How good and bad regulations affect stakeholder outrage
|name:||Eelco de Groot|
|field:||Public acceptance expert|
|date:||March 28, 2017|
In the Netherlands, we are currently finalizing legislation on spatial planning. In this new law, public participation is now legally required. (It wasn't before.) But what public participation entails, like the definition of participation stages or project phases, is not defined or standardized. According to the new law, it is up to the local authorities to decide whether a stakeholder engagement plan is needed, and if yes, if it is appropriate. When affected communities do not agree with this decision there is not much they can do. When they go to court, the court will refer to the mandate of the authorities.
Many experts think that this will lead to legal inequalities for both the private sector and affected communities. Local authorities may judge differently on public participation for similar cases, like wind farms. This may lead to a cumbersome process of case law, leading to high costs for the private sector (impact on the project and on reputation) and for society (on both the community and the governance level).
In your 1998 “Outrage Prediction and Management” software, at chapter 8C on government control, you say this:
Companies often oppose all government regulation, in a knee-jerk response compounded of habit, ideology, and ego. I can see why you might oppose a necessary regulation, one that makes you spend money to do something you'd prefer not to have to do. And I can certainly see why you should oppose a stupid regulation, one that makes you spend money to do something that won't protect the public anyhow. But you need some sort of regulation to keep outrage under control, to stand between you and your potential victims. For any worthwhile thing that you are already doing or plan to do, a regulation that requires you to do it is gravy. Fight for such regulations. Offer them in exchange for the stupid ones. Support them publicly.
I have three questions:
- Do you still subscribe to this point of view?
- What has been the reaction of your industry clients?
- Is there any evidence that such regulation helps to bring costs (project, reputation, transaction, societal, etc.) down?
I also have a broader question: Although your theory has been widely acknowledged, there are still barriers for the industry to apply it. In your writing you often refer to internal alignment problems, corporate culture, individual psychological characteristics, etc. It's not so easy to have an open discussion on these things. Perhaps it is better to focus on the costs of not applying your approach: delays, cancelations, liabilities, reputational damage, etc. After all, it is the ultimate responsibility of the CEO to act in the best interests of the company, and not to be unduly influenced by his or her career interests or worldview.
Do you have evidence of these costs when doing poor stakeholder engagement, so the CEO may refer to it when s/he needs to convince the Board and senior management?
Your comment raises two issues: what I think about the new public participation law in the Netherlands, and whether I still believe government regulation can help ameliorate stakeholder outrage. The two intertwine in complicated ways. I’ll start with the second one and work my way to the first. In a nutshell: While I remain convinced that well-designed regulations can help ameliorate outrage, a badly designed public participation requirement could easily backfire.
At the end of my response I’ll briefly address your postscript on how best to sell outrage management to senior executives.
Effects of government regulation on outrage
Everyone knows government regulation has bottom-line downsides for a regulated company, most obviously the cost of obeying the regs. So at first glance it might seem that the most profitable industry is always the least regulated industry.
But government regulation also nurtures profit in some not-so-obvious ways. It increases the cost of entry, for example, which helps protect established companies from competition by newcomers. It keeps out corner-cutting shady operators that might otherwise undermine the reputation of the entire industry. It sets and enforces minimum standards, thereby reducing competitive pressures for a “race to the bottom” in which everybody has to cut corners because everybody else does.
One key way government regulation benefits companies is its capacity to prevent or reduce stakeholder outrage. I think most people rightly distrust unregulated capitalism, on the sensible grounds that if companies are free to maximize profit in ways that harm their stakeholders and society as a whole, they will do so (at least sometimes). This is especially the case when the harm companies might profitably do isn’t necessarily apparent to non-experts. Most neighbors of a factory, for example, can’t judge for themselves whether the factory’s emissions might give them cancer. They have to count on the government to outlaw dangerous emissions.
More broadly, we all look for evidence that the companies we rely on are not free to maximize profit in harmful ways. The existence of a strong regulator gives us some assurance that capitalism’s natural rapacity will be kept within reasonable bounds.
In short, companies need cops.
In the course of 40+ years of risk communication consulting, I worked with clients in highly regulated and less highly regulated settings. In some countries where I worked, government regulation was widely known to be lax or corrupt or both. People had good reason to suspect that companies in those countries were cutting corners. Even in developed countries, the regulatory environment waxed and waned. In the U.S., for example, there were times when a company could credibly lean on the credibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), times when it actually helped reassure stakeholders to point out that “EPA says what we’re doing is safe.” There were other times – and in 2017 I think we’re about to enter such a time again – when the EPA’s credibility was at a low ebb, and stakeholders would laugh bitterly at any company’s assertion that something must be safe because the EPA permits it.
If government regulators are too weak to be credible cops, smart companies look for alternative cops. When the EPA’s credibility was low, my U.S. clients sometimes asked me to facilitate other eco-compliance options, such as “partnership” with environmental groups or membership in green standard-setting organizations. I always argued against the “partnership” frame; cops and crooks aren’t supposed to be partners. But my clients’ sense that they needed to be accountable to somebody was right on target.
I’m not suggesting that government regulation is a cure-all. When things go really awry, the public wants a scapegoat. It’s usually not hard for government agencies to place the blame on the companies whose behavior did harm, rather than on the government officials who failed to forbid or failed to police that behavior. In my view the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–08 was more a result of inadequate regulation than of corporate malfeasance (see “What Did Goldman Sachs Do Wrong?”) – though it’s true that the finance industry lobbied hard to be less regulated. Most Americans, however, blame the crisis on Wall Street, not on Congress or the regulatory agencies.
In ordinary times, as distinct from crises, people can’t tell for themselves whether everything’s okay or something’s wrong. So we’d like to be able to rely on government regulators to make that determination for us. If regulation seems to be strict and effective, we’re less inclined to worry ourselves into a state of outrage about ambiguous signals of possible risk.
Whether on balance a particular regulation is beneficial or detrimental to a particular company depends on many factors. Not least of these factors is the likely bottom-line impact of stakeholder outrage. When outrage is doing a company relatively little damage, outrage management may be costlier than it’s worth. As the cost of outrage goes up, various outrage management strategies become more cost-effective. In this, government regulation is no different from any other outrage management strategy. Looking at government regulation just from the company’s perspective, not society’s as a whole, and just in terms of the outrage management benefit, not other benefits, it’s fair to say that regulation pays for itself if and only if it costs the company less than the outrage it prevents would have cost.
A tough new regulation that makes a company do something it would prefer not to do has a silver lining insofar as it’s a bulwark against stakeholder outrage. But the most cost-effective regulation is a regulation that “makes” a company do something it was planning to do anyhow – thereby reducing stakeholder outrage without increasing operational costs. That’s what I was trying to get at in the passage you quoted from my 1998 software.
