication might want to pay attention to what's happening to Goldman Sachs.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Hostile Meetings: When Opponents Want to Talk

    Posted: March 30, 2010

    When opponents seek a meeting with your embattled company or agency, it’s as much a dare as an invitation, and in most cases you would be wise to say yes. Getting invited onto your opponents’ turf poses special problems and special opportunities. It’s not mostly a chance to win converts by rebutting false arguments. Rather, it is a chance to ameliorate outrage (especially on the part of those in the room who are more worried than hostile) by demonstrating that you are willing to listen respectfully to your most vituperative critics and to take at least some of their concerns onboard. Some of the recommendations in this column apply to all meetings with opponents, even if you're running the meeting; other recommendations are particular to meetings that are actually run by your opponents.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

  • Telling People You Got It Wrong

    Posted: February 18, 2010

    Honest mistakes turn into culpable deceptions when organizations hesitate to come clean. This column outlines ten key recommendations for telling people you got it wrong. It starts with the basics: “Don’t stick to your guns.” “Don’t think that quietly publishing the data protects you.” “Don’t expect misleading ambiguities to save you.” Then it works its way to more complicated advice: “Explain what happened.” “Explain what’s going to happen.” “Explain what else might need to be rethought.” Of course it’s also important to acknowledge uncertainty from the outset. As the column points out, “It’s a lot easier to tell people you got it wrong if you didn’t sound cocksure in the first place.”

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index

2009

  • U.S. Pandemic Vaccine Supply and Distribution: Addressing the Outrage

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: November 18, 2009

    As in most other developed countries, the fall rollout of the U.S. pandemic vaccination program has been hampered by a shortage of vaccine. The result is outrage – outrage that there isn’t as much vaccine as people wanted and expected, and outrage that the distribution process feels so chaotic, frustrating, and in some cases unfair. The shortage itself is nobody’s fault; the vaccine virus turned out to be difficult to grow. But officials are very much at fault for having overpromised, frequently predicting that there would be ample vaccine by mid-October. Even before the pandemic began, in fact, the meme was established that it would require only three to six months after the emergence of a pandemic influenza strain to manufacture sufficient vaccine. Managing public (and health care provider) outrage about vaccine supply and vaccine distribution has thus become an important pandemic risk communication task, a necessary distraction from the paramount task of convincing people to get vaccinated. This column describes how officials are handling the outrage so far, and proposes some improvements.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index  link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Flu Preparedness: An Even Tougher Sell than Usual

    Posted: September 9, 2009

    I wrote this short column in early June 2009 for The Synergist, a magazine for industrial hygienists, on some ways of communicating about flu – seasonal and pandemic – in the workplace. When I wrote it, most people had “recovered” from what they considered the spring “swine flu scare,” and they were in no mood to listen to any more influenza warnings. By the time the column was published in September 2009, some of the complacency had waned, and people were actually girding up (a bit) for another wave of mild-but-pervasive pandemic illness. So the column’s claim that flu preparedness is a tough sell needs to be modified somewhat. But its actual recommendations still stand.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Containment as Signal: Swine Flu Risk Miscommunication

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: June 29, 2009

    The swine flu pandemic started in North America, and by the time the virus was identified it was already widely seeded in the U.S. So the experts judged that it was too late to try to “contain” its U.S. spread; from Day One, the U.S. was focused mostly on coping with the disease, not stopping or even slowing it. Outside North America, on the other hand, an initial containment strategy made public health sense. But containment isn’t just a public health strategy. It is also a risk communication signal of enormous importance. Containment sends a signal that the pandemic can be contained and that it must be contained – that it is stoppable and severe. Instead of countering these misleading signals, the governments of many countries have issued misleading messages to match. This is doing significant damage to the world’s preparedness to cope with the unstoppable (and soon to be pervasive) but so far mild pandemic that is just beginning.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index   link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • The Swine Flu Crisis: The Government Is Preparing for the Worst While Hoping for the Best – It Needs to Tell the Public to Do the Same Thing!

    Posted: April 29, 2009

    This was my first substantial piece of writing about swine flu. I have resisted the temptation to update the description that follows. When I started criticizing the government for talking about swine flu as if there were nothing for the public to do but watch and practice good hygiene, we were at WHO Pandemic Phase 3. When I started this column (this morning) we were at Phase 4. When I finished the column (this evening), it was already Phase 5. The focus of this column is why the U.S. government is reluctant to urge the public to prepare now for a possibly imminent pandemic, and why I think the government should overcome its reluctance and do it! If you’re skeptical about advising people to imagine The Big One, get used to that knot in their stomachs, and then get started on preparedness, read this column. If you’re not skeptical and want to know what I think the important messages for right now are, skip this column and instead read “What to Say When a Pandemic Looks Imminent: Messaging for WHO Phases Four and Five.”

    On May 21, 2009, Nature published a major abridgment and minor updating of this column under the title “Pandemics: good hygiene is not enough.” An Adobe Acrobat file (707-kB pdf) of the complete article link is to a PDF file is available. (Note: The Nature links require payment. Free access to a copy is available.) French translations of my column and the Nature article, originally posted on the website Zone Grippe Aviaire (which has disappeared) are also available on this site.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Crisis Communication index    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Recession Risk Communication: How to Focus on Safety When Employees Are Demoralized

    Posted: April 19, 2009

    Tough economic times are tough on safety. Workers may be distracted or distressed, while safety budgets (like all budgets) may be reduced. Tough economic times are also tough on safety controversies. Not only do workers have real reasons to suspect that they might be more endangered than usual; they also have less patience and forbearance, and perhaps more motivation to project their economic worries onto an on-the-job safety situation. This short column for industrial hygienists offers some tips on ways to adjust safety risk communication when the economic situation is bad.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Outrage Management index

  • Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial

    Posted: February 11, 2009

    Arousing apathetic people to care enough about global warming that they’re actually willing to do something about it is a difficult precaution advocacy challenge. Activists are chipping away at that task with slow but significant success. But there’s another audience for climate change risk communication that I think activists aren’t paying nearly enough attention to: people who are in denial about the crisis because it threatens the way they see the world or because it arouses intolerable levels of fear, guilt, sadness, hopelessness, or other emotions. For people in or near denial, outrage is high, not low; the risk communication paradigm is crisis communication, not precaution advocacy. This long column builds a case that global warming denial is a growing problem, and that messaging designed to work on apathetic audiences can easily backfire on audiences in denial. The column focuses on six common activist messages that need to be rethought in terms of their likely negative impact on people who are in or near global warming denial: fear-mongering; guilt-tripping; excessive hostility to narrow technological solutions; unwillingness to pay attention to climate change adaptation; over-reliance on depressing information and imagery; and one-sided contempt for contrarian arguments.

