Posted: September 8, 2003
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Article Summary 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.

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

Note added: January 6, 2005
When a devastating tsunami struck Southeast Asia in late 2004, officials and experts who knew it might be on its way decided not to warn the public. They were afraid a warning might lead to panic. See “Tsunami Risk Communication: Warnings and the Myth of Panic” for a discussion of this fatal error and the issues it raises. The column below covers official fear of fear and “panic panic” more generally.

In recent months one communication question seems to preoccupy those charged with preparing for possible crisis situations, and with managing them when they arise. The question: How do we say what needs to be said without frightening people?

Nobody asked this question in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The terrorist attacks of that day did frighten people, and the communication task was obviously to help them bear the fear and take appropriate action despite the fear … not to help them avoid feeling the fear. But in the ensuing two years, most Americans have calmed down. Most officials see that as a good thing, and are loathe to stir them up again.

The question was crystallized in a recent email from Sean G. Kaufman, a health education specialist in the Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He wrote:

How do you get a community prepared for a potential hazard – without stirring up the bees nest? Preparedness is something that I strive for – but continue to run into the argument of “things have just settled down, why continue to stir the issue up?” I do my best to explain how that stirring is very beneficial…. What are some strategies that you recommend when debating whether or not issues should be brought up when things finally settle down?

A similar inquiry came from Amie Ware, public information officer for the Community Resilience Project, a crisis counseling program in Northern Virginia that was established shortly after 9/11. Any program with “community resilience” in its title is definitely barking up the right tree. Even so, she wrote:

I wonder if you still believe, as you did seven months after 9/11, that it is critically important to keep saying that there will be future terrorist attacks. Are we at risk for scaring people and therefore drawing criticism for doing so?

The only thing unusual about these two emails is that their authors want to disturb the bees nest and foster community resilience; they need help supporting their position. Too many crisis managers simply believe it is wrong to frighten the public, even about frightening realities. Consider this quotation from a widely cited May 7, 2003 Lancet article about the worsening data on SARS case fatality rates. Authors C.A. Donnelly, R.M. Anderson, et al. wrote: “The epidemic has shown the need for communication of risk that will inform and warn the public, in a way that will improve personal protection, without inducing raised anxiety and fear, as an essential part of epidemic control.”

This is the Holy Grail of risk communication: to inform and warn the public, and to get the public to respond appropriately to scary new information, without actually scaring people.

The Holy Grail is a legend. In our judgment, achieving preparedness without fearfulness is not possible. It is also not necessary. Although some people are traumatized by disaster and even by possible disaster, most people are resilient, far more capable of bearing their fears than officials generally assume. In fact, the widespread fear of fear – that is, the tendency of officials to put an extremely high priority on not frightening the public – tells us more about the officials’ state of mind than about the public’s.

This column, therefore, is an attempt to answer Sean Kaufman and Amie Ware, and to persuade C.A. Donnelly, R.M. Anderson, and their colleagues.

Appropriate Fear

Let’s start with the obvious. Any normal person is going to be more anxious than usual while awaiting a biopsy result, a turbulent airplane landing, or a layoff notice. Human emotions tend to match the situation. The same is true of a more widespread threat. Of course the public at large will be commensurately alarmed when told that a terrorism attack, an epidemic, or a hurricane may be approaching. Moreover, fear isn’t just normal in frightening situations; it is functional. Both the human body and the body politic ultimately benefit from the changes (physiological and sociological … and inevitably emotional) that accompany preparedness for crisis.

Take terrorism as a case in point. Nearly everyone agrees that we need people to be vigilant for indications of terrorist attacks; to prepare themselves and their families to cope with possible attacks; to be supportive of preparedness expenses and tolerant of preparedness inconveniences. And nearly everyone agrees that we need all this to ramp up in an actual attack, so that people put other agendas on hold, follow instructions willingly, and help care for their neighbors. The question is what emotional state, what state of mind, is conducive to this sort of public readiness.

We believe the right answer is fear. We won’t get there if terrorism is merely one of many issues people are “concerned” about, along with West Nile Virus and inflation and rap lyrics. Either terrorism is different from most other concerns, or it isn’t. If it is, we need to get used to the idea that people are going to be appropriately frightened, and we need to help them get used to it too.

Not all fear is functional. Fear that is paralyzing, fear that verges on panic, is obviously not functional. Terror is the goal of terrorism, not the goal of preparedness. But fear is not necessarily terror. This is a conceptual mistake officials routinely make, a mistake they seem terribly attracted to – the embedded, preconscious, erroneous assumption that all fear is one short step removed from panic. Some fear is. Most fear is not.

When officials express their reluctance about “unduly frightening people,” they are literally right. The key word here is “unduly.” Unduly frightening people is wrong. Duly frightening people is right, and important. The problem is telling the two apart.

The distinction is partly a matter of degree – “enough” fear versus “excessive” fear. Perhaps in addition there are kinds of fear like the kinds of cholesterol – “good” fear versus “bad” fear. But we suspect the key difference is neither the amount of fear nor the kind of fear, but rather people’s ability to bear the fear. Much is known about how to enhance that ability. Among the things that help:

  • Give people things to do – action binds anxiety.
  • Give people things to decide – decision-making provides more individual control, which makes fear more tolerable.
  • Encourage appropriate anger – the desire to get even often trumps the desire to cower.
  • Encourage love (and camaraderie) – soldiers, for example, fight for their friends and for their country.
  • Provide candid leadership – we get more frightened when our leaders seem to be misleading us.
  • Show your own fear and show you can bear it – apparently fearless leaders are little help to a fearful public.

Most importantly, treat other people’s fear as legitimate. Fear is likeliest to escalate into terror or panic (or to flip into denial) when it is treated as shameful and wrong. “It’s natural to be afraid, I’m afraid too” is a much more empathic response to public fear than “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” If we want people to bear their fear, we must assure them that their fear is appropriate. Even fear that is statistically inappropriate can and should be legitimized as normal, understandable, and widespread. Leaders who are contemptuous of people’s fear have a much tougher time explaining the reasons why they needn’t be afraid.

At the same time, it is important not to accuse people of a fear they may be reluctant to acknowledge in themselves. “Many people are understandably frightened” is a better approach than “You must be frightened.” “Some of us are frightened” is better still. But even “you must be frightened” is better than “don’t be frightened.” From child-rearing to surgery, this truth is firmly established: To help people bear their fear, help them accept that it is okay to be afraid.

When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned Americans in 1933 that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he wasn’t telling people not to be frightened of the Great Depression. He was telling them not to allow their understandable, justified fears to keep them from doing what needed to be done. The exact quote is instructive: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It is useful to think of fear as a reservoir from which we draw as we need it. In normal times we continually allocate whatever level of fearfulness is “normal” for us to one or another object … and we experience leftover fear as free-floating anxiety without any object. In crises we draw down our reserves. This is just a metaphor, but it is an instructive one. We have all known people who seemed obsessed by some small problem, until an objectively larger problem came their way – at which point they promptly abandoned their obsession to devote themselves to the real danger. When we frighten people about a possible future terrorist attack, and thus get the alertness and responsiveness we want, are we making them more frightened overall, or are we merely claiming a larger share of their fearfulness for our issue?