But as I pointed out in the passage you quoted, habit, ideology, and ego often lead companies to oppose even regs that have no downside. Here’s the example I gave in the software:
A paper company client had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new environmentally friendly mill, way below the industry norm in its use of chlorine and its emissions of dioxins and other suspect chlorinated hydrocarbons. It did this in anticipation that the regulations would get tighter, that a mill already in compliance with the next generation of requirements would end up cheaper than one forced to retrofit its way to compliance. But the regulations didn't tighten as soon as expected, and my client was left with a mill that was “too clean” for the company’s economic good.
Yet when tougher mill effluent standards were proposed, the CEO testified against them. Now maybe he was thinking about his other mills. Or maybe he wanted to keep a competitive advantage in wooing the green market rather than force his competitors to retrofit. But I don’t think so. I think the ideology of unregulated capitalism took precedence in his mind even over profits.
You ask whether there is evidence that strong regulation actually reduces costs by minimizing stakeholder outrage, improving corporate reputations, streamlining project approvals, etc. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence. I wish there were more rigorous evidence. But if studies exist that prove the case, I haven’t seen them.
There are really two steps in the argument:
- that effective government regulation fosters better stakeholder relations and lower community outrage; and
- that better stakeholder relations and lower community outrage lead to reputational and project approval benefits that improve a company’s bottom line.
My clients used to give me a hard time about both points. These days I think the second point is widely accepted. Nobody really doubts anymore that being well-liked is a corporate asset and being much-hated is a corporate liability (see “Two Kinds of Reputation Management”) – that stakeholder outrage is costly and stakeholder relations is a sound investment. Many companies still don’t walk the walk, though, so maybe better quantitative evidence is needed to clinch the deal.
Much tougher questions are raised about the first step in the argument: whether regulation fosters better stakeholder relations and lower community outrage. I have argued for decades what I am arguing again in this response, that the right sort of regulation helps protect companies from outrage. But I never had much luck convincing clients to welcome what they invariably saw as government interference.
Effects of required window dressing on outrage
A government regulation ameliorates outrage against a company when stakeholders see the regulation as helping prevent the company from doing them harm. A law that requires proponents of a project to jump through prescribed public participation hoops – and then lets them do whatever they want – isn’t likely to have that effect.
As you describe it, the new public participation requirement in the Netherlands sounds like a poorly conceived piece of regulation. Local authorities can devise any stakeholder relations protocol they like, and they’re not required to devise a good one, or maybe even to stick to the one they devised. You’re worried about inequity: the same sort of project getting an easy okay in one community while in another it has to run the gantlet of a tough engagement process. What would worry me more is the likelihood that most local authorities will come up with protocols that will feel more like window dressing than actual engagement – especially in the judgment of stakeholders who opposed a project that was approved despite their opposition.
In my writing and consulting on public participation, I try to distinguish pro forma consultation from meaningful consultation. Here for example is what I said in a 1986 article on siting hazardous waste facilities:
A fatal flaw in most governmental public participation is that it is grafted onto a planning procedure that is essentially complete without public input. Citizens quickly sense that public hearings lack real provisionalism or tentativeness. They often feel that the important decisions have already been made, and that while minor modifications may be possible to placate opponents, the real functions of the hearing are to fulfill a legal mandate and to legitimize the fait accompli. Not surprisingly, citizen opponents meet what seems to be the charade of consultation with a charade of their own, aiming their remarks not at the planners but at the media and the coming court battle.
This scenario is likely even when the agency sees itself as genuinely open to citizen input. For legal and professional reasons, experts feel a powerful need to do their homework before scheduling much public participation. In effect, the resulting presentation says to the citizen: “After monumental effort, summarized in this 300-page document, we have reached the following conclusions…. Now what do you folks think?” At this point it is hard enough for the agency to take the input seriously, and harder still for the public to believe it will be taken seriously….
The solution is obvious, though difficult to implement. Consultations with the community must begin early in the process and must continue throughout. Public participation should not be confined to formal contexts like public hearings, which encourage posturing. Rather, participation should include informal briefings and exchanges of opinion of various sorts, mediated where appropriate. The Commission must be visibly free to adjust in response to these consultations, and must appear visibly interested in doing so. Above all, the proposals presented for consultation must be provisional rather than final – and this too must be visible. A list of options or alternatives is far better than a “draft” decision. “Which shall we do?” is a much better question than “How about this?”
This sort of genuine public participation is the moral right of the citizenry. It is also likely to yield real improvements in the safety and quality of the facilities that are built. As a practical matter, moreover, public participation that is not mere window-dressing is probably a prerequisite to any community’s decision to forgo its veto and accept a facility. This is true in part because the changes instituted as a result of public participation make the facility objectively more acceptable to the community. Public participation has important subjective advantages as well. Research dating back to World War II has shown that people are most likely to accept undesirable innovations, such as rationing, when they have participated in the decision.
Can a good engagement process actually reconcile participants to a project they opposed? I’ve actually seen it happen: The “losers” in the battle really do sometimes say, “Well, we still think the project should have been stopped, but we had our shot, we got heard, we did have some impact on the outcome, and we see there’s a case for moving forward.” I’ve also seen it fail, of course. Even the best engagement process doesn’t guarantee that people who don’t get the outcome they wanted will nonetheless believe the process was a good one. But the odds are better. On average, a poor engagement process arouses more outrage than a good one.
In fact, a poor engagement process sometimes arouses more outrage than none at all. Making people go through the motions when they can tell it’s all a charade is itself an outrage-arousing thing to do. If you’re determined in advance to coerce people in the end, it’s probably better to skip the window dressing.
A mandatory poor engagement process prescribed by the national government is arguably the worst of all the options. And the new public participation requirement in the Netherlands sounds like it may fit that description.
Throughout my consulting career, quite often my corporate clients were regulated by government agencies that knew next to nothing about outrage management. A regulator would typically take actions that I considered foreordained to exacerbate stakeholder outrage, such as setting up a time-wasting, energy-wasting, frustration-inducing pro forma stakeholder engagement process. My clients were frequently undismayed, sometimes even pleased, by the regulator’s maladroitness. “Well, so the agency will piss off community opponents,” they would say with barely disguised glee. “Not our problem.”
This was very shortsighted. When government regulators arouse community outrage, the outcome is in some ways worse for a regulated company than if the company had aroused the outrage on its own. If people are outraged about something the company has done, the company can at least figure out how best to ameliorate the outrage. But if people are outraged about something the regulator has done, how will the regulator try to ameliorate the outrage? Probably by blaming the company. Or worse: The regulator may wriggle out from under the stakeholder outrage blanket by overregulating the company.
Literally billions of dollars in technically unnecessary hazard regulation is attributable to government agencies trying to reduce outrage by overregulating companies. I hasten to add that I consider underregulation at least as big a problem as overregulation. But when overregulation occurs, the regulator’s goal is often to ameliorate stakeholder outrage – not infrequently outrage the regulator provoked in the first place.