    This column is categorized as:    link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Convincing Health Care Workers to Get a Flu Shot … Without the Hype

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: January 10, 2009

    Convincing health care workers to get a flu shot might normally be seen as a straightforward problem in precaution advocacy, but this column focuses on an aspect of the problem that’s grounded in outrage management: flu protection hype. By means of three case studies, Jody Lanard and I document that hype – misleading, one-sided messaging on behalf of vaccination and other flu precautions – does in fact characterize much of what’s produced by flu prevention campaigners. We also argue, with much less evidence, that the hype leads health care workers to mistrust what the campaigners are telling them, and that the mistrust probably reduces their willingness to get vaccinated. The column ends with a list of less tendentious recommendations for convincing health care workers to get a flu shot.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Outrage Management index    link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

2008

  • Managing Justified Outrage: Outrage Management When Your Opponents Are Substantively Right

    Posted: November 19, 2008

    This long column tries to correct a serious oversimplification in my previous writing about risk communication. Outrage management isn’t just for calming people down when they mistakenly believe they have substantive reasons to oppose you. It is also for calming people down when they rightly believe they have substantive reasons to oppose you. Converting justified opposition that’s outraged into justified opposition that’s calm doesn’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate the opposition, but it does accomplish several things: It lowers the level of passion; it opens people up to the possibility of altruism; it gets them in a mood to negotiate; and it enables them to be more realistic in defeat or more generous in victory. While all the usual outrage management strategies apply, two strategies are particularly crucial when your critics are substantively right: acknowledging that they are right, and being candid about the distribution of power. The column also has an important “postscript” on the role of outrage management in a genuine high-hazard, high-outrage crisis.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index  link to Outrage Management index

  • Simplification Made Simple

    Posted: September 20, 2008

    Communicators (including risk communicators) almost invariably know too much about their topic – possibly more than their audience is capable of learning, and certainly more than their audience wants to learn. So they have to simplify. This column is a primer on simplification. It offers some tips on how to simplify language and graphics, but its main thrust is how to simplify content. Particularly important is the column’s advice on what you can’t simplify out of your communications without sacrificing credibility and integrity: information that conflicts with your conclusions or casts a bad light on your organization.

  • Community Right-to-Know

    Posted: August 18, 2008

    When companies are doing things the public disapproves of, you don’t have to make them stop; all you have to do is make them tell, and the public will make them stop. This is the genius of the right-to-know concept. In the environmental arena, the most important U.S. right-to-know law is Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency to collect and publish an annual Toxics Release Inventory of the chemicals emitted by thousands of covered facilities. This column, written for a forthcoming Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication, examines how Section 313 used transparency to force emissions reductions – and how the law fostered the development of risk communication, as companies sought to figure out how best to talk to their neighbors about their emissions.

  • Risk Communication Talking Points for Hillary Clinton: Some Primary Principles for This Post-Primary Moment

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: June 5, 2008

    When Barack Obama accumulated enough delegate commitments to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, the defeated Hillary Clinton faced a classic risk communication challenge – managing her followers’ outrage (and her own) so as to enable them to transfer their loyalty to Obama. Politicians were of course giving her traditional public relations advice – stress your enthusiasm about Obama; don’t mention your followers’ anger or your own; etc. But her problem wasn’t a public relations problem. So Jody Lanard and I decided to give Sen. Clinton some risk communication advice. This column is the result.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Rumors: Information Is the Antidote

    Posted: April 25, 2008

    Everybody’s interested in how to respond to rumors, especially false ones. Do you ignore them? Rebut them? Acknowledge the accurate bits? This short column covers all that, but it also addresses a less sexy but ultimately more important topic: the importance of tracking down rumors that may be true.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Meeting Management: Where Does Risk Communication Fit in Public Participation?

    Posted: March 19, 2008

    Whenever I advise clients on how to manage meetings with angry stakeholders, I’m aware that I’m impinging on a kindred field, public participation (also called public consultation). Our goals aren’t incompatible, but they’re certainly different: Public participation professionals want to facilitate a substantively productive meeting, whereas I want to help calm the meeting’s most outraged stakeholders (which can help clear the way for a substantively productive meeting). This column outlines five differences between outrage management and public participation – the value of venting, who you want at the meeting, whose side you’re on, the relative importance of substance and process, and what skills you need. It then tries to assess the proper role of outrage management in public participation.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • NIMBY

    Posted: February 17, 2008

    Written for a forthcoming Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication, this short column tries to free the NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) impulse from its pejorative connotations. It distinguishes the literal NIMBY position (“this is okay, but not here”) from closely related positions (such as “this shouldn’t be built anywhere”), and discusses its role in siting controversies. The column argues that managing outrage – either upward or downward – is the key to arousing or diminishing NIMBY, and thus to stopping or siting locally controversial land uses (LULUs).

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Who’s Irrational? When People “Ignore” Risk Data

    Posted: January 15, 2008

    My clients endlessly claim not just that the risk of X is tiny, but that anybody who thinks otherwise is “irrational.” This short column takes the irrationality claim seriously, and examines some alternative hypotheses. Even assuming your worried stakeholder is wrong about X, he or she may not be irrational – but rather mistrustful, postmodernist, cautious, uninformed, misinformed, intuitive, emotionally upset, motivated by personal or social values, or pursuing a different agenda. When we ignore these possibilities and assume our risk-averse stakeholders are irrational, the column suggests, we raise questions about our own rationality.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

2007

  • “Watch Out!” – How to Warn Apathetic People

    Posted: November 9, 2007

    This column is a primer on precaution advocacy – that is, on high-hazard low-outrage risk communication, where the job is to increase outrage and thus to motivate apathetic people to take precautions (or demand precautions). Apathy isn’t always the problem when people are ignoring a serious risk – they could be in denial, for example, or they could have reasons to dislike the recommended precautions. But when apathy is the problem, this column is a good place to start. It’s a quick rundown on twenty precaution advocacy basic principles.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Precaution Advocacy index

  • Indoor Air Quality Risk Communication: Before You Fix Anything, Talk!

