Posted: June 12, 2003
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Article Summary This column covers everything I think my clients need to know about stakeholders, especially hostile stakeholders – the difference between stakeholders and publics; the kinds of stakeholders, depending mostly on their level of arousal and the actual hazard they face; the key guidelines for stakeholder involvement, grounded in the distinction among “fanatics,” “attentives,” “browsers,” and “inattentives”; and the complications caused by the presence of stakeholders who aren’t hostile (supporters, involved neutrals, and uninvolved neutrals). The column ends with this wrap-up: “Managing risk communication requires analyzing your stakeholders.… Which analytic scheme works best depends on the situation. Somewhere in this column I hope you can find a scheme (or several) that helps make sense of the situation you’re facing at the moment.”


A few days ago I was contacted by a client that had asked me to do a one-day risk communication seminar, focusing on how to deal with risk controversies. The client now wanted me to make some time in the agenda for brief presentations by a newspaper reporter and a TV reporter on how their respective media cover risk, and how the audience could do better risk PR. I made the time, of course, but only after writing back that managing outrage in risk controversies had far more to do with stakeholder relations than public relations, that the two journalists’ presentations would have a significantly different focus than the rest of the day.

This happens a lot – outrage management in the morning, media training in the afternoon. There is always a disconnect between the two topics. I have learned to warn clients and audiences to expect the disconnect – that is, to understand that we are talking about different tasks, not disagreeing about how to handle the same task.

Stakeholders versus Publics

I reluctantly started using the word “stakeholder” roughly a decade ago. Previously I had thought it was an ugly and unnecessary piece of jargon. What’s wrong with “public”? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that publics and stakeholders are different. (“Publics” is another ugly but indispensable word; “the public” misleadingly implies an undifferentiated mass of identical message receptors.)

Publics are people who don’t care much. There are a lot of them, and one of PR’s two key skills is figuring out how to grab their attention, which usually requires grabbing the media’s attention first. The other essential PR skill is figuring out what to do with the infinitesimal amount of attention you’re likely to get: What to say in that precious eight-second sound bite. The essence of PR is overcoming apathy.

Stakeholders, on the other hand, are just what the word suggests: people who have a stake in the issue, and who know it. (You probably deserve to be called a stakeholder if you have a stake but don’t know it, or if you think you have a stake but really don’t – but let’s stick to the easy cases for now.) At a minimum, stakeholders are interested, so getting their attention isn’t a problem. Typically they are concerned. Sometimes they are really upset, skeptical, hostile, or outraged: You have more attention than you want, and it’s unfriendly attention. They may even be terrified.

Both public relations and stakeholder relations are important tasks. One of the problems in risk communication is that they call for radically different skills and strategies, yet they must often be done simultaneously. The typical public meeting, for example, is crammed with stakeholders – but also in attendance are a handful of reporters, who will carry the message to a much larger, much less interested public. Do you focus on the stakeholders in the room, with the reporters and their cameras and notebooks merely bystanders? Or do you focus on the much larger audience at the other end of those cameras and notebooks, with the stakeholders either props or competitors? Inevitably you are talking to both. How do you compromise their quite different needs?

Which trumps the other depends on your situation. If you need the support of huge numbers of people who are pretty uninterested, your focus should be PR. Politicians, for example, need the votes of people who are barely paying attention to the campaign. Similarly, manufacturers of consumer products need the purchases of people who are barely paying attention to the choice. Most people buy toothpaste and vote for state legislators without much interest. Rightly, therefore, toothpaste manufacturers and state legislative candidates spend most of their communication effort on PR (and advertising), selling their strengths to uninterested publics.

It’s a different story when a politician or a manufacturer faces a controversy, a specific issue that has aroused the passion of specific stakeholders. Suddenly perfectly sound PR strategies turn sour. In a controversy, it is usually wisest to pay more attention to stakeholders, even at the expense of a less-than-ideal approach to publics. It is important to apologize to stakeholders for a screw-up they know all about, for example, even though this may mean that millions of others who didn’t know find out.

Sometimes it is genuinely hard to tell which emphasis is right. Some years ago I consulted with a company that manufactures a no-fat cooking oil. The upside of the product is that it reduces the fat and calorie content of the foods that contain it – which it accomplishes because it’s a fat that passes through the digestive system and is excreted instead of being absorbed. The downside of the product follows directly from the upside. If you consume too much, undigested fat comes out the other end, which can sometimes lead to diarrhea. (At least that used to be true; they may have improved it.) I urged my client to be more aggressively candid about the downside, arguing that dieters would accept the problem more easily if forewarned than if blindsided. We wrote and tested some candid messages. As any risk communication specialist would predict, they did very well with stakeholders, with people who had heard about a possible diarrhea problem already, were concerned about the problem, but also wanted the diet benefits of the product. But these messages did not test well with the less informed, less interested public – people who might buy a low-fat snack food but certainly didn’t want to think about diarrhea when doing so. Managing the controversy and selling the product turned out to be fairly different goals, difficult to reconcile. The client ended up developing a specialized outreach campaign for nutritionists and diet professionals that used my approach; its more general outreach materials and its advertising continued to ignore the issue.