The fundamental basis for my approach to risk controversies is my contention that hazard perception is chiefly a product of outrage – that is, of “outrage factors” like trust, control, fairness, dread, etc. And as I have often written, an outrage problem deserves an outrage solution, not a hazard solution. Here’s the way I put it in a seminar handout that I have been using since 1994: “The proper response to a serious outrage is neither to ignore the outrage nor to pretend that it is a serious hazard. Just as a serious hazard requires hazard mitigation, a serious outrage requires outrage mitigation.” Or as I sometimes say at the end of presentations:
If the hazard is broke, fix the hazard. If the outrage is broke, fix the outrage. If they’re both broke, fix them both. If your factory needs a vapor recovery system, install one. If your neighbors need an apology, apologize. But don’t expect a vapor recovery system to make people less upset – any more than you’d expect an apology to make them less endangered.
When regulators do something that arouses outrage, the odds are high that they’ll try to ameliorate the outrage by overregulating some company. It’s bad enough if the XYZ Corporation should be apologizing to the community for its offensive behavior, but decides to install a multimillion-dollar vapor recovery system instead. At least the company is wasting its own millions in an ineffective attempt to make up for its own misbehavior. It’s far worse if an agency that regulates the XYZ Corporation has offended community members – and instead of apologizing the agency requires XYZ to spend those millions on an unnecessary vapor recovery system.
How does this apply to the new public participation law in the Netherlands? Here’s the scenario that worries me. Under the new law, a local authority implements a poor engagement process, one that is obviously just window dressing. As community members work their way through the process, their outrage at the local authority gets higher and higher. Eventually, community outrage is so high that the authority sees only one viable option: to cancel the project.
The local authority’s final conclusion is terribly unfair. It punishes project proponents for its own mistakes. But given those mistakes, the authority’s conclusion isn’t unreasonable. Sometimes outrage is so high, and doing so much damage – to reputations, to community cohesion, etc. – that a technically sensible project is no longer culturally/socially viable.
In 1993 I consulted briefly on a local controversy over the siting of a sewerage outfall in a coastal Australia community. Unbeknownst to me, opponents of the outfall had done an analysis of the outfall siting process based on my twelve principal outrage components. They concluded that the process had aroused very high community outrage. (They ought to know; it was their own outrage they were analyzing.) They submitted this conclusion to the local authority as part of their case against the project.
A side-controversy resulted over whether a defective public participation process leading to a high level of community outrage constituted an appropriate reason to turn down an otherwise sensible project. People on both sides sent me emails, asking my opinion. Here are some excerpts from my responses, which were duly entered into the record:
I have no idea whether the proposed … outfall is technically wise or technically foolish. But if it is technically wise, it does not become technically foolish simply because proponents have (mis)managed it in a way that has generated a lot of outrage. The proper response to a serious hazard is hazard mitigation. The proper response to a serious outrage is neither hazard mitigation nor ignoring the outrage. It is outrage mitigation. It seems likely that proponents of the outfall owe the neighborhood an apology, increased control over how the outfall is managed, enforceable guarantees that feared outcomes will not happen and compensation and penalties if they do, etc. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that proponents owe the neighborhood abandonment of the project….
If an agency has sited a facility in a way that generated high outrage, it is sometimes wisest (from the perspective of outrage reduction) to retreat from that particular site, which might be technically ideal and still be “contaminated” by the process used. If this is impossible, agencies can sometimes retreat from the process but not the site, apologize, and begin from the beginning – developing a more collaborative, noncoercive process at the same site. If even this is impossible – if an irrevocable decision has been made – there are still outrage reduction strategies that make sense….
Unless high-visibility problems plague a facility after it is built, people tend to make their peace with it; those who cannot tend to move…. But while the facility itself may come to be accepted, this does not mean that the controversy has no long-term social impacts. Social dissension is extremely costly to communities, and many of the costs are very long-term indeed. An unsuccessful fight to stop a controversial facility often leaves behind a cadre of activists whose views about the legitimacy of government range from cynicism to bitterness and rage.... This may be a desired or an undesired outcome, but it is a likely one: more controversy to come. A more clearly negative outcome is the residue of divisiveness within the community. A major controversy divides neighbor from neighbor, family member from family member. Long after most people have come to terms with the facility itself, their relations with those who fought them on the issue may remain strained.
Wise community leaders often decide not to pursue a policy option that will so divide their community, even if they think the option sensible and winnable. If they do pursue the option despite these social costs, they may decide that outrage reduction is critical to help mitigate the costs.
In short, stakeholder outrage is itself a hazard. (See my 1995 article, “When Outrage Is a Hazard.”) The most extreme examples of this truth are terrorism and employee sabotage. Sometimes outraged people kill. Social dissension is a more commonplace example.
If the authorities mismanage outrage badly enough, they may end up with no viable choice but to mismanage hazard to match. A good hazard management plan can become unfeasible because of out-of-control outrage and its costs.
But the goal should always be an outrage solution to an outrage problem and a hazard solution to a hazard problem. You don’t expect an apology to reduce people’s exposure to carcinogens, and you shouldn’t expect a vapor recovery system to calm them down. Of course outraged people presumably think they have a hazard problem. They expect the vapor recovery system to calm them down, and they’re a bit surprised when it doesn’t. But we should know better.
I’m making two conflicting points here:
- Hazard reduction is a very inefficient way to manage outrage. It doesn’t make sense to cancel an otherwise sensible project because defects in your process have aroused a lot of stakeholder outrage. It’s far better to apologize for the defects and redesign the process.
- High outrage is itself a hazard. Sometimes the defects in your process have irremediably undermined the viability of your project.
For more on the complications of hazard solutions to outrage problems, see “Because People Are Concerned: How Should Public Outrage Affect Application of the Precautionary Principle?”
I do still think good regulations help keep stakeholder outrage under control, though I was never able to convince clients of this point in the face of their ego and ideological reasons to dislike all regulations. But bad regulations can exacerbate outrage instead. Outrage at the regulator gets offloaded onto the company. Outrage at a poor engagement process gets projected onto the substance of an otherwise sensible project. The regulator weasels out of the outrage caused by its own maladroit regulatory activities by blaming and overregulating the company. Some of this sounds like it may apply to the new public participation law in the Netherlands.
Selling outrage management to senior executives
At the end of your comment, you raise a completely different question: how to sell my outrage management approach to senior corporate executives.
You rightly note that I often write about “internal alignment problems, corporate culture, individual psychological characteristics, etc.” You rightly claim that it’s “not so easy to have an open discussion on these things” with corporate officials. So you wonder whether belaboring these internal barriers might be a mistake. Wouldn’t it be wiser, you ask, to focus the outrage management sales pitch on its strengths, especially on its ability to reduce such costs as reputational damage and project delays and cancelations.