    Posted: September 12, 2007

    The basic risk communication dilemma in most IAQ controversies is that indoor air quality usually has genuine deficiencies, but if people’s IAQ complaints and symptoms are largely psychogenic – more an outcome of bad process (and the resulting outrage) than of bad air – then just fixing the air quality deficiencies isn’t likely to relieve the symptoms or reduce the controversy. The core of the solution, this short column argues, is to talk – and listen! – before you fix anything.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Empathy in Risk Communication

    Posted: July 30, 2007

    Everyone knows risk communicators need to be empathic, but all too often empathy gets operationalized as telling people you know how they feel – or, worse yet, telling them how they feel. This long column argues that the essence of empathy is “sort-of acknowledgment,” finding a middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness. The column goes on to discuss ten elements of empathic communication. Some are pretty obvious (listening and echoing, for example); some are easy-to-learn tactics (such as suggesting that “some people” might feel a particular way instead of accusing your stakeholders of feeling that way); some are complicated and counterintuitive. The most complicated and counterintuitive ones are grounded in the work of psychiatrist Leston Havens.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index  link to Outrage Management index

  • Website columns

    Posted: May 7, 2007

    These two closely related columns address why outrage management is a tough sell to most corporate and government executives. It focuses particularly on the fact that when stakeholders are outraged at an organization, that organization’s leaders are almost always outraged right back. So if you want to get the okay to address stakeholder outrage more responsively, you will first need to address your own management’s outrage at the very idea that you’re not proposing to fight back. The columns offer some suggestions, grounded largely in the seesaw concept. I love the title of Part III: “Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.” That’s it in a nutshell.

    These columns are categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • What to Say When a Pandemic Looks Imminent: Messaging for WHO Phases Four and Five

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: March 15, 2007

    If and when a serious pandemic arrives, messaging will shift from precaution advocacy (high-hazard, low-outrage) to crisis communication (high-hazard, high-outrage). There will be a transition period between the two, when the pandemic looks imminent and outrage is rising fast. This very long column – split into four parts – identifies 25 “standby messages” for that transition period. It elaborates both the messages and their risk communication rationales. Jody Lanard and I wrote the column with two goals in mind: to help officials prepare their communications for the early days of a pandemic that looks like it might be severe, and to help them decide to be more candid (and thus more alarming) in their pre-pandemic communications now in order to make those early days less of a shock.

    A French translation of the 25 messages, originally posted on the website Zone Grippe Aviaire (which has disappeared), is now available on this site.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • The Boss’s Outrage (Part I): Talking with Top Management about Safety

    Posted: January 7, 2007

    I have long been interested in why corporate managements reject safety improvements that look eminently cost-effective – in some cases, improvements that have a better return-on-investment than the company’s principal product line. This short column explores some outrage-grounded reasons why senior managers might shy away from sensible safety investments. Among them: guilt/responsibility, ego/stature, hostility/contempt, fear/denial, and performance anxiety. The column suggests some ways safety professionals can break the logjam when factors like these are keeping their companies from making safety progress.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index   link to Precaution Advocacy index

2006

  • Giving Away the Credit: Managing Risk Controversies by Claiming You’re Responsive (though maybe not responsible)

    Posted: December 12, 2006

    Month after month, this is one of the least often read of my major columns. I’m not sure why. It covers an outrage management strategy I consider one of the most important (and most difficult) of any on my list: attributing your desirable behavior not to your saintliness (the “responsibility” claim) but rather to pressure from your stakeholders (the “responsiveness” claim, which is usually much closer to the truth). The column outlines the main reasons for giving away the credit, from the practical (it meets your critics’ ego needs) to the theoretical (it nurtures the public’s understanding of how capitalism works), and it addresses the main reasons why my clients resist giving away the credit. If you’re trying to think through how to reduce stakeholder outrage, this is one you ought to read.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Media Sensationalism and Risk: Talking to Stakeholders with Reporters in the Room

    Posted: September 6, 2006

    This short column discusses seven principles for understanding and coping with the media’s entirely appropriate inclination to focus on the most newsworthy things you say – an inclination often labeled sensationalism. Of particular importance is the problem this raises for outrage management. The very same meeting at which you hope to say responsive, apologetic things in order to help reduce the outrage of angry stakeholders will also be attended by journalists, who will naturally convey your revealing admissions to readers and viewers who might otherwise never know. Managing a controversy well, in other words, is in some ways antithetical to managing the news clips well. You have to decide which task is more important. The column recommends managing the controversy.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • “Speak with One Voice” – Why I Disagree

    Posted: July 27, 2006

    This column dissects an issue – one of the few – on which I disagree with most risk communication and crisis communication professionals: what to do when there are differences of opinion within your organization. The conventional advice is to “speak with one voice” – that is, to paper over the disagreements. I urge my clients to let the disagreements show. The column distinguishes the ways of showing opinion diversity that really do undermine public confidence from the ways that (in my judgment) do not, and identifies many reasons why it is beneficial to let the public know that you’re not all on the same page about every issue. Perhaps most importantly, it details what tends to go wrong when organizations muzzle their staff in order to speak with one voice.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • Bird Flu, Pandemic Flu, and Poultry Markets: Playing Ostrich or Talking Turkey?

