A couple of months ago I was doing an “advanced training day” for a client I’ve been working with for about a year now, and someone asked if I could run through a “laundry list” of ways to reduce outrage. By that time the group pretty much understood the basic concepts, I was told. But a narrower checklist of specific things to do would be helpful. I said I’d published various articles on particular strategies, but nothing approaching a complete list. So we took an hour to brainstorm the beginnings of such a list, and came up with around 35 entries. I’ve worked on it off and on since then, arbitrarily aiming for a list of 50 outrage reducers.
Column Table of Contents
What follows isn’t new; it’s all stuff I’ve said elsewhere, though never before all in one place. And the list still isn’t complete – I hit 50 and stopped. If you think of a strategy that’s missing – whether it’s from my work or from someone else’s or from your own experience – please email it to me using this form. I’ll massage it and add it to the list, with or without your name as you specify. And if any of the 50 doesn’t make sense to you, let me know that; maybe I’ll expand it into a column of its own.
If most of what’s here strikes you as obvious, you’re a post-graduate outrage manager. Use the column as a handy reference list to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, and try to develop some more techniques for me to add. If most of what’s here strikes you as crazy, you’re an outrage management novice (or, of course, it’s crazy). You might want to read something else on my site instead, something that covers less ground with more explanations and examples. If you’re somewhere in the middle, the column may fill an important niche.
Giving Bad News
1. Tell people bad news they already know.
If people already know something that’s alarming to them and/or damagingto you – which is what I mean by “bad news” – you may feel there’s not much point in telling them again. You’re wrong. Confirming that yes, your factory belched some more smelly dimethylmeatloaf last night nails down the facts and squelches rumors. It also gets you credit for candor. If you can add useful detail, that’s fine; if you can’t, just saying that’s all you know so far is enormously better than saying nothing. The client I initially generated this list for is a commuter railroad. Passenger outrage when a train stops moving, this client has discovered, is greatly reduced when a staff person comes on the squawk box, even if all the staffer can say is that s/he doesn’t know yet why the light is red or when it will turn green.
2. Repeat high-salience bad news again and again.
People want to hear from you more than once about really significant mistakes or misbehaviors. In fact, they want to hear about them again and again – until they’re sick of the topic; not until you’re sick of it (which is instantaneous). Wallowing in damaging information is by far the best way to get past it. We tire of it faster if you keep raising it than if we have to do the dirty work. (This is one of many examples of “the seesaw of risk communication.”) Assuming Enron survives the current scandal, how long will it be before the company should issue a financial report without mentioning the bankruptcy of 2001?
3. Be sorry about bad news.
Being sorry has three components. First, you must show that you regret it happened. (But don’t use the word “regret” – it has become a legalistic weasel word.) Second, you must show that you sympathize with those who were damaged. (Again, “sympathy” is no longer a very sympathetic word.) Third and most important, you must apologize for your role in its happening. No credit for apologizing in the conditional. “I’m sorry if anyone was upset.” “What do you mean, if?” Apologizing requires knowing what you did and why it upset us. But apologizing doesn’t have to mean acknowledging liability. It doesn’t even have to mean acknowledging you made a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t your fault and anyone else in your position would have fallen into the same hole. (At the start of the U.S. anthrax attacks, for example, the Centers for Disease Control didn’t realize that anthrax spores might escape a sealed envelope.) You’ve still got to be sorry.
4. Tell people bad news they’re going to find out anyway.
This is too obvious to belabor: Better we should hear it from you. But I am amazed how often my clients postpone and thus worsen the inevitable by waiting until an activist, journalist, or regulator breaks the bad news.
5. Consider telling people bad news they probably won’t find out anyway.
The toughest case for candor is when you can probably get away with secrecy. There are two reasons to think about telling the truth even in this situation (apart from law – I’m assuming your lawyer says you don’t have to tell). First, you might get caught after all. Damaging information generates roughly twenty times more outrage when you keep it secret and somebody else blows the whistle than when you blow the whistle on yourself. It follows that secrecy has to have a better than 95% success rate to cost out; if secrecy works only 80 or 90 percent of the time, candor pays. The second reason is subtler. When you reveal damaging information you didn’t have to reveal, you earn a reputation for transparency. People begin to notice that when you do something wrong, you say so; it follows that when you don’t say so, you didn’t do anything wrong. “That odor can’t be from the chemical plant or they would have called.”