What does the curve of fearfulness about a new issue look like? There is often an over-reaction at the start, which serves the purpose of emotional rehearsal. During the SARS epidemic, for example, some residents of Hong Kong and other SARS-afflicted cities wore face masks on the street. In most cases the masks weren’t medically necessary. But wearing masks helped people get ready for the possibility that the SARS situation might worsen. People who disinfected their mail or sought antibiotic prescriptions during the 2001 anthrax attacks were similarly over-reacting in the service of emotional rehearsal. This initial period of over-reaction tends to be brief. It is followed by acceptance and integration into a new normal – especially if the fear and the precaution are not ridiculed.

It is worth recalling that pre-9/11 America was widely characterized as stress-filled, even anxiety-filled; it was seldom described as laid-back. In the early months after 9/11, we became temporarily more stressed than ever before about terrorism, and more stressed than usual overall. We drew down our reserves. As the crisis receded, most of us remained more stressed than ever before about terrorism, but not necessarily more stressed than usual overall. We replenished our reserves and accorded terrorism a greater share of our normal level of fearfulness. Then, as no new domestic terrorism crisis arose, many of us started becoming less stressed about terrorism – perhaps too much so – but not necessarily less stressed overall. We just reallocated again. Even though the outside world is a worse place than we realized before 9/11, it isn’t clear that most people are more fearful – only that more of their fearfulness is about the outside world.

Some people, of course, have been genuinely traumatized by 9/11, or by other crises, and may need clinical attention. But most people have a pretty consistent level of fearfulness, plus a reservoir for emergencies. In normal situations we allocate our normal fearfulness among the contending risks. In unusual situations we temporarily draw down the reservoir, then revert to a new normal in which the newly important risk pre-empts a greater share of our normal fearfulness than previously.

Fearfulness is so fundamental to normal human psychology that when we are not dealing with enough real dangers, we “practice.” Midwesterners track hurricanes for fun; easterners are riveted by tornado footage on the Weather Channel. On the most passive level, we watch scary TV shows and movies. When all else fails, we practice by worrying about asteroids hitting the earth. It is not that we “like” being scared, exactly. It is more that, biologically, the impulse to be vigilant is present whether there is an immediate threat or not; it can be thought of as an itch that needs to be scratched, even as a drive. Some of us have more of this drive than others. However much of it we have, we will find an outlet for it – whether it be volunteer work as an EMT, weekend bungee jumping, obsessing over pesticide residues, or watching for terrorists.

Frightening people in advance about terrorism, or SARS, or some other potentially significant hazard, is necessary to help the society prepare to cope with the situation. For most people it is not psychically harmful; except temporarily, it isn’t even an increase in their fearfulness, only a reallocation of it. Helping people bear their fear is much more useful than trying not to frighten them.

Fear of Fear

Why then are officials so fearful of frightening the public?

It’s worse than that, actually. Officials are fearful even of acknowledging that an already frightened public is right to be frightened, or at least that the fear is normal and widespread. This is one of the most common and most pernicious errors of risk communication, and especially of crisis communication. As we have already noted, the most crucial way to help people bear their fear and thus avoid becoming panicky is to treat the fear as legitimate. Fearful people feel better, not worse, when their fear is legitimized; it is a relief. Instead, officials often stigmatize public fear as “irrational” or “hysterical.” We will return to this error when we get to its most extreme manifestation, official “panic panic” – that is, the tendency of officials to imagine that the public is panicking when it is merely taking precautions and practicing for what it may be about to face.

The very concept “fear” has long had an image problem. Health educators, for example, shy away from fear appeals, almost willfully misreading the research literature as demonstrating that fear is an ineffective motivator. What the research actually shows is that moderate fear is very effective in motivating changes in behavior, as long as people start out insufficiently frightened. Alarming apathetic people isn’t easy, but when accomplished it is an effective way to get them to take precautions. If people are already very frightened, on the other hand, it helps to acknowledge and legitimize their fear, but trying to frighten them further can backfire. And if people are already in denial about the danger, fear appeals can push them deeper into denial. (For a discussion of this issue in the context of the 1980s peace movement’s efforts to oppose nuclear weapons, see Scared stiff or scared into action at

Only occasionally do officials speak out on how hard it is for them to cope with fear. When SARS was spreading from hospital to hospital in Taiwan, the Deputy Director-General of Health said, “Handling issues related to human emotions is indeed more tiring than implementing counter-disease measures.” We think he was referring to the public’s emotions, not his own. But officials’ emotions during a crisis deserve some empathic and gentle handling too.

Criticism … and Ego.

Often, of course, it isn’t just frightening the public that officials fear, it’s getting criticized for frightening the public. Since officials routinely criticize others – especially the media – for sensationalizing risk and provoking public fear, it makes sense that they would worry about being on the receiving end of the same criticism. Even acknowledging already manifest public fear can elicit this criticism.

There is considerable merit to officials’ concern that they will be criticized for provoking or even legitimizing public fear. It happens. They get criticized by other officials, and sometimes by the media. They even get criticized by the public.

Anybody who is busy denying the seriousness of the risk is bound to get defensive when somebody else asserts that the risk is serious. When the World Health Organization issued its original worldwide warning about SARS, it worried that it would be accused of provoking unnecessary fear – and it was. When it added SARS-afflicted Toronto to the list of places people should avoid, it worried that Canadian officials would attack it for devastating Canadian tourism – and they did. Its “defense” – if you think it needs one – is that the SARS risk was objectively serious. Without the prompt action provoked by the WHO, it could have been far more serious.

Lesser officials can deflect the blame by attributing the concern to more eminent officials. “As President Bush sadly reminds us, we will not be able to prevent all terrorist attacks….” “As HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson notes, there are new emerging diseases all the time….” “As the World Health Organization has emphasized, SARS seems to be unusually infectious in hospital settings….”

Blame for acknowledging and legitimizing people’s fears – for being “insufficiently contemptuous” of the public – is a more complicated matter. It happens. Anybody who is in denial about the reality of the public’s fears (and their own fears) is likely to get defensive when somebody else accepts those fears as legitimate. But here you are protected, at least in part, by the positive reactions of the fearful public to your acceptance of their fears.

In June 2003, for example, North Carolina had its first confirmed SARS patient. State Epidemiologist Jeff Engel responded with a series of news conferences. At one of them, a reporter asked if all the news coverage had the potential to cause more hysteria and fear. Dr. Engel replied: “We need to involve our community in all aspects of public health. Certainly a disease like SARS, so new, so frightening, should instill fear. Fear is an appropriate response – for me as a public health physician, for everyone in the community. We need to transfer that fear into positive energy, and keep the facts out in front of hysteria…. I think [the media’s] response is appropriate. This is a new disease, it spreads person to person, it can kill, it has a high case-fatality rate. That is newsworthy!”

Two months later, Dr. Engel made essentially the same empathic statement about Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). Here he is in the August 24, 2003 Fayetteville Observer:

Dr. Jeff Engel, a state epidemiologist with Health and Human Services, said the state has documented “only 12 or 13 human infections since 1964.” The most in one year was three in 1989….

Though human infections are rare, Engel emphasized precautions.