Should outrage management proponents sell its strengths or acknowledge its weaknesses? Both.
Of course proponents should explain the strengths of outrage management. And like you, I wish there were better evidence of those strengths. The stakeholder relations head of a worldwide mining company used to have a PowerPoint deck that I thought came close. It was built on examples from his own company – nothing like a random sample – but it did include actual numbers: “Here’s what it cost us when we angered people at this mine; here’s what it saved us when we listened to people at that smelter.” I thought he made a pretty decent empirical case to his company’s top management on the profitability of stakeholder relations. (On the other hand, that didn’t stop a new CEO a few years later from eliminating the company’s global stakeholder relations department altogether.)
At best, outrage management works the way insurance works. The cheapest outcome for a company is very little outrage and very little outrage management. The most expensive outcome is a lot of unmanaged outrage. Good outrage management is in the middle. Since it’s much more cost-effective to anticipate outrage than to chase it, a wise company invests in outrage management before the need is obvious and desperate. But how much outrage management? Too much wastes resources – like an insurance policy you didn’t need and didn’t use. But too little does far more damage than too much – like huge uninsured losses. So the goal, for the company as a whole and for each individual project, is as much outrage management as the people in charge think may be needed.
Explaining why outrage management is a worthwhile investment is a no-brainer.
But the downsides of outrage management are the elephant in the room – especially the biggest downside of all, internal outrage. Talking to outraged people as if they weren’t outraged invariably exacerbates their outrage. That’s just as true when a senior corporate manager is outraged about your outrage management proposals as it is when external stakeholders are outraged about a proposed project.
Senior managers are likely to be outraged at the specifics of a typical outrage management plan: apologizing for prior misbehaviors, acknowledging current problems, sharing control, setting up accountability mechanisms, staking out the middle, sharing credit, etc. They’re also likely to be outraged at your endorsement of outrage management in general, your suggestion that outrage management might be good or even necessary for the company, your insistence that there are in fact stakeholders who are outraged and ought not to be ignored. So you have to do outrage management on behalf of outrage management – that is, you have to manage management outrage at outrage management.
That absolutely requires acknowledging the reasons why top executives hate your outrage management proposal, no matter how difficult those reasons may be to talk about. Other factors cut the same way – among them ego and corporate culture. But management outrage at outrage management is by far the biggest elephant in the room.
One crucial tool for managing management’s outrage is the risk communication seesaw. Here’s how I put it in “Talking with Top Management about Risk Communication”:
There is an elegant symmetry at work here. Your stakeholders are too outraged at your management to take note of the data that the hazard isn’t all that serious. Similarly, management is too outraged at your stakeholders to take note of the data that stakeholder outrage is quite serious. Your stakeholders are more deeply committed to being proved right than to believing they are safe. Similarly, management is more deeply committed to being proved right than to doing a good job of managing stakeholder outrage….
Figure your boss is probably ambivalent about whether to manage her stakeholders’ outrage or give in to her own. As ambivalent people always do, she will emphasize the side of her ambivalence that everyone else seems to be neglecting. If you’re the voice of reason, apparently unruffled, calmly recommending concessions and compromises, you’re leaving your boss alone with her outrage – and she’s likely to act that much more offended and intransigent. So express some outrage yourself, and let her be the voice of reason.
Just as pure selling backfires vis-à-vis your project because you’re not acknowledging and addressing the concerns, objections, and grievances of your outraged stakeholders, in exactly the same way pure selling of outrage management inside the company backfires because senior management’s outrage isn’t being acknowledged and addressed. As a consultant I always told my clients how repellant my solutions were. If they wanted to get on the seesaw’s other seat and tell me my solutions weren’t really as repellant as I imagined, that was fine with me.
Why do outrage management when you can coerce or deceive people instead?
|field:||Economist, former disaster communications guy|
|date:||March 12, 2017|
In light of recent revelations about CIA hacking and use of malware, how should the CIA manage the crisis about its use of malware of Russian and/or Ukrainian origin and the damage done to its messaging with respect to Russia?
It seems to me that the strategy you typically outline, and say may not appeal to Trump, is slightly different from what the CIA “should” do.
To “tell the truth” in proudly acknowledging the Agency’s use of many kinds of informational weapons would help the CIA’s case. But it can hardly do that while admitting wrongdoing, can it? So why not just continue the public witch hunt against leakers and other “internal enemies and traitors”? Is this not a case where, whatever the damage to the nation as a whole, the CIA’s interests (to the extent it has any separate from the interests of the presidency) would be better served, not by admitting fault, not by telling the truth, not by acknowledging other parties’ merits, but merely by promoting McCarthyite public hatred of whatever fall guy the CIA chooses?
I ask this not because of any political preference, but because I am led to wonder if the excellent – amazing – approach you normally advocate is one that works better for organizations that do not have control over the means of coercion in society. If you are at the top of the food chain, does it not make more sense to lie and bully? I mean, Kremlin propaganda is very effective at that. And CIA messaging normally is too. Why should it change tack?
Decades ago I was hired to give an outrage management seminar to an audience of South Carolina business leaders. I was approached at lunch by the owner of a small town textile mill. He told me he was aware of substantial community outrage aimed at his company and him personally. But he was the town’s only big employer, and nobody dared offend him. Since people nearly always swallowed their outrage anyway, he asked me, “Why should I follow your advice about ways to reduce outrage?”
The same question arose, in roughly the same time period, when I did a couple of days’ work for PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela), the government-owned Venezuelan oil company. Management had flown me to Caracas based on some notion that it might be worthwhile to try to reduce very high levels of citizen and employee outrage at the company (and by extension at the government itself). But executives responded to my every suggestion by pointing out that they didn’t really have to compete in a market economy or a free marketplace of ideas. Citizens and employees had no safe ways to express their outrage, they said (or at least implied). So wouldn’t it be easier to just keep on outraging their stakeholders?
I don’t entirely understand your comment, but I think you’re raising the same question with regard to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. You believe the CIA has considerable ability and willingness to coerce and deceive. As long as it can “lie and bully,” as you put it, doesn’t that mean the CIA has very little use for outrage management?
I’m not going to take a stand on any of the substantive issues you seem to be basing your comment on:
- I don’t know to what extent the CIA routinely coerces or deceives Americans.
- I don’t know whether the CIA might be responsible for the election hacking into Democratic Party secrets, which the U.S. intelligence community has attributed to Russian spies, not American spies. I get it that the CIA knows how to mount that sort of false-flag operation. I don’t quite see why it would seek to undermine first the Clinton candidacy and then the Trump presidency – but spy-versus-spy scenario-building isn’t my métier. If the CIA did want to do that, would ethics or law deter it? I have no professional opinion on that either.