6. Tell people news that isn’t bad but might sound bad to them.
The information my clients are least likely to give their stakeholders is benign information that doesn’t sound benign. Your plant’s solid waste includes a substance that’s listed as a possible human carcinogen. But there’s no exposure pathway, so there’s no risk – none, zilch. You still need to tell people about it. If they find out any other way, they will be far less likely to accept your (belated) argument that the stuff is safe even though carcinogenic. Last year a Canadian chemical plant had a fire. It was readily visible to plant neighbors, but there were no significant toxic emissions, so rather than wake people up management simply put out the fire. The dialogue in the ensuing weeks and months was far more hostile than it would have been if management had used its alert system that night to tell neighbors the fire was under control.
7. If you haven’t given people much bad news in the past, explain the change.
Since most companies and government agencies serve up an unbalanced diet of mostly good news, the rest of us get used to adjusting. We assume you’re only giving us, say, one-tenth of the bad news, so we multiply everything bad by ten. When you start being candid, it may take us a while to notice and stop multiplying. To short-circuit that awkward transition period, simply explain: “It’s not that things are much worse than they used to be; it’s just that we’re telling you things we used to keep to ourselves.”
8. Don’t blindside anybody.
Every time you have bad news to convey, think hard about whom to convey it to. Even when it’s debatable whether to tell the general public, it should be a no-brainer to tell activists, political leaders, regulators, and other key stakeholders. They’re the people who are likeliest to find out anyway, and likeliest to be angry that you didn’t tell them. Once you decide to tell some stakeholders, of course, you’d better tell all the stakeholders who will otherwise be offended they weren’t on your A list – which means critics in particular. And if you are going to release the news publicly after all, give an early heads-up to your key stakeholders, and to anyone else the media are likely to call for comment (a local expert, for example). Tell your employees in advance as well, so they can explain things to their neighbors. Anyone you have blindsided will, when asked about what happened, choose to sound critical rather than sounding ignorant.
9. When explaining the causes of bad news, consider the stupidity defense.
Whenever something bad happens on your watch, there are essentially four possible explanations for why it happened: (1) You were unlucky (the gods did it); (2) You were victimized (somebody else did it); (3) You were stupid (you did it by mistake); and (4) You were evil (you did it on purpose).Of course the truth – which is what you should be trying to tell – is usually a mixture, and either number three or number four is usually part of the mix. Usually it’s number three. But unless you specify three, people are likely to jump to the fourth explanation. So if you really didn’t do it on purpose, admitting the ways you were stupid is crucial to keep us from imagining you were evil. “I can’t believe we made such a boneheaded mistake!” You can use the stupidity defense even when bad luck and others’ misbehavior were also part of the mix: “We should have found the problem quicker and been better prepared to deal with it.” Lawyer won’t let you say that? Try: “I wish we had found….”
Giving Good News
10. Tell people the good news too!
I put so much emphasis on the importance of giving people damaging information, my clients sometimes imagine I think that’s the only information they should give people. This misimpression doesn’t seem to keep them from dishing out lots of self-serving information anyway. But it is a misimpression. Withholding reassuring information is a disservice to your stakeholders, as well as to yourself. I’m not really worried that you might do it, but for the record: Don’t withhold good news.
11. Acknowledge incredibility.
Whenever you tell people something you know they’re going to have trouble believing, tell them they’re going to have trouble believing it. Tell them why – because it’s self-serving; because common-sense says otherwise; because everybody else is on the other side; whatever. Acknowledge that the burden of proof is on you. Only after acknowledging incredibility can you productively try to meet that burden of proof and change their minds. It helps if you can honestly relate your own conversion: “That’s what I thought when I first took this job. It took them weeks to convince me I was wrong.”
12. Anticipate and acknowledge objections.
In principle, good news for you should be good news for your stakeholders too (“our emissions won’t give you cancer”). But embattled activists and outraged neighbors won’t see it that way. They’ll have objections. Typically you not only know they’ll have objections; you know what their objections will be. You may be tempted to ignore their objections and just make your case. If you do that, they’ll be thinking more about their objections than about your case as they listen. Better to address the objections early and explicitly. Rebut the ones you can rebut (after acknowledging that it’s natural to feel that way). Concede the validity of the objections that have some validity. Overall, talk less about your case and more about their objections and your responses.