“Fear is appropriate. I mean, my God, here you have a mosquito that can kill,” Engel said. “What we are trying to do through you guys, the media, is use that fear in a positive way. We are trying to get information out there.”

To the best of our knowledge, Dr. Engel wasn’t criticized for either statement. But the local Wal-Mart sold out of insect repellant after the EEE news conference. Dr. Engel generated preparedness, not panic.

Still, the fear of being criticized for raising people’s fears is a valid one. In principle, of course, warnings are supposed to be conservative. That is, warning people about a risk that turns out trivial is a far less serious offense than failing to warn people about a risk that turns out huge. But in practice, if you warn people and the risk turns out trivial, you may be blamed for guessing wrong.

In fact, even if you guess right you may be blamed for guessing wrong. “The fear of [whatever] turned out worse than [whatever] itself,” people and officials and editorials may opine, after your warnings provoke effective strategies of prevention and response. After all, I didn’t get Eastern Equine Encephalitis or SARS or attacked by terrorists. The odds of that actually happening to me were always low. So you got me all stirred up for nothing. And if your warnings help the authorities avert the risk entirely, people can easily end up thinking it was a false alarm. Successful precautions and unnecessary precautions can look awfully similar; you’re snapping your fingers to keep away the elephants, and you think it’s working!

Plus, people forget that they are mixing and matching different stresses all the time anyway. It’s as if they were perfectly calm until you came along.

There is no magical way for responsible officials to avoid being in this hot seat – you are up against every defense mechanism in the book; you are up against human nature. The most frequently used weapon against you is disingenuous statistics – like the true (at the time) but irrelevant notion that falling-down-the-stairs accidents cause more morbidity than SARS, as a social science professor told The Guardian’s science editor, Tim Radford. We waited for Radford to ask, “But how do falling-down-the-stairs accidents imperil the public health system?” He didn’t ask.

So you will be criticized, maybe massively so. You may be accused of trying to get publicity in order to become a big media celebrity, to get bigger budgets, to restrict civil liberties. You may be accused of every motive in the world except the desire to protect public health and safety. (Tom Ridge was blasted for trying to figure out ways to warn us about terrorist threats. Tommy Thompson was attacked for wanting to vaccinate too many people against smallpox.)

There is only one thing worse than being criticized for “unduly” frightening people – and that is being criticized for failing to warn people. Those who feel you’re taking a risk too seriously tend to forget how angry they get at officials who don’t take risks seriously enough. Would you trade places with the folks in charge at NASA?

There is another reason why officials are sometimes excessively critical of the public’s fear: They experience the fear itself as a criticism of them. Once an official takes the position that a particular risk is small, or that it’s under control, or that some precaution the public finds attractive is unnecessary, the official’s ego inevitably gets invested in people responding as instructed. If the public continues to be fearful and to take precautions the official said not to take, the official naturally feels diminished. Unaware of the role of injured self-esteem in his or her response, the official may strike back. When the public is hoarding Cipro or wearing N95 masks despite your advice, they are saying to you “We don’t believe you,” or “We don’t trust you,” or “You haven’t convinced us yet that you know what you’re doing.” That is the public answering you back, not the public panicking. Your counterattack (“People are irrational!”) is emotionally understandable but not technically sound or strategically wise. Instead of blaming the public for doubting your reassurance, take their signal as a free consultation telling you your message is not getting through.

Officials tend to want a “push-button public” that does what it is told but has no opinions or feelings of its own – certainly none that would lead it to question its leaders’ leadership. They want a public that waits calmly, even apathetically, until told to do something, and then acts instantly and unquestioningly. They want a public that takes prescribed precautions cheerfully, and takes no other precautions period. It is natural to want that … but officials must learn to accept that they can’t have it.

Misperceiving Fear.

Putting aside the justified fear of getting criticized and the understandable irritation at being dissed, officials also think normal fear is more harmful than it is:

Officials think that fear will inevitably escalate into panic. Panic is a true disaster when it happens, but it happens only occasionally, and it is likeliest to happen when the fear is unbearable. So when officials shy away from acknowledging and legitimizing the public’s fear out of an exaggerated concern about panic, they actually make panic likelier … though still not terribly likely.
Officials think that fear will be intolerable, and therefore unsustainable – that if it doesn’t become panic it must flip into denial or slide into apathy. Our rebuttal: In emergencies we do achieve a very high level of fear that genuinely isn’t sustainable, but that quickly morphs into the new normal (especially if it is legitimized). Sustaining the new normal takes effort, since people keep reallocating their fear as even newer things to be frightened about arise. This amounts to a competition for people’s fear. Officials who are reluctant to keep frightening people about terrorism or epidemics may lose out to activists more than willing to frighten people about genetically modified foods or vaccine side effects.
Officials think that fear will lead to huge economic losses – that people will hunker down, won’t work, won’t shop, won’t have fun, won’t travel. This is partly and temporarily true. When people are in crisis mode they put their normal priorities aside. It is important to distinguish among four quite different economic issues:
  • The economic effects of an actual crisis (negative but not your fault, except insofar as you failed to prepare or to warn people);
  • The economic effects of unnecessarily frightening people about a noncrisis (negative and your fault – this is what you’re accused of, and sometimes the accusation is on target);
  • The economic effects of usefully frightening people about an imminent or potential crisis (mostly positive – your warnings helped mitigate the crisis and facilitate people’s recovery);
  • The economic effects of acknowledging and legitimizing fear that is already present, whether or not the crisis is real (mostly positive – you helped people bear their fear).

The negative effects, moreover, are mitigated by substitution and pent-up demand. As a result of the 2003 power blackout in much of North America, for example, people bought flashlights and generators and hotel rooms, expenditures that partly replaced the things they didn’t buy because the lights were out. And when the lights went back on, there was a rebound, as people did much of the shopping they had originally planned for the blacked-out days.

The same is true for fear-induced economic effects. People who were frightened about SARS may have done themselves little good by avoiding Chinese restaurants, and they did real harm to the economy of Chinatowns. But they did the overall economy little harm; they went out for Mexican food instead. Frightened people buy less of some things and more of others. And as their fear abates, they buy some of the things they would otherwise have bought before. The most profound meaning of the concept “new normal” is precisely that it integrates a new fear with prior ways of living. People in Israel and the West Bank work hard, shop, play, and keep a constant lookout for terrorists.

Officials think that people will get mired in their fear. This error is the exact opposite of officials’ sense that fear is unsustainable, but it is equally mistaken. Some people do get mired in their fear; that’s what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is all about. But most people recover. We want to help officials see that each wave of public fear is an adjustment reaction – the moment of maximum opportunity for officials to shape how that adjustment settles into a new normal. And they want to throw away that opportunity by not noticing it, by finding it unbearable, by ridiculing it as irrational, by being terrified of it.

Bottom line: Officials over-estimate how dangerous fear is, and under-estimate how useful fear is.

Of course there is a price to be paid for a public that is fearful of terrorism (or any other threat to their wellbeing): reduced attention to other social problems, perhaps less satisfied (and less self-satisfied) lives, conceivably less economic activity. Officials who choose not to frighten people are making sense if they consider the price too high to be worth paying – which would be true either if terrorism isn’t really a very serious risk or if it is a serious risk but the public doesn’t really need to be involved or even attentive. To argue that it’s a price worth paying, you must argue that we need a public that’s actively involved in the war against terrorism. To argue that it’s too high a price, you must argue that we don’t need a public that’s actively involved in the war against terrorism.