- I don’t know whether the Obama administration might have wire-tapped the Trump campaign, nor whether the Trump campaign might have conspired with the Russian government.
All that is way beyond my risk communication expertise.
But I certainly agree with you that coercion, deception, and outrage management are alternative ways to keep stakeholders from interfering with an organization’s activities. To the extent that a government agency or corporation finds coercion and/or deception a successful and acceptable modus operandi, it would have that much less use for outrage management. More broadly, an organization has little or no use for outrage management to the extent that any of the following three conditions is met:
- Stakeholders aren’t outraged, and aren’t likely to get outraged, about what the organization is doing. Either the organization’s actions are reliably anodyne or its stakeholders are reliably inattentive or apathetic.
- Stakeholders would be outraged if they knew what the organization is doing. But the organization is successfully deceiving them, expects the deception to remain successful, and is comfortable with that approach.
- Stakeholders are or soon will be outraged. But they’re pretty powerless. Coercion is working, is expected to continue working, and is an approach the organization finds congenial. For the organization, therefore, the cost of outrage is lower than the cost of outrage management would be.
I must add a fourth criterion as well. Outrage has societal value because it motivates action to reduce hazard. For society at large, therefore, outrage management is unarguably appropriate only when the outrage is too high, higher than the hazard justifies. That is, people are more outraged than they ought to be; what the organization is doing deserves less outrage than it is provoking or likely to provoke. (Of course those outraged stakeholders undoubtedly disagree, and some experts may disagree too.) I think there’s also a case for what I called in a 2008 column “Managing Justified Outrage: Outrage Management When Your Opponents Are Substantively Right.” But when the outrage is justified, managing it down is a lot more debatable – especially when organizations decide to manage the outrage down instead of mitigating the hazard.
I think it’s pretty obvious that outrage management is more a more ethical way to minimize stakeholder interference than coercion or deception (though there are ethical objections to outrage management too). And I think it’s pretty obvious that outrage management is better for the society as a whole than coercion or deception. Calming down people who are more outraged than a situation justifies is preferable to coercing people or deceiving them. But I am not an ethicist. And my clients have typically been more preoccupied with their own interests than the interests of society as a whole. So the operative question for them is whether outrage management will serve their interests better than coercion and/or deception.
The main problem is that even when the question is framed in terms of their own interests, most organizations don’t do a good job of figuring out the answer.
For one thing, my clients have typically underestimated how outraged their stakeholders are, and how outraged they’re likely to become. Virtually every time a client has commissioned actual research on stakeholder attitudes, the data turned out more negative than the client expected.
That’s probably inevitable. Outraged stakeholders often avoid contact with the source of their outrage, so the people my clients had contact with were systematically less hostile than the people they never saw. And when they can’t avoid contact, outraged stakeholders often hide their outrage right up until they’re ready to do battle – especially in a company town (or in the Washington bubble, perhaps). And of course it’s normal for humans and human organizations to think they’re more liked or less disliked than they actually are.
Although I can’t know for sure, I suspect my clients have also typically overestimated their ability to deceive their stakeholders. For decades I have routinely advised clients that they would be wise to reveal their own guilty (or merely embarrassing) secrets, on the grounds that bad news does roughly twenty times as much reputational damage when it’s revealed by opponents or whistleblowers as when it’s acknowledged proactively by the organization itself. This advice seldom made much headway. I don’t think my clients doubted the 20x factor. I think they imagined they had better than a 19-in-20 shot at keeping their secrets secret.
Most importantly, my clients have almost invariably underestimated the power of stakeholder outrage to do them harm.
One reason why my clients underestimated the power of stakeholder outrage was motivated self-deception: They were looking for reasons to avoid having to embrace outrage management. The core strategies of outrage management – acknowledging prior misbehavior and current problems, admitting the things your opponents are right about, sharing control and sharing credit, etc. – are antithetical to organizational culture and management egos. (See “The Boss’s Outrage (Part III): Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.”) My clients were strongly motivated to find reasons why my advice was mistaken. The more I told them about how best to ameliorate stakeholder outrage, the more tempted they were to decide that their stakeholders weren’t all that outraged after all.
Another reason is historical. Many developments in recent decades – from social media to socially responsible investment – have ramped up the power of stakeholder outrage. Critics and victims who used to suffer in lonely silence have new tools to find each other and recruit newcomers, mobilizing a movement or a lawsuit or even a rebellion. A senior executive who came up through the ranks when stakeholder outrage was close to impotent might understandably fail to adjust to its increased power today.
But even in olden days when today’s senior executives were learning the ropes, coercion and deception were risky strategies. Perhaps a better way to put it is that coercion and deception have always been “leaky” strategies. As Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said about deception, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” I assume the CIA knows that.
As for coercion, obviously it too can fail. The long list of deposed dictators is testimony to that. And even before it fails, coercion is costly. Suppressed outrage leaks in a variety of passive aggressive manifestations. The impact on morale, for example, is substantial; it’s not fun to be hated, even if the people who hate you keep their lips buttoned. I’d give odds the CIA tracks its reputation and looks for ways to be more loved and less hated.
It’s worth noting that every dictatorial regime lives in fear that its populace might rebel, and therefore looks for ways to diminish its public’s outrage. As I conceded at the start of this response, outrage management is an alternative – a preferable alternative, in my judgment – to coercion and deception. But because coercion and deception are leaky, even the most coercive and deceptive organizations also have use for outrage management.
That’s not quite what I answered the South Carolina mill owner who asked me why he should bother with outrage management when his outraged neighbors were too dependent on him to voice their outrage. I answered that at least in the short term he might be right in eschewing outrage management. But his town and his factory were ripe for an activist organizer, I said – and for a controversy that would convert latent outrage that wasn’t doing much damage to his bottom line into manifest outrage that was. Since he wasn’t yet interested in nipping the problem in the bud with outrage management, I would be happy to work with a union or an environmental group to bring it to flower instead. Or someone else would. And when that campaign succeeded in raising the outrage level to the point where, at last, outrage was costlier to his business than outrage management would be, then maybe he would belatedly give outrage management a try.
Possible kratom ban: what kind of risk communication?
|date:||February 12, 2017|
comment:I’m writing you to seek advice on outrage management and risk assessment regarding the plant kratom, which is often used as a supplement in the United States and which is under direct attack by the DEA and the overarching Drug War mentality.
I’m compelled to write anyone and everyone due to the sheer potential impact this plant can have in the lives of those suffering from chronic pain, addiction/alcoholism, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders. I am a human being – flesh and blood and cells and DNA – who has used this plant as an addition to my therapies in treating my PTSD and alcoholism.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with my journey. The American Kratom Association (YES! There is an association!), spearheaded by the ferocious Susan Ash, has been trying to point out the many communities of individuals who use this plant in conjunction with their daily regimen of prescription medications, other supplements, and other therapies. Surprising even to me, there is a large community of veterans who use kratom as a replacement for the opiates they have been prescribed by the VA for years. In using kratom for their pain, they came to find out the many benefits this plant has on another debilitating ailment that many veterans suffer from, PTSD.