13. Make the good news subordinate to the bad news.
When people are worried or mistrustful (or both), good news is intrinsically not very credible. It becomes more credible when it’s accompanied by the bad news, and subordinate to the bad news. “Even though this product has been approved by the regulators as safe for human consumption, there is a new study that suggests one of its ingredients could cause an allergic reaction in some individuals.” “Even though the data say the building has been cleaned and workers can safely return, it’s only human to worry whether there might still be dangerous dust in the air.” In the main clause you give people permission to be concerned; in the subordinate clause you explain why they probably don’t have to be concerned. This is another instance of the seesaw. If you do it right, people should start telling you not to worry so much.
14. Acknowledge that self-serving information is self-serving.
Whenever I tell clients that they should think about doing more risk communication training, I immediately add that they should take the recommendation with a grain of salt, since it comes from someone who sells risk communication training. One of the easiest ways to bolster the credibility of self-serving information is to acknowledge that it is self-serving.
15. Try to leave the good news for other sources.
Third-party endorsements are another way of making the good news more credible; let it come from somebody else. Of course an endorser that’s widely known as your ally or confederate won’t help much (ask Arthur Andersen). A neutral third party isn’t bad, but the best endorsements come from your critics – which of course means that they will be half-hearted half-endorsements. A third-party quote in your corporate environmental report that says you’re a wonderfully responsible company is worth only slightly more than saying so yourself. What you want is a quote that says, “I’ve been fighting with them for years, but I have to admit they’re beginning to clean up their act.” Your answer, ideally: “Well, thanks, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Giving Uncertain News
16. Acknowledge uncertainty.
There is no doubt that uncertainty exacerbates outrage; stakeholders would rather you were sure. But only if you really can be sure – that is, only if your certainty won’t blow up in your face. Sounding certain and turning out wrong generates enormous outrage. Note also that expert disagreement leads to far more outrage than mere uncertainty; it follows that even if you’re pretty sure you’ll turn out right in the end, you can afford to sound certain only if nobody credible is going to disagree. The rest of the time you must explain not only what you think, but also your understanding of what others think, and why the disagreement exists, and what you’re doing to learn more. Above all, you must explain just how uncertain you are, taking (and justifying) a position somewhere along the dimension between total certainty and total ignorance.
17. Don’t wait till you’re certain.
If sounding certain and turning out wrong generates so much outrage, and even acknowledging uncertainty generates a fair amount, why not just wait till you’re certain? That makes sense if interest, outrage, and hazard are all low; if nobody else is going to express an opinion while you’re hesitating; and if it won’t be long till you know for sure. The rest of the time, which is most of the time, you can’t afford to wait. In the wake of a potentially serious accident, for example, you can’t just tell people you’ll have a report out some time next spring. Like a doctor with an uncertain diagnosis, learn to explain the alternatives: “We think it’s probably X, but it might turn out to be Y or Z, or even something else we haven’t considered yet. Here’s what we’ll do about it if it is X. Here’s what we’ll do if it’s Y or Z. Here’s how we plan to find out more. And here’s what we’re doing in the meantime.”
18. Do dilemma-sharing.
Dilemma-sharing is a special case of uncertainty – uncertainty about what to do. As with any other sort of uncertainty, the principle is clear: If you’re not sure, show you’re not sure. This is most obvious when you haven’t decided what to do. Share the dilemma and seek advice. But dilemma-sharing is even more valuable when you have decided what to do, but it was a close decision. If you don’t want critics to claim your decision was obviously the wrong one, be sure not to claim it was obviously the right one. “We may be wrong” puts the debate on a much more reasonable, moderate path; it also saves your bacon if you turn out wrong in the end.
19. Show reasonable confidence when acknowledging uncertainty or sharing dilemmas.
Just because you’re not sure doesn’t mean you have to be quaking in your boots. Unless you actually are quaking in your boots, make sure you present your uncertainty confidently. (Don’t use the word “confident.” It sounds too certain. You want to sound uncertain, but not distraught.) I’m not urging you to send a double-message, claiming uncertainty with your words and certainty with your tone. Rather, I’m recommending that you model for your stakeholders an ability to tolerate uncertainty and still function.
20. Stake out the middle ground.
The dynamics of outrage are not symmetrical. Whenever you are trying to increase people’s outrage, exaggeration is a useful tool. There are limits beyond which the claim lacks credibility (and ethics), but within those limits the more you exaggerate the more outrage you will get. When you’re trying to diminish people’s outrage, on the other hand, exaggeration backfires. It follows that most well-fought controversies are battles between the outrage-increasing extreme and the outrage-reducing middle. If the fight is between their extreme and your extreme – that is, if they con you into a polarized debate – they win. Those of you who yearn for the pleasures of exaggeration, go join an activist group. When playing defense, exaggeration has no place in your playbook. Stake out the middle ground.
