In the last few months I have worked with three clients who all faced the same problem.
- The first was a Canadian pipeline company seeking regulatory permission to build yet another oil pipeline to connect the places where petroleum is found and harvested to the places where it can be refined into gasoline and other products.
- The second was a U.S. university arguing with its neighbors about whether it should be allowed to operate a new laboratory to study dangerous infectious diseases in a concentrated urban area.
- And the third was a gas company that plans to tap into pockets of natural gas trapped within shale deposits across a wide swath of North America, a process that brings with it uncertain environmental risks and guaranteed lifestyle annoyances: noise, truck traffic, visual blight, etc.
The problem these three organizations share: What they want to do has more downside than upside for many in the local community. Much local opposition, in other words, is justified.
Column Table of Contents
Not that there is no case to be made for the three projects. They are certainly good for the three organizations proposing them – or at least they were when the economy was booming. They are arguably good for the countries in which they’re located. (Canada wants more pipelines to support its growing petroleum industry; the U.S. wants more labs in its fight against bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases; both countries could use additional sources of natural gas.) And they will inevitably be good for some individuals in the affected local communities: the ones who will end up with jobs, business opportunities, royalties, or other economic benefits.
But if you live along the pipeline right-of-way, near the lab site, or on top of some of the gas-containing shale, then unless you expect to make some money from the project you might very well reason – soundly – that for you it poses higher costs and risks than benefits.
There’s nothing rare about this situation. Regardless of whether they’re good or bad overall, most proposed projects have likely winners and likely losers. The prospective winners rationally support them. The prospective losers rationally oppose them. The project sponsors may try to sweeten the pot so some of the opponents can be converted into supporters. Then the sponsors try to get the project approved over the objections of the remaining opponents. The rules of engagement are partly regulatory and partly political. The battle is joined, the project gets amended in various ways to ameliorate the objections of various stakeholders, and eventually it is either approved or rejected. For an introduction to the communication issues surrounding such locally unwanted land uses (LULUs), see my column on “NIMBY.”
What do I have to offer the three organizations behind these three projects? For that matter, what do I have to offer the various organizations opposing the projects? Both proponents and opponents are on the side they ought to be on. Nobody is misperceiving his or her self-interest. In such a situation, how can expertise in reducing (or increasing) stakeholders’ outrage add value?
As I endlessly tell my clients, outrage management isn’t a way to get people to accept something they rationally shouldn’t accept. It’s not (and I’m glad it’s not) a magic strategy for hoodwinking people into colluding in their own oppression. Outrage management helps you calm people who are unduly upset about a situation that isn’t nearly as bad for them as their outrage is making them think. When you use it to calm people who are rightly upset about a situation that is every bit as bad for them as their outrage is making them think, you may be able to get them calmer… but they’ll still be against you. And they should be.
Even when the project isn’t as bad for them as their outrage is making them think, if on balance it’s worse for them than no project at all, what’s the value of outrage management? It will calm them down so they’ll be less fervently against the project than they were when they were outraged… but they’ll still be against it. And they should be.
So what’s the point?
Outrage management can play a useful role even in situations where stakeholder outrage is justified. That is, when stakeholders have sound, substantive, non-outrage-based reasons to oppose what you want to do, you’re still better off if they don’t also feel outraged about what you want to do.
To explain why, I need to start with the (over)simplified risk communication model that has been my rhetorical stock-in-trade for decades.
The next several sections of this column are fairly theoretical. I will summarize my basic risk communication model, and identify why it has trouble coping with projects like my clients’ pipeline, infectious disease lab, and shale gas development. Then I will “complexify” the model by analyzing eight different scenarios in terms of their stakeholder business case, stakeholder outrage, and stakeholder power. I will discuss five reasons why it makes sense to try to reduce the outrage of people who have sound substantive reasons to oppose your project. And then, finally, I will detail two key strategies for reducing the outrage of people who are basically right to be against you.
If you wish, feel free to skip to the more practical part of this column, starting with the section entitled “Acknowledge that Your Opponents Are Right to Oppose You.”
The (Over)simplified Risk Communication Model
My usual description of the basics of risk communication starts with the distinction between “hazard” (how dangerous a risk is) and “outrage” (how upsetting the risk is).
- If hazard is high and outrage is low – that is, if people are less upset than they should be – the risk communication task is precaution advocacy: to arouse more outrage and thus motivate people to take or demand more precautions.
- If hazard is low and outrage is high – if people are more upset than they should be – the task is outrage management: to reduce the outrage and thus reduce the pressure for additional precautions.
- And if hazard and outrage are both high – if people are genuinely endangered and rightly upset – the task is crisis communication: to help people bear their outrage and thus help them make wise decisions about what precautions to take.
I picked these terms and I’m stuck with them now – but they’re not perfect. Three imperfections in particular are relevant to this column and need to be acknowledged at the outset:
- The definition of outrage. “Outrage” in normal usage is akin to anger, especially righteous anger. That’s certainly part of what I mean by outrage. But I also mean fear (and fear’s calmer cousins, worry and concern). These two kinds of outrage can play very different roles in a risk controversy. Worrying that a project might blow up is different from being infuriated that the project’s sponsors are forcing it down your throat against your will. But I call them both “outrage.”
- The definitions of outrage management and precaution advocacy. I use the term “outrage management” to mean managing outrage downward: making people less angry or frightened about the project. But in principle outrage can be managed upward as well: making people more angry or frightened about the project. I have given the label “precaution advocacy” to upward outrage management – which fits nicely when I’m talking about persuading people to stockpile food against a possible hurricane. But mobilizing resentment against an arrogant and unresponsive project sponsor is also part of what I mean by precaution advocacy, and there the term doesn’t fit nearly as well.
- The definition of hazard. “Hazard” in normal usage implies a threat to life, health, safety, or the environment – and for many of the issues I work on that’s exactly what it means. But in the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, “hazard” includes everything substantive. So noise and property value loss are part of hazard too – just as much as a chemical spill or a discharge of toxic gas. And the possibility of future noise or property value loss regarding a proposed project is also part of hazard. If an existing industrial facility is likely to blow up and kill its neighbors, the situation is high-hazard in the normal sense of the term. If a proposed industrial facility would require dozens of monster trucks rolling past your house all day long, that situation is arguably high-hazard too, even if there’s no evidence of an impact on life, health, safety, or the environment.
The extension of “hazard” to cover something like truck noise complicates my model more than I realized at first. The only thing to be done about traditional high hazards – threats to life and limb – is to mitigate them. Benefits won’t cut it; you can’t tell your neighbors that, yes, your project might well kill them and their families but it will improve the community tax base and you’re going to build the neighborhood a park. If a serious hazard has already been appropriately mitigated, then it makes sense to compensate stakeholders for the remaining (low) hazard. But the proper response to a serious traditional hazard is obviously to make it less serious, not to compensate people for the danger.
That’s not necessarily true for “hazards” that threaten only quality of life or property values. It often makes more sense to compensate people for the hassle and property value loss of additional truck traffic than to find a way to reduce the number of trucks.
I have never quite known how to handle situations where there isn’t a serious hazard to life and limb, but there is a much lower but still non-zero hazard to life and limb, or a sizable “hazard” to quality of life or economic wellbeing… and it is uncompensated or inadequately compensated. I think that’s pretty much the case for my pipeline, infectious disease lab, and shale gas clients. What these three clients propose to do isn’t unacceptably dangerous (in my non-expert judgment, anyway). But their plans do pose greater risks and costs than benefits for many local stakeholders (again, in my judgment). And so I think my clients’ opponents are right to oppose my clients’ plans.
It doesn’t work to call such a situation “high-hazard.” In fact, I’m stipulating that it’s pretty low-hazard – low enough that compensation is a viable alternative to mitigation (or to further mitigation). But so far the compensation isn’t sufficient. Though the hazard – the downside of the project – is low, it nonetheless exceeds the project’s upside for many stakeholders.
In the commercial world, this is usually called the “business case” for the project – not from the perspective of its sponsor, but from the perspective of the sponsor’s stakeholders. A project has a strong business case for your stakeholders if its benefits (to them) exceed its costs and risks (to them) by a reasonable margin. If the margin is small or iffy, there’s a weak business case for stakeholders to support the project. If the margin is significantly in the other direction, there’s a strong business case for them to oppose it.
This column is mostly about the role of outrage management on behalf of projects whose hazard isn’t high… but it is higher than the project’s benefits for at least some stakeholders, who therefore do not have a business case to support the project. In other words, the column is about the usefulness of making angry stakeholders less angry with regard to proposed projects that pose a fairly small substantive downside and an even smaller substantive upside (if any) for those stakeholders.
I have asserted for decades that outrage management isn’t designed for high-hazard situations. It is reserved for situations where people are excessively outraged (usually more angry than frightened) about small hazards. It’s what you do when people are unduly upset and you’re trying to calm them down so they won’t want to take (or make you take) unnecessary precautions.
When hazard and outrage are both high, then you’re in crisis communication territory, not outrage management territory. Since people are appropriately outraged (usually more frightened than angry), you shouldn’t be trying to reduce their outrage; they need their outrage to motivate precaution-taking. In crisis communication, the task is to validate their outrage, to help them bear it, and to help them make wise decisions under difficult conditions. You need an entirely different set of strategies.
There is an important exception. The outrage that people need to motivate precaution-taking in a crisis is outrage (fear) about the crisis itself – not outrage (anger) about the inadequacies of crisis management. Trying to reduce the latter is a secondary but still useful risk communication task in mid-crisis. I have added a postscript to this column to address the role of outrage management in traditional high-hazard, high-outrage situations: when the project has already been built and actually does blow up.
This exception notwithstanding, the distinction between reducing people’s outrage when hazard is low and helping them bear their outrage when hazard is high is fundamental to my approach to risk communication. The distinction applies even when the risk isn’t imminent. Suppose a company proposes to build something really dangerous, so dangerous that nobody would rationally agree to live near it no matter what the compensation. (Sadly, this still happens in some poor countries.) The hazard is far from imminent, but it is high. The community needs its outrage to defend itself from the crisis the company’s proposal has created. Efforts on the company’s part to reduce community outrage aren’t ethical. And, fortunately, they aren’t likely to work either.