The kratom plant is grown in Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia. It is usually ground and used as a tea. Kratom is indeed illegal in Thailand and has been for decades. Quite honestly, this is because people began using kratom instead of going to opium dens. The only reason kratom was made illegal there was because the government could not profit from it through taxes.
A few months ago I got a group of five kratom users, including myself, to have a successful meeting in our Senator Patty Murray’s office. Although we were unable to garner the outward support of the senator herself, the woman we spoke to said that she was enthralled by our stories and that she would, herself, spread awareness as best she could. There was also a “Dear Colleague” letter that was successfully passed along through Congress and signed by many congressmen across the country.
The DEA is compelled to schedule kratom as a Schedule I drug. Unfortunately, this is in large part due to its unregulated nature and the fact that it has been marketed in head shops in a similar fashion as other synthetic “legal highs” such as spice. Honestly, kratom is a lousy high. At best, it feels as if you drank the best cup of coffee on the block, just without the jitters. In fact, the kratom plant is in the coffee family.
The DEA has also cited a little over a dozen deaths “associated” with kratom. This is misleading, as it only takes a couple of minutes of taking a closer look at these cases to see that there were other substances being taken alongside kratom. In fact, many heroin users often take kratom to wean themselves off of their doses and hopefully maintain complete sobriety. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these cases involved stories like that – stories that unfortunately led to an overdose and death.
The kratom community and many other well-informed citizens shot back and we successfully got the DEA to drop their letter of intent to schedule kratom in order to allow for public comment (which they originally denied us). This unusual move by the DEA resulted, in part, from the overwhelming response they received. The main motivator (I hope) is the blatant tragedies that plague our country on a daily basis.
I don’t have to list off the statistics regarding opioid-related deaths in this country. I don’t have to list off the statistics regarding alcoholism and the damage it causes to families, businesses, and lives in general. I don’t have to list off the statistics regarding mental illness and how it is often associated with the above afflictions.
You know that if kratom is scheduled in the way the DEA and FDA want it scheduled, it will not be studied in the manner that it needs to be studied. We, as a community and as desperate people, are reaching out with arms wide open for anyone who wants to learn more about kratom and its many benefits. We wouldn’t be asking for it to be studied if we believed it to be anything other than what it is.
I’m wondering what we can do as a community to allow for the public to get the entire picture without their preconceived notions impeding their understanding.
I have to start with a disclaimer. Your comment mentions kratom “risk assessment” – something I’m not qualified to do. There’s a lot of hot argument and not much data about how risky it is to self-medicate with kratom, versus its possible benefits, which are also hotly disputed. Nobody should rely on a risk communication expert for guidance on kratom safety or efficacy!
That said, in preparing to respond to your comment I spent a couple of hours reading readily available online sources on kratom. Risk communication aside, I emerged with the following tentative impressions about the technical pros and cons:
- The evidence on kratom benefits is both scanty and mixed. An awful lot of people testify, as you do, that they have found it a useful self-prescribed treatment for pain, PTSD, and/or addiction – often more useful than anything else they’ve tried. Plenty of others say it didn’t help them at all. Even allowing for a placebo effect, it seems pretty clear that kratom does help some people cope with some very debilitating conditions. And it’s completely clear that some people without debilitating conditions consider kratom a pleasant addition to their lives.
- The evidence on kratom risks is also scanty and mixed. As you say, most or maybe even all the deaths “associated” with kratom could be due to other drugs, either contaminants in the kratom itself or simply taken more or less at the same time. We’re not talking about a lot of deaths; kratom use has skyrocketed in recent years while reports of kratom deaths really haven’t. But reports of lesser kratom downsides are widespread. Wikipedia lists nausea, constipation, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, liver toxicity, trouble sleeping, seizure, psychosis, and possibly respiratory suppression.
- The most documented risk of kratom is addiction. Super-effective pain relievers usually turn out to be addictive, which is why we have an opioid epidemic in the first place. And despite what you say in your comment, the evidence that kratom is addictive or something like addictive for many users seems pretty strong to me. Plenty of people, including some who rhapsodize about kratom’s benefits, say it’s hard to do without once you’re used to it. Much depends, of course, on whether it’s addictive like opioids or “addictive” like its botanical cousin coffee. Much depends on whether its benefits include helping people get off other, potentially worse addictions. And much depends on whether it does serious harm aside from its addictiveness; a harmless addiction (if that’s what kratom turns out to be) is arguably not such an awful thing.
- Nobody is trustworthy on these issues. It is typical for enthusiasts to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks of a new drug craze (whether herbal or pharmaceutical). It is also typical for regulatory agencies to want to regulate anything new, especially if it’s psychoactive and feels good, and therefore to overstate its risks and understate its benefits. The DEA in particular has earned its reputation for kneejerk overreaction since President Nixon established it in 1973 to conduct “an all-out global war on the drug menace.”
- Warning kratom users and prospective users that kratom is dangerous and they shouldn’t use it.
- Warning users and prospective users that they shouldn’t use kratom even if they doubt the danger warning, because it’s about to become illegal (this part of the warning is on hiatus at the moment) and they don’t want to end up addicted to an illegal drug.
- Warning society at large that kratom use threatens us all, that it’s part of an overall drug menace and we should support its illegalization.
Kratom outrage management
In most risk controversies, when one side’s task is precaution advocacy the other side’s task is outrage management. One side is warning people that X is dangerous; the other side is reassuring people that it’s not.
Your outrage management challenge, then, is to reassure people who are upset about kratom that it’s a safe, pleasant, coffee-like herb. (You’re entitled to say this because you genuinely believe it, just as the DEA genuinely believes you’re mistaken.) Such reassurances might be addressed to kratom users who are worried about its health effects, or to members of the general public who have “learned” that kratom is a threat to the nation’s health, or to potential influencers such as journalists and legislators.
When I first started paying attention to kratom, after receiving your comment, I assumed that outrage management would be the principal task facing kratom proponents. But as I looked into it – superficially, I hasten to stress – I got the strong impression that there wasn’t a lot of kratom outrage to manage. I couldn’t find a lot of kratom users desperate to free themselves from kratom addiction, or even worried that their fondness for kratom might turn out harmful to their health. I couldn’t find a lot of non-users upset that kratom-crazed neighbors might accost them on dark corners or that kratom-lulled drivers might veer into their highway lane.