We favor the first side, but the second side isn’t necessarily foolish. The foolish – though emotionally understandable – argument is that we want to keep the public actively involved in the war against terrorism but we don’t want to frighten anybody. That one makes no sense. The question officials keep asking is how to arouse and maintain appropriate public alertness without stirring up all that public anxiety again. The question they should ask: How to bear the need to stir up all that public anxiety again in order to arouse and maintain appropriate public alertness.

The scale repesenting three fear dimensions of terrorism response:  Denial and panic are the highest two states above terror, and sequentially less severe are fear, concern, interest, and apathyDuring consultations and presentations on terrorism and risk communication, we typically draw a scale representing the “fear dimension” of terrorism response. See the graphic at the left. When we ask the group where on the scale they want the public to settle in its terrorism response, the invariable choice is “concern.” When we advocate for “fear” instead we get a lot of pushback. The group’s usual solution is to add another label, “high concern.”

We think officials imagine a cowering fear; a paralyzing fear; a swarming mass-hysteria panic-fear. But we mostly see people sturdily responding to fearful situations with initial anxiety and riveted attention, followed quickly by resilient response, and then by integrating the new fear into their daily lives. Pretty quickly – sadly, in a way – people adapt. Many people even become too complacent again.

For most of us, there is a kind of hydraulic conservation of expressed fear, in addition to the well of fear we dip into in crises. Except in the middle of a disaster, people mostly “choose” whether to be afraid about pollution or school shootings or antibiotics in milk or crime; they don’t choose to be afraid of everything, and the organizations that lobby for various causes have to compete for people’s fear. And there is still lots of free-floating anxiety left over to attach to things that don’t really matter to people personally at all, like the big local crime-of-the-month a thousand miles away playing on CNN.

During a disaster, most people dip into their reservoir of coping abilities at the same time that they escalate into a heightened state of fear. Although some people do fall apart in a crisis, many people actually cope better when there is a real emergency. People are inspirited by focusing their fear on important things, being asked to contribute, and being affiliated with others who care about the same issue. With these people, the task isn’t to allay their fear but to recruit it, and to find ways to keep them engaged and affiliated after the emergency passes.

A wonderful recent example of this is Singapore’s “War on SARS,” as the government dubbed it. Hardworking productive Singaporeans were accustomed to the government dealing with most external threats. But the government asked everyone to join the War on SARS, and grassroots groups all over the island responded with spirit, creativity, cooperation, and grace. The government never dreamed that this call to arms would inspire the Singapore Red Cross to host a contest for an official SARS song to honor SARS caregivers. The winner, “Through Your Eyes (Heroes and Angels),” sung by local celebrities and government ministers side by side with health care workers, was then produced as a CD by local companies to raise money for the SARS Courage Fund.

Throughout most of history there has been much more to be afraid of than in the modern era. (People in the developing world still have far more to fear than we do – although our fear of losing the good life we have is a genuine source of anxiety.) We are evolutionarily equipped to deal with way more stress than we are usually called upon to deal with. We are wired to be vigilant, for survival’s sake. In biological, social, and psychological terms, people have been adjusting to new realities, or to resurgences of old realities, forever. There is no “old normal” to go back to that was safe and non-stressful; there were only waves of more and less stressful times, and we have adjusted to each wave.

Even in the best of western times, during peace and bull markets and near-full employment, with non-antibiotic-resistant germs, and with wars and terrorism happening “someplace else,” people were seen as incredibly stressed out, in need of medication and meditation and strenuous activity and vacations to help them calm down. But now, in our western imaginations, the pre-9/11 world is the New 1950’s (which wasn’t the stress-free paradise we imagine either). We all have rose-colored nostalgia for that “more innocent time”; we use this nostalgia to make a false comparison with the present – and then we deduce from this false comparison that people are unable to tolerate stress.

Most of us are stronger and more resourceful than we think we are, sturdier than our culture encourages us to think we are, and certainly tougher than officials seem to think we are. That’s why real panic is so rare, and why ordinary heroism is so common.

So it is not so terrible to gently, firmly, and kindly tell people scary things, especially while telling them how they can help and be helped. People are pretty scared of lots of things already. You want them to transfer their attention – and some of their fear – to your risk, and then you want to help them deal with it.

Although wanting to keep people alert without frightening them is wanting the impossible, it is a natural thing to want! We advance our argument on behalf of frightening people sadly. This is especially so for terrorism. We all share the deeply felt wish that we could ignore terrorism, that we could go back to a pre-9/11 frame of mind, that we could get the genie back into the bottle. Like nearly everyone else we know, we passionately prefer the old American normal to our new normal. And like nearly everyone else we know, we are adjusting nonetheless to the new normal. Of course you don’t want to frighten people. But if preparedness is your goal you have no choice. And people can bear it. Those of us in the business – officials and community leaders and terrorism experts and even therapists – can help them bear it … and can bear it ourselves.

Panic Panic

Officials are mistakenly preoccupied with the fear of frightening people – as if frightening people about a frightening risk were somehow the wrong thing to do. We think it is the right thing to do. But at least officials aren’t mistaken in recognizing that people are often frightened.

Official “panic panic” is a related but different problem. People do not often panic. Despite decades of evidence that panic is an unusual response even to real catastrophes, officials (and the media) continue to anticipate that the public will panic, and to imagine that the public is already panicking. This false hypothesis is used to justify withholding information, making overly reassuring statements, and similar risk communication sins.

Do people ever actually panic? Yes, it happens, and it can be catastrophic – but it is rare. What mostly happens, even in extreme emergencies, is that people feel they are panicking but don’t. Ask survivors of the World Trade Center attack how they felt, and the word “panic” is very likely to come up. Ask them how they and others behaved, and their descriptions sound orderly and cooperative, even courteous, often even heroic.

The exceptions to this – people freaking out – are so rare that they become famous, iconic: a mother running after her child’s school bus to retrieve an apple from the kid’s lunchbox, because Alar has just been announced to be a possible carcinogen and apple trees are sometimes sprayed with Alar. As far as we know this really happened. But it was one panicky parent more than a decade ago. More interesting than her momentary overreaction is the passion with which risk managers seized on this one precious example of public panic. “See? That’s what you can expect! Activists and journalists turn a small health risk into a huge controversy, and the public panics!”

The rarity of public panic is well documented elsewhere (see especially the work of Enrico L. Quarantelli and Lee Clarke), and we will not belabor the point here. When panic happens, of course, it is extraordinarily destructive – indeed, the term “panic” is often defined as an emotionally compelled response to risk that greatly increases the danger both to oneself and to others. But panic seldom happens.