21. Don’t claim anything is “safe.”
Even more than other sorts of controversies, risk controversies are not symmetrical. Just like professional risk assessors, citizens judge risk conservatively; they would rather be unnecessarily cautious than dangerously cavalier. For this reason (and some others), those on the alarming side of a risk controversy can afford to make extreme statements, but those on the reassuring side can’t. In a fight between “perfectly safe” and “incredibly dangerous,” “incredibly dangerous” is a sure winner. But in a fight between “a little dangerous” and “incredibly dangerous,” “a little dangerous” is a contender. So don’t claim anything is “safe.” It’s safer than something else, or safer than some standard, or safer than it used to be. But it isn’t flat-out “safe.”
22. Tolerate exaggeration from opponents.
People on the alarming side of a risk controversy, or the outrage-arousing side of any controversy, are on strategically solid ground when they exaggerate. People on the reassuring, outrage-reducing side – your side – are wise to stake out the middle. So when you accuse critics of exaggerating how big the problem is, you come across as defensive and dishonest. Even if you’re right and we know it, we see their exaggeration as protective; we don’t resent it as much as we resent your pointing it out. (But if they catch you exaggerating how small the problem is, they’ve got you nailed. The controversy isn’t symmetrical. Get used to it.) When a passenger complained to my commuter railroad client that the train was 27 minutes late yesterday, the customer relations office responded with proof that the train was only 23 minutes late. Wrong move. Here’s a far better answer: “I bet it felt like an hour and 27 minutes!”
23. Ride the seesaw. In the long run, aim for the fulcrum.
I’ve already mentioned the risk communication seesaw, but it deserves its own place on the list. Whenever people are ambivalent – which isn’t always, but it’s more frequent than you might think – they tend to emphasize whichever side of the ambivalence you are neglecting. If you say the risk probability is low, they’ll say the magnitude is high. But if you stress how many people you might kill if things go really wrong, they’ll stress how vanishingly unlikely that is. And if you move to the middle of the seesaw, balancing two conflicting realities and enduring the ambivalence, so will they. There are lots of seesaws in outrage management, among them blame, preparedness, cost-benefit, and certainty as well as risk. First determine if your stakeholders are ambivalent. If they are, decide where on the seesaw you want them, and locate yourself in the counter-balancing position. Then work your (and their) way toward the fulcrum.
24. Talk less; listen more.
Well, we’ve covered 23 recommendations already. The column is getting long, I’m getting tired – and so are you – and so far it sounds like I think outrage management is all about talking better. My mistake. In managing people’s outrage, what you say is less important than what they say. Shut up and listen.
25. Let people blow off steam.
When outrage is high, people’s foremost need is to vent. Even apologizing won’t do any good until they’re done telling you how angry they are. (Married couples know this.) In really high-outrage situations, therefore, focus on creating opportunities for venting. If you face scores of outraged people, set up and endure a hostile public meeting. Don’t try to make any points; in fact, the first few times anyone challenges you for your answer, demur on the grounds that it seems to you people have more to say first. (Yes, this is the seesaw again.) If it’s just one or two people who need to vent, get them an invitation to your Community Advisory Panel. And if necessary quarrel (gently) with the panel in defense of their right to express their views … again and yet again. (Yep, the seesaw.) Unless there’s a safety emergency, the expression of stakeholder outrage should always preempt anything you might have to say.
26. Listen actively.
When you listen, listen actively. An occasional uh-huh is better than nothing, but you can do better than that. Take notes (but not constantly; take time to face your accuser as well). Periodically try to summarize what you think you are hearing, and ask if you’ve got it right. (For major meetings the notes should be on a flipchart and the summary should be written up and distributed the week after.) Look thoughtful, sympathetic, or penitant as appropriate; don’t look bored or frozen. Ask questions – clarifying questions, not hostile questions. Of course it is possible to do all these things in a way that strikes the rest of us as sarcastic or threatening. Your goal isn’t to go through the motions of listening while managing to convey that you don’t think much of what you’re hearing. Your goal is to get it … and show that you are getting it, or at least that you’re trying hard to get it.