The vast majority of the kratom-related outrage seems to come from your side – from proponents outraged that kratom could be outlawed at any moment. I read through the comments sections of a couple of dozen news stories about kratom. Without exception, the majority of comments and the overwhelming majority of outraged comments came from kratom proponents. The DEA’s September 2016 announcement suspending its scheduled kratom ban was explicitly in response to your side’s outrage … and, I have to think, to the absence of much outrage from the other side. Fifty-one members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, sent letters to the DEA urging it to reconsider; the letters I saw cited constituent concern (outrage) about the proposed kratom ban, not about kratom itself.
DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson commented: “I have been with the DEA for 20 years and have never seen this level of public response…. We have heard from a lot of people who self-medicate with this for pain and opioid addiction…. We just want to make sure it’s safe.”
DEA spokesman Russ Baer took a somewhat different line: “Based on the response we’ve gotten over the last month or so, we believe it’s [delaying the ban] the prudent and reasonable action to take…. We want to make sure this is a transparent process. We want to have an open dialog with the public.” But Baer warned that “DEA still firmly believes kratom is dangerous and is harmful.”
Kratom proponents should stay alert to the possibility that the DEA or its supporters might launch a campaign to arouse public outrage about kratom, to counter users’ outrage about banning kratom. If that starts to happen, and especially if it starts to succeed, kratom outrage management could become a priority. But for now, I don’t see much of a kratom risk controversy. The controversy is about the DEA’s proposal to ban kratom.
Or to put the point differently, so far there’s not much of an audience for kratom risk communication – just stakeholders who already know what they think. There’s the DEA and its allies (perhaps including the pharmaceutical industry), stakeholders committed to banning kratom. And there’s your community of kratom users, stakeholders committed to preventing the ban. So far the general public seems to be sitting this one out.
Kratom crisis communication
With little need for outrage management aimed at the general public, the risk communication priority for kratom proponents is crisis communication aimed at your community of users. For contented (or dependent) kratom users, the possibility of a kratom ban is indeed a crisis: high-hazard, high-outrage. Your core crisis communication message to these stakeholders is obviously that “Our access to this vital part of our lives is threatened. We must act now to stop the ban. The need is urgent. Here’s what to do….”
Judging from results, kratom proponents are already highly skilled at crisis communication. You won an unprecedented victory against the DEA last year, mobilizing sufficient pressure to get it to back down from its plan for an immediate ban and instead open up a public comment period. And you kept up the pressure. When the comment period ended on December 1, 2016, the DEA had received more than 23,000 comments. According to an analysis on the American Kratom Association website, 99.1 percent of the comments opposed the ban.
The analysis quotes Katie Lair, research and communications director of the American Coalition of Free Citizens (an organization founded in 2016 after kratom was successfully banned in Alabama “to defend the rights of people to access and choose safe and natural ethnobotanical/herbal alternatives to prescription drugs”):
The most curious thing about the public comments is that there were so few responses actually supporting the DEA. Only 113 people out of 23,116 commented in support of the DEA proposal to ban kratom. When you have so much anti-kratom propaganda circulating at the state level and misleading talk of a public health crisis, one would expect more public comments in support of what the DEA is trying to do…. There is no public appetite for banning kratom and continued fierce opposition can be expected by anyone who cares to do so.
Proponents, in short, have done a spectacularly good job of mobilizing user outrage about the crisis of a possible kratom ban, while critics have failed to arouse much public outrage about the risk of a possible kratom epidemic.
By contrast, a lot of public outrage has been successfully mobilized about the U.S. opioid epidemic – sufficient outrage to make the horrific opioid addiction crisis a significant issue in the 2016 presidential race. This could cut either way vis-à-vis the kratom controversy. People could see kratom as opioid-like and thus as part of the epidemic, or they could see kratom as an opioid substitute and even an opioid cure, and thus as a response to the epidemic that should be nurtured, not foreclosed. At least so far, the latter view has clearly won the day. Users obviously see kratom as a solution to opioid addiction, while the general public seems to have no opinion on kratom one way or the other.
Bottom line: I don’t think kratom proponents need a lot of crisis communication advice from me.
Kratom precaution advocacy
I do wonder if there’s a risk that the anti-ban pressure could subside prematurely. In any ongoing controversy, it’s a challenge to sustain supporters’ sense of crisis, especially in the face of victories. Kratom proponents’ September 2016 victory over the DEA was explicitly temporary. The threat of a ban isn’t over, just on hold.
The public’s interest in kratom, never very high, has certainly subsided. I just looked at a Google Trends graph of U.S. searches for the past 12 months. The baseline was stable until the end of August. It rose precipitously in early September when the DEA announced the ban, then started declining – especially after the ban was put on hold at the end of September. By November the number of kratom searches was stable again, at a significantly higher baseline than before September but way below the September surge.
If the decline in kratom Google searches signals a decline in kratom users’ outrage about a possible ban, then there may be a need – now or soon – for kratom precaution advocacy: high-hazard, low-outrage risk communication. For a rundown on my basic precaution advocacy recommendations, see “‘Watch Out!’ – How to Warn Apathetic People.”
This oscillation between crisis communication and precaution advocacy isn’t unusual. Here’s how it works:
- Before a crisis, the chief risk communication task is typically precaution advocacy: warning insufficiently outraged people (insufficiently worried, angry, or otherwise upset) that the risk is serious.
- When the risk becomes obviously serious, the problem of provoking outrage is replaced by the problem of helping people bear their outrage and respond wisely to the threat. That is, crisis communication replaces precaution advocacy as the dominant paradigm.
- When the risk is past, crisis communication typically gives way to outrage management. Since people are no longer endangered, they’re ready to focus on questions of blame: Why did you let this happen? Why didn’t you warn us? Why didn’t you prepare better? Why didn’t you manage the crisis better? Responding to these sorts of accusations calls for outrage management.
- But sometimes the risk isn’t past, but people’s sense of crisis has subsided, at least for the moment. High outrage is hard to sustain, even if the level of hazard is still high. So you’re back in high-hazard, low-outrage territory, and the reigning risk communication paradigm is once again precaution advocacy.
That may be where the kratom controversy is headed.
Kratom support mobilization
I just looked over my list of 25 generic crisis communication recommendations – and I’m not convinced that kratom proponents have much need for them. Apart from the fact that proponents have been doing a fine job of crisis communication already, the focus of my recommendations isn’t right for the sort of crisis communication challenges you’re facing.
My focus is on two main tasks: helping people bear their justified outrage and helping them choose wise rather than unwise precautions. Thus my recommendations are things like: Don’t over-reassure; err on the alarming side; acknowledge uncertainty; don’t aim for zero fear; tolerate early over-reactions; acknowledge errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors; etc. My crisis communication prototype is a government agency helping community residents cope with a high-hazard, high-outrage event like a natural disaster or an infectious disease outbreak.
Your sort of crisis communication is a bit different. Your audience, an audience of stakeholders, is kratom users who are outraged that the DEA wants to ban a product (supporters say “herb”; opponents say “drug”) they rely on. You’re not so preoccupied with helping them bear their outrage or avoid responding unwisely. Your main task is to convert them from passive stakeholders to movement activists – to mobilize their outrage into politically effective action.