Does the same distinction apply if we replace “high hazard” with “no business case”? You shouldn’t try to do outrage management when the hazard to your stakeholders is high; you should help them bear their outrage and work to reduce the hazard. Is it similarly inappropriate to do outrage management when your project has no business case (or only a weak business case) for your stakeholders? Or is that different?
I think it’s different – which is why I’m writing this column.
Certainly outrage management is useful when people are trying to stop a project whose substantive upside for them actually exceeds its downside, but their outrage keeps them from realizing that this is so. But I think outrage management is also useful when the project’s downside for them exceeds its upside, when their outrage is justified.
In some sense, of course, outrage is always justified, in that it is never random; there are always reasons why people are outraged at you. Maybe you have been arrogant and unresponsive; maybe they feel powerless to affect your behavior; maybe you can’t be trusted and haven’t chosen to be accountable; maybe what you’re doing or proposing to do is high in memorability, dread, uncertainty/unknowability, and other such “outrage factors.” So people’s outrage is understandable; it’s justified in that sense. But if the project’s hazard to your outraged stakeholders is actually lower than its benefits, if there is a strong business case for them to support the project, then by definition their outrage isn’t substantively justified. It is precisely because they are outraged that they’re inclined to consider the situation more dangerous or more damaging than it actually is.
In such situations, explaining that your stakeholders are substantively in the wrong is highly unlikely to reduce their outrage. Since you have an outrage problem, not a hazard problem (or a business case problem), you need an outrage solution, not a hazard solution (or a business case solution). You need to utilize such outrage management strategies as staking out the middle, acknowledging prior misbehavior, and sharing control.
Even when people’s outrage is substantively justified, the reasons for their outrage are mostly outrage reasons. People don’t always get upset when a situation isn’t in their interest. Sometimes we know we’re facing something that poses more costs and risks than benefits, we know we should be against it, and maybe we are against it – but it just doesn’t arouse much emotion. The factors that determine whether people get outraged – responsiveness, control, trust, and the rest – don’t just determine whether we get excessively outraged when the hazard is lower than the benefits; those same factors also determine whether we get sufficiently outraged when the hazard is higher than the benefits. The correlation between hazard and outrage is tiny. There’s very little causal relationship between the two.
If your factory explodes and people are dying, that’s a high-hazard, high-outrage crisis situation, and crisis communication is the paradigm. By contrast, if people are very worried and very angry that your factory might explode some day, and if you have solid reasons to believe such an explosion is vanishingly unlikely, and if people just get even more worried and angry when you try to explain why you think so, then you’re in a low-hazard, high-outrage situation, and the paradigm is outrage management.
A factory that explodes is a traditional high hazard. It’s bad for everyone, because it threatens everyone’s health and safety. Helping people bear their outrage (fear) about the explosion and cope with it wisely is the core of crisis communication. But a proposed pipeline, infectious disease laboratory, or shale gas drilling operation poses much smaller and much more hypothetical risks, and poses some benefits as well. These three projects will be good for some stakeholders and bad for others. They will have winners as well as losers. If you’re among the prospective winners, you’re not interested in helping the prospective losers “bear their outrage” and “cope” with the crisis. You certainly don’t want to help them organize to defeat your project! You want to reduce their outrage so they won’t experience it as so much of a crisis. You want to do that even though they’re right that (at least so far) the project isn’t in their interest.
In short, you want to do outrage management about a project whose risks and costs exceed its benefits for some stakeholders. That isn’t in my basic model. But it comes up all the time, and it’s time I talked about it.
Making the Model More Complicated… and More Realistic
Okay, now let’s make the model more complicated, and more realistic, by analyzing your stakeholders’ situation in terms of three variables:
- Business case – Is your project objectively bad for them?
- Outrage – Have you acted in ways that got them upset?
- Power – Do they have sufficient power to influence what happens?
If you dichotomize these three variables as “high” or “low,” you end up with eight patterns: 2 × 2 × 2.
I want to start with the four scenarios where your project has a strong business case for your stakeholders. After we get those out of the way, then we’ll focus on the role of outrage management in situations where there is no business case, or only a weak business case, for your stakeholders to support the project.
Strong business case, high outrage
The basic outrage management model applies when the business case is strong and outrage is high: You manage the outrage downward so your stakeholders can see that the project is actually good for them or at least not bad for them, that they have no substantive reason to oppose it.
At least that’s what you do if your stakeholders have enough power to endanger the project. But suppose they don’t. If they’re not very powerful, you have a choice. You can manage their outrage anyway. Or you can simply move forward, accepting their outrage as a cost of doing business. (Remember, we’re talking about a project whose hazard is acceptably low. It’s “only” stakeholder outrage you’re ignoring, not a significant threat to life and limb.)
This is (or should be) a business decision. When your stakeholders’ outrage is less expensive than outrage management, it’s good business to endure the outrage. When outrage is more expensive than outrage management, it’s good business to manage the outrage. “Expensive” here doesn’t just mean short-term economic costs, of course. It means long-term reputational costs as well.
I wrote “or should be” in the last paragraph because my clients aren’t always rational about their stakeholders’ outrage. When stakeholders are outraged at you, they tend to behave in ways that get you outraged right back at them. (See my two columns on “The Boss’s Outrage.”) So it may be difficult to stay focused on the business decision: whether it’s less expensive to endure the outrage or to manage it. The thought of managing your stakeholders’ outrage may aggravate your own outrage, making it hard to do even when it makes business sense. So you may find yourself tempted to fight back, whether or not it’s in your interest to do so. Instead of making a business decision whether to endure your stakeholders’ outrage or manage it, you may find yourself actively exacerbating your stakeholders’ outrage in order to express your own.
One of the key business changes in the past couple of decades is that the cost of outrage has gone up. I don’t think stakeholders get any more outraged than they used to get; what has changed is that their outrage has more impact than it used to have. More people have more power, and it is harder to oppress them than it used to be. I’ll give just two examples of this profoundly desirable change:
- Thanks to the Internet, opponents have globalized, and a controversy surrounding your company’s actions in Sri Lanka can now affect the company’s project in Peru.
- Thanks to the socially responsible investment community, shareholders will now pay less for the stock of a company in reputational trouble – not just ethically sensitive shareholders, but even purely price-driven shareholders, who are increasingly aware of what the concerns of ethically sensitive shareholders are likely to do to the share price.
The cost of outrage management has gone up some too. But the cost of outrage has gone up more steeply. In many places and many industries, the curves have crossed. So whereas it used to make business sense to endure a fair amount of stakeholder outrage, it now makes business sense to manage the outrage – even if your outraged stakeholders don’t have enough power to stop the project.
This is a change worth celebrating. Corporate and government reputations are more vulnerable than they used to be; they get damaged more easily, and the damage has more impact on the bottom line. Today even low-power stakeholders who can’t stop a project they dislike can still threaten significant damage to the reputation of the organization behind the project. So companies and government agencies that are protective of their reputations have business reasons to manage the outrage of low-power stakeholders.
My language here may sound awfully manipulative to some readers: “business reasons to manage the outrage of low-power stakeholders.” So let me reframe the point. Instead of “outrage management,” call it “treating people decently.” There were always sound ethical reasons why powerful institutions should treat comparatively powerless people decently. Now there are sound business reasons as well. On this dimension, the world has changed for the better.
In short, when your project has a strong business case for your stakeholders but they are nonetheless outraged about it, you should manage their outrage – certainly the outrage of high-power stakeholders, and probably even the outrage of low-power stakeholders.
Strong business case, low outrage
What about when the business case is strong and outrage is low? Your stakeholders recognize that your project has more benefits than risks and costs for them, and you haven’t done anything to get them outraged. So the path forward is unfettered, right? Regardless of their power, stakeholders who have neither a substantive reason to stop you nor an emotional reason to stop you presumably won’t try to stop you.
It’s not that simple. There are more reasons for opposing a project than just rational self-interest and outrage. Those are merely the two reasons I am focusing on in this column.
Consider values, for example. Sometimes people oppose a project not because it does them more harm than good and not because its proponents have done something to arouse their outrage – but simply because they disapprove of the project. A committed opponent of abortion would surely oppose the construction of a new abortion clinic regardless of what clinic supporters might do to reduce stakeholder outrage or improve the neighborhood business case for the clinic. Similarly, a committed opponent of nuclear power would be unalterably opposed to a new nuclear power plant, again based purely on values. When opposition is grounded in values – in a principled moral or ideological position – that opposition is (and should be) extremely difficult to budge. This column is complicated enough without my trying to outline a suitable risk communication response to value-centric opposition. The only response I know is respectfully agreeing to disagree.
In seminars I sometimes identify six “reasons for giving your organization a hard time”: self-interest, outrage, ideology, hazard, ego, and revenge. (For a paragraph on each, see my handouts on “Assessing Stakeholder Motives: Three Main Reasons for Making Demands” and “Assessing Stakeholder Motives: Three Additional Reasons for Making Demands.”) There are probably more than six.
Nor do stakeholders even need a reason for opposing your project. Suppose the business case for the project is okay; benefits to stakeholders outweigh risks and costs 60–40. Suppose stakeholder outrage is negligible. And suppose values/ideology, hazard, ego, and revenge are all nonissues. Stakeholders might still decide they like things the way they are. Companies often pass up profitable business opportunities because they’re busy with other priorities, or because the profit potential just doesn’t seem worth the effort, or because it feels wrong somehow. Stakeholders have the same prerogative.
Having identified some of the reasons why stakeholders may not support a project even though it offers them a good business case and arouses no outrage, I will set those reasons aside. This column focuses on three factors: business case, outrage, and power. For purposes of this column, if your stakeholders see a good business case for your project and they’re not outraged about it, the path forward is clear. Just remember that in the real world that might not be the case.