27. Try to connect to what you are hearing.
In the literature this is sometimes called “empathic identification.” It goes beyond active listening to find a way to connect to what you are hearing. Remembering and using people’s names is a simple example. Retelling their stories is another. (An answer to a complaint letter should always summarize the complaint, preferably in detail. “You feel we did three things wrong….”) A more complicated version is trying to describe the issue at hand as your stakeholders see it, rather than just as you see it. For you, that leaking hazardous waste site may be about engineering: dikes and lysimeters and the like. For them, it’s about sinking property values and that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when someone says their children may get cancer in twenty years. At the most basic level, people would rather you told them about themselves – their experiences, their problems, their fears – than about you and your company. But empathic identification can backfire; read the next paragraph.
28. Be careful how you connect to what you are hearing.
My clients sometimes try to connect to what they are hearing in ways that backfire because they sound too much like the teacher praising a student for a good answer. “You’re right” may be a better response than “you’re wrong,” but it’s not as good as “I see what you mean.” Even “I see what you mean” can claim too much – “I know how you feel” is almost guaranteed to yield a “No you don’t!” Paradoxically, people feel more understood when you empathically say you don’t understand than when you smugly say you do; try murmuring “I can’t really imagine what that must be like.” For similar reasons, think twice before you tell a story about how you once faced a similar situation. This might be the perfect way to show you get it – or it might feel like you’re changing the subject from their grievances to your life history. Don’t steal the stage, and don’t claim too much understanding.
29. Find indirect ways to raise what you’re not hearing.
Often you get a sense that there’s something on people’s minds they’re reluctant to mention – and until it’s addressed somehow, you’re not going to be able to make things better. One very common example in risk controversies is people complaining about health risk who are actually more worried about economic risk. Even more common, in all sorts of controversies, is people whose apparent outrage at you is rooted in their own injured self-esteem. Whatever the unacknowledged issue, almost by definition you can’t raise it directly without giving offense. So you need to find indirect ways to get it into the room, if not quite onto the table: “Some people might be worried about….” “I talked to someone last week who felt…..” “I think if I were in your shoes the thing that would get to me is….”
30. Be human.
As community people get more and more passionate about a risk controversy, government and corporate experts tend to get more and more dispassionate. This forces both sides into caricatures of themselves: the uncaring technocrat versus the hysterical neighbor. Instead of dispassion, aim for compassion. And if compassion isn’t attainable, find in yourself a human response that is attainable, and go with that. When you’re accused of spreading disease through the neighborhood, even angry denial is better than calm absence of concern. More generally, look for ways to humanize your interactions. Eat together. Talk about other things during breaks. Ask after their families, and tell them about yours. You don’t want to be unprofessional, and you certainly don’t want to trivialize your critics’ concerns. But you do want to be a person.
31. Have a substantive response.
I have focused on the non-substantive side of listening. But substance obviously matters too. Ultimately, the most important way you show you have been listening is by changing in response to what you heard. Genuinely useful things are said in virtually every public interaction. They may be things you never thought of; more often they are things you considered and put aside – because there were higher priorities at the time, because someone inside your organization was opposed, whatever. The trick now is to put aside your own ego (and your management’s ego). Instead of looking for ways to tell people their suggestion won’t work, or claiming you were going to do it anyway, look for ways to adopt the suggestion or some version of it – and say so. Of course even explaining why a suggestion won’t work is more respectful and responsive than pretending it never came up.
32. Take warnings seriously.
The public comments that most require a substantive response are warnings that something bad might happen and you are insufficiently prepared to prevent it or cope with it. Every warning deserves an answer. And every warning that raises new questions deserves a reconsideration of the old answers. Obviously that doesn’t mean that you can afford to take every precaution your stakeholders can think of. But you can afford to think the issue through again and again, with your stakeholders’ help, trying to figure out if there are feasible and cost-effective approaches that will reduce the risk. Here’s a good way to make sure you don’t under-respond to warnings: Imagine that the possible outcome you’re being warned about has actually happened, and you must explain to the media and the regulators how you dealt with the warning.
33. Ask for help.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that the best way to make a new friend is to borrow his pen. Franklin was right. Lean on your stakeholders as much as you can – and the more critical they are, the more you should lean on them. Identify problems you haven’t solved yet and ask for your stakeholders’ advice. Describe choices you face and ask them which option they prefer … or whether they can think of another. Ask them what they remember about where the barrels were buried back in the fifties; ask them to keep a log of strange odors and where they seem to be coming from. Of course the tasks you set your stakeholders should be real tasks – don’t get them working on a project you have no intention of using. But don’t worry about asking for too much. A neighbor who wants you to back off and run your own factory is a big improvement over a neighbor who demands the right to run it for you. (There’s that seesaw again.)