The genetically modified food controversy is a similar example. GM foods are at once a controversial issue and a product ingredient. Managing the controversy well means addressing it honestly and respectfully. Selling the product well means ignoring the controversy if you can … and if that won’t work, then it means sticking to a one-sided self-serving sound bite. Once again, stakeholder relations and public relations are in conflict.

In both cases, I believe, the long-term interests of the industries involved would be better served by taking on the controversy, focusing more on stakeholders and less on publics. The alternative to good outrage management early on is likely to be unmanageable outrage later. Arguably, in fact, the GM food industry has already missed its opportunity to do it right, at least in Europe and at least for this generation; its opposition to labeling and its unwillingness to address people’s concerns frankly have already led to its being frozen out of some markets altogether. Still, I have to concede that “doing it right” – putting stakeholder relations ahead of public relations – might well have delayed market penetration of the products involved.

There are other ways the choice between stakeholder relations and public relations can get hairy. Even in situations where stakeholder relations is the right priority, for example, third parties may overreact to media coverage as a signal of how well or badly the controversy is being handled. Among those who are likely to make this error (thinking bad public relations is bad stakeholder relations, or thinking public relations is what matters) are people my clients can’t afford to ignore – such as regulators and senior executives. If you do a good job of managing stakeholder controversy, eventually the furor dies down and reporters lose interest. But that’s eventually. In the meantime, doing a good job of managing stakeholder controversy may entail acknowledgments that spur negative media coverage. Top management is a lot likelier to read those embarrassing news stories than it is to notice that your critics are actually calming down.

Of course even if your head is telling you that stakeholder relations should take precedence over PR, your gut may be telling you it just can’t be right to make damaging concessions on the evening news! I worked for a London commuter railway company with real problems with delays and cancellations. Passengers, of course, knew the company’s service record was poor; they experienced that record twice a day, and many were passionately interested in demanding service improvements. Everyone else – the public – didn’t know and didn’t care. Yet when reporters came calling, managers were endlessly tempted to put as good a face on poor performance as they could … which may have successfully persuaded the public but obviously exacerbated the outrage of the passengers, who knew better. It took a Herculean effort on the part of an unusual Managing Director to lead the company to a new approach that focused on stakeholder relations. Every month, now, the company publishes a report to passengers that bares its problems and seeks advice on how to solve them. Every month the London press publishes “exposés” of the company’s bad performance, pirated from its own report. And every month senior managers have to remind themselves why this isn’t a stupid way to behave.

Once in a while the distinction between stakeholder relations and public relations disappears, and everyone becomes a stakeholder. This is what happens in a crisis, of course, but it also happens periodically when some non-crisis captures the public imagination. (Think about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.) Then there’s no conflict; you are doing stakeholder relations, period, albeit via the media. The only problem is to make sure you notice, and don’t keep doing PR by mistake. Much of what has gone wrong with crisis communication is attributable to good public relations strategies misapplied to an audience that was paying close personal attention.

As I write this, the Toronto area is going through what may or may not turn out to be its third wave of SARS cases. The newest suspected cluster is in a geriatric care center, which held a news conference yesterday to discuss the problem. Knowledgeable infectious disease experts were there to answer the reporters’ questions. But the center’s PR director kept interrupting with chirpy-but-vague statements about how safe the center was. The reporters, of course, wanted to hear from the experts, who had information of real interest to Toronto’s millions of SARS-preoccupied residents. You could sense how frustrated and angry the PR person was; after who knows how many years of effort, she finally had a roomful of journalists interested in her employer … and all they wanted to hear was the bad news. She had no idea the situation called for stakeholder relations via the media, not for PR.

Stakeholder relations and public relations both have their proper role in risk communication. What’s most worth remembering is this: It is vanishingly rare for an organization to do too much stakeholder relations and too little public relations. But it is extremely common for an organization to do too much public relations and too little stakeholder relations. Too often my clients should be apologizing to angry stakeholders, and instead find themselves selling uninterested publics: “We care deeply about the environment; safety is our number one priority; we would never do anything dangerous; we live here too; in fact, we have a wonderful record going all the way back to the eighteenth century and culminating in our latest commitment to….” This may be exactly the right message for an audience that is modestly interested in the issue and thoroughly uninterested in you. It is exactly the wrong message for an audience that is passionately interested in the issue and thinks you’re the enemy.