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: May 29, 2006

    When the next influenza pandemic finally arrives, it will be carried by people, not birds. In the meantime, the public is understandably confused about the distinction between the “bird flu” that threatens poultry flocks and the poultry industry (and an occasional unlucky person) right now and the “bird flu” that may someday mutate to facilitate human-to-human transmission and threaten us all. In this column, Jody Lanard and I try to disentangle bird flu from pandemic flu. And then we address the most common risk communication errors committed by government and industry in virtually every country beset by bird flu, when they set out to convince consumers not to worry and not to stop eating poultry.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • How Safe Is Safe Enough: Sharing the Dilemma

    Posted: April 20, 2006

    This short column has two goals. It introduces readers to the invaluable risk communication strategy of dilemma sharing – telling people you’re torn between options and not sure what to do. This strategy is fundamental to both crisis communication and outrage management, but it is seldom utilized, largely because it threatens management egos. The second goal of the column is to apply the dilemma-sharing approach to the specific problem of “how safe is safe enough.” Risk managers have no choice but to prioritize precautions and decide which ones they can implement. The claim to be taking “every possible precaution” is always a lie. Risk managers who don’t want to lie can use dilemma sharing to explain why they have chosen not to take some possible precautions.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • The Outrage Industries: The Role of Journalists and Activists in Risk Controversies

    Posted: March 21, 2006

    This column describes the battles that ensue when activists or journalists are trying to arouse stakeholder outrage about some situation while companies or agencies are trying to reduce that outrage. Some of what goes on in these battles is symmetrical. Both sides lie only occasionally; both sides routinely mislead without lying; both sides see their own misleading statements as much less dishonest than the other side’s. Some of what goes on is not symmetrical. Misleading works when you’re trying to arouse outrage and backfires when you’re trying to reduce it. Another asymmetry: The outrage-arousing side should aim to show that the other side is simply wrong, whereas the outrage-reducing side should aim to show that it has taken the other side’s criticisms to heart.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • The Dilemma of Personal Tamiflu Stockpiling

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: January 10, 2006

    When Jody Lanard and I wrote this long column, there was a shortage of Tamiflu. Officials and physicians argued that the available supply should be saved for current use against the seasonal flu and government stockpiles against a possible pandemic – but should not be stockpiled by individuals. We wrote the column to expose the many illogical, inconsistent, and inaccurate arguments being used against personal Tamiflu stockpiling, but we conceded that the competition with other uses was a valid issue. Now the Tamiflu supply exceeds the demand; “excess” manufacturing capacity has been mothballed. The competition argument is dead in the water. Officials and physicians still oppose personal Tamiflu stockpiling, but the only arguments they have left are the specious ones analyzed in this column.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

2005

  • Games Risk Communicators Play: Follow-the-Leader, Echo, Donkey, and Seesaw

    Posted: December 13, 2005

    This short column considers the four possibilities when you are trying to convince me of X: I could have no prior opinion about X; I could believe X already; I could believe Y instead; or I could be ambivalent, torn between X and Y. Each of these four situations has its own risk communication game, described in the column: follow-the-leader, echo, donkey, and seesaw. Good risk communicators need to master all four games. And they need to know how to decide which game they’re playing – or, if they’re playing several at once, which game is most crucial to their communication goals.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Introductory articles   link to Outrage Management index

  • The Flu Pandemic Preparedness Snowball

    Posted: October 10, 2005

    I published this column in late 2005, when the U.S. public’s interest in pandemic preparedness was as high as it’s been so far. This was the teachable moment, I wrote. It wouldn’t last, so preparedness advocates needed to make the most of it. The column discusses nine recommendations to improve pandemic preparedness advocacy. Among the highlights: Focus less on the pharmaceutical fix; focus more on worst case scenarios, non-medical preparedness, and non-governmental preparedness; stop implying that a pandemic is imminent. Much of this advice is relevant even in periods of diminished attention, and most of it will still be on-target the next time pandemic preparedness is hot.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • Katrina: Hurricanes, Catastrophes, and Risk Communication

    Posted: September 8, 2005

    When I wrote this column shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck, I didn’t realize that it would still be an ongoing disaster years later. So the column focuses on risk communication failures before the hurricane reached New Orleans (especially the failure to scare people sufficiently) and immediately after the hurricane reached New Orleans (especially the failure to acknowledge emergency response inadequacies and to communicate with victims desperate for information). I saw these failures not as unique to Katrina but as warnings relevant to the next big earthquake or infectious disease outbreak. This perspective may have led me to go too easy on the specific defects of Katrina response.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Risk Words You Can’t Use

    Posted: August 15, 2005

    This short column discusses some words that have different meanings to risk professionals than to normal people – and that are therefore likely to be misunderstood when used to explain risk to a nonprofessional audience. Among the words: conservative, significant/insignificant, positive/negative, bias, anecdotal, safe, prepared, confident, and even the word “risk” itself.

  • Superb Flu Pandemic Risk Communication: A Role Model from Australia

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: July 6, 2005

    On May 2, 2005, Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech on pandemic preparedness. It wasn’t especially earthshaking; in fact, it attracted fairly little media attention. But Jody Lanard and I thought it was terrific – candid, alarming, tentative, all the things most official pandemic presentations were not (and are not). So we sat down to annotate the speech in terms of 25 crisis communication recommendations we had published previously. If you just read the speech, you’ll discover that good risk communication can sound just as ordinary as bad risk communication. If you read the column’s annotations, you’ll discover how extraordinary this particular speech really was.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • A Blind Spot for Bad Guys

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: June 16, 2005

    This column argues that western society has a blind spot for bad guys – that our vision of an actionable emergency is an accident, not an attack. It discusses several examples, from the resistance to evidence that the 1984 Bhopal “accident” was probably sabotage to the opposition of the U.S. public health profession to the possibility that smallpox might constitute a weapon of mass destruction that could justify a vaccination program. The best example – detailed in the column – happened in April 2005, when it was learned that an infectious disease testing company had mistakenly sent samples of a potentially pandemic strain of influenza to labs all over the world. So a fax went out to all the labs telling them so, and asking them to destroy the sample – thus converting a small accident risk into a much larger terrorism risk. The facts were public at the time, but a society with a blind spot for bad guys simply ignored their implications.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • When to Release Risk Information: Early – But Expect Criticism Anyway

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: April 16, 2005

    In February 2005, the New York City health department issued a warning about a possibly disastrous new strain of AIDS. It was widely criticized for alarming people before it had solid evidence that the strain was spreading. Also in February 2005, the United Kingdom’s Food Safety Authority held off announcing that many prepared foods were contaminated with tiny amounts of the banned red dye Sudan 1, because it wanted to prepare a list of affected products first. It was widely criticized for the delay. Obviously, when to release risk information is a tough call. In this column, Jody Lanard and I lay out the pros and cons, and conclude that early is almost always better than late. We also analyze the New York City decision in detail, and offer some ways to reduce the downsides of early release.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index  link to Precaution Advocacy index