Notice that under this strict definition even the Alar “panic” wasn’t a panic. A mother chasing down her child’s school bus endangers herself only slightly and others not at all. Similarly, try to envision a genuine panic about, say, West Nile Virus. Officials keep reminding the public not to panic about West Nile Virus. What do they imagine panicky people would do? Break into drugstores in search of DEET? Run into traffic in their frenzy to avoid mosquitoes? It is certainly true that West Nile Virus kills far fewer Americans every summer than food poisoning, as David Ropeik and Nigel Holmes point out in a recent New York Times article (wonderfully entitled “Never Bitten, Twice Shy”). It is fair to argue, as Ropeik and Holmes do, that people would be wiser to worry about their picnic potato salad than their picnic mosquitoes. Others have argued to the contrary that all those media warnings about West Nile Virus still haven’t sunk in, that far too many people neither cover up nor use insect repellant, recklessly ignoring the most routine precautions. Whichever side you take, surely we can all agree that nobody’s panicking over West Nile Virus!

Why, then, do officials misdiagnose panic so routinely, falling prey to “panic panic”? One explanation we want to look at in some detail is projection: the possibility that officials disavow their own emotional reactions to a crisis, attributing them instead to the public.


Most crisis managers do not manage crises for a living. Especially on the local level, crisis managers just about always have a day job, and when a crisis arises, it’s probably their first or second or third crisis. Not surprisingly, they feel some anxiety, even fear:

  • About the actual situation.
  • About whether they know what they are doing.
  • About feeling like an impostor.
  • About whether people will find out they don’t really know anything.
  • About how they appear at a press conference.
  • About whether their data are correct.
  • About whether they will guess wrong and be blamed.
  • About whether they will guess right and still be blamed.
  • About raising alarm too soon or too late.
  • About taking unnecessary precautions.
  • About failing to take precautions that turn out to be necessary.
  • About causing the stock market to fall.
  • About being fired.
  • About whether their families are okay.

They may even feel a little panic-stricken. But they are not panicking. What they may be doing, in order to cope, is suppressing these feelings until the end of the day. Since they may well be working twenty-hour days, this useful strategy is very difficult.

Some of the best-coping officials we know have sent us after-hours emails that sounded almost panicky: “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! All the real experts are out sick! I’m not supposed to be the one doing this. It’s crazy here!” And with that off their chest they go get some sleep. The next day they hold terrific press conferences to report on the latest developments in the crisis, usually with their humanity showing but not out of control. They are reasonably comfortable with their own fears, and this helps them to acknowledge, respect, and tolerate the public’s fears.

But often crisis managers suppress their own fears too thoroughly … to the point where they can’t feel them even when the endless work day is done. We have gotten other after-hours emails from officials that also sound almost panicky to us, but with a different frame: “The media are fanning the flames of the public’s fear! People are responding irrationally! Everyone is panicking!” Their evidence of panic? The stores are empty; people are (unnecessarily) staying home. Or the stores are crowded; people are (unnecessarily) buying extra food or gas or duct tape. No one’s fleeing town at 100 miles an hour; no one’s breaking into a store in a desperate search for emergency supplies; no one has been trampled. But they are convinced the public is panicking. At the next day’s news conference they announce – very, very calmly – that it is “irrational” and “hysterical” of people to stay home, or to buy emergency supplies, or to do whatever it is people are doing to cope with the crisis. “There is no need to panic.” Whose panic are they talking about? Whose irrationality? Whose hysteria?

The first official in these two examples is coping with her fears, setting them aside while there’s work to be done, but holding on to the fact of what she is feeling. The second official, on the other hand, is outsourcing his fears. He is blaming the public, and most conveniently, “the media.” He doesn’t have to “own” his own fears. Maybe he even feels ashamed and embarrassed about his inner worries, and so shoves them down deeper – and then outsources his contempt and disdain as well. (Our use of pronouns here is not coincidental. Though there are certainly exceptions, women have an easier time than men holding onto their fears, and so are less likely to project them onto the public. Women tend to have trouble owning more aggressive emotions, such as anger.)

In arguing that official “panic panic” results largely from projection of the officials’ own fears, we don’t mean to suggest that those fears are intolerable, or that the tendency to project them is pathological. We’re talking about normal behavior here! Just as the public’s reaction to crisis usually does not reach the level of seriously traumatic stress that requires therapy, the stress that officials are coping with is also mostly bearable. That’s why a new cognitive frame may help. We want officials to understand that crisis management is stressful work – stressful in certain specific emotional ways they may not have thought about. We want them to understand that people under emotional stress often project their emotions onto others. We hope this understanding will help alleviate their panic panic.

The fear family of emotions is the likeliest to be projected by officials in a crisis. But other emotions are also candidates for projection, especially in noncrisis situations. When their profession does a U-turn on an issue, for example, experts may have a variety of feelings that are hard to bear:

  • shame that they were wrong;
  • guilt that people followed their previous guidance and suffered the consequences;
  • irritation that people will besiege them with worries;
  • and always, a longing for more control over the situation.

Imagining that the public is panicking, and criticizing the public for doing so, helps relieve these feelings.

Projection isn’t the only possible reason why officials overestimate the risk of panic. Another possibility: emotional rehearsal. People get used to new threats on the horizon by acting as if they were already here; wearing an N95 mask on the subway is a form of emotional preparation for a feared future disease outbreak. In a similar way, perhaps officials who imagine that the public is panicking are also emotionally rehearsing, getting themselves ready for the unlikely but truly horrifying contingency of a possible future panic.

Whatever its source, the constant mantra that “there is no need to panic” is insulting and patronizing. It implies that people are panicking, or about to panic, when they are not. (By the way, what is the opposite of “no need to panic”? When is there a need to panic?)

Recently, researchers announced that hormone replacement therapy in post-menopausal women increases the risk of breast cancer and does not protect against heart disease after all. Dozens of headlines around the world demonstrated the prevalence of panic panic:

  • “Medical chiefs urge women not to panic over HRT alert” (The Telegraph [U.K.])
  • “‘Don’t panic’ over HRT research” (BBC News Online)
  • “Panic on cards as HRT tied to cancer” (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • “Women told not to panic over HRT scare” (Irish Examiner)
  • “Women warned against hormone panic” (South Africa Sunday Times)

Among these headlines was a voice in the wilderness: “Women won’t panic,” the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph editorialized. “The vast majority of women who have enjoyed the well-attested benefits of HRT will greet this news with philosophical calm. They will weigh up the risks and discuss them with their GPs…. Hardly any will panic.”

As the western world became safer and safer, the idea of “panic” got dumbed down a lot. A dozen anxious phone calls may feel like panic to a busy doctor or public health official. But it isn’t.

Over-Reassurance and Over-Confidence.

Having diagnosed panic where there was no panic, officials often compound the error by supposing that the way to prevent or “stem” this imaginary public panic is to make over-reassuring and over-confident statements … which in fact diminish credibility and could conceivably even provoke panic.

We have written elsewhere about officials’ tendency to be both over-reassuring and over-confident in crisis – and why these official behaviors backfire. For a thorough discussion, see #3 and #4 in Dilemmas in Emergency Communication Policy at (as well as additional references to be found there); for a case study of the Spring 2003 SARS outbreak, see Fear Is Spreading Faster than SARS – And So It Should! at

Just as accusations of panic are partly projection, officials who come across as over-confident and over-reassuring are partly trying to convince themselves – trying to allay their own feelings of self-doubt and alarm.