There’s one narrower exception that does fall within the purview of this column: extortion. In the strong-business-case, low-outrage, high-power situation, stakeholders may try to get some additional benefits out of you. Even though your project does them no damage and they’re not in the least upset about it, they may recognize that their power to affect the outcome is itself an asset, and they may want to get the fair market value out of that asset. That is, they may want to find out what you’ll give them not to exercise their power to stop you, delay you, or harass you. Understandably, this may arouse your outrage, and thus distract you from the business decision of whether to negotiate with a high-power stakeholder who wants an incentive to refrain from rocking your boat.
So here’s an outline of the four strong-business-case situations:
|Strong||High||High||Manage the outrage|
|Strong||High||Low||Move ahead or manage the outrage|
|Strong||Low||High||Move ahead or negotiate|
Now let’s look at the four weak-business-case situations – situations where the project is not in the interest of opponents because its risks and costs exceed its benefits. The focus of our inquiry: In which of these four situations is outrage management useful?
The two situations of greatest interest here are when the business case is weak and outrage is high (and power is either high or low): when people have two quite different reasons to want to stop you. But it will help to think through the two weak-business-case, low-outrage situations first.
Situation 1: Negotiation
Suppose the project you’re proposing has only a weak business case for your stakeholders, but their outrage is low. Despite the fact that it’s bad for some local stakeholders, in other words, they’re not upset about it. My basic model would suggest that somebody (probably not you) ought to be out there arousing community outrage – doing precaution advocacy in order to motivate people to take precautions, especially the obvious precaution of trying to stop you.
But at least in principle, outrage isn’t absolutely required in order to motivate people to stop you. People could simply recognize that what you want to do is not in their best interest, recognize that they have the power to stop you, and take action to do so – all without getting especially angry or frightened. That’s Situation 1.
Frankly, I don’t think Situation 1 comes up all that often with regard to public issues. It comes up often enough in other venues – in relations between companies, for example, and in relations between individuals. But most people don’t like to get involved in public controversies, and they don’t usually do so (even when they have something at stake) unless they have built up a head of steam … that is, a head of outrage. Activists know that this is so, and ground their organizing efforts not just in mobilizing stakeholders’ self-interest but also in arousing stakeholders’ outrage.
Moreover, Situation 1 is pretty unstable. People who started out calmly and unemotionally looking out for their rational self-interest tend to find reasons to get outraged as the controversy unfolds.
In general, if your project isn’t in people’s best interest but it hasn’t provoked any outrage in them, one of two things will happen: either they’ll sit the issue out or they’ll gin up some outrage. Active opponents who aren’t outraged are more the exception than the rule.
But for what it’s worth: In Situation 1, there’s theoretically no need for opponents to arouse outrage against you. They can simply organize people to act in their rational self-interest. And there’s theoretically no benefit to you in trying to reduce stakeholders’ outrage in order to reduce their fervor against your project. Their fervor isn’t grounded in outrage; it’s grounded in their rational self-interest.
Assuming that your project has a good business case for you but no business case for some of your stakeholders, and that they are opposing your project calmly, without outrage, your task has nothing to do with outrage management… or, indeed, with any kind of risk communication. If you need (or want) their support, you’ll have to sweeten the pot – that is, change your proposal in a way that improves its business case for them. You’ll have to increase the project’s benefits to them, and/or decrease its risks and costs to them. Sometimes it’s wise to do this unilaterally, improving the deal you’re offering. Other times it’s smarter to wait for stakeholders to specify what it might take to win them over, what new benefits or mitigations might make them see your project as acceptable.
Situation 1 calls for good old-fashioned negotiation, nothing more.
Situation 2: Coercion
|Weak||Low||Low||Negotiate or coerce; if you coerce, decide whether to manage the coercion-related outrage|
Situation 2 is identical to Situation 1, except that now there’s a power imbalance. Some of your stakeholders rationally oppose your project because it lacks a decent business case for them. You judge that you can implement the project despite their opposition. So instead of sweetening the pot to build them a better business case, you simply move forward over their objections. You coerce them into accepting your project.
“Coercion” is a negatively loaded word. But there are many situations where X rightly objects to what Y wants to do and Y rightly gets to do it anyway. Say your neighbors want to cut down a big tree in their back yard. The tree is part of your viewscape; your quality-of-life and the value of your property will both decline when your living room looks out on your neighbors’ garbage cans instead of their tree. Tough. It’s their tree, and in most jurisdictions they can damage your viewscape without your okay.
But if your neighbors want to build a skyscraper in their back yard, the local zoning board is going to have a lot to say about it, and your objections to such a fundamental change in the character of your neighborhood are likely to carry considerable weight.
Opinions can differ over when coercion is legitimate and when it’s illegitimate. But at least in principle, societies arrange the distribution of power the way they want it. That is, societies decide which things X can do even though Y doesn’t approve, using such tools as law, politics, and reputation to “regulate” X’s power to coerce Y. In equitable societies, the power to coerce depends mostly on the disputed behavior; the things X is allowed to do over Y’s objections are very similar to the things Y is allowed to do over X’s objections. In less equitable societies, the answer depends more on who X and Y are. When X consistently wins and Y almost never does, coercion is profoundly unfair. Then we sometimes call it oppression.
Whatever the equity of the situation, if your stakeholders lack the power to stop your project, you don’t have to negotiate with them.
You may still choose to negotiate with them. Maybe they lack the power to stop you but they do have the power to delay you, and thus increase the cost of the project. Or maybe their opposition, while insufficient to stop your project, can damage your reputation; that will have other costs to your operations, and could even derail other projects in other places. So you need to make a rational decision of your own: whether your business case for coercing your stakeholders is stronger or weaker than your business case for negotiating with them.
There are still many situations where it makes good business sense to coerce the stakeholders who oppose your project, rather than to negotiate with them. But your business case for coercing people is weaker than it used to be. If opponents have a reasonable amount of power, they can usually make coercion costly to you, even if they can’t stop the project. And if opponents are powerless, their very powerlessness will attract champions to their cause. Human rights activists are poised to do battle on behalf of the oppressed. There is a long, long list of companies that have paid a far higher reputational cost for acting as oppressors than their projects could possibly have been worth.
Note something else that’s important about Situation 2: Coercion often arouses outrage. So even if your stakeholders calmly decided your project wasn’t in their interest and calmly organized to oppose you, once you coerce them into swallowing the project against their will, the tone of their opposition may change. They may even win over some converts who weren’t especially unhappy about the project itself but are outraged that you’re forcing it on them. So Situation 2 – business case weak, outrage low, power low – may have use for outrage management. It depends on your own business case.
You have three options in Situation 2.
- You may decide to negotiate rather than coerce, in order to avoid the outrage that coercion usually provokes. In that sense, the decision to negotiate with low-power stakeholders can be seen as preventive outrage management.
- You may decide to coerce – and use traditional outrage management to reduce the offensiveness of the coercion.
- You may decide to coerce and simply endure the outrage.
Any time other people rationally oppose something you want to do, you get to decide whether to negotiate with them or try to coerce them. If you pick coercion, then you get to decide whether to try to manage the outrage aroused by your coercion or leave it unmanaged. Both decisions should be business decisions, grounded in how much power your stakeholders have and in which option is most cost-effective for your organization – bearing in mind that the “cost” of outrage includes reputational costs that could affect future projects.
Like Situation 1, Situation 2 is comparatively uncommon in my experience. Whether they are high-power or low-power, active opponents of proposed projects are usually experiencing some outrage. It usually takes outrage to get them involved, and getting involved usually arouses more outrage. The common situations are the two we’re getting to next, where opponents are motivated not just by their awareness that your project isn’t in their interest, but also by outrage – anger or fear or both – about how the project has been promoted and how it is likely to affect their lives.
Weak-Business-Case Outrage Management
We come at last to the issue that moved me to write this column. What is the role of outrage management in weak-business-case, high-outrage controversies? That is, what is the value of trying to reduce the outrage of stakeholders who are outraged about your project and who also rightly perceive that, for them, it poses higher costs and risks than benefits? There are two remaining patterns to consider.
Situation 3: Two-Step Controversy Management
|Weak||High||High||Manage the outrage; then negotiate|
In the pure case of outrage management – the one I explain in introductory articles and introductory courses – people have no substantive reason to oppose your project; they oppose it because you have done things that got them outraged. In the pure case of negotiation (Situation 1), people have good substantive reasons to oppose your project and they are opposing it, but they’re not outraged.
In Situation 3, you have done things that upset powerful stakeholders and they have good substantive reasons to oppose your project. You have two problems, so you need two solutions: outrage management plus negotiation.
If you’re planning to negotiate with outraged stakeholders, you’ll have to do something about their outrage first. Outraged people make very bad negotiating partners. The essence of negotiation is the search for a win-win, and outraged people don’t want a win-win. They don’t want to win as much as they want you to lose. So their price isn’t market-driven; it’s infinite.
Think back to a time when you turned down a pretty good offer, and didn’t even think about making a counteroffer, because you were angry or upset. You didn’t want to get a deal. You didn’t want to get to yes. You didn’t want to get rich. You wanted to get out, or get even. (If this has never happened to you, you might be half-Vulcan.)
In seminars, I often use the provocative term “greed” to refer to what I am now calling “the business case” for the project. Negotiation is what happens when greedy people – that is, people who are focused on their own rational self-interest – look for a win-win. But outrage preempts greed. Outraged people are too preoccupied with their outrage to see their self-interest clearly or pursue it forthrightly.
Consider compensation, for example. When a project does tangible harm to some local stakeholders, it’s only fair (and it’s often good business) to compensate them for that harm. But if stakeholders are outraged, they won’t perceive offers of compensation as efforts to be fair; they’ll perceive them as bribes – and their outrage will go up, not down, when you make the offer. It simply doesn’t work to try to pay outraged people for the harm you’re doing them. Instead, I advise clients to apologize profusely before they consider throwing money at the problem. And I advise clients to wait until stakeholders start demanding compensation for the harm. Benefits your stakeholders have wrested from you after you apologized are much more valuable than benefits you have bestowed on them instead of apologizing. The latter are seen as bribes, the former as reparations. Note that outrage is often a two-way street. If you feel philanthropic, your outraged stakeholders probably feel bribed; if they feel vindicated, you may feel blackmailed.