The odds are good that you’re paying too much attention to journalists and their uninterested audience, the public, and too little attention to the handful of people who really care what you do, your stakeholders. Except for those occasions when an issue grips the public’s imagination and everybody feels like a stakeholder, you have to decide where your focus belongs. Usually it belongs on stakeholders, not the public.

Kinds of Stakeholders

In an earlier column, Four Kinds of Risk Communication, I talked about public relations as high-hazard low-outrage risk communication: People are endangered but not interested. (Low-hazard low-outrage public relations isn’t risk communication at all.) I used the label “stakeholder relations” to apply to moderate-hazard moderate-outrage situations: People are appropriately interested, maybe even concerned. The other two paradigms were outrage management (low-hazard, high-outrage) and crisis communication (high-hazard, high-outrage): People are very upset, whether mistakenly or rightly.

But in truth everything that isn’t public relations is some kind of stakeholder relations. If people are interested, they are stakeholders, not publics – whether they’re outraged or not, and whether they’re endangered or not. It makes sense to subdivide stakeholders by these two variables:

Level of arousal. Are they interested, or concerned, or outraged, or even terrified? There is obviously a huge difference in the communication task at opposite ends of this spectrum. Dealing with interested stakeholders is easy and fun, and usually focuses on mutually respectful exchanges of information and opinion. Dealing with outraged or terrified stakeholders isn’t only much tougher; it’s also different, calling for such skills as listening, compassion, and acknowledgment of uncomfortable truths. It also calls for restraint. When people are upset, my clients find it nearly irresistible to call them “irrational” or “hysterical.” Usually they are not – but even if they are, insulting labels don’t do much to calm them down.
Level of actual hazard. Are they actually endangered (and how endangered?) or are they mistaken either in thinking the hazard is serious or in thinking it applies to them? (Here’s where people who think they are stakeholders but really aren’t come into play.) If people are mistakenly upset about a small hazard, you try to reduce their outrage (which doesn’t mean telling them they’re foolish to be alarmed). If people are rightly upset about a serious hazard, even if it’s not yet an imminent threat, you try to help them deal with it and bear it.

Three other distinctions worth making:

Level of organization. Conceptually, stakeholders are individuals with a stake. But the stakeholders that make life most difficult for companies and government agencies are the ones who have organized themselves into advocacy groups. This is such an important variable that many of my clients use the term “stakeholder relations” to apply to their dealings with advocacy groups, period. Of course it is important to take advocacy groups seriously. But it is also important to take unorganized stakeholders seriously, and not to lump them in with the uninterested “public.”
Level of self-awareness. People can be stakeholders without knowing it. They may not know the issue has arisen; they may not know it applies to them. If they’re likely to weigh in against you once they find out, it is awfully tempting, of course, to avoid telling them … even to work hard to keep them from knowing. This is a very dangerous sort of brinkmanship. When they belatedly awake to the issue, they will be all the more outraged. I can’t count the times a client has moved far down a public involvement path without a key stakeholder group, privately grateful not to have them there, only to have that group suddenly discover what was going on, get involved, and insist on starting over. Think of unaware stakeholders as future outraged stakeholders. Bite the bullet and involve them early. (Not that involving them early is easy. People can move almost instantaneously from stubbornly uninterested in getting involved to incredibly angry that you didn’t involve them. Sometimes the best you can do is make sure they’ll remember you tried.)
Level of satisfaction with the stakeholder role. This distinction gets far too little attention. Some stakeholders are “professional stakeholders.” Others are volunteers but come to love it, deriving enormous meaning from telling companies and government agencies how to behave. They may perform the task angrily or pleasantly – a difference that matters – but either way they are pleased to be there. Still others get involved reluctantly and stay involved resentfully; they do it because it needs to be done, but they firmly believe it shouldn’t need to be done. This last group helps explain why even very influential stakeholders often feel like they lost. A successful fight against a new factory, for example, is still a huge burden, and all the stakeholders get out of it is a return to the status quo they feel was theirs by right.

Stakeholders and “Public Involvement”

It should be clear by now that “public involvement” is really stakeholder involvement. That is, the pressure on companies and government agencies to share control over controversial decisions, or at least to arrange to be the objects of some kind of oversight, isn’t about bringing in people who aren’t interested. It is about bringing in people who care.