But there is something else going on here as well. The people responsible for keeping us safe are inevitably torn between a desire to warn us and a desire to reassure us. Warning us builds the constituency for various sorts of personal and societal precaution-taking; among other things it increases officials’ budgets, and if the money is well spent it actually makes us safer. Reassuring us accomplishes none of that, but at least it makes us feel safer – or so officials mistakenly hope – and thus gets us off their backs for a while.

There is a “seesaw of preparedness” that seems to control official behavior in such situations. An apathetic public can expect to be harangued endlessly about the dangers that confront us and the need for action on all fronts. Look at obesity, smoking, seat-belt wearing: Officials are not afraid of creating panic on these issues. But as soon as the public becomes actively alarmed about some risk, the same officials who have been bemoaning the sad reality of public apathy and the woeful inadequacy of our national preparedness suddenly assure us that everything is under control and begin worrying that the public may panic.

We saw this happen vividly with respect to bioterrorism (BT) and the anthrax attacks of 2001. Prior to the attacks, counter-terrorism experts were adamant that BT preparedness was grossly inadequate. Then after the first anthrax letters were delivered, an epidemic of official over-reassurance broke out. People who started wearing surgical gloves to open their mail were ridiculed.

At some level of consciousness, experts and officials were saying to themselves, “Thank God these letters are few and far between, because we are nowhere near prepared to cope with a huge barrage of them.” Instead the public was mostly told to stop over-reacting, since there were only a few letters. “You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to get an anthrax letter,” people were told (as always). Officials insisted that they had the situation under control, when what they really had was some much-needed good luck. Most towns were more likely to be struck by lightning than to be ready for a serious attack. (To their credit, some local hospital administrators did insistently acknowledge this.)

A still more recent example: the Summer 2003 power outage in North America. Hours after the massive blackout began, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced: “I can tell you 100 percent sure that there is no evidence as of this moment whatsoever of any terrorism.” A couple of days passed, and several theories confidently came and went about what had caused the blackout, as the United States and Canada took turns advancing hypotheses in which the other was at fault. (Lightning was one of the early theories, but of course nobody pointed out that you were more likely to be struck by lightning than to live through a massive blackout – a point that is made only about unlikely events that haven’t happened, never about the ones that have.) The only really consistent message in the early days: It wasn’t terrorism.

And it probably wasn’t. After all, nobody took credit and nobody took advantage. Even so, how could Bloomberg and others, clearly just guessing in those early hours about what happened, be so confident about what didn’t happen?

Bloomberg used hedging words that will enable him to defend himself if he’s ever accused of over-reassuring the public: “at this moment,” “no evidence.” But he used far too many absolute-sounding words: “100 percent sure,” “whatsoever.” Everyone got the impression that he was saying he was completely certain it wasn’t terrorism, and CNN (among others) put his “100 percent sure” at the bottom of the screen without the qualifiers. Two days later, our friend Bill Lawyer, who owns a home maintenance company in New Jersey, told us: “It was really scary hearing Bloomberg say there was 100% no chance of terrorism right after it happened. How could he know that so quickly for sure?” Bloomberg’s terrorism reassurance paradoxically but predictably raised more public concern than it allayed.

We don’t mean to imply that the Mayor shouldn’t have mentioned terrorism until he was sure. Not being sure is the norm in risk communication, not the exception, and it would have been irresponsible to say nothing about the awful possibility on everyone’s mind. Bloomberg knew terrorism was an unlikely explanation, and was right to tell us so. But it wouldn’t be that hard to tell us it’s probably not terrorism, and still signal more clearly his trust in our ability to tolerate some uncertainty. Something like this: “There isn’t any evidence so far of terrorism, and we’re pretty confident we’d have some by now if that’s what it was. But you can be sure we are investigating, and we’ll be keeping an open mind every step of the way.” Notice how hard it is to edit these words into an over-reassuring partial quotation.

Overall, the Mayor managed the blackout with resilience and resourcefulness. So did New Yorkers, and indeed the entire affected region. As usually happens in a crisis, New York City saw more Midwestern tourists suddenly directing traffic than it saw looters or rioters.

Bloomberg did many things right from a risk communication perspective. Most importantly, perhaps, he kept repeating his expectation that New Yorkers would pull together, that the looting that characterized the 1977 New York City blackout wouldn’t happen again, that millions of people faced a hot, irritating time but nothing worse than that. If he overestimated the chances of panic, as officials in crisis situations usually do, at least he didn’t say so.

Even in a very serious crisis, where official panic panic is almost justified, over-confident over-reassurance is a mistake – albeit an incredibly tempting one. On September 18, 2001, a week after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a news release that quoted its top official, Christie Whitman, as follows: “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breath[e] and their water is safe to drink.” As we write this, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General has just issued a report pointing out that “EPA did not have monitoring data to support reassurances made in press releases up to September 18 because it lacked monitoring data for several contaminants, particularly PCBs, particulate matter, dioxin, and PAHs…. [D]ata available before September 18 for making conclusions about air quality for pollutants other than asbestos was limited.”

Not that the EPA was necessarily incorrect. There was just no way it could have known it was correct. Apparently under White House pressure, it cut the uncertain and potentially alarming phrases from its draft release in favor of over-confident over-reassurance.

Notice that the tactic failed. Even before the Inspector General’s report, many residents of lower Manhattan were skeptical about the EPA’s insistence that the fall of the World Trade Center couldn’t have damaged their health. Now the U.S. government is planning an elaborate long-term health study to try to find out. Given the history, what are the chances the skeptics will believe the results?

Over-confident over-reassurance is almost reflexive in many political leaders, even when the risk of public panic is negligible. The same week as the North American blackout, a senior al-Qaeda terrorist leader was captured in Thailand. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told the press that al-Qaeda in Thailand was wiped out: “…now we have got the fourth man - Mr Hambali - who is regarded as the last one in our land.” This is perhaps more fear of fear than it is panic panic. The Prime Minister can’t imagine his people are near panic, but he rightly judges that they are anxious – and he wrongly supposes that an obviously false reassuring statement will alleviate their anxiety. One can picture a Thai citizen reasoning as follows: “Well, either the Prime Minister believes the war against terrorism has just been won, in which case he won’t be doing much to look for additional terrorists; or he does not believe this but wants me to think he does, in which case I obviously cannot trust him.” Even if we allow for the possible existence of Thai citizens so credulous they take the Prime Minister at his word, this just sets them up to feel shocked and betrayed when terrorism next appears in Thailand.

Western democracies are just as likely to fall into the over-confident over-reassurance trap. After mad cows started dropping dead in the United Kingdom in 1990, the British public stopped buying much beef. They were ridiculed for panicking, but they were actually pausing, standing back to see what facts about bovine-to-human transmission would emerge. It was a very costly pause for the beef industry. But it was not irrational, though agriculture minister John Gummer said it was. He insisted that beef was “perfectly safe,” and fed his little girl Cordelia a hamburger on television.

A few years later, dozens of young Britons started dying from Mad Cow Disease. The hamburger photo became an iconic image of Gummer’s tenure – and of premature over-reassurance, and of contempt for the public. In 1998 Minister Gummer told a public Mad Cow inquiry that he had no regrets about his attempts to allay public fears. We can only hope he learned more from the experience than he was willing to admit.