None of this makes sense to greedy stakeholders. Compensation is compensation. An offer is an offer. Apologies are irrelevant. The transaction isn’t bribery or blackmail or philanthropy or reparations. It’s commerce.
Seen in this light, the purpose of outrage management is to get the distorting effect of outrage out of the way, so people can be clearheadedly greedy. If your project makes sense for your stakeholders once their outrage has been addressed, then outrage management is all you need to do. But in Situation 3 that’s not the case. You need to manage your stakeholders’ outrage until they’re ready to negotiate, and then you need to negotiate until there’s a business case for them to say yes.
My usual paradigm for a high-hazard, high-outrage risk is a crisis, something like a hurricane. The task in crisis communication is to help people bear their outrage and act wisely against the threat. But Situation 3 isn’t high-hazard, high-outrage; it’s weak-business-case, high-outrage. You’re the hurricane! You’re not trying to help your stakeholders act wisely against you. You’re trying to help them stop wanting to act against you at all. To accomplish that, you first need to reduce their outrage, using the strategies of outrage management (such as apologizing to them for the harm your project will do). And then you need to improve the project’s business case, using the strategies of negotiation (such as offering to compensate them for the harm your project will do).
The order in which you address the two problems makes a huge difference. As long as your stakeholders are outraged, they’re unlikely to notice that you have improved the project’s business case for them; if they notice, they’re unlikely to believe it; if they believe it, they’re unlikely to appreciate it. You don’t negotiate with outraged people. You do something about their outrage. Then, when they’re calmer and more in a mood to consider their self-interest, you can negotiate.
Of course if there is a serious risk to life, health, safety, or the environment – a serious traditional hazard – you have a moral and business obligation to mitigate it as quickly as possible. If your tailings impoundment could collapse at any moment and bury a nearby neighborhood in toxic waste, you don’t wait to start mitigating the hazard until after you have mitigated the outrage and negotiated with the stakeholders. When stakeholders are outraged, outrage management comes before negotiation. When the hazard is serious, hazard management comes before anything.
I don’t want to overstate the point that outrage management has to precede negotiation when you’re dealing with stakeholders who are upset about your project (the outrage) and rightly judge that it isn’t in their interest (the business case). It’s true in principle – but in practice the distinction can be pretty squishy. Often, for example, it’s useful to make a couple of early substantive concessions to outraged stakeholders. That sends a clear signal that you are prepared to make concessions, and thus paves the way for serious negotiation later. You should give your stakeholders a lot of public credit for the concessions you’re making, acknowledging that they were wise enough to figure out what you should do or powerful enough to make you do it (whatever’s true). That’s what makes this preliminary negotiation strategy also an outrage management strategy.
Still, while you need to signal that you’re willing to sweeten the pot, you can’t get much actual negotiating done while stakeholder outrage is high.
The key to Situation 3 is understanding that your stakeholders’ outrage and their business case are independent variables. Even when both are problems, they’re problems for basically different reasons. But outrage and stakeholders’ perception of their business case are closely related. When people are outraged, they think the project isn’t in their interest regardless of whether it really is or not.
So in a weak-business-case, high-outrage situation, improving the business case without reducing the outrage doesn’t fix the problem; people will still be too upset to recognize that your project no longer poses greater costs and risks than benefits for them. Reducing the outrage without improving the business case also doesn’t fix the problem; people will calm down and continue to recognize, calmly, that your project still poses greater costs and risks than benefits for them. Outrage management is essential first to mitigate the outrage and enable your stakeholders to see the business case as it really is. Negotiation is essential afterwards to improve the business case.
Situation 4: Coercion (Again)
|Weak||High||Low||Decide whether to manage the project-related outrage; then negotiate or coerce; if you coerce, decide whether to manage the coercion-related outrage|
Suppose there’s no feasible way to give your project a decent business case from your stakeholders’ perspective? You can manage their outrage at the project so they’ll consider the business case calmly, but in the end they’ll calmly say thanks but no thanks. Your only real option is to coerce them. (If they’re too powerful to coerce, you’re out of options. You simply won’t get your project.)
Or suppose it would be possible to give your project a decent business case for your stakeholders, but there might be a cheaper way. They don’t have enough power to stop you anyway. Why not simply coerce them?
In Situation 2, your stakeholders were neither outraged nor powerful, so you had a choice whether to negotiate with them or coerce them – and if you chose to coerce them, then you had a choice whether to do anything about the outrage aroused by the coercion. Situation 4 is the same, except that your low-power stakeholders are already outraged about the project, even before you get to the coercion part. So in Situation 4 first you have to decide whether or not to manage the project-related outrage; then you have to decide whether to negotiate or coerce; then, if you pick coercion, you have to decide whether or not to manage the coercion-related outrage.
Why would you bother to manage the outrage of powerless stakeholders? If they were literally powerless, you probably wouldn’t. But normally when low-power stakeholders lack the power to stop your project, they still possess enough power to cause you considerable damage. Often they can delay the project – which may derail it if economic conditions change, and will certainly add to its cost. Even if they can’t affect the project schedule at all, they can still add to its cost in other ways. And of course low-power but highly outraged stakeholders can inflict reputational damage.
And they are motivated to do so! People who are calm assess their own power before deciding how much energy to invest in trying to stop a project that isn’t in their interest. If they think they can win, they’re more likely to go ahead. If they think they probably can’t win, they may well decide not to worsen an already bad situation by fighting a futile battle. But highly outraged people tend to fight whether they can win or not. It follows that managing the outrage of low-power stakeholders can be a good investment even though they’re not powerful enough to beat you.
Here are all eight scenarios in outline:
|Strong||High||High||Manage the outrage|
|Strong||High||Low||Move ahead or manage the outrage|
|Strong||Low||High||Move ahead or negotiate|
|Weak||Low||High||Negotiate (Situation 1)|
|Weak||Low||Low||Negotiate or coerce; if you coerce, decide whether to manage the coercion-related outrage (Situation 2)|
|Weak||High||High||Manage the outrage; then negotiate (Situation 3)|
|Weak||High||Low||Decide whether to manage the project-related outrage; then negotiate or coerce; if you coerce, decide whether to manage the coercion-related outrage (Situation 4)|
All of this is about the stakeholders who oppose you. Most of the time, of course, you have stakeholders on your side as well. This affects the ethical situation – your project will have some losers, but it’ll have some winners (besides you) too. Maybe there are enough winners that you can make a decent case that your project has a net positive impact on the community, that it does more good than harm. Maybe you can even make a case for altruism, arguing that the losers should defer to the general welfare and take one for the team.
And the existence of stakeholders on your side changes the political situation; you have allies.
But it doesn’t change the strategic situation vis-à-vis your opponents. It’s still true that:
- If they’re rationally opposed, not outraged, and powerful, you need to negotiate with them (Situation 1).
- If they’re rationally opposed, not outraged, and not very powerful; you may decide to coerce them, which will probably arouse some outrage you may want to manage (Situation 2).
- If they’re rationally opposed, outraged, and powerful, you need to manage their outrage before you can negotiate with them (Situation 3).
- If they’re rationally opposed, outraged, and not very powerful, you may decide to coerce them; there will be outrage at the project as well as outrage at the coercion that you may want to manage (Situation 4).
In Situation 1, there’s no role for outrage management. In Situation 3, outrage management is essential. In Situations 2 and 4, it’s optional depending on your assessment of your own business case.
What Can Outrage Management Accomplish When the Business Case Is Weak?
It’s worth teasing out the specific benefits of managing outrage in a weak-business-case environment – that is, when stakeholders are right to oppose your project. There are at least five benefits.
Lowering the level of passion.
At any given time, people have many tasks on their to-do lists. On my list at the moment: finish this column, get on my exercise bike, answer some backed-up emails, balance my bank account, etc., etc., etc. There’s even a list of things I ought to fight about – decisions that others (my government, my wife, etc.) are about to make that it would be in my interest to try to change. Some of these tasks I’ll end up doing. Some I’ll decide to skip, or simply never get around to. But the ones that get me mad stand a much higher chance of getting me moving.
Outrage mobilizes people to action. Rational self-interest may mobilize people too, but often doesn’t.
That’s why opponents of a project don’t just work to convince people that the project isn’t in their interest. They work to arouse stakeholders’ anger or fear about the project – which makes people a lot likelier to show up for a meeting, spread the word to their neighbors, contribute money, etc.
In any controversy, both sides must decide how much effort to allocate to each of four tasks:
1. Trying to arouse the passion of your allies and potential allies.
2. Trying to reduce the passion of your opponents and potential opponents.
3. Trying to win over people who are undecided.
4. Trying to convert opponents into allies.
In an election campaign, typically, both sides focus chiefly on the first task and secondarily on the third – rallying their supporters and winning over the undecideds. People’s rational judgment and their passion jointly determine how they vote. But it’s chiefly their passion that determines whether they vote, especially if it’s a rainy day and they’ve got a lot of other things to do. And it’s certainly their passion that determines whether people contribute money or time to a political campaign, whether they argue their candidate’s case with friends, etc. So GOTV (“get out the vote”) is crucial in political campaigning. Politicians spend at least as much effort consolidating and arousing their base as appealing to undecided voters.
Elections are decided by counting the number of people on each side passionate enough to get out and vote. It’s usually more productive to rally your side than to try to bore (or convert) the other side – so GOTV is king.
Projects are different:
- It is harder to arouse passion on behalf of a desirable change than against an undesirable one. People don’t usually fight as hard to get something they like as to stop something they hate.
- Projects aren’t approved or rejected by counting noses. People who are mildly for or against a project mostly sit the controversy out; unless you’re passionate enough to write a letter or show up for a meeting, you’re not going to “vote” on the project at all.
- Projects aren’t likely to get approved when a lot of passionate supporters are going head-to-head with a slightly smaller number of equally passionate opponents. The status quo has a built-in advantage if there’s a big fight, so passionate supporters don’t help a project as much as passionate opponents damage it.