In talking about public involvement, I typically distinguish four “publics”:

“Fanatics” You know their telephone numbers by heart, and they know yours. They want input into everything you decide. Your issue is their main preoccupation in life, second only to job and family (and sometimes not that).
“Attentives” They monitor the media coverage of your issue carefully. Sometimes they go to a meeting, answer a survey, check out a web site, subscribe to a newsletter, contribute to a campaign. Your issue isn’t distorting their lives the way it is for the fanatics, but it’s in their Top 20.
“Browsers” They check you out in the media from time to time, but they don’t want to be bothered providing input. Your issue is on their “worry list,” but nowhere near the top.
“Inatttentives” They don’t know and they don’t want to know.

In the language of this column, of course, the first two groups are stakeholders, not publics. The fanatics tend to be the outraged stakeholders, while the attentives are the concerned stakeholders. The browsers are a transition group; you can think of them as the least interested stakeholders or the most interested publics. The inattentives are the apathetic public.

It is important to remember that these are not kinds of people. They are kinds of people with respect to a particular issue at a particular moment in time. You may be fanatic about foreign policy in the Middle East and inattentive about sex education in the schools; I may be fanatic about sex education in the schools and inattentive about foreign policy in the Middle East. As people become interested in an issue, moreover, they may progress from inattentives to browsers to attentives to fanatics – and as they lose interest (satisfied or frustrated or bored) they may move back again. Still, on any specific issue at any given time, everyone can be located in one of the four groups.

Based on these categories, I offer four guidelines for “public” (stakeholder) involvement in risk controversies:

1. Ignore the inattentives.

They are ignoring you, and the least you can do is return the favor. Of course in high-hazard, low-outrage risk communication it is precisely the inattentives whose lives you may save by warning them about a danger they are ignoring. But if people are appropriately uninterested in a matter that genuinely doesn’t affect them, give up on trying to get them involved. Clients do try to involve such people, but their message is self-contradictory: “Please get involved in this issue that won’t affect you!”

The reason clients try to involve the inattentives is to achieve some kind of balance, to make the involvement process more representative. This misunderstands the purpose of stakeholder involvement. You don’t need a representative sample of the population at your public meeting; what you need is everybody who is concerned, or is likely to become concerned later, about what you plan to do. Sometimes there are stakeholders on various sides of the issue, who dislike each other’s positions even more than they dislike yours and are fighting over which way to push you. Sometimes it’s just you versus the united stakeholders. Sometimes there are actually stakeholders on your side (employees, for example), with a genuine stake in seeing things go the way you want them to go. However the stakeholders array themselves on the issue at hand, what makes them stakeholders is that they care about the issue at hand. People who don’t care, and are right not to care, aren’t needed.

If you somehow succeed in luring some inattentives to your meeting, by the way, you may well not be pleased with the results. Forced to take an interest, they are at least as likely to end up supporting your critics as you.

2. Use the media to reach the browsers, and to a lesser extent the attentives.

The browsers and the media are a matched set. All the browsers want on your issue is a periodic hit of media coverage. And except for a crisis (when a huge stakeholder-public is glued to the TV news), the media’s main value to you is to keep the browsers adequately informed, and to keep them feeling adequately informed. The attentives also rely on the media, but they supplement their TV and newspaper diet with more direct sources of information and more specialized media. For the browsers, it’s the media or nothing … or actually getting more involved.

The fanatics, meanwhile, are offended if they see anything in the media they didn’t already know; they consider themselves players, entitled to advance warning of everything that happens. They check the media mostly to find out how they were quoted. And the inattentives skip that story.

As previously noted, in public relations the media are key. In a crisis the media are key. Even in non-crisis stakeholder relations, media matter. They are essential for keeping the browsers informed, so they don’t have to become attentives; and useful for keeping the attentives informed, so they don’t have to go to every meeting. Many critical stakeholders (often including your management) track the media closely.

Still, you don’t settle controversies in the media. You settle controversies through direct contact with people who care enough to seek out direct contact with you. Most of my clients pay more attention to the media, and less attention to the fanatics, than I think they should.

3. Focus on the fanatics.

This isn’t a distortion of democracy; it is democracy in action. From Tocqueville on, observers have noted that functioning democracies tend to allot political power in proportion to passion. In other words, the more you care about something, the more impact on the outcome you are likely to have. We make exceptions – voting, for example – and we try to institutionalize bulwarks to keep the passionate minority from overwhelming the interests of the apathetic majority. But the message of democracy to the demos is simple: If you care about a controversy, get involved. And if you don’t get involved, don’t complain about the outcome.

We may disagree with each other on whether corporate lobbyists or organized activist groups have too much power. But we ought to agree that it is right for both to have more power than people who aren’t interested.

When certain groups care deeply, get involved, and still fail to have any impact, that’s a social problem, a kind of oppression, and a threat to democracy. “Powerless stakeholder” ought to be an oxymoron. But it is no threat to democracy that people who care exert more influence than people who don’t.