It is ironic that an over-confident posture, partly based on lack of confidence in the public’s ability to bear anxiety, can increase the public’s lack of confidence in its leaders, and thus increase public anxiety. When the public responds skeptically to each “confident” update of what is known so far about an emerging situation – such as the ever-longer incubation period for SARS during the outbreak’s early months – officials and experts call them irrational yet again.

Expressing Contempt and Changing the Subject.

As the mad cow and SARS examples demonstrate, official over-reassurance and over-confidence often keep company with official contempt for the public’s fears – as if calling people “irrational” or “hysterical” were a good way to calm them down. It doesn’t usually work at home … and it isn’t likely to work with an anxious public.

Instead, share your frustration about the people you see as irrational and hysterical with trusted colleagues; blow off steam when no reporters are around. Do a reality check: Google-search some news stories on your topic with words like “panic,” “irrational,” and “hysteria” added. See if you agree with the claim (you probably will). See if the articles have any specific examples of actual panic, irrationality, or hysteria (they probably won’t). Finally, see if you think these expressions of contempt for the public would actually help calm people down (you probably won’t). If all else fails, just consider it a rule: Don’t use the P, I, or H words.

A subtler way of showing contempt for the public is changing the subject. People are afraid of X. Seize the opportunity to tell them they’re fools to worry about X when they ought to be focusing on Y. That’ll show ’em.

When a vacationer is standing on the beach boardwalk worrying about shark attacks, the official or expert will say, helpfully, “You know, those french fries you are eating are more likely to kill you than a shark.” This translates into: “You are not only stupid to worry, you are also fat, you jerk.” While vacationing in Hawaii, crisis communication expert Barbara Reynolds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was told, “You are more likely to get hit on the head by a falling coconut than attacked by a shark.”

At the moment, however, the vacationer is focused on sharks. Maybe there was just a shark attack in the area a week ago. A child was killed. No one is going into the water. There is no way to take the public’s attention away from the vivid, terrifying image of that vanishingly unlikely shark attack. Instead of trying to help the public bear this, the expert changes the subject.

It wouldn’t be so hard to acknowledge the fear. “I know all the data about how rare shark attacks are, but even I can hardly stand to imagine what that little boy went through. It is small comfort to know that only five shark attacks occurred last year. You still can’t help wondering what’s out there, cruising, waiting for you under the water.” Talk about sharks until the vacationer is sick of it … until the mad cows come home.

Officials and experts want to use straight cool data and logic, not vivid psychodrama language. Here is a piece of straight cool data: Vivid psychodrama language can often impart information much more effectively than data and logic. Of course it isn’t easy to address people’s fears with the empathic language of psychodrama when you’re seething with irritation at how irrational their fears seem to you. Even if you’re calm, psychodrama may not be your thing; data and logic may be. Okay, stick to data and logic if you must. But at least stick to the topic at hand! Don’t change the subject. When people are worried about sharks, talk to them about sharks, not french fries or coconuts. If you are really persistent, they may eventually point out that shark attacks are very unlikely, as you have gently been reminding them all along.

Authorities seized on bioterrorism anxiety to lecture the public about statistically more prevalent risks like obesity and smoking. They faced up to SARS anxiety by providing data on such higher probability risks as falling down the stairs, choking on small objects, lightning strikes, and of course influenza. (These are all actual published examples.) These kinds of off-point comparisons often lead to increased alarm about bioterrorism or SARS, because they leave the worriers feeling alienated, alone with their fears.

Telling people they’re stupid to be afraid is never useful – whether it’s done directly via accusations of panic, hysteria, or irrationality, or indirectly by changing the subject.

Blaming the Media.

There is no question that media coverage of risk controversies puts more emphasis on what might go wrong than on what might go right; nor that the coverage pays more attention to people’s emotions than to experts’ data. There is also no question that the quantity of media coverage is proportional to the level of public fear, anger, uncertainty, and distress (outrage), not to the level of technical risk (hazard); nor that the coverage tends to amplify and spread the outrage by letting people know that others are similarly upset. (For more on these topics, see Mass Media and Environmental Risk: Seven Principles at

It doesn’t seem fair to call this “sensationalism” – it’s just newsworthiness. But it’s true. Officials are dead wrong, however, to imagine that the media are creating people’s fear, anger, uncertainty, and distress, when they are simply covering these reactions along with the rest of the story.

In a crisis, moreover, media coverage becomes much more cautious. Journalists tend to emphasize the scary side of not-terribly-scary stories – but when they encounter a really scary story, they bend over backwards to reassure their audience. From Three Mile Island to 9/11, communication research regularly shows that mainstream media rely on and ally with officials in mid-crisis, in a kind of media Stockholm Syndrome. Reporters act more like microphone-holders for official press conferences than like skeptical information-gatherers. A working definition of the end of a crisis, in fact, is when the media resume their normal skepticism and start asking what went wrong and whose fault it was.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the impact of media content in mid-crisis is actually reassuring. Like official efforts to reassure, media efforts to reassure may well backfire. “Everything is under control” is ultimately not a very reassuring message; people bear their fears better when they feel they are being leveled with, not handled. But the media are trying to reassure. Almost invariably, officials misread the coverage and complain that reporters are sensationalizing the crisis, exacerbating the public’s fears and risking panic for the sake of a good story.

In fact, the media often dampen the intensity of what an official has actually said, so that a two-sided, nuanced, tentative, fairly scary statement by an official is reported the next day with the frightening and uncertain parts de-emphasized. (The official typically colludes in the understated coverage by not insistently correcting the error at the next news conference.) During the SARS outbreak, for example, a number of top U.S. health officials and infectious disease experts acknowledged at media briefings and news conferences that SARS was extremely difficult to contain, especially in hospital settings; that the United States had been lucky so far; that our luck might change at any time and if it did, a U.S. city or even many U.S. cities could face a serious health crisis; that much remained to be learned about SARS and its impacts. These comments certainly weren’t censored by the media. But they were under-covered, with headlines like “SARS Risk Near Zero.”

Similarly, many mainstream U.S. online media ran daily SARS FAQs with out-dated over-reassuring information, weeks after newer more alarming information was available from the CDC and WHO, and sometimes weeks after being informed about the error.

On balance, the quantity of SARS coverage suggested the problem was serious. But the content of SARS coverage suggested it probably wasn’t. This was true both in the U.S., where it turned out not to be serious (this time), and in Canada, where it turned out much more serious. In both countries, a long list of commentators published their op-ed pieces in which they apportioned the “blame” for the public’s SARS fears between their two favorite villains, public irrationality and media sensationalism.

It doesn’t take a huge crisis for the media to switch to the over-reassuring side of the risk communication seesaw. Very recently, there was a large beef recall in Ontario, Canada, for unannounced reasons. The media flagged the fact that officials did not initially reveal why the beef was being recalled, but during the first two days of the story there was no media speculation at all about what might be the reason. People undoubtedly speculated like crazy in private, about everything from Mad Cow Disease to bioterrorism, but none of these speculations made it into print during the first couple of days. No flames of public alarm were fanned. Everyone, including the press, was afraid of public over-reaction.

