Posted: July 14, 2001
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Article SummaryReaders who were never fans of the “West Wing” television series may not remember when U.S. President Jed Bartlet finally decided to come clean about his multiple sclerosis. The tough question: How to address his desire to run for reelection, despite his illness and despite his having kept it secret. I used this setup as an excuse to write a column about a crucial risk communication strategy for coping with audience ambivalence: the seesaw. When people are ambivalent about X versus Y – for example, when they approve of your presidency and want you back for a second term, but worry that your MS and your dishonesty about it might disqualify you – they tend to go to the side of their ambivalence that is neglected elsewhere in their communication environment. The column outlines the various locations on the seesaw a risk communicator can decide to occupy, and the pros and cons of each. It offers plenty of nonfictional examples as well.

Advice for President Bartlet:
Riding the Seesaw

Audiences and clients used to ask me endlessly how I thought President Clinton should handle the Lewinsky scandals. (In fact they still ask; for those of you who are interested, my answer is at the end of this column.) Nobody yet has asked how I thought President Bush should handle anything. But these days I get a lot of questions about President Bartlet.

For those of you who don’t follow NBC’s “The West Wing,” President Jed Bartlet was facing a tough dilemma as the regular season gave way to summer reruns. In the third year of his first four-year term as U.S. President, a tightly controlled secret was beginning to unravel:   Bartlet has “relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis.” He had the disease before he ran for President the first time. Convinced he could do the job anyway, but afraid the voting public wouldn’t be inclined to think so, he told no one but his wife and his doctors. Now the secret was leaking. The vice president needed to know; once he knew he starting looking into his own electoral chances; his early political maneuvering tipped off White House staffers that he must have reason to suspect Bartlet wouldn’t be seeking reelection; that forced Bartlet to let his staff in on the secret; the staff convinced him he must tell the public as well. He agreed to do so, and his press conference was beginning as the series season ended. The cliffhanger: How does he answer the inevitable question about whether he will run for reelection?

I haven’t a clue how the writers and producers should cope with their problem of sustaining audience interest in the show. (I hope they won’t give us week after week of impeachment jockeying.) But I do know what I would advise President Bartlet to say – and my advice involves a fundamental risk communication strategy worth mastering: riding the seesaw.

Whenever people are ambivalent, seeing merit on both sides of some issue, they tend to focus on the side others are ignoring. This is the seesaw. When addressing an ambivalent audience, therefore, you can choose among three pure options plus a hybrid.

Take the obvious seat.

The worst strategy – and the most common one – is to take the position you wish your audience would take, as if the game were follow-the-leader instead of seesaw. Companies and government agencies do this all the time. You want your stakeholders not to worry, so you tell them there’s nothing to worry about. The unworried seat on the seesaw being thus occupied, your stakeholders reliably become all the more worried. Somebody needs to be worried, after all; if not you, then us.

Take the counterintuitive seat.

A far better strategy is to stress the side of the ambivalence that does you harm, leaving the other side – your preferred side – for your audience to stress instead. This is profoundly counterintuitive. But it works.

A typical seesaw issue is responsibility. If you emphasize the sense in which a problem is not your fault, we will emphasize the sense in which it is. But if you blame yourself more, we will blame you less. In the famous case of the Tylenol poisonings, for example, several people died after someone added cyanide to random Tylenol capsules. The CEO of Johnson & Johnson held a video news conference in which he took moral responsibility for the poisonings, insisting that it was J&J’s job to have tamper-proof packaging. Millions of people who watched the clip on the news that night said to themselves, “It’s not his fault, it was some madman.” You can’t do better PR than to have millions of people telling you it’s not your fault.