  • Talking about Dead Bodies: Risk Communication after a Catastrophe

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: February 8, 2005

    After nearly every natural disaster (earthquake, flood, etc.), the survivors feel an urgent need to bury the dead, often in mass graves that later complicate everything from mourning to inheritance. Yet with some exceptions, the bodies of natural disaster victims are not a significant disease threat to the living, and burying them should therefore have a lower priority than other rescue and recovery tasks. International emergency response agencies do their best to convince local officials and local populations that this is so – but more often than not they fail. In this column, Jody Lanard and I discuss the reasons why the impulse to bury the bodies is so powerful, and offer some empathic ways to counter that impulse, rather than simply explaining the scientific data.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index  link to Crisis Communication index

  • Adjustment Reactions: The Teachable Moment in Crisis Communication

    Posted: January 17, 2005

    When people first learn about a new risk, they go through a temporary over-reaction that is natural, healthy, and useful. Psychiatrists call this the “adjustment reaction.” Having one is virtually a prerequisite to crisis preparedness. This short column outlines the characteristics of adjustment reactions. It advises crisis communicators to guide the public through its pre-crisis or early-crisis adjustment reaction, rather than trying to persuade people to skip this essential step toward being ready to cope.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Tsunami Risk Communication: Warnings and the Myth of Panic

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: January 6, 2005

    One of the reasons the Thai government neglected to warn its people in advance of the devastating December 2004 tsunami was a fear of panicking them. As if to prove this deadly decision right, a few days later there were warnings that aftershocks might produce another tsunami. Thousands of seaside residents fled to higher ground – and when it turned out there was no second tsunami, media reports said they had panicked. Jody Lanard and I had written before about the tendency of officials and journalists to misdiagnose caution as panic, but the tsunami impelled us to revisit the issue. This time we focused more narrowly on how rare panic is in response to natural disasters – or to warnings about natural disasters.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

2004

  • Pandemic Influenza Risk Communication: The Teachable Moment

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: December 4, 2004

    This is the first column Jody Lanard and I wrote about pandemic preparedness. We wrote it when many experts believed a devastating H5N1 flu pandemic might be just around the corner – and so we thought so too. (We still think the risk is serious, but there’s much less sense of imminence as I write this blurb in mid-2008.) The thrust of this long column is how to sound the alarm. After a primer on why H5N1 is “not your garden variety flu,” the column proposes a list of pre-crisis pandemic talking points. Then it assesses how well experts and officials were addressing those points as of late 2004. The experts, we wrote, were doing their best to arouse the public. But governments and international agencies were undermining the sense of urgency with grossly over-optimistic claims about pharmaceutical solutions.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index  link to Precaution Advocacy index

  • Acknowledging Uncertainty

    Posted: November 11, 2004

    This column is in two parts. Part One lists some basic tips for overcoming the universal temptation to sound overconfident; it’s a primer on how to sound uncertain instead. Part Two goes into detail on the toughest part of acknowledging uncertainty: deciding just how uncertain you ought to sound, and then coming up with words (or numbers) that capture the right level of uncertainty. It assesses five biases that tend to distort our judgments about how uncertain to sound, even after we have accepted the principle that we should acknowledge our uncertainty. Compare “I can’t guarantee that it’s safe” with “I don’t know if it’s safe.” Both acknowledge uncertainty – but very different levels of uncertainty. Which of the two is likelier to get said when the other would have been closer to the truth?

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Flu Vaccine Shortage: Segmenting the Audience

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: October 22, 2004

    Because of manufacturing problems, the U.S. had less vaccine for the 2004–05 flu season than it expected to need. The shortfall actually increased the demand, as people who don’t usually get vaccinated decided that this year they would. Jody Lanard and I were critical of what officials were telling the American public about the situation. We were especially critical of the failure to segment the audience – both according to the medical importance of vaccinating each segment and according to whether members of that segment bother to get vaccinated in a normal year. Since audience segmentation is a basic principle of risk communication (and all communication), we decided to show how it’s done by developing different flu vaccination messages for each segment. This column is the result.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • Worst Case Scenarios

    Posted: August 28, 2004

    Most of this long column is addressed to risk communicators whose goal is to keep their audience unconcerned. So naturally they’d rather not talk about awful but unlikely worst case scenarios. The column details their reluctance even to mention worst case scenarios, and their tendency when they finally get around to discussing them to do so over-reassuringly. It explains why this is unwise – why people (especially outraged people) tend to overreact to worst case scenarios when the available information is scanty or over-reassuring. Then the column lists 25 guidelines for explaining worst case scenarios properly. Finally, a postscript addresses the opposite problem. Suppose you’re not trying to reassure people about worst case scenarios; you’re trying to warn them. How can you do that more effectively?

    This column is categorized as:   link to Precaution Advocacy index   link to Crisis Communication index   link to Outrage Management index   link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • When People Are “Under-Reacting” to Risk

    Posted: July 14, 2004

    When you think people are under-reacting to a risk, the usual diagnosis is “apathy” and the usual prescription is some sort of precaution advocacy: “This could kill you! Here’s how to protect yourself.” This short column is a checklist of questions to consider – in sequence – before jumping to the conclusion that apathy is the right diagnosis and precaution advocacy is the right prescription. Some of the alternatives (not paying attention, for example) are very familiar to safety professionals. Others (such as problems with self-efficacy and fatalism) are often missed.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Precaution Advocacy index

  • Sharing and Bearing Dilemmas: The USDA’s Transparent Mad Cow Risk Communication

    by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

    Posted: July 2, 2004

    Jody Lanard and I had already written a critique of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture handled the discovery of the first known case of mad cow disease in the U.S. So when the USDA did an excellent job a few months later with two inconclusive screening test positives for possible mad cow disease, we felt we ought to write about it. This short column covers the agency’s wise (and courageous) decision to announce the screening test results without waiting for follow-up testing, and to do so with candor about the dilemma of whether to report preliminary findings.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Between Required and Forbidden: The Value of Voluntary Precautions

    Posted: May 30, 2004

    Risk isn’t dichotomous. It is always possible to take more or fewer precautions and end up with a higher or lower risk. Since such decisions are matters of judgment, this column argues, people should be allowed to make their own judgments. Of course in many situations some (minimum) precautions may need to be required, and some (excessive) precautions may need to be forbidden. But between required and forbidden is a fruitful space for voluntary precautions. The column focuses especially on three examples: supplied air for cleanup workers (should the employer ever leave it up to the worker?); boiling water that might be contaminated (should the authorities ever leave it up to consumers?); and testing beef cattle for mad cow disease (should the government ever leave it up to the slaughterhouses?).