Also very recently, three unexpected and unexplained deaths from pulmonary hemorrhage in Dunedin, New Zealand led to a modest local media blip. News stories accurately reported official statements that they had so far failed to explain the three deaths, that occasional mysterious illnesses are not that rare, that even three at once might well be just a coincidence. And they accurately reported widespread rumors – including the rumor that if there were a fourth unexplained death the authorities might declare a civil emergency. This led health officials to issue (instead) a call for the media to “behave with a degree of responsibility” rather than “pure speculation based on fantasy.”

We monitored the coverage on Google News; it seemed to us a responsible (typical) blend of official over-reassurances and public concerns. Inevitably, and in our judgment appropriately, it included a range of speculations about what might have killed the three victims – though the scariest speculations (an Ebola-type outbreak? a bioterrorist attack?) were if anything downplayed (again typical). Overall, the coverage was muted. We got no sense that people were near panic, nor that the coverage was pushing people toward panic. The official rebuke suggests that any media coverage of rumors, any speculation, seemed hugely irresponsible to those in charge.

It clearly never occurred to Dunedin’s officials how much more irresponsible – and in the end, how much more alarming – it would have been if the media had failed to cover rumors and speculation.

Even if the content isn’t actually sensationalized, isn’t the sheer volume of media coverage of crises a kind of sensationalism? Well, it is at least a mixed blessing. It allows rapid and universal transmission of official information, side by side with rumors and outsider views. It genuinely increases – and is increased by – public alarm, as media analysts like David Rothkopf and Peter Vasterman describe. But official information having a tug of war with rumor and alternative views does not lead to panic the way historical lack of information did before Gutenberg, when rumors and personal experience were pretty much the only information available. People may become very anxious, but in a crunch, they turn to the most reliable sources, and they usually think that is the officials … right up until the officials mislead them or treat them with patronizing contempt.

The only genuine SARS panics we know about took place in China – where official over-reassurance reached its most extreme (and dishonest) forms and the media had no choice but to go along. No media sensationalism to blame there! The blame properly goes to government suppression of the alarming truth. Realizing that they could not trust what was published in the censored media, the Chinese people were forced to rely on rumor and their own imaginations. (Those with access to foreign media, we’d bet, were far less likely to panic.)

In July 2003, a Chinese science journal published a research report on what helped and what didn’t help in reassuring the frightened Chinese population during the SARS epidemic. From Slovic and Fischoff’s important list of factors that increase or decrease people’s fear – we call them “outrage factors” – the researchers chose “control” and “familiarity” regarding SARS. Then they measured how these factors influenced people’s “irrational” fear (they did not define “irrational”). What extremely significant outrage factor did the experts choose not to measure? Trust. Public trust in Chinese officials’ published statements about SARS had to have been low – vanishingly, panic-provokingly, rationally low.

Given the political constraints in the People’s Republic, it isn’t surprising that the Chinese authorities have yet to understand that censored news coverage is more conducive to panic than “irresponsible” news coverage. The point still isn’t clear to authorities in countries with a free press either. In a crisis, excessively compliant, over-reassuring media coverage is more common than sensationalism. Paradoxically, it is also more terrifying.

Notice also that media coverage of a crisis or possible crisis goes hand-in-hand with societal efforts to get the situation under control. In an April 30, 2003 article entitled “In epidemics, fear can be a good thing,” Columbia University sociologist Duncan Watts took issue with all the commentators critical of a media-driven epidemic of SARS fear, and particularly with the distinguished virologist David Baltimore, who had published such a critique in the Los Angeles Times the day before.

Watts conceded that “SARS’s mortality figures alone cannot justify the attention.” But, he argued: “All the fuss may well have contained what could have been a truly panic-worthy epidemic. While we have yet to learn how bad the epidemic will get, it is almost certain that without the WHO’s pre-emptive global alert and the resulting avalanche of news stories about the disease, the situation could have been far worse than it is…. How much worse would the epidemic be if travelers had not avoided certain cities; if airports had not quarantined symptomatic passengers; and if sick people had not confined themselves (or been confined) to their homes? Almost certainly much worse, in which case we would have had the hysteria and the economic damage, anyway. And we’d also have an epidemic on a scale that was really something to panic about.”

As Watts’ discussion implies, many of the SARS-related accusations of media sensationalism came from people who genuinely did not grasp that SARS was serious. Unlike flu (to use the most obvious and most frequent comparison), SARS has no vaccine so far. Unlike flu, SARS can acutely disrupt, even undermine, a city’s health care system. Unlike flu, SARS can force healthy people who may have been exposed into lengthy quarantines. Unlike flu, SARS has not yet firmly established itself; we haven’t seen its full potential yet. (We remember similar early complaints that the public and the media were over-reacting to AIDS.) Above all, we are already stuck with flu – is that a good reason not to fight SARS? Obviously, the fact that so many smart and thoughtful commentators missed these fundamental truths represents a failure of official communicators – and of risk communication advisors like us. It is certainly not a result of media sensationalism.

Occasionally, very occasionally, the media do cover a crisis irresponsibly. During evening coverage of the 2003 U.S.-Canadian power failure, MSNBC-TV showed file footage of fires that occurred during the 1977 New York City blackout, when serious looting and violence broke out. They showed the old video clips with no date stamp, over the “Breaking News” caption that had been on the screen all evening. The voiceover, at times, referred explicitly to the 1977 blackout, but that was not readily apparent to viewers switching to MSNBC in the middle of the clip, or to viewers in noisy environments. It just looked like New York City was burning – here and now, not 26 years ago. That was indeed fanning the flames of public alarm. It was grossly irresponsible, and easy to avoid with proper captioning.

So enjoy – sometimes you really can blame the media.

It’s The Officials

The two topics of this column – fear of fear and panic panic – are not about how the public copes with risk. They are about how officials and experts cope with their obligation to help the public cope with risk. This is a greatly neglected topic in risk communication. One of us (Peter) recently attended a two-day conference on “Modeling Social Responses to Bioterrorism Involving Infectious Agents.” The original goal of the meeting was to figure out how to model, and thereby predict, how publics react to bioterrorist attacks. By the end of the two days, the goal had broadened to encompass how officials react to bioterrorist attacks. The conference final report included the following paragraph:

Public officials often mistake rational reactions by the public in emergency situations for panic, but experience suggests that irrational reactions may be more frequent among public officials than in the public at large. Thus official communications may lead to counterproductive feedback loops. Our models should consider the social consequences of official over-reaction and under-reaction.

Experts in risk perception and risk communication have an ever-improving understanding of the factors that lead the public to over-respond to some risks and under-respond to others. Practical risk managers have come to understand some of these factors. “Perception is reality,” they earnestly point out, and launch into a well-informed discourse on “why the public is afraid of the wrong risks.”

But of course we are all more adept at understanding the flaws of others than at plumbing the depths of our own perceptual biases. In fact, risk managers’ laudable focus on understanding the public better may actually help them avoid examining their own emotional reactions to risky situations, their misperceptions of the public in risky situations, and the ways these factors might make a bad situation worse.

Good crisis communication – and before-crisis and after-crisis communication – will produce a fairly calm public bearing its appropriate new fear, not a public calmly unafraid. Leaders who acknowledge and bear their own fears – who work on their panic panic and their fear of fear – will be better able to help the rest of us bear ours.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

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