Another common risk issue where the counterintuitive seat on the seesaw works superbly is catastrophic potential. If you emphasize that a catastrophic possibility is low-probability, we will emphasize that it is high-magnitude. But if you keep saying how bad it would be, we will point out how unlikely it is. Dozens of U.S. companies learned this lesson while implementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan, which requires facilities to model worst-case accidents and then make the information public. Some managements told their stakeholders the worst-case scenarios were unrealistic and not worth worrying about; they typically faced significant local controversies and substantial pressure to mitigate worst-case risks. Other managements distributed maps with plumes and LD-50s. “Look how many people might die!” they exhorted. “But isn’t that really unlikely,” neighbors almost immediately inquired (the seesaw at work). “Well, yes – but look how many people might die!” Companies courageous enough to take this approach typically found that their first public meeting on the worst-case scenarios was also their last. The whole room united behind the principle that the company should grow up and stop wasting everybody’s time with these fanciful worst cases.

Move to the fulcrum.

A more sophisticated, long-term approach is to move to the middle of the seesaw, forcing your stakeholders to come to terms with their ambivalence, to recognize that there are good arguments on both sides… in other words, to move to the middle themselves. I sometimes call this “dilemma-sharing.” It is most obviously the best strategy when you’re genuinely undecided or at least perplexed, when you’re ambivalent yourself: Say so.

Shell used dilemma-sharing – with great difficulty – when worldwide controversy erupted over its complicity in a civil war in Nigeria. The rebels argued that Shell’s oil and gas installations were polluting the Ogoni area of Nigeria, while the profits were going to the repressive central government. In 1995, the government executed Ogoni author Ken Saro-Wiwa after a perfunctory trial, and Shell faced serious protests throughout Europe. Internally, Shell executives were devastated. They felt they would have unclean hands no matter what they did. They were partnered with a genuinely repressive regime, and inevitably complicit in what that regime did to keep the oil money flowing. At the same time, they judged that they were a force for (relative) good in the region, and they understood the extraordinary environmental, political, social, and racial implications of abandoning an oil field in protest against a government. But for many months, like most companies, Shell kept its angst to itself, and publicly expressed great confidence in its handling of the crisis. When this spurious confidence only worsened the controversy, Shell began drafting a dilemma-sharing newspaper advertisement. It went through draft after draft, as managers wrestled with the unaccustomed business of acknowledging their own uncertainty. The ad that finally appeared in dozens of newspapers around the world wasn’t bad for a first effort at dilemma-sharing. Shell has done better since.

A hybrid approach.

The geometry of the seesaw is surprisingly precise. If you focus on X, we focus on Y; if you’re smack in the middle, so are we. And if you locate your own position midway between X and the fulcrum, we’ll come midway between Y and the fulcrum. That’s the hybrid strategy.

My clients often make difficult decisions between close shades of gray, then want to claim it’s really black-and-white and their choice is the only reasonable choice. But a strategist who understands the seesaw would say something like this: “The case for doing X was a, b, and c. The case for doing Y was d, e, and f. It was a close call, and the decision wasn’t unanimous even inside the company, but we finally opted for Y. On balance, we think Y is better, for these reasons…”

The seesaw applies only when people are ambivalent to start with. If they are firmly on one side and you express that side, they won’t move to the other side; they’ll just tell you it’s about time you saw the light. But even dedicated opponents have to adjust to the expectations of the ambivalent publics you are both trying to win over. Advocates of X will have a difficult time insisting that X is obviously the right answer when you are insisting, not that Y is obviously right, but that the entire question is far from obvious.

President Bartlet wants to be reelected. Where, then, should he locate himself on the seesaw? If he simply makes the case on his own behalf, the ambivalent audience will resolve its ambivalence against him. But he can’t just tell people he won’t run; that might make us wish he’d run, but we wouldn’t know to draft him. And he can’t say he hasn’t decided; a question that important demands that he have some opinion. So here’s an answer for President Bartlet, crafted with the seesaw in mind:

I’d love to be my party’s candidate again. I love this job, and I have a lot more I want to do before I’m done. But I don’t think that’s possible – and it’s my own fault. There are two big arguments against me.