34. Learn things together.
Every parent and primary school teacher knows that experiential learning is the best kind; we learn better by doing than by watching. This is much, much truer when the material to be learned is controversial, the “teacher” has a stake in the outcome, and the “students” are already mistrustful and upset. If you want your toxicology or epidemiology study to be credible, therefore, don’t do it yourself (or hire it out) and then report the results. Do it collaboratively with your stakeholders. Set up the research so you couldn’t cheat even if you wanted to, and you will make it very hard for the rest of us to claim you cheated. (Of course you’ll also make it hard for you to cheat if you don’t like the results; that’s the point.) The same thing is true on a moment-by-moment basis. Don’t rush to provide a piece of information if you can wait till we get it off the Internet instead. Better yet, get it off the Internet with us … and make sure it’s a stakeholder, not you, running the search.
35. Share control.
People are much less outraged by risks they control than by risks you control. That’s why nearly everyone feels safer behind the wheel of a car than in the passenger seat. It follows that to reduce people’s outrage you should share the control. Of course there are some decisions you are unable or unwilling to share; it’s your company. (Even in these cases you can ask for input and take it seriously.) On the other extreme, there should be decisions that matter much more to your stakeholders than they do to you, where you can go beyond sharing control to delegating control. In choosing which decisions fall where on this dimension, try to distinguish the promptings of your ego from the necessities of your business. And don’t forget to weigh the business value of reducing stakeholder outrage.
36. Be accountable.
Sharing control reliably reduces stakeholder outrage, but unfortunately it reliably increases corporate outrage. Accountability is a good compromise. If sharing control requires that you let stakeholders actually help drive the car, accountability requires only that you let them be backseat drivers, watching and criticizing as you drive. Accountability is also the best answer to mistrust. Instead of trying to get us to trust you, a difficult and dubious goal, try instead to make what you do more accountable, so we don’t have to trust you; we can check for ourselves. Once you install satellite emissions monitors in the lobby of the community rec center, neighbors will stop asking whether you’re telling the truth about your emissions.
37. Give credit where credit is due.
My clients are usually better at sharing control and being accountable than they are at giving away the credit. They actually do respond to stakeholder concerns, then paradoxically insist that “we were going to do that anyway.” This is of course irritating to the people who deserve the credit; it lessens the likelihood that they’ll move on to another interest and increases the likelihood that they’ll attack your response as too little too late. It also saps the credibility of the response itself. If you say you’re doing the right thing because you want to, our skepticism will be high; if you say you’re doing the right thing because we made you, we are far likelier to think you’re doing the right thing. Like many outrage management strategies, giving away the credit is bad for your ego but good for your business.
Other Important Outrage Reducers
38. Do anticipatory guidance.
Anticipatory guidance is information on what to expect. Anyone who has ever followed a set of directions knows how reassuring it is to read, “Then you’ll see a Mobil station on your left” … and sure enough there’s the station. “It will take us about three weeks to look into the issues you raised in your letter” is anticipatory guidance on when to expect an answer. “The results of the epi study probably won’t give us a definite answer, and if you’re like most people that could be disappointing, even infuriating” is anticipatory guidance on what is likely to happen and how it is likely to feel. Anticipatory guidance can be good news, bad news, or uncertain news. What matters is that it’s early news. Knowing what to expect makes the wait easier to endure. It gives people time to get ready for what’s going to happen. When it happens, we can deal with it better. Whether the news is good, bad, uncertain, or indifferent, we all benefit from knowing in advance. You benefit from telling us.
39. Don’t be overoptimistic, and don’t overpromise.
Anticipatory guidance is best, obviously, when you turn out right. But some ways of being wrong are much worse than others. If you say things are going to be fine, and they turn out bad (even modestly bad), outrage is magnified and credibility is destroyed. If your predictions err on the pessimistic side, on the other hand, people are relieved, even though they may blame you for scaring them unnecessarily. So err on the side of caution. Make sure things never turn out worse than you said, even at the cost of having them regularly turn out not as bad as you said. This isn’t just true of risk estimates; it’s true about all anticipatory guidance. Better to predict a site remedy in three years and have it in two than to predict it in two and have it in three. One especially important implication concerns predictions about your own behavior. It’s tempting when apologizing to promise “We’ll never do it again.” Fine – if that’s a promise you can keep. Otherwise, aim lower.