In short, the handful of opponents who eat, sleep, and breathe your issue don’t have to be representative to be important. They are important because they eat, sleep, and breathe your issue. When working a controversy, you interact with the fanatics while the attentives watch. The browsers follow casually in the media, and the inattentives don’t know it’s happening.

How do you end the controversy? The best way is to get the fanatics to declare victory, under conditions you can live with. Satisfying your most fanatic stakeholders isn’t always feasible, but if it’s feasible it is always advisable. Second best is to persuade the attentives that the fanatics have won enough. They may still not be satisfied (fanatics are like that), but now you’re quarreling over table scraps, and the attentives are getting bored. A distant third is to persuade the attentives that the fanatics are wrong; this is soul-satisfying when it happens, but it is usually a great deal harder than the first two options.

Persuading the fanatics that the fanatics are wrong is still less likely. And simply outgunning the fanatics, while not unlikely, tends to be ineffective. It turns attentives (and even browsers) into a new wave of fanatics.

4. Make it easy to switch groups.

The key to a good public involvement program is how easy it is for people to switch groups. In a good program, people know how to get more involved, and feel that they – not you – control the extent of their involvement. If you are surveying neighbors or employees, try asking what they would do if there were an issue that concerned them. “I wouldn’t know what to do” is a bad answer. “I wouldn’t do anything, because whatever I tried you’d only ignore or humiliate me” is a worse answer. “The only thing to do is learn how to make bombs” is the worst answer. The best answer: “I’d call your involvement manager and she’d put me on a committee, and I’d stay on the committee until my concerns were properly addressed.”

It is almost as important for people to be able to diminish their involvement as their interest diminishes. Trapping “former stakeholders” on an advisory committee after their interest has waned isn’t as harmful as freezing newly interested stakeholders out. But it is just as silly. The ideal meeting excludes no one who cares about the items on the agenda, and includes no one who doesn’t.

Even if they care and aren’t excluded, people may exclude themselves. In fact, they are likelier to exclude themselves if they feel welcome. The knowledge that they can get involved and the conviction that if they do they’ll have impact may be enough. During my years as a university professor in the 1970s and 1980s, students fought hard for the right to sit on faculty committees. Once they won that right, for the most part they stopped coming to committee meetings, secure in the knowledge that they could if they needed to. When the door is locked, we may knock it down; when the door is open, we may not choose to come in.

This is important enough that I often list it as a fifth guideline: People are much less desperate to have input when it is clear that they can whenever they want. It follows that one of the signs of a good public involvement strategy is relative lack of interest in getting involved. Be careful here. Terrible public involvement programs may be moribund because stakeholders don’t know how to get involved or don’t believe it will do any good. Excellent public involvement programs may be moribund because some stakeholders have had their say, got bored, and left; while other stakeholders know they can show up whenever they choose, and for now they’d rather go dancing or watch TV.

Stakeholder Passion and Stakeholder Power

Stakeholder passion has already figured importantly in this column – it determines the distinctions among fanatics, attentives, browsers, and inattentives. But so far I haven’t said much about stakeholder power, except to point out that there’s nothing wrong with passionate stakeholders exerting more power over a situation than their apathetic neighbors.

Yet power obviously matters. Some stakeholders have a lot of money to spend defeating you, or a formal say in how the process moves forward, or the ability to command media attention, or lots of members or supporters to put to work against you, or access to your Board or top management or customers, or national or international connections they can mobilize, or influence over the opinions of others. Some stakeholders – even some passionate stakeholders – have none of these things. You would be less than human, and less than rational, if you didn’t respond differently to powerful critics than to less powerful ones.

There is a time element in your assessment of both passion and power. If powerful stakeholders are already outraged, outrage management is the obvious prescription. But outrage management may also be the right prescription if powerful stakeholders may one day be outraged, or if outraged stakeholders may one day be powerful … or even if stakeholders who are neither may one day be both. Think of this as buying “outrage insurance” – act now to prevent the powerful outrage you don’t want to face later.

What about stakeholders who are permanently powerless? Logic says you can afford to ignore them. But “permanently powerless” isn’t a very sophisticated diagnosis, for at least three reasons: (1) Activists often target highly outraged but traditionally powerless groups. That’s what the environmental justice movement is all about. It is also what revolutions are all about. (2) Powerful but apathetic stakeholders sometimes rouse themselves to action out of sympathy for the oppressed. Ignoring the powerless can be a good way to arouse the powerful. (3) Like industry, outrage has globalized. Thanks to the Internet, the powerless oppressed in one country may inspire powerful (and costly) outrage halfway around the world.