For all three of these reasons, proponents of controversial projects normally pursue a different strategy than project opponents. Opponents almost invariably work to arouse passion against the project. Proponents only occasionally focus on arousing passion on behalf of the project. Usually they benefit more from trying to reduce passion against the project. Mobilizing local support isn’t useless; in fact, it’s usually important to demonstrate to decision-makers that your project does have some local supporters. But once that’s done, accruing more supporters or more passionate supporters will accomplish less for your project than persuading some of your erstwhile opponents that they’re not that upset about the project after all and they’d rather stay home and watch TV than go to a meeting to stop it.
A project that very few people strongly support and very few people strongly oppose will probably pass. A project that many people strongly support and many people strongly oppose will probably fail.
In short, the core question for a pipeline, an infectious disease laboratory, or a shale gas development isn’t usually how many people passionately want to see the project move forward. Nor is the core question how many people mildly prefer to see the project stopped. The core question is how many people passionately want it stopped. Reducing that number is a key goal of outrage management in a weak-business-case environment.
This poses an obvious dilemma for society. In a nutshell: A project that does more harm than good for most local stakeholders can still get approved if the opponents aren’t very passionate. Reducing opponents’ passion through the strategies of outrage management can thus help a skillful and committed minority win approval for a project that the majority rightly (but mildly) opposes.
Yes, but in the same nutshell: A project that does more good than harm for most local stakeholders can still get stopped if those who oppose it are very passionate. Increasing opponents’ passion through the strategies of precaution advocacy can thus help a skillful and committed minority prevent approval of a project that the majority rightly (but mildly) supports.
Like it or not, that is how democracy works. In elections we count noses; people need enough passion to get to the polls, but more passion than that doesn’t give them extra votes. But in issue controversies, people’s impact is proportional to their passion. A passionate minority will usually defeat a not-very-interested majority – especially if that minority is trying to stop something. How many local stakeholders passionately oppose a project is often the single most important factor in whether that project is approved or rejected by decision-makers. So activists against the project wisely try to increase the passion of project opponents, while the project’s sponsor wisely tries to decrease the opponents’ passion.
Bottom line: If you’re seeking approval for a controversial project, outrage management is crucial to help you try to lower the level of opponents’ passion.
Opening people up to altruism.
Many controversial projects, though by no means all, are more controversial locally than globally. They are classic examples of the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) impulse, good for the world but bad for the neighborhood. Examples include airports, late-night jazz clubs, superhighways, slaughterhouses, steel mills, halfway houses, and prisons. The examples I have used so far in this column – a pipeline, an infectious disease laboratory, and a shale gas development – are at least arguably good for the world but bad for the neighborhood. An example I’ll talk about soon – a wind farm – surely fits this description.
Proponents of such projects often pretend and loudly claim that local opponents are irrational. But they’re not. They are genuinely better off if LULUs (locally unwanted land uses) like these end up in somebody else’s neighborhood. What they are is selfish, rationally selfish.
Of course opponents may have sound unselfish arguments as well, reasons why the world would be better off if this particular LULU were sited elsewhere or not at all. But let’s set the unselfish arguments aside and assume that opponents’ main grounds for opposition are simply that they’d rather see the damn thing go into someone else’s back yard.
Given this assumption, is it possible to ask opponents to be altruistic, to accept a locally unwanted land use for the sake of everyone else?
The answer is a qualified yes. I think communities and neighborhoods rarely volunteer for altruism, though individuals sometimes do. But communities and neighborhoods do sometimes, even often, assent to projects that aren’t in their interest – if (and only if) their outrage is low.
Think about the local project controversies you have followed. Can you think of one in which opponents argued simply that the project wasn’t good for the neighborhood? “Yes, it’s needed. And yes, this is as good a place for it as anyplace else. And yes, you’ve been honest and respectful and fair – we don’t feel lied to or mistreated; we don’t feel oppressed by project after project that nobody else wants. But still, we’re better off without it….” There’s a reason why this is virtually never what opponents claim: because it’s not an effective argument. People won’t normally rally behind the banner of rational self-interest.
It follows that an outrage management strategy is the strategy most conducive to community altruism. That is, people are likeliest to stand back and let a project happen that isn’t really in their best interest when they have been treated honestly and respectfully and fairly, and their outrage about the project is therefore low.
I am not arguing that when people are treated right they usually choose to act altruistically. I’m arguing only that when people are treated right they are less likely to muster enough animus to do battle. They may still grumble at your project. They may quietly hope it goes away. But when outrage is low, people are more able to see that your project really is good for the world (if it is), more able to see that this is a pretty reasonable place to put it (if it is), more willing to see that the actual hazard is pretty low (if it is), and more willing to take one for the team – especially if you’re willing to negotiate some mitigations and benefits to cushion the blow. When outrage is high, on the other hand, people’s outrage pushes them to believe that your project isn’t worth building anywhere, that this is objectively a bad place to put it, that the hazard is unacceptably high, and that it’s simply not fair to expect them to bear such a burden for the benefit of others.
Maybe there really is no need for your project, or maybe this really is a bad place to locate it, or maybe it really is very dangerous. But if your project is genuinely good for the world but bad (but not too bad) for the neighborhood, outrage management is your best shot at getting your stakeholders to realize that this is so and decide to let the project happen – or decide to negotiate conditions under which they’ll let it happen.
Altruism exists, but not among people who are outraged.
Getting people ready to negotiate.
Outraged people don’t want to “win” as much as they want you to “lose.” Or as I sometimes put it to clients, outraged people don’t want to get rich, they want to get even.
Outrage, in other words, preempts greed. That’s why a two-step solution is necessary when people are rightly outraged – that is, when the situation is both upsetting to them and not in their interest. First you have to do something to make them less upset; that’s the outrage management step. Then you can do something to make the situation more in their interest; that’s the negotiation step.
Order matters. Outrage management enables your stakeholders to notice when you’re offering inducements or mitigating downsides – that is, when you’re changing the project’s risk/cost/benefit ratio and thus improving the business case for them to accept it. As long as they’re outraged, they’re in no mood even to notice your new offer, much less to assess how significantly it affects the pros and cons of the project. And they’re certainly in no mood to figure out what inducements and mitigations might work for them – and then to make an offer of their own. They’re too angry to bargain.
Every reader of this column has been in a position something like this. An expensive piece of equipment stopped working right and you tried to return it. The store manager claimed it was past its warranty and refused to take it back. You got angrier and angrier, and perhaps ruder and ruder. Eventually the manager made you an offer – a partial refund, a big discount on a newer model, whatever. The manager wasn’t especially apologetic, and you weren’t especially mollified. In a strange way, in fact, the manager’s offer exacerbated your outrage, because it sapped your righteous indignation of some of its righteousness. You didn’t want to settle the dispute; you wanted to win the war. So you turned down the offer and kept pressing your complaint.
If the store manager seriously intends to settle the dispute, he or she will need to do something about your outrage before making settlement offers. In exactly the same way, outrage management helps put project opponents in a mood to negotiate.
Making people more realistic in defeat.
Just as outrage management helps get people ready to negotiate, it helps get them ready to assess their power, and to act on the assessment.
Outraged people have trouble gauging the strength of their hand. More importantly, they have trouble wanting to gauge the strength of their hand. Win or lose, they want to fight.
If you can see that you have a winning hand – that your project is very likely to be approved regardless of what your opponents do – then you have a stake in managing your opponents’ outrage so that they can see it too. Outrage management will help your opponents be better judges of whether they can win, and more inclined to be realistic if they can’t. Outraged people want to win, of course, but not as much as they want you to lose. So their second choice is a lose-lose. If they can’t beat you, they’ll try to take you down with them – to make beating them as costly for you as they can.
Less outraged people also want to win, but they want to win because winning is good for them, not because it’s bad for you. So if they judge that they can’t beat you, they’ll be interested in negotiating a consolation prize, trading their ability to make your victory costly for whatever package of improved benefits and diminished costs and risks they can get. Outraged people, in short, are bad losers. And bad losers are expensive. So it’s useful to manage the outrage of stakeholders you expect to defeat.
Making people more generous in victory.
This is the flip side of #4. Remember, outraged people have trouble gauging the strength of their hand. If they’re not especially powerful, outrage motivates them to fight on anyway. If they are very powerful – if they have what it takes to stop your project – outrage keeps them from noticing how powerful they are, calming down, deciding what outcome is most in their interest, and making it happen.
The worst of all possible opponents is a highly outraged opponent who is powerful but feels powerless. An outraged opponent who is genuinely low-power will throw low-power temper tantrums that will do you some harm. An outraged opponent who is high-power but feels low-power will throw high-power temper tantrums that will do you enormous harm.
You want to manage the outrage of low-power opponents so they will lose gracefully. You want to manage the outrage of high-power opponents so they will win gracefully – so they’ll be content to beat you, not destroy you.
The bottom line of this column so far: Outrage management isn’t just for when your stakeholders are misperceiving their self-interest because they’re upset, and you’re trying to calm them down so they’ll realize that on balance they have no substantive reason to oppose you. Sometimes when your stakeholders’ opposition is justified – when they have real substantive reasons to oppose you – there is still a role for outrage management.
I have gone into enormous detail about why you should do outrage management in weak-business-case environments. The remaining question is how you should do outrage management in weak-business-case environments.
In most ways, managing outrage when your project has a weak business case for your stakeholders isn’t different from managing outrage when it has a strong business case for them. The key strategies are the same: staking out the middle rather than the extreme; acknowledging prior misbehavior; acknowledging current problems; giving away credit; sharing control; being accountable; addressing unvoiced concerns and underlying motives. For more on these and other outrage management strategies, see the articles listed in my Outrage Management Index.
Two additional outrage management strategies are essential in weak-business-case environments: acknowledging that your opponents are right to oppose you, and acknowledging the extent of their power.