40. Use counter-projection.
People’s responses to an issue can be distorted by things they’re not letting themselves say, not even letting themselves think. If you sense one of these unacknowledged distorters getting in the way, try to reduce its impact by bringing it closer to the surface – but indirectly, so you won’t force it deeper instead. That’s one kind of counter-projection. In the recent anthrax attacks in the United States, millions of people felt fear heightened by hurt (“someone out there wants to kill me”), misery (“in another attack I would again be forced to watch horrific things on TV news”), empathy (“we’re all in this together”), and rage (“revenge!”). Alleviating the fear required addressing these other emotions that were masquerading as fear … but without accusing people of harboring them. “Some people tell me they feel….” A simpler example: People who mistrust you just because you work for a large corporation won’t begin to listen until you back off the substantive issue and address the awful reputation of large corporations.
41. Express hopes and wishes.
I am amazed at how seldom my clients tell their stakeholders their hopes and wishes. This is of course humanizing – it establishes that you are a person who has hopes and wishes. If they are hopes and wishes your stakeholders share, then expressing them builds commonality. And if they are hopes and wishes your stakeholders share but cannot acknowledge, expressing them becomes a tool of counter-projection. Achievable hopes are worth expressing; in fact, every time you are tempted to make a promise, consider whether you’d be wiser to downgrade it to a hope. But unachievable wishes are even more valuable to express: “I wish I could give you a more definite answer.” “I wish that damn accident had never happened.” Think about how much better these statements are than “I simply cannot give you a definite answer” or “I know you wish the accident had never happened.”
42. Be careful with risk comparisons.
Outrage and hazard are independent components of risk. When you compare a high-outrage low-hazard risk with a high-hazard low-outrage risk, your point is usually that the first is less risky than the second. To choose a classic example: “Our emissions are a smaller risk than the risk you took driving to this meeting.” In hazard terms, you may well be right. But people will hear you in outrage terms, and in outrage terms it just ain’t so. Your emissions are much higher-outrage than driving. As a rule of thumb, simply don’t compare the hazard of two risks whose outrage varies in the opposite direction. Or if you do, bend over backwards to acknowledge that you understand why your emissions are more objectionable than driving even if they’re not more dangerous, that you realize the acceptability of a risk is a product of more than just its hazard, that you’re not trying to corner people into giving your emissions a free pass just because they’re unwilling to give up their cars.
43. Acknowledge acknowledge acknowledge.
I’ve used the word “acknowledge” a lot in this list already. Like “location” in real estate, acknowledgment is the core of managing outrage. Acknowledge what went wrong; acknowledge what your stakeholders think went wrong; acknowledge what it is about you that makes them want to think so. Acknowledge everything that disposes your stakeholders to be against you. In many other kinds of communication – consumer marketing, for example, or political campaigning – it is wise to focus on selling your strengths. Even public relations assumes the audience isn’t listening closely and critically enough to justify much acknowledgment. True, when the audience is on your side, or at least neutral, or when it’s not very interested and not likely to learn much, a little acknowledgment goes a long way. But when the audience is already against you, or is likely to listen hard to your opponents later, then you’re doing outrage management – and acknowledgment is the name of the game.
(Besides Stakeholder Outrage)
44. Monitor and manage your own outrage.
My clients like to imagine that risk controversies are battles between outraged communities and calm companies. But when people are questioning your competence and your integrity, accusing you of killing their children, and costing you millions of dollars to boot, you’re bound to be outraged too. In fact, the single biggest barrier to managing other people’s outrage is your own outrage. At its most basic, outrage management is a set of strategies for profitably losing fights – fights you may think you ought to win, fights you may want to win more than you want to make money. The first step in managing your own outrage, of course, is monitoring it. Be particularly alert for coldly calm, courteously unhelpful, deniably hostile patterns of behavior, where everybody except you knows you’re angry and you imagine you’re just right. Psychiatrists call this pattern “passive-aggressive.” It’s a sure sign of unacknowledged outrage.