  • Crisis Communication: A Very Quick Introduction

    Posted: April 15, 2004

    This short column is made up of two lists. First comes a list of six “focus areas” of crisis communication – including the one I consider most in need of improvement: metamessaging. (This jargony word is the best I can come up with to describe all the content of crisis communications other than information content: how reassuring to be, how confident to sound, how to address emotion, etc.) The rest of the column is a list of 25 crisis communication recommendations – most of them about metamessaging. The 25 recommendations are discussed in more detail in my crisis communication handouts. But this column lists them all conveniently on one page.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Misleading toward the Truth: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Mishandles Mad Cow Risk Communication

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: March 18, 2004

    Mad cow disease has never been a serious threat to human health in the United States. When it tries to convince people of this truth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture often says things that aren’t quite true. In this long column, Jody Lanard and I painstakingly dissect nine instances of misleading USDA mad cow risk communication in the wake of the December 2003 discovery of the first known mad cow in the U.S. Not that the USDA was unusually dishonest. This sort of dishonesty is routine in risk communication, especially when its perpetrators know they are in the right. This column introduces the phrase “misleading toward the truth” to describe the well-intentioned – but ultimately ineffective – dishonesty of information sources who are convinced the unvarnished facts might themselves be misleading.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • When People Are “Over-Reacting” to Risk

    Posted: February 6, 2004

    This short column offers a checklist of 15 possibilities to consider when you believe people are over-reacting to a risk you consider small. The #1 possibility – mentioned but not discussed in the column – is that outrage at some aspect of the situation might be clouding their judgment. That’s the core of my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and my approach to risk communication when hazard is low and outrage is high. But the column identifies 14 other possibilities that ought to be considered before jumping to the conclusion that people are outraged … including #15, the possibility that they might be right and you might be under-reacting to a serious hazard.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Scientists and the Public: Barriers to Cross-Species Risk Communication

    by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

    Posted: January 4, 2004

    Scientists are from Mars and everyone else is from Venus. In this column, Jody Lanard and I focus on ten systematic differences between scientists and the public that make things difficult when scientists try to do risk communication. Among them: Many scientists don’t approve of communicating with nonscientists; many scientists overvalue rationality, and mistrust – and even disdain – emotion; many scientists fail to allow for the public’s mistrust; many scientists do not trust the public. Understanding these differences can help scientist-communicators overcome them and find common ground with their audience. And understanding these differences can help members of the public make allowances when scientists mishandle their risk communication efforts.

2003

  • Practicing for The Big One: Pennsylvania’s Hepatitis A Outbreak and Risk Communication

    by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

    Posted: December 4, 2003

    In late 2003, an outbreak of hepatitis A in Western Pennsylvania provided a neat case study of pretty good risk communication (not perfect, but not bad) about a pretty serious problem (not huge, but not tiny). In this column, Jody Lanard and I use Pennsylvania’s hepatitis outbreak to illustrate four basic dilemmas in crisis communication – dilemmas that are sure to come up in bigger emergencies: preoccupation with panic; trust and secrecy; over-reassurance; and anticipatory guidance.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index   link to Crisis Communication index

  • What’s Different about Employees?

    Posted: October 29, 2003

    Most of my risk communication consulting focuses on external stakeholders – neighbors, activists, customers, etc. But sometimes I’m asked to address a controversy between a company (or a government agency) and its own employees. Outrage is outrage, and for the most part labor-management controversies play out the same way external controversies do. But there are a few ways employee outrage is different. This short column discusses five differences.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • It Is Never Too Soon to Speculate

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: September 17, 2003

    Risk communication and crisis communication professionals sometimes urge their clients not to speculate. But they can’t mean it literally. Speculation is talking about things you’re not sure about … and that’s pretty much what risk communication is. In this short column, Jody Lanard and I make the case on behalf of responsible speculation – that is, speculation that sounds suitably speculative (that isn’t overconfident); speculation that pays sufficient attention to dire scenarios (that isn’t over-optimistic); and speculation that explicitly addresses the difficult question of which precautions are appropriate even while the information is still uncertain and which precautions should await less speculative knowledge.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Fear of Fear:  The Role of Fear in Preparedness ... and Why It Terrifies Officials

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: September 8, 2003

    My government clients often tell me they want to persuade the public to take precautions against some risk … but not if they have to frighten anybody. Jody Lanard and I wrote this long column not just to argue the necessity for warnings to be frightening, but also to analyze the widespread official “fear of fear.” We explore its origins in officials’ justified concern that they will be criticized for frightening people, and in their unjustified concern that the people they frighten will find the experience permanent and unbearable. We also investigate a closely allied phenomenon, “panic panic” – the panicky feelings officials experience when they wrongly judge that the public is about to panic, and the unwise crisis management strategies they typically attempt in order to “allay” the public’s panic.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Stakeholders

    Posted: June 12, 2003

    This column covers everything I think my clients need to know about stakeholders, especially hostile stakeholders – the difference between stakeholders and publics; the kinds of stakeholders, depending mostly on their level of arousal and the actual hazard they face; the key guidelines for stakeholder involvement, grounded in the distinction among “fanatics,” “attentives,” “browsers,” and “inattentives”; and the complications caused by the presence of stakeholders who aren’t hostile (supporters, involved neutrals, and uninvolved neutrals). The column ends with this wrap-up: “Managing risk communication requires analyzing your stakeholders.… Which analytic scheme works best depends on the situation. Somewhere in this column I hope you can find a scheme (or several) that helps make sense of the situation you’re facing at the moment.”

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • “Fear Is Spreading Faster than SARS” – And So It Should!