Acknowledge that Your Opponents Are Right to Oppose You
When your project’s business case for your stakeholders is weak, you need to acknowledge that it is weak – that is, you need to acknowledge that your opponents are right when they claim the project as currently framed poses more risks and costs for them than benefits.
Some years ago I was working with a power company trying to build a wind farm near a pleasant and fairly affluent small town in the western United States. A wind farm is a classic example of the sort of locally unwanted land use (LULU) that arouses rational “not in my back yard” opposition. From a global, national, and regional perspective, wind farms are wonderful; they’re a clean source of electricity, environmentally far superior to fossil fuel power plants. But wind farms are rotten neighbors. They’re ugly, they’re noisy, and they come with transmission lines attached (or what’s the point?). Everybody’s better off with more wind power in our energy future, and everybody’s better off if the source of that wind power is in somebody else’s back yard.
Ignoring all this, my client had been feigning surprise at the local opposition. “We don’t understand how anybody could object to making progress in this essential transition from fossil fuels to wind energy,” my client kept saying – as if the proposal were a picturesque Dutch antique tucked away in a corner instead of a forest of high-tech turbines dominating the landscape; and as if the community were a gang of global warming deniers instead of solid citizens trying to protect their neighborhood’s lifestyle and property values.
This approach literally adds insult to injury. It adds the outrage of dishonest disrespect to the substantive downsides of the wind farm itself.
It’s not as if the company stood a chance of persuading the opponents that their opposition was foolish, that a wind farm would be a good thing for the neighborhood. If you think you can hoodwink people into misperceiving their own self-interest, you’re welcome to try (though it’s a horribly disrespectful thing to do, and I’m not interested in helping). But in decades of outrage management consulting, I have very rarely seen it work. And the cost of trying is a whole lot of additional outrage.
(There’s an exception I have to acknowledge: economic policy. Legions of working class people have been successfully persuaded to see themselves as potentially wealthy some day, and thus to oppose tax increases that would diminish their hypothetical future wealth. Whether you see this as an example of false consciousness or of ambition and social mobility depends on your politics. But at least in principle, currently low-income people who would benefit from higher taxes on the affluent might eventually become high-income people who would be damaged by those taxes.)
Unless they’re promised a share of the proceeds, it’s hard to see how the neighbors of a LULU – a wind farm, a pipeline, an infectious disease lab, a shale gas well, etc. – could end up better off than if the LULU were a few miles down the road.
So what you need to say is the literal truth:
I can certainly understand why many people in town oppose our wind farm. Even though it’s environmentally a much better way to generate electricity than a traditional gas-fired or coal-fired power plant, it’s a far-from-perfect neighbor. Wind farms make noise. Most people think they’re ugly. And living with a wind farm means living with high-tension transmission lines to get the power to where it’s needed. Understandably, many people have concluded that a wind farm here would damage the neighborhood’s quality-of-life and possibly even its property values. I think a modern wind farm does less local damage than many of you are imagining, but it does do some local damage.
Having acknowledged that your opponents are right, you might be able to appeal to neighborhood altruism. And then you would proceed in one of three familiar directions – negotiate, coerce, or quit:
- Maybe you decide to improve the neighborhood’s business case for accepting the wind farm – that is, you decide to negotiate. Your candor will help reduce their outrage, so they’re better able to hear what you’re offering to sweeten the pot. They might even start thinking about what sort of counteroffer they could make.
- Maybe you decide to go ahead with your wind farm without any negotiation – that is, you decide to coerce. The townspeople will naturally experience some outrage at the coercion on top of their outrage at the wind farm – but at least they’re not experiencing still further outrage at your pretense of bewilderment about why they oppose the project. Coercing people you’re leveling with, in other words, arouses less outrage than coercing people you’re lying to.
- Maybe you decide to give up and look elsewhere, judging that you can’t afford to sweeten the pot much and you can’t successfully site your wind farm over strong local opposition. At least you leave the community feeling well-disposed toward you; you made an honest proposal, got turned down, and left. That’s a very different feeling than “We beat the bastards!” The difference will matter if you ever have to do business in town on another issue.
A very common fourth strategy is a combination of the first two. For example, you could decide to coerce the community into accepting the wind farm (assuming you have the power to do so), but agree to negotiate over lots of details: how many turbines, exactly where, what noise-reduction provisions, what compensating benefits, etc. Here too, conceding that local opposition is rational is a prerequisite to being heard calmly when you start to explain what you’re willing to negotiate and what you’re not.
The only strategy you’re ruling out by acknowledging that the locals have good reasons to oppose your wind farm is the strategy of hoodwinking people into misperceiving their own self-interest. That was never an honest option, and always a reputation-damaging long shot. Ruling it out is no loss.
The “outrage management strategy” we are discussing here is basic common sense: When your opponents are right, and they know they’re right, and there’s no way you’re going to convince them they’re not right, tell them they’re right.
Common sense or not, my clients find it hard to adhere to this advice. In a recent conversation with one client, I made the case that eventually it would probably be necessary to sweeten the pot. I continued:
You can’t do it yet. People are too outraged right now to respond well to any offer you put forward. They’re too outraged to negotiate. They’d just see an offer from you as a bribe. But eventually, after you get their outrage under better control, then there’s a good chance they’ll start to get greedy instead. That’s a good thing. If they’re making demands instead of you making offers, if you’re feeling blackmailed instead of them feeling bribed, that’ll be real progress.
“I understand that,” the client responded. “I’m ready to be blackmailed. I’m looking forward to it. I have stuff I can give, once they start asking. Boy, am I ready to be blackmailed!”
And yet this client’s organization has never publicly conceded that the project in question isn’t (yet) a good deal for many in the neighborhood. Instead, proponents continue to imply that the project’s local benefits will be greater than they’re actually likely to be. And they continue to be disingenuous about the project’s local risks, rebutting the erroneous or exaggerated concerns without conceding the valid ones… far less pointing out additional valid ones the locals haven’t picked up on yet.
This client knows it must sweeten the pot in order to reduce local opposition, and it fully intends to do so. The client is wisely waiting for opposition outrage to calm down before launching a serious negotiation. And it’s working on some ways to calm the outrage. But the client is unwisely continuing to pretend that the project is already a good deal and its local opponents are being foolish. That pretense can only prolong and exacerbate opponents’ outrage – making it much harder to progress to negotiation.
Acknowledging that a project’s opponents are right (when they are) is essential to reducing their outrage.
Obviously, your opponents are unlikely to be completely right, or you wouldn’t be trying to site your project in the first place. You have a case to make too. I’m not telling you to make your opponents’ case instead of your own. I’m telling you to make your opponents’ case as well as your own. By all means explain that the newest wind turbines are quieter than earlier generations. By all means explain that the turbines are spaced further apart than they used to be, diminishing the dense industrial look of early wind farms. By all means explain that a wind farm can attract new industry and new jobs. By all means emphasize that there is a desperate need for energy sources that don’t contribute to pollution and global warming.
But don’t neglect to acknowledge that despite all of the above it is a rare community indeed that welcomes a wind farm with open arms.
Instead of “acknowledge that your opponents are right,” perhaps I should phrase this principle a bit differently: Acknowledge the ways in which your opponents are right. That version applies even in the basic low-hazard, high-outrage (or strong-business-case, high-outrage) paradigm for outrage management. Even when your opponents are mostly wrong, even when the evidence is mostly on your side, good outrage management requires you to concede your opponents’ best arguments.
In outrage management seminars, I call this staking out the middle. In any controversy, the side that is trying to increase people’s outrage gets to exaggerate – to sell its strongest arguments while ignoring or even distorting the good arguments of its opponents. But the side that is trying to reduce people’s outrage doesn’t get to do that; instead, it should acknowledge its opponents’ strongest arguments, integrating them into its own messages.
Why this asymmetry? It’s a kind of conservativeness. Exaggerated, one-sided warnings are seen as a social service; they alert us to a possible problem. Exaggerated, one-sided reassurances, on the other hand, are a social disservice; they distract us from a possible problem. A well-fought controversy, therefore, is always a fight between the outrage-arousing extreme and the outrage-reducing middle. (For more on staking out the middle, see “Rule 4” of my column on “The Outrage Industries.”)
So if you’re partly right and on the alarming side of a controversy, you can usually get away with telling just the alarming part of the truth. But if you’re partly right and on the reassuring side of the controversy, you would be wise to tell the whole truth… even the part that’s alarming. Whether you consider it ethically acceptable to tell only part of the truth is between you and your conscience. But if you’re on the alarming side, it’ll usually work for you. If you’re on the reassuring side, it’ll usually backfire.
The same principle applies whether you’re half right or 90% right or even 99.99% right. In the controversy over vaccination and autism, for example, I believe the vast majority of the truth is on the pro-vaccination side. But there are still a few valid anti-vaccination factoids – accurate bits of information that, by themselves, tend to suggest that vaccines might be linked to autism. When vaccination proponents ignore or distort this tiny portion of the truth that favors the anti-vaccination cause, they are making a huge strategic error. By far the strongest anti-vaccination argument is the failure of proponents to be fully candid. Of course the anti-vaccination side ignores or distorts far more of the truth than the pro-vaccination side. But they’re “allowed” to; they’re trying to warn people. It’s the side that’s trying to reassure people that needs to be scrupulous about staking out the middle.
I always have a tough time convincing clients who are 99.99% right that they ought to go out of their way to concede the other side’s tiny percentage of the truth. I can understand that. It’s not fair. But it is the way outrage works: However unevenly the truth is distributed, the reassuring side in a controversy isn’t free to exaggerate the way the alarming side is.
But when you’re on the reassuring side and you’re mostly wrong, at least then you ought to get the message. Don’t try to tell people your project has more benefits than costs and risks for them when it actually doesn’t. Concede that, for them, your project’s costs and risks exceed its benefits, and that they are therefore right to oppose you. Then decide whether you’re going to negotiate with them or coerce them (or some combination of the two)… or walk away from the project.
Acknowledge How Much Power Your Opponents Have
When there’s no business case for your project from a stakeholder’s point of view – and that stakeholder is therefore right to oppose you as a matter of rational self-interest – your only real options are to negotiate, to coerce the stakeholder, or to walk away from the project.