I remember giving an outrage management seminar in South Carolina. During lunch a gentleman came up to me and explained that the textile mill he ran was the main employer in his small town. “I know many of our neighbors and employees are outraged,” he said, “but they have no choice but to swallow their outrage. So why should I follow your advice about ways to reduce the outrage?” I answered that at least in the short term he probably shouldn’t. But his town and his factory were ripe for an activist organizer, I told him – and for a controversy that might easily spill over into his company’s shareholders meeting and its worldwide reputation. If he wasn’t yet interested in nipping the problem in the bud, someone would be happy to work with a union or an environmental group to bring it to flower instead.

And what about stakeholders who are permanently apathetic? If you’re confident people are and will remain relatively uninterested, you’re back in the realm of public relations, selling them on your strengths and virtues rather than negotiating over your problems and wrongdoings. But beware. “Permanently apathetic” isn’t a very sophisticated diagnosis either. Activists often target powerful but apathetic publics. And when such publics learn from activists the “other half” of the story, the half you left out, outrage is a predictable outcome.

I can’t count all the times I have been hired by clients who belatedly discovered that those powerless critics they had ignored were suddenly pretty powerful after all, or that those apathetic bystanders they had sold a one-sided story to were suddenly interested, and angry to have been misled. Ignoring stakeholders is betting they will never be powerful. “Selling” stakeholders is betting they will never be outraged.

If you subdivide stakeholders into high-passion and low-passion, high-power and low-power, you get a 2 × 2 matrix. In the mid-1990s I developed an outrage management software program that summarized this matrix by labeling each of the four quadrants. Asininely attached to alliteration, I fixed firmly on “the four D’s.” The prescription for high-passion high-power stakeholders was “Defer.” High-passion low-power stakeholders were labeled “Defeat,” while low-passion high-power stakeholders got “Deflect.” As for stakeholders who were low-passion and low-power: “Dismiss.”

These four labels do capture a small bit of cynical truth. But they are badly flawed, so oversimplified and exaggerated they’re misleading. I haven’t used the defer-defeat-deflect-dismiss formula since I wrote the software – and I wouldn’t use it here, except that it’s out there in a dozen-odd activist web sites as an example of how awful outrage management is. (See for a sample critique from the left. For more on the software itself, see

Here’s what I should have said.

  • Your high-passion high-power opponents are a force to reckon with. One way or another, to one extent or another, you are going to have to defer to them. By “defer” I do not mean simply give in. “Engage with” would be a better term (if only it started with a D). Look for a win-win if you can find one – a “victory” they can announce that is still tolerable to you. Failing that, seek a compromise. Bottom line: They’re players. By virtue of their passion and power, they have earned a seat at the table. Deal with it.
  • Your high-passion low-power opponents, on the other hand, you can probably defeat. And because you can, you will be tempted to try. But by showing this level of contempt for the powerless, you may reap the whirlwind. All battles are costly, in reputation as well as cash. The rest of us are watching; if you play Goliath we will be rooting for David. And passionate-but-powerless people tend to get desperate and occasionally “irresponsible” – a kind of paradoxical power in itself. Defeating the powerless is a very short-term, short-sighted strategy. Look for a compromise instead.
  • Your low-passion high-power opponents have to be watched carefully; if their passion increases they will be formidable enemies. If they stay minimally interested, on the other hand, you can probably deflect them if you want to – that is, keep them out of the situation, or at least involved only at the margins. But be careful. Keeping them minimally interested doesn’t mean blindsiding them, or actively excluding them, or ignoring their not-yet-very-strongly-felt concerns. They don’t much want to get involved … as long as they feel they can.
  • As for your low-passion low-power opponents, “dismiss” is much too strong. All stakeholders deserve some attention, and stakeholders who are “dismissed” are likely to feel outrage even on an issue they don’t really care about. In the short run, obviously, this group is not important in managing your situation. In the long run, you may miss their transition from low-passion to hopeless smoldering, and then they will be ripe for activists to organize against you. So as with the low-passion high-power opponents, keep them informed and keep the door open to them.

Stakeholders Who Are Not Critics

This column has generally proceeded on the assumption that your stakeholders are your critics. I have written as if the world were divided into people who oppose you (stakeholders) and people who don’t care (publics).

That’s what comes of too much time devoted to outrage management. Obviously, outrage management is something you do with critics, with people who care about what you’re doing and are outraged about it. You don’t do outrage management with publics.

You don’t even do outrage management with every stakeholder. In a crisis, for example, stakeholders are often appropriately upset about a serious hazard. You shouldn’t try to persuade them not to be frightened, angry, or miserable; instead, you want to help them bear and express these feelings … which typically aren’t aimed at you anyway. And of course when stakeholders are only interested or even concerned, not outraged, there’s no need to manage their feelings at all (except, obviously, to treat them with respect).