45. Distinguish outrage from greed.
Bargaining works best when both sides are greedy and neither is outraged; both sides want to win, so a win-win is the optimal outcome. As soon as anyone is outraged, winning is no longer their goal; they want you to lose. Effective strategies for coping with greed backfire when you’re facing outrage instead. For example, a cash offer that feels like the start of negotiations to a greedy opponent will feel like a bribe to an outraged one – and will therefore worsen the outrage. But the reverse is also true: Outrage management won’t work well when greed is the main thing going on. Apologies and concessions that can calm an outraged opponent, for example, may strike a greedy opponent as signs of weakness. In diagnosing what mix of outrage and greed you face, remember that it is far more common to imagine your stakeholders are greedy when they’re actually outraged than to imagine they’re outraged when they’re actually greedy.
46. Protect stakeholder self-esteem.
Just as outrage often looks like greed, injured self-esteem often looks like outrage. Homeowners near a controversial factory may feel guilty that they moved their families into what now looks like a dangerous situation; they will convert their guilt into outrage at the company. Many recipients of breast implants felt ashamed of their breasts, their implants, their mastectomies; they converted their shame into outrage at the company. When a young child had a seizure on a client’s bus, the flustered mother asked the driver to let them off so she could call for medical help. Of course he should have noticed the child’s condition and taken action himself. But the mother’s later outrage at the bus company was fueled by her embarassment at having mishandled the emergency. In all these cases, you cannot reduce the outrage unless you first reduce the ego damage. Better yet, try not to cause ego damage. People who feel bad about themselves are likely to take these feelings out on you.
47. Watch your own self-esteem.
Managing other people’s outrage (and their greed and self-esteem) may save your company a lot of money, but it probably won’t go easy on your ego. Saying you’re sorry, giving away credit, acknowledging mistakes and misbehaviors, not overpromising – nearly all the recommendations in this column, in fact, can be threatening to the self-esteem of the manager who uses them. And these recommendations tend to be most needed just when your self-esteem is at its most vulnerable: when your company has messed up, when your stakeholders are hurling hurtful accusations at you, when your own management is wondering if you know what you’re doing. Inside an organization, good managers learn not to lash out at subordinates, colleagues, or supervisors just to make themselves feel better. The same self-knowledge and self-restraint will help you deal with external stakeholders.
48. Look for ideology and revenge.
Outrage, greed, and self-esteem are the “big three” in risk controversies (and most non-risk controversies too). But sometimes stakeholders are motivated instead, or as well, by ideology or revenge. Regulators and full-time activists are the likeliest to have ideological objections to your company’s behavior (or its very existence). When you encounter ideological opposition, it may or may not be useful to point it out – to the opponent, the opponent’s management, or the public – but it will certainly be useful to know it’s there. As for revenge, I am struck by my clients’ tendency to discount this normal human motivator. You have every right to go over a local regulator’s head and get the politicians to take the pressure off. You have every right to make a critical neighbor look stupid in the media. But then don’t be surprised when they get even.
49. Look for fear.
In most of the controversies I work on, what looks like fear is actually mostly outrage. If you take action to reduce the outrage, you can expect the fear to diminish on its own. Except when fueled by outrage, in fact, excessive fear about public issues is unusual; even appropriate fear is unusual. When outrage is low, the normal problem is apathy. But there are exceptions, times when people are more afraid than angry or outraged. Even then, over-reassurance is likely to backfire. When people are frightened, the job is to help them bear their fear, not to talk them out of it. That means acknowledging that the fear is natural, and if possible it means suggesting things they can do to lessen their risk. What happens when people simply can’t bear their fear? On rare occasions, panic – but only on rare occasions. The more usual response to unbearable fear is denial. Watch for denial, and try not to mistake it for apathy. Apathetic people need to be shook up; those in denial need a gentler response.
50. Don’t forget hazard!
I partition risk into two components – the non-technical component I call “outrage” and the technical component (what experts mean by risk) I call “hazard.” This column has focused on ways to manage outrage. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the hazard. When outrage is high and hazard is low – which is common – there’s not much to be done about the hazard; managing the outrage is your main task. In this high-outrage low-hazard situation, overmanaging that tiny hazard is an expensive, inefficient way to reduce the outrage; you’ll be better off with the recommendations in this column. In a high-hazard low-outrage situation, obviously, all you need to do is manage the hazard. But often both hazard and outrage are high enough to deserve serious attention. It is irresponsible (and ultimately ineffective) to manage the outrage instead of the hazard in such situations. Manage both.
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Copyright © 2002 by Peter M. Sandman