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: April 28, 2003

    Until it turned out less contagious than initially thought, SARS looked to many experts like it might very well be the devastating pandemic they had spent decades fearfully awaiting. When Jody Lanard and I wrote this column in April 2003, that was still an open question. The public’s SARS fears were entirely justifiable – yet many governments, experts, and even journalists were working overtime to dampen those fears. The column describes this “soft cover-up” of SARS over-optimism, tries to explain why so many officials were seduced by it, and offers both good examples of guiding the public’s fear and bad examples of trying to allay that fear. The column concludes with a list of 18 specific risk communication recommendations for talking about SARS.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index  link to Pandemic/Infectious Diseases index

  • Four Kinds of Risk Communication

    Posted: April 11, 2003

    This short column was an early attempt to lay out what I see as the four kinds of risk communication. Some of my labels have changed since 2003. When hazard is high and outrage is low, the job is warning apathetic people about serious risks. I now call that precaution advocacy; the column called it public relations. When hazard is low and outrage is high, the job is calming upset people about small risks. I called that outrage management in the column, and that’s still what I call it. When hazard and outrage are both high, the job is helping rightly upset people bear a dangerous situation. No change in that label either; it’s crisis communication. Finally, when hazard and outrage are both intermediate, the job is chatting with interested people about a real but not urgent risk. The column called that stakeholder relations; I now call it “the sweet spot.”

    This column is categorized as:  link to Introductory articles

  • Duct Tape Risk Communication

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: February 20, 2003

    One of the things the U.S. government got wrong after 9/11 was its failure to offer people things to do. So when it started listing some steps ordinary people could take to help prepare for the possibility of more terrorist attacks, Jody Lanard and I noted with interest the widespread disdainful response, most of it linked to the inclusion of duct tape on the government’s list of items a prepared citizen ought to have on hand. In this column, we analyze the reasons for this weird response, which we liken to a similar cynicism about anti-nuclear precautions in the 1950s. The column ends with suggestions for improving the U.S. government’s post-9/11 risk communication, starting with the need to ask more of people.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

2002

  • Smallpox Vaccination: Some Risk Communication Linchpins

    Public Health Outrage and Smallpox Vaccination: An Afterthought

    Posted: December 30, 2002 and January 19, 2003

    In December 2002, I was asked to help plan and run a meeting on risk communication recommendations for the U.S. program to vaccinate healthcare workers and emergency responders against smallpox. The first column is an edited version of my introductory remarks. It addresses some familiar “risk communication linchpins” – paying attention to outrage, doing anticipatory guidance, expressing wishes and feelings, tolerating uncertainty, sharing dilemmas, riding the seesaw, etc. – all customized for the controversies I thought likeliest to emerge over smallpox vaccination. What I learned from the meeting was that most of the public health professionals implementing the smallpox vaccination program were themselves outraged that it even existed. So I wrote an “afterthought” on the sources of that outrage, and the need to deal with it lest it undermine the program … which, in my judgment, it later did.

    These columns are categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index   link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

  • Accountability

    Posted: October 28, 2002

    One of the core outrage management recommendations on my shortlist is accountability. I see it both as a replacement for trust and as a step in the direction of sharing control. This column covers everything I want my clients to know about accountability, especially its relationship to trust and control, to “being small,” to giving away credit, and to contractual agreements. The last section of the column addresses the question of “accountability to whom.” The short answer: Everybody – but especially the “extremists” you least want to be accountable to. “Remember,” the column concludes, “the purpose of accountability is to reduce stakeholder outrage…. If you really hate it there’s a good chance you’re doing it right.”

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Environmental Audits

    Posted: August 15, 2002

    This column was inspired by the Enron debacle, and the lesson (re)learned from that debacle that corporate financial audits can be pretty slippery. (In case you’ve forgotten, Arthur Andersen audited Enron’s books and said everything was hunky-dory; it wasn’t, and the accounting firm went down with its client.) The column asserts that corporate environmental audits can be similarly slippery, and asks whether there are any lessons companies can learn from Enron about their environmental auditing. It offers six ways to make environmental audits more reliable and more credible, focusing especially on the virtues of picking not just an auditor who doesn’t rely on the company for other business, but also an auditor whose natural biases are more activist than corporate.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Lawyers and Outrage Management

    Posted: July 11, 2002

    I almost entitled this column “Lawyers v. Outrage Management,” because it’s mostly about the conflicts between what I advise my clients and what their attorneys advise them. The column starts by acknowledging that a legally ill-advised outrage management strategy can have disastrous legal repercussions. That said, it addresses a variety of reasons why most lawyers dislike outrage management even in situations where there are unlikely to be any legal ill effects. After a section on what outrage management can offer the legal process – that is, how lawyers might actually benefit from paying attention to outrage issues – the column zeros in on five genuine areas of conflict between law and outrage management: ignorance, silence, candor, apology, and tone. These are the areas where wise clients force their legal and communication advisors to find a middle path.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Yellow Flags: The Acid Test of Transparency

    Posted: April 10, 2002

    When things go badly wrong for a company or government agency, there were usually precursors, and the failure to heed these warnings is a familiar feature of post-disaster recriminations. I call the precursors/warnings “yellow flags” – yellow, not red, because in real time it’s usually impossible to tell whether they’ll turn out to be a minor wrinkle or a major flaw. This column addresses the choices companies and agencies face with regard to yellow flags: whether to let yourself know about them at all; whether to investigate the ones you know about; whether to stop what you’re doing while you await the results; and whether to tell the rest of us what’s up. The column focuses on the last of these choices, arguing that transparency about yellow flags is not just the best way to get them investigated properly; it is also the only way to prevent people from imagining afterwards that they were red flags.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Laundry List of 50 Outrage Reducers

    Posted: February 21, 2002

    My shortlist of principal strategies link is to a pdf file for reducing stakeholder outrage lists six recommendations; in seminars it takes me a half-day or more just to cover these six. I wrote this column for clients who thought that six wasn’t enough. I stopped (pretty arbitrarily) at 50, and invited readers to send me more. But so far I’ve received only one suggestion. So maybe 50 was enough, even if six wasn’t.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

2001

  • Anthrax, Bioterrorism, and Risk Communication: Guidelines for Action

    Posted: December 29, 2001

    Accustomed to naturally occurring diseases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had a difficult time coping with the anthrax bioattacks of late 2001. Since risk communication was one of its core problems, it asked me to come to Atlanta and help. This four-part “column” grew out of my Atlanta notes. If the CDC was adjusting to bioterrorism, so was I. I put aside my usual outrage management recommendations and developed 26 recommendations specifically on the anthrax crisis. These became the basis for my (sadly) expanding work in crisis communication, and for the crisis communication CD-ROM and DVD Jody Lanard and I ultimately put out in 2004. This column was my first extended discussion of most of these crisis communication recommendations, and it is my only published assessment of the CDC’s anthrax communication efforts.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Risk Communication and the War Against Terrorism: High Hazard, High Outrage