Which option you pick will depend largely on the distribution of power. If you’re more powerful than the stakeholder, coercion is a feasible option (though it has costs, among them increased outrage). If the stakeholder is more powerful than you, coercion is infeasible and negotiation and withdrawal are your only remaining options.
So my clients routinely assess the power of their various stakeholders – all kinds of power: the power to beat you in the courts; the power to command political attention or media attention; the power to turn out street demonstrators; the power to convince third parties (and even your own shareholders) that you are morally in the wrong; etc.
Interestingly, my clients typically view this information about stakeholder power as confidential intelligence. In particular, they are very reluctant to share it with the stakeholders themselves. My clients seem to think it’s in their interest for their stakeholders to misjudge their own power.
I don’t agree. Stakeholders who think they are more powerful than they actually are tend to keep fighting when they should rationally give up or at least offer to negotiate terms. I can’t see any reason for wanting to keep an opponent feeling inaccurately powerful. And keeping an opponent feeling inaccurately powerless is more harmful still. Stakeholders who think they are less powerful than they actually are tend to throw extremely damaging temper tantrums. Feeling powerless makes them act recklessly, and because they’re actually pretty powerful their recklessness does far more damage than they had expected or even intended.
You are assessing your stakeholders’ power compared to your own so you can make a rational decision whether to negotiate, coerce, or quit. You should want your stakeholders to make the same assessment, so they too can rationally decide whether to negotiate, coerce (that is, stop you), or quit.
Consider the wind farm client I mentioned earlier. It was better outrage management for my client to concede that the neighborhood had rational reasons to oppose the wind farm than to pretend that its opposition was foolish. What about being similarly candid about the neighborhood’s power?
The company judged that the neighborhood’s power was insufficient to stop the wind farm. The state legislature had decreed that there must be more wind power generation, and had established a fast-track approvals process for wind farm proposals. In essence, the fix was in. Coercion was feasible. But coercion wouldn’t be cost-free. The company would inevitably take a reputational hit for riding roughshod over the locals. Lawyers, lobbyists, and PR people would put in billable time shepherding the coercion process through to completion. And the delay would mean more money invested in unproductive land options and more time before the project started contributing to the bottom line. On balance, the company decided, it might be cheaper to find a way to reconcile the neighborhood to the project – that is, to negotiate instead of coercing.
Candor about power was essential to accomplishing this goal. The company told the opponents something like this:
Objectively, this wind farm is good for the world, the country, and the state, but it’s not necessarily good for your neighborhood. So it makes sense that you’ll stop us if you can.
But our political advisors tell us you can’t. They tell us you can probably delay us, and that will cost us some money. But the project will still make financial sense for us, and it will still go through in the end.
Of course you’ll want to get your own political advice; there’s no reason why you should trust ours! But if your advisors tell you what our advisors are telling us – that in the end this project will happen – then you might want to think about whether it’s better to keep fighting or to negotiate a truce.
We estimate that it will cost us about eight million dollars to win out over your objections.
We’re prepared to spend the eight million. But we’d rather spend it making the wind farm a better deal for your community. We’re not going to spend the money twice. We’ll either spend it fighting against local opposition or we’ll spend it mitigating the downsides of the wind farm and providing some local benefits.
Of course if you think you can win, you’ll probably want to continue the battle. But if you decide you can’t win, you might want to start negotiating soon over what it would take for you to withdraw your objections.
Telling people they’re powerless to stop your project inevitably generates some short-term outrage. So after saying something like this it’s important to get out of the way for a while, so your stakeholders can slowly and privately come to terms with the painful truth … and decide for themselves whether they want to fight a futile battle or negotiate a consolation prize.
In this case, the watershed in the controversy occurred when the community came back and told my client its $8 million estimate was way low. “It’s worth more like $15 million to you to get us onboard,” community leaders asserted – and the negotiation was launched. This outcome would have been impossible without the company’s candor about the distribution of power.
In the wind farm example, it was essential to convince the community that it wasn’t as powerful as it imagined. Here’s an example from the opposite edge of the spectrum: when stakeholders are more powerful than they imagine.
In this case my client was a gold company, seeking to start a gold mine in a desert area of the U.S. When the company first came to me, it had already calculated that getting the necessary permits was a long shot. “The enviros have a de facto veto,” company officials told me. “There’s no way we’ll ever get permitted unless most of the green organizations at least stay neutral.”
So I suggested giving the area’s ENGOs (environmental non-government organizations) a guaranteed veto. “Hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card,” I suggested, “an enforceable promise that you won’t even apply for the permits unless they agree that you should.”
“Why should we give the activists a veto!” my client instantly objected. The answer is obvious. In the company’s judgment, the activists already had a veto. But they didn’t know it – or at least they didn’t trust that it was so. As a result, they were very skittish about sitting down with the company. With a veto guarantee in their back pocket, they could afford to explore the possibility, however remote, that there just might be something they’d want more than to exercise that veto. (See the discussion of this principle – though not this case – in my article on “Getting to Maybe: Some Communication Aspects of Siting Hazardous Waste Facilities.”)
The resulting negotiation ended in an agreement to let the mine proceed. (It never got very far; apparently there wasn’t as much gold there as my client had hoped.) Among the terms that ultimately persuaded the ENGOs to stay neutral, two stick in my mind as good examples of the merger of self-interest negotiation with outrage management:
- The company agreed to write all permit conditions into a separate contract with the ENGOs, independently enforceable under contract law. If you’re a company that intends to obey its permit requirements, the cost of obliging yourself again to meet the same requirements is essentially zero. But if you’re an activist group that suspects regulators are in the back pocket of industry, the value of an enforcement hammer of your own is huge. If the mine had panned out, and if mine management had been environmentally sound, the ENGOs would have been able to take credit. And if there had been environmental problems, the ENGOs would have been able to take action.
- The company agreed to pay the ENGOs a small royalty on every ton of ore mined. The agreement further provided that every year the ENGOs would meet, without company officials, to vote on whether environmental management at the mine was satisfactory. If they voted yes, they could spend their royalty on whatever environmental priorities they wished. If they voted no, they were obliged by contract to spend the royalty on mine mitigation. The royalty provision thus became a reciprocal accountability mechanism. The ENGOs had a weapon to go after serious mine mismanagement, but they also had an incentive to avoid overreacting to minor problems at the mine.
Here, too, negotiation began with candor about the distribution of power.
This has been a long column 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.
Postscript: Outrage Management in a Genuine Crisis
In my generic model of risk communication, a high-hazard, high-outrage situation is a crisis. People are rightly upset because they are genuinely endangered. The risk communication job isn’t to decrease their outrage (they need it to motivate action) or to increase their outrage (it’s high enough already) – the job is to help them bear their outrage and harness it to wise rather than unwise precautions.
Most crises occur in three phases, each with its own characteristic risk communication task:
- Pre-crisis phase. Despite evidence that the crisis may be on its way, it hasn’t struck yet and many people are having trouble taking it seriously. The situation is high-hazard, low-outrage. The risk communication task is precaution advocacy.
- Mid-crisis phase. The crisis has struck, or is clearly about to strike. People are justifiably upset. The situation is high-hazard, high-outrage. The risk communication task is crisis communication.
- Post-crisis phase. Now that the crisis has passed, the recriminations begin. People aim their outrage at whoever they think caused the crisis or didn’t prepare for it properly. The situation is low-hazard (because the hazard has passed), high-outrage. The risk communication task is outrage management. (Ideally, you might also try to do some precaution advocacy about the next crisis – consolidating lessons learned and building support for future preparedness.)
If you’re warning stakeholders about a possible future hurricane or infectious disease outbreak, you’re doing precaution advocacy. If you’re guiding stakeholders through a hurricane or outbreak that’s imminent or already here, you’re doing crisis communication. The time for outrage management is after the hurricane or the outbreak.
That’s what I’ve always said. In contrast, my wife and colleague Jody Lanard routinely tells her crisis communication clients that outrage management is part of the job. She’s right, and it’s time I said so.
It is certainly true that outrage management shouldn’t become your major focus until after the crisis is over. You have more important things to do while the crisis is raging.
Nonetheless, even while the crisis is raging it is wise to pay some attention to outrage management. For one thing, a little preventive outrage management in mid-crisis can help reduce the fervor of the post-crisis recriminations. Even more important, some kinds of outrage in mid-crisis can distract people from taking needed precautions. Managing that outrage can help them stay focused on what matters most.
In a crisis, there is “good outrage” and “bad outrage.” The good outrage focuses people on what they’re facing and what they need to do about it. It’s mostly fear. The bad outrage focuses people on who’s responsible for what they’re facing, and how inadequate their response has been. It’s mostly anger. Even anger can be useful in mid-crisis if it’s aimed at the source of the crisis. During a terrorist attack, for example, anger at the terrorists makes people better able to tolerate their fear without going into denial, and thus facilitates precaution-taking. But anger at how the crisis is being managed only distracts people from the precautions they should be taking.
Doing a good job of managing mid-crisis anger has two benefits, then. The less important benefit is that you can ease the outrage management burden to come during the post-crisis recriminations phase. The more important benefit is that while the crisis is ongoing you can keep people attentive to their fear rather than their anger, to coping rather than blaming.
The most fundamental way to mitigate mid-crisis anger is to acknowledge and apologize for mid-crisis mistakes. This is in keeping with the principle of the risk communication seesaw. If you candidly acknowledge what you did wrong, your stakeholders can stay focused on what they must do now. But if you shy away from admitting your mistakes, it’s much harder for your stakeholders to move beyond them.
There are endless examples of this process in action. Think about the revelations that Chinese producers put melamine in milk products. Melamine is a poisonous industrial chemical that masquerades as protein. In 2008, melamine in infant formula sent tens of thousands of Chinese children to the hospital with kidney stones. If you live in the West and don’t consume Chinese-made milk products (or think you don’t), this is a scandal. If you live in Asia it’s both an outrage and a crisis. A few of the companies and governments involved (Taiwan’s King Car, for example) were appropriately apologetic. Most were not.