First, I have a serious and incurable disease. Honorable people can disagree over whether it is wise to elect a President with MS. Obviously I think I can do the job, or I wouldn’t have run the first time. But some people don’t think so.

More importantly, I hid my MS. I kept hiding it until today. I didn’t lie, but I skated awfully close to lying. With that on my record, I doubt the party will want to nominate me or the voters to elect me.

Do I hope I’ll be the candidate? With all my heart. Do I think I’ll be the candidate? No.

Choosing to Ride the Seesaw

I’ll close with one more example of the seesaw in action (and then Clinton). The electromagnetic field (EMF) controversy seems to have died down for the moment, but in the early 1990s dozens of electric utilities faced battles with citizens convinced that a power line could give their children leukemia. In a typical controversy, the neighborhood would demand that the line be located elsewhere – buried underground, perhaps. The utility would refuse, on the grounds that the neighbors were being hysterical, that the data on EMF risks were unconvincing, and that all alternative routes were much more expensive. The battles were especially interesting in countries (like the U.S.) where power companies were mostly investor-owned regulated monopolies. A regulated monopoly, of course, is not free to put its power lines wherever it thinks best; to protect the financial interests of ratepayers, the regulatory agency tries to make sure the company chooses the least expensive route that meets all other criteria. In other words, utilities are not allowed to install a Cadillac where a Chevrolet will do – not allowed to spend extra money to minimize EMF exposures unless the regulator has decided that minimizing EMF exposures is an appropriate criterion.

Brought in to consult on such controversies, I got into the habit of asking power company clients whether they had told their critics how little control they actually had over whether to choose a more expensive route. The answer was almost always no. This raises at least two alternative strategic options. First, a utility might move to the middle of the seesaw. “This isn’t really up to us,” it could say. “We’re not the sort of company that actually gets to decide what it does. What you need to do is convince the regulators that minimizing EMFs is worth spending ratepayer money on. If they make us do it, we will. If they don’t make us do it, we really can’t. Here are their names and addresses. Good luck.” The second strategy is to move all the way to the other side of the seesaw. What would happen if a utility proposed to its regulators a substantial increase in power rates in order to reduce EMFs throughout its service area? “True,” the company would concede, “the data are not yet clear. True, it will cost a lot of money. But we believe our customers would rather pay more for electricity than take the chance of giving even one child leukemia.” Mindful of their mandate to keep power costs down, the regulators would almost certainly refuse.

I understand the issues are more complex than I’m making them sound. Sometimes regulators want the company to take the heat, and will find ways to get even if the company bows out of the battle and leaves them to fight instead. But what is fascinating here is the psychological issue. The managements of most electric utilities, I discovered, would rather look callous than look powerless. They would rather win a fight against their customers than lose a fight on behalf of their customers or opt out of the fight altogether.

Mastering the seesaw, in other words, requires more than just understanding the strategy. It requires overcoming some potent barriers – from self-esteem to conventional wisdom to the expectations of your allies. But if managing stakeholder outrage is your goal, seesaw is your game.

P.S. on President Clinton. (This has nothing to do with the seesaw, but I promised.) The American electorate knew Clinton was a womanizer, and we knew he remained a womanizer after getting into the White House. We didn’t impeach him for womanizing. Nor did we impeach him for lying, or even for lying under oath. There is a long history of lying about sex, after all; under many circumstances it is candor about sex that we consider discourteous bordering on unethical. But these are conventional lies, told not in order to mislead but in order to permit various convenient social hypocrisies to stand. For a long time, Clinton managed this sort of undeceptive deception just fine. We knew the truth; he knew we knew the truth; we knew he knew we knew the truth. And so the fact that he wasn’t telling the truth seemed trivial – not ennobling, certainly, but not very troubling either. Then came the day when he earnestly pointed his finger at the camera and intoned, “I never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He seemed to expect us to believe him – so we impeached him. What would I have advised? “Mr. President, don’t forget to wink.”

Copyright © 2001 by Peter M. Sandman

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