    Posted: October 22, 2001

    It took more than a month after the 9/11 attacks for me to decide that I had relevant expertise to offer. (This column was first posted on October 22, 2001, revised and reposted on November 10.) My wife Jody Lanard crystallized it for me when she said, “You’ve been doing high-hazard, low-outrage risk communication and low-hazard, high-outrage risk communication for years. This time it’s high-hazard, high-outrage risk communication.” But this column isn’t my first crack at a list of generic recommendations for communicating in high-hazard, high-outrage situations; that didn’t come till my anthrax column a couple of months later. This one is more a meditation on the risk communication significance of 9/11, a very tentative first effort to consider how best to talk to people in the wake of that still-shocking event.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Crisis Communication index

  • Sound Science

    Posted: September 5, 2001

    The term “sound science” is almost always a way of pulling rank, of harnessing the high stature of science on behalf of one side in a policy debate – usually the side less protective of health or the environment. This column exposes some of the pretenses that typically underlie the term: the pretense that your scientific support is stronger than it is; the pretense that your actions are grounded in science when they are grounded mostly in other considerations; and the pretense that your disputes with critics are about science when they are mostly about trans-scientific issues. The column is also about my clients’ tendency to believe their own pretenses – to forget that they are using or even misusing science to achieve their goals and imagine instead that they are science’s virtuous handmaidens.

  • Advice for President Bartlet:  Riding the Seesaw

    Posted: July 14, 2001

    Readers who were never fans of the “West Wing” television series may not remember when U.S. President Jed Bartlet finally decided to come clean about his multiple sclerosis. The tough question: How to address his desire to run for reelection, despite his illness and despite his having kept it secret. I used this setup as an excuse to write a column about a crucial risk communication strategy for coping with audience ambivalence: the seesaw. When people are ambivalent about X versus Y – for example, when they approve of your presidency and want you back for a second term, but worry that your MS and your dishonesty about it might disqualify you – they tend to go to the side of their ambivalence that is neglected elsewhere in their communication environment. The column outlines the various locations on the seesaw a risk communicator can decide to occupy, and the pros and cons of each. It offers plenty of nonfictional examples as well.

    Articles categorized as:  link to Introductory articles

  • Saying You’re Sorry

    Posted: May 4, 2001

    If you want to know how apology and forgiveness work, ask a Catholic. The secular process, outlined in this column, closely tracks the Catholic process: admit you did it; then say you’re sorry; then correct the problem and compensate your victims; then do a penance. The evidence that going through this process reduces people’s outrage is even stronger than when I wrote the column. Today, even medical malpractice lawyers routinely urge their clients to apologize. But mostly for ego reasons, companies and government agencies still resist admitting they did it, letting themselves get yelled at, saying they’re sorry, or doing a penance. They are comfortable correcting the problem and compensating the victims – which rarely does much good without the other, more humiliating steps.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

  • Trust Us, We're Experts

    Posted: March 17, 2001

    I wrote this column after doing a radio talk show with Sheldon Rampton, in which he argued that corporate experts misuse their scientific expertise to defend corporate misbehavior. The column doesn’t really disagree with Rampton’s claim that many company experts can’t be trusted. But it does dispute his view that anti-company experts can; ideology, I think, distorts science as much as avarice. And the column also disputes Rampton’s conviction that one-sided science is working stunningly well for evil corporations. It argues to the contrary that companies sacrifice credibility when they employ experts who reliably favor their position regardless of the data. Activists can get away with that kind of one-sidedness, the column suggests, but companies are better off hiring activist-leaning experts, who will be hugely credible when they reluctantly admit the company is actually right about something.

    This column is categorized as:  link to Outrage Management index

  • The Stupidity Defense

    Posted: January 29, 2001

    Whenever a company does something wrong, the public wants to know why. The two contending explanations are stupidity and evil – you made a dumb mistake or you did it on purpose. Since most people imagine that corporate evil is far more common than corporate stupidity, the “evil” explanation is the default. (Government agencies are different; people believe governments make stupid mistakes all the time.) Of course the “evil” explanation also does more harm to corporate reputation than the “stupid” explanation. What follows from this reasoning is what I call the stupidity defense. As this column argues, when a company makes a stupid mistake, it needs to say so – early, often, and penitently. That’s its only shot at avoiding the assumption of evil.

    This column is categorized as:   link to Outrage Management index

2000

  • Risk Communication and the Palm Beach Presidency

    Posted: November 9, 2000

    I wrote my first website column at the very start of the Bush-Gore cliffhanger in Florida, when the key issue still looked to be thousands of Gore voters in Palm Beach who had been misled by a confusing ballot to vote for Pat Buchanan instead. For the most part, this column notes, risk communication is for dealing with stakeholders – small groups of highly involved people – whereas traditional public relations is the right toolkit when addressing the wider public. But not in a crisis like Palm Beach. Since the whole country is highly involved, the column asserts, both candidates need to put aside their PR toolkits and work at managing the other side’s outrage. The column’s specific outrage-sensitive talking points were irrelevant within hours, lost in a forest of hanging chads. But the principle that in crisis situations politicians need to switch from public relations to outrage management remains sound.

Pandemic Flu Preparedness Columns from
CIDRAP Business Source Weekly Briefing

CIDRAP logoIn late 2006, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota launched a dedicated pandemic preparedness website for business called CIDRAP Business Source, and an associated newsletter called CIDRAP Business Source Weekly Briefing. I agreed to serve as Deputy Editor, and to write a short column on pandemic risk communication for every other issue of the Briefing. It was agreed that I could post the columns on my website after a three-month lag.

In mid-2007 the newsletter was reconfigured as the Osterholm Briefing, written by Editor-in-Chief (and infectious diseases expert) Michael Osterholm. I remained Deputy Editor of CIDRAP Business Source.

Many of the Briefing columns listed below cover content that is elsewhere on this website in greater detail. (See the “Pandemic Flu and Other Infectious Diseases Index.”) Others are new, and all are recast for the business continuity audience.

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Contact Information:  Peter M. Sandman

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