Or think about the economic collapse of October 2008. The people and companies behind collateralized debt obligations and similarly byzantine financial instruments have a lot to apologize for, as do the governments that failed to regulate them properly. But apologies have been few and far between. In the U.S. (among other countries), high outrage and poor outrage management have significantly undermined public support for government efforts to manage the crisis.
There were many risk communication errors during the 2005 debacle of Hurricane Katrina. But certainly one of the biggest was the failure of those who were managing hurricane response to acknowledge and share the widespread impression that they were failing abysmally.
On September 8, while the crisis was still unfolding, I posted my column on “Katrina: Hurricanes, Catastrophes, and Risk Communication.” It included this passage:
I spent part of the Labor Day weekend on the telephone with one of the dozens of federal agencies that are struggling 24–7 to get their arms around this horrible event….
Like everyone else, they must be wishing that they had been better prepared. They may even feel that they should have been better prepared. If they’re typical of emergency response professionals, in fact, they’ve probably spent years insisting that they ought to be better prepared – and arguing as persuasively as they could for the budget with which to become better prepared. But now they and their colleagues are under attack. And so they are making one of the most common mistakes in the book: aggressively “assuring” the public that they are doing a good job.
Elsewhere I have called this the “preparedness seesaw.” It’s much harder to be self-critical when you’re being criticized. But self-critical is the right stance right now. “There have been some awful glitches in getting the right supplies to the people who needed them most.” “If only we had acted more quickly on the warnings about levee vulnerability.” “Our confidence about national emergency preparedness has taken a body blow. After the worst is over, we will need to take a hard look at ourselves.” …
Instead, the conflict of perspectives has been stark. Again and again, for days, citizens complained bitterly about being left to die. Then some official came on screen with a paean to the initiative, self-sacrifice, and wonderful spirit of cooperation displayed by all the responders. Then a reporter asked the official what about those complaints. And the official repeated the paean. The worst and most common official response to the complaints was to ignore them, to speak as if there were no complaints, to stay doggedly “on message” even when reporters asked about the complaints. Even those officials who managed to concede that the emergency response effort had been “imperfect” made the word sound more like a defense than an apology. Emergency response efforts are always imperfect, they invariably added, before “bridging” to yet another paean to emergency responder heroism.
The alternative, nearly as bad, was to tick off the reasons why instantaneous rescue wasn’t possible: Local responders were themselves victimized by the disaster; nonlocal responders had had to move their equipment safely away from the storm, then work their way back; help needed to be requested before it could be provided; it took time to transition from hurricane response to flood response; a helicopter can’t drop food and water on the Superdome while it is simultaneously rescuing a family from its attic; etc. These are all valid points. But people who endured the trauma of those first few days, even those who endured the trauma vicariously on television, needed officials to share their visceral feeling that the response just wasn’t good enough. They didn’t need to hear a rebuttal.
Management of the anthrax attacks of 2001 wasn’t as fiercely criticized as management of Hurricane Katrina a few years later. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made one major technical error in the early days of the anthrax crisis: The CDC didn’t realize that weaponized anthrax spores could escape a sealed envelope to threaten postal workers. By the time it realized its mistake, several postal facilities were contaminated and several postal workers were dying.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, who headed up the CDC’s anthrax response (and is now Director of the CDC), was devastated by this error. But she thought it would be unprofessional to dwell on it; she judged that it was important to focus instead on what to do to protect postal workers who might have been exposed.
To its credit, the CDC certainly hadn’t tried to keep its error secret. Postal workers knew what had happened. The question was how often CDC spokespeople should keep mentioning it. My advice, grounded in the risk communication seesaw, was to do so as often and apologetically as possible, especially in interactions with postal workers.
I think some CDC officials saw this advice as unfair or unfeeling. I didn’t mean it to be. I realize how difficult it is to guess right about new risks and how painful it is to have guessed wrong. For a science-based organization like the CDC, the need to act on incomplete data is itself painful – but in a bioterrorism crisis the need is unavoidable, and so error is unavoidable as well. What is essential is to focus enough on your errors to free the rest of us to focus on coping with the crisis.
As these examples illustrate, the key element in mid-crisis outrage management is to acknowledge apologetically what went wrong… or, more specifically, what you did wrong (or failed to do right).
Here are some of the others:
- Predict errors before they happen. As the World Health Organization’s David Heymann put it during the SARS crisis: “We are building our boat and sailing it at the same time.” In plainer English: We’re figuring things out as we go along, and we’re going to get some things wrong.
- Start talking early in the crisis, even if you’re uncertain about many details. Don’t let the information vacuum be filled by critics and rumor-mongers while you wait for definitive proof.
- Acknowledge your uncertainty. Sounding confident about uncertain information will exacerbate the outrage when you turn out wrong (as you inevitably sometimes will).
- Don’t over-reassure. If people get the sense that you care more about calming them than informing them, trust will be undermined and you won’t be able to do either one.
- Sound and look concerned. In their effort to seem professional, crisis managers sometimes come across as indifferent. If it’s been a hellish night for you, let it show. If it’s been a hellish night for your neighbors, say so (apologetically).
- Don’t ridicule people’s fears. Ban words like “panic,” “irrational,” and “hysterical” from your vocabulary. Focus on validating that of course people are upset. This is an upsetting situation. You’re upset too.
- Get people involved. Sharing control is a part of any outrage management strategy. In a crisis, sharing control means giving people things to do to help protect themselves, their families, and their communities. It also means giving them things to decide – choices about what to do.
- Don’t lie or tell misleading half-truths. The temptation to tell less than the whole truth in a crisis is almost overwhelming. If you give in to that temptation, odds are you’ll get caught sooner or later, and you’ll pay the price in outrage.
At a minimum, mid-crisis outrage management means trying not to do things that will arouse still more outrage – “bad outrage,” outrage at you rather than at the crisis itself.
Imagine that you’re an Indonesian poultry farmer. Your entire livelihood depends on your flock. But now your livelihood is threatened. The authorities want to come and kill all your chickens.
Here’s why. A few days ago, bird flu was discovered in the chickens of another poultry farmer on the other side of your village. The authorities have already “culled” (that is, killed) your neighbor’s chickens – not just the sick ones, but also the healthy ones, because the best way to stop the spread of many infectious animal diseases is to kill the animals that might have been exposed before they can spread the disease still further. As a further step to stop the spread of the disease, the authorities have decided to kill every chicken within ten kilometers of the infected flock – and that means all your chickens are due to die.
Why is the government so keen on stopping the spread of bird flu? One reason is that this type of bird flu is highly contagious and highly deadly among chickens, and chickens are an important source of both protein and income in Indonesia. But there’s another reason. Every outbreak of this bird flu in poultry is yet another opportunity for the bird flu virus to mutate to a new strain that can be transmitted easily to and among humans – launching a potentially devastating human influenza pandemic. People in the rest of the world therefore have a stake in making sure all the birds in your Indonesian village are culled.
The prospect of losing your poultry flock and thus your livelihood is, of course, an economic crisis for you. When the authorities show up in your farmyard asking you to cooperate in the culling process, they’ll be doing crisis communication.
But they’d better be doing outrage management too. Culling all the chickens in your village is a “project” that’s good for the world but bad for the village, and very bad for the village’s poultry farmers, including you.
In most of the bird flu culling efforts I have looked at, the consortium of local, national, and international agencies managing the cull pursue a strategy remarkably similar to the strategy of proponents of pipelines and other controversial projects. In fact, they’re worse than most of the industrial project proponents I have worked with. They are dishonest and contemptuous. And so they provoke outrage and resistance.
Their biggest risk communication sin: They pretend the culling is in the interest of the farmers whose cooperation they are seeking. In particular, they “warn” local farmers that bird flu threatens their health and the health of their families, and they claim that culling is therefore in the farmers’ best interest. If this isn’t actually a lie, it is surely a knowing exaggeration. Until the virus mutates (at which point it will threaten us all), bird flu passes only with the greatest difficulty from birds to humans. Farmers with sick flocks are certainly likelier to get the disease than people who don’t hang out with chickens at all, but they are still very unlikely to get the disease.
So there you are, talking to the authorities in your farmyard. You know there’s a good chance the bird flu infection won’t ever spread to your flock at all. If it does, the health risk to your family will be elevated but still small. At that point maybe you’ll let your birds be culled; or maybe you’ll hide the outbreak, slaughter and sell your birds, and hope for the best. Certainly it doesn’t make sense for you to let your birds be culled now – to force your family into dire poverty when your birds aren’t even sick yet! That might be good for the world, because it would help slow the spread of bird flu in Indonesia and reduce the probability of a human flu pandemic. But it’s not good for you and your family. For you, there is simply no business case for culling your flock.
The most infuriating thing is that the officials standing there claiming otherwise know better. They’re trying to trick you into cooperating with their cull. They are pretending there is a business case for you to cull your flock.
As with any other locally controversial project, there are at least three paths forward for the bird flu cull:
- Negotiate: Make a business case for culling by offering to pay farmers for their chickens – if not their full market value, at least enough for the farmers to get started again.
- Appeal to altruism: Explain how important it is to stop this outbreak, and ask farmers to cooperate for the benefit of neighboring villages and the rest of the world.
- Coerce: Don’t give the farmers a choice. And expect a lot of outrage, a lot of resistance, and a lot of hidden chickens.
The optimal path forward is probably a combination of the three – plus a whole lot of outrage management. Certainly the dishonest, contemptuous, “we’re doing this for your own good” approach is far from optimal.
Crisis communication is mostly about harnessing people’s “good outrage,” using their justified fear of the crisis to motivate appropriate precautions. But outrage management also plays a role in crisis situations. It’s especially important for crisis managers to apologize for their mistakes, in order to reduce the “bad outrage” (anger at the crisis managers) those mistakes provoke. At a minimum, crisis managers should avoid exacerbating mid-crisis anger with dishonesty about who benefits and who suffers as a result of crisis management strategies.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter M. Sandman