Even in a controversy – a situation where you do have critics – not every stakeholder is a critic. Some stakeholders are allies, aggressively on your side.

One more partition of your audiences may help here. As you consider the four groups discussed below, focus on the pros and cons of one-sided messages (selling your strengths, period) versus two-sided messages (acknowledging your problems and misbehaviors as well). We have already talked about the second and fourth groups, using different terminology – but the first and third are new.

1. Supporters

Supporters are already on your side. Mobilizing them to play a more active role in an ongoing controversy is an important communication strategy – but it isn’t risk communication.

The risk communication problem is that supporters like one-sided positive presentations; a more balanced presentation may strike them as excessively negative. Since this audience often includes your boss and your employees, you are at risk of pleasing your own organization instead of appealing to key external target audiences. Of course pleasing your own organization (and your external allies) isn’t a trivial goal. But it usually isn’t the most important goal either.

Managing stakeholder controversies successfully requires you to make concessions to critics – concessions your supporters are not going to like. It’s important not to blindside your supporters; if you’re going to say something self-critical, give them a heads-up first. It’s important to bring your supporters in on your strategic thinking, so they understand why you plan to acknowledge the negatives. Above all, it’s important to bend over backwards to make sure supporters don’t feel scapegoated. Employees, for example, tend to feel blamed when the senior management of a company or government agency admits to mistakes or misbehaviors. Unless you go out of your way to stress that this was a policy screw-up, that you’re blaming yourself and not your loyal employees, they are likelier than not to feel you’re blaming them. If you’re not careful, a maladroit acknowledgment can alienate your supporters without appreciably conciliating your critics.

But while it is important not to forget the needs of your supporters, the usual problem isn’t forgetting their needs; it is catering excessively to their needs. Don’t let over-sensitivity to your allies keep you from addressing the concerns of stakeholders who are not your allies. At its worst, outrage management can be a zero-sum game: Everything that reduces your critics’ outrage at you may exacerbate your supporters’ outrage at your critics … and at you. You may have to make tough decisions about whose outrage you most want to reduce.

Catering excessively to your allies has the added cost of setting up an “us versus them” polarization. One-sided preaching to the choir doesn’t just further alienate opponents. It isn’t good for the choir either. If you’re trying to resolve the controversy, you really don’t want your supporters feeling combative or defensive or hunkered-down. You want them alert to the ways in which your critics have a point, and to the possibility of compromise. Don’t leave them behind as you move toward conciliation.

2. Critics

We have said enough about critics already, but here’s a quick review. Efforts to win over some of your critics may be a waste of time; for all kinds of reasons (psychological, ideological, financial) they cannot be won over. But in the theater of risk controversy, how you deal with committed critics (“fanatics”) greatly influences whether uncommitted critics (“attentives”) become more active and whether neutrals (“browsers”) turn into critics.

Critics respond very badly to a one-sided positive message. They know your problems and look to see if you are acknowledging them. A balanced message gives critics less to outrage them, and less that they can use to outrage others, than a one-sided message.

3. Involved neutrals

This audience isn’t sure which side it is on. But it does care; it is paying close attention, and it knows there are sides. This is the least common of the four audiences. In many situations there are no involved neutrals at all – everybody is either for you, against you, or uninterested. But when involved neutrals are on the scene, they tend to be key players: regulators, politicians, juries, opinion leaders. Involved neutrals are also the natural brokers of any deal you are likely to make with your critics. And involved neutrals are a bellwether. If they start leaning your way, uninvolved neutrals are likely to follow, and critics are likely to start looking for a compromise. And if involved neutrals start to show signs of thinking your critics have a point, once again uninvolved neutrals tend to follow along … and your critics’ negotiating position gets stronger and tougher.

Involved neutrals respond very badly to the hard sell. Their most important characteristic is that they already know there are two sides (or more than two sides) to this controversy. They may tolerate one-sidedness from the anti-establishment side – one of the prerogatives of those who agitate for change is the right to understate the virtues of the status quo. By contrast, those who defend the status quo must not understate its problems. Involved neutrals will give your critics a fair hearing, often a sympathetic hearing. If your message ignores your critics’ arguments, it will seem biased, incomplete, even misleading and dishonest. This is one of the earliest and most established findings in all of communication research: Interested audiences respond better to two-sided arguments.

4. Uninvolved neutrals

Research also confirms that uninterested audiences respond better to one-sided arguments. Now we are back in the realm of public relations, talking in sound bites to huge numbers of people who are barely listening – who don’t have an opinion on the controversy, don’t even know there is a controversy, and don’t especially want to know. Selling your strengths is the name of the game. And it’s not a very important game. With uninvolved neutrals, the most common mistake is to pay them more attention than they deserve. As noted earlier, it usually makes sense to ignore the inattentives.

But beware. As the issue becomes more prominent, uninvolved neutrals can turn suddenly attentive and skeptical. And if that happens, neutrals who have absorbed a vague positive impression from your communications become ideal targets for your critics, for organizing and investigative reporting (“They lied to us!”). In contrast, neutrals who have absorbed a vague balanced impression are resistant to the other side (“I already knew there were some problems”). In other words, one-sided presentations are better for neutrals who are permanently uninvolved, while two-sided presentations are better for neutrals who may later get involved. And in either case, focus more on your critics, on involved neutrals (if there are any), even on supporters. Managing a controversy isn’t mostly about managing the uninvolved.

Stakeholder Analysis

I want to close with one extended example, and I have chosen one that relies on the last analytic scheme I described, the one that distinguishes supporters, critics, involved neutrals, and uninvolved neutrals. My client in this case was an environmental group that had successfully championed more thorough testing of the health and environmental effects of common industrial chemicals. Some of the new testing inevitably involved killing rats and other laboratory animals. An animal rights group had attacked my environmental group client for sacrificing animals for the sake of these tests, many of which, the critics said, weren’t really useful or necessary. (There is a sort of poetic justice here, isn’t there?) Some members of the environmental group were also members, or at least sympathizers, of the animal rights group. More than a handful sent in concerned letters or emails.

The question my client posed to me: Should we discuss the issue in our newsletter? Should we, for example, publish one of the critical letters we have been receiving from some members, together with our answer? Or would this just give the controversy more attention?

In this particular situation there were no involved neutrals of importance. But the readership of the newsletter, the group’s members, definitely included the other three stakeholder groups: critics, supporters, and uninvolved neutrals. Here’s how I analyzed the situation.

First the critics – members who had heard about the animal testing controversy and were worried about it, maybe even angry about it. Why was an environmental organization they cared about and contributed to orchestrating the pointless deaths of gazillions of animals? “These are your key stakeholders on the issue,” I wrote to my client. “They deserve a stakeholder response.” Those who actually sent a letter were already getting a response – a detailed, balanced, and sympathetic assessment of the tradeoffs between protecting animal welfare and identifying hazardous chemicals. “Those who don’t bother to write – or are too anguished to write – need one [a response] as well. The main benefit of airing the issue in the newsletter is addressing these people appropriately.”

What about supporters – members who had heard about the controversy and were firmly on the side of testing? Like critics, supporters would like to see the issue aired in the newsletter … but their ideal response is much tougher than the critics’ ideal response. There is some risk of offending supporters, I wrote, “if your response to the issue ‘gives away’ too much – that is, if they feel you are not defending yourself as aggressively as they think you should.” But the greater risk was catering too much to supporters. Commenting on a draft of the newsletter text, I wrote: “I would spend a little more time acknowledging the concerns and give a little more credit to animal rights groups for raising everybody’s consciousness about the issue. My reasoning: Since this second audience is on your side, it is fairly easy to keep on your side; a good message to a mix of the first two audiences therefore aims mostly at the first, with just enough support for the second to avoid a backlash.”

The most difficult stakeholder group to think through was probably also the largest: members who hadn’t heard about the animal testing controversy. If they are likely to hear, I wrote, and if once they hear they are likely to care, “then they actually fall into one of the first two groups, and the goal is to ‘inoculate’ them with a response appropriate to that group.” In other words, members who are likely to learn about the controversy from animal rights groups should learn about it from my client first.

But what about those who would never have found out unless my client told them? Any reasonably thorough and reasonably balanced newsletter article (the sort of article the critics need to see) would inevitably create at least a few new critics among this group. Obviously, then, the best response for them would be no response at all. The key question was the relative size of these various groups: critics, supporters, and uninvolved neutrals. When the issue is small and guaranteed to stay small, when most people are unaware and guaranteed to stay unaware, then “no response is often the wisest response – or a very brief response just to acknowledge the issue without really ventilating it or drawing anyone’s attention to it.” But when there are or will be lots of critics and supporters, then the no-response option is profoundly unwise. “Note also that the error is almost always in this direction. My clients rarely ventilate controversies too much because they overestimate the importance of addressing the first group [critics]. It happens, but it’s rare. Underestimating the size of the first group and saying too little, on the other hand, is commonplace. My rule of thumb, therefore: If you’re even considering a public response, you almost undoubtedly need one.”

This column can be summarized very simply. Managing risk communication requires analyzing your stakeholders – distinguishing them from publics and distinguishing them from each other. Which analytic scheme works best depends on the situation. Somewhere in this column I hope you can find a scheme (or several) that helps make sense of the situation you’re facing at the moment.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman

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