Check out my 2016 column on “Three Ways to Manage Controversies.” It compares three alternative strategies for managing controversies (plus a fourth strategy: deciding to let the controversy rage unmanaged). You can focus on arousing your supporters; that’s support mobilization. You can focus on reaching out to neutrals; that’s public relations. Or you can focus on ameliorating the opposition; that’s outrage management. The column champions outrage management, arguing that it is too often neglected – and that for many sorts of controversies calming opponents’ outrage does more good than intensifying supporters’ outrage or appealing to neutrals.
My prototype for the sort of controversy where outrage management is preferable to support mobilization or public relations is a regulatory battle. A low-outrage climate of opinion is more conducive to regulatory approval than a high-outrage climate. So calming opponents has more payoff than riling up supporters or attracting newbies; the fewer people who bother to come to the hearing, the better the prospects for getting the regulators’ green light.
But in the case of kratom, there is no neutral regulator. The decision-maker is your principal opponent. So a low-outrage climate isn’t in your interest; it would just leave the DEA free to move forward with its plans for a ban. You need a lot of outrage against the ban. Among my three ways to manage controversies, I think support mobilization is by far the highest priority for kratom proponents.
Public relations comes second. You don’t need to reach out to neutrals as much as you need to keep kratom users aroused and active. But reaching out to neutrals is still worthwhile. I’d be especially keen to look for potential ideological allies – libertarians, for example, who aren’t necessarily kratom users or kratom supporters or even herbal medicine supporters, but are hostile to regulatory overreach. Supporters of marijuana legalization, among the most successful movements of its sort ever, might be another worthwhile constituency for kratom proponents to appeal to. A third audience of currently neutral potential supporters: people with chronic pain, PTSD, alcoholism, or other medical conditions that kratom might alleviate.
And I wouldn’t neglect outrage management altogether. I have already mentioned the need to stay alert to the possibility that critics could start arousing widespread public outrage about kratom risks, necessitating an outrage management response from your side. (If the DEA starts doing good public relations and precaution advocacy, in other words, you need to respond with outrage management.)
Also worth mentioning is the unlikely but enticing prospect of trying to assuage the outrage of the DEA itself. Bear in mind that what looks like anti-kratom outrage on the part of DEA officials may well be rooted in grievances unrelated to kratom. The DEA has fought a decades-long losing battle against marijuana in particular and recreational drugs in general. Society’s attitudes toward drug use have turned decisively against the DEA position – to the point where the agency is widely despised as a villain or, worse yet, mocked as an anachronism. The DEA has reason to be outraged that ordinary folks feel like they ought to be allowed to decide what risks to take with their own bodies; outraged that ordinary folks think they can assess drug risks on their own; outraged that Congress keeps insisting on a distinction between “drugs” and “herbs”; etc. All these blows to organizational ego are probably germane, and may be key, to the DEA’s position on kratom. I wonder if there are ways to disentangle kratom from DEA’s broader outrage and its embattled self-image.
I also wonder if there are ways to help the DEA back down gracefully from its anti-kratom hard line. One that occurs to me offhand is to let the agency convince kratom proponents that it’s okay to regulate product purity. (As an uninvolved and largely uninformed neutral, I find it perplexing that so many kratom proponents insist simultaneously that the health downsides attributed to kratom are actually caused by contaminants, that it’s not fair to blame these contaminant effects on kratom, and that the government has no business regulating kratom purity.) Find a way – not necessarily this way – to be inside the government’s regulatory regime, so the DEA can declare victory, bless you, and let you go on using and promoting kratom to your heart’s content.
Insofar as you try to assuage the DEA’s outrage at kratom, you may also need to assuage supporters’ outrage at the DEA – and at you for “backing down” on your vilification of the DEA. One of the common downsides of any outrage management strategy is supporters’ outrage at the strategy. So any time you set out to manage your opponents’ outrage, you typically need to manage your supporters’ outrage about your outrage management strategy. (See my 2007 column on “Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.”) A similar problem is likely to arise if you succeed in getting the DEA to abandon its quest to ban kratom. Having done a superb job of arousing, sustaining, and mobilizing kratom users’ outrage, you may not find it easy to convince them to win graciously – to let their outrage go when it’s no longer needed.
Still, all that is secondary. The main risk communication priority for kratom proponents is the special sort of crisis communication I call support mobilization – alternating with precaution advocacy when your constituency’s outrage has subsided and needs to be revived.
In the absence of good data, the main questions about kratom are values questions, not technical questions. Which side should bear the burden of proof, and which should get the benefit of the doubt? Should we assume kratom is useless until its effectiveness is proven, or deem it effective until it’s proven useless? Is it safe until proven dangerous or dangerous until proven safe? And should the government leave individuals free to answer these questions for themselves, or should it impose societal answers as a matter of public policy?
The Drug Enforcement Administration is famously keen on imposing societal answers. That’s its mission: to prevent individuals from “abusing” drugs – that is, from using them in ways that the DEA has decided are unwise.
Kratom was legal in the United States until August 31, 2016, when the DEA suddenly announced that kratom use was such a serious public health emergency that it was bypassing the ordinary slow-moving government decision-making process. Effective September 30, it said, kratom would be banned as a Schedule I drug. The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as those “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” including heroin, LSD, marijuana, and Ecstasy.
The result was an outpouring of protest from the public and some members of Congress – an outpouring you were part of. The pushback worked. On September 29, in what was apparently an unprecedented response, the DEA announced that was suspending the ban and would instead open up a public comment period until December 1.
It received 23,210 comments, all of which it promised to consider (alongside technical guidance from the FDA) before making a decision about kratom.
As I write in mid-February 2017, no date for that decision has been announced. So everything’s in limbo. The DEA could renew the emergency and institute an outright ban; or prolong its consideration pending more comment and maybe more research; or revert to its routine process (which might end up in the same place); or propose that kratom should be regulated rather than banned (which would put it more in the FDA’s bailiwick).
Nor is it clear how the 2016 election results might affect the DEA’s decision. Republicans are generally opposed to regulatory overreach and likelier than Democrats to let freedom ring when the evidence is mixed. On the other hand, they’re not generally fans of recreational drugs, which they seem to view as consumed mostly by hippie Democrats. As for President Trump, there’s some speculation that his criticisms of Big Pharma might incline him to support the continued legalization of kratom, a small business herbal competitor – especially if he accepts the narrative that Big Pharma is behind the anti-kratom campaign because it intends to market its own version and wants to clear the way first. The simple fact that the Obama administration tried to ban kratom might be enough to convince Trump to order the DEA to reverse course. But to the best of my knowledge the new President has never taken a position on this issue, and nobody would be truly surprised by any position he chose to take.
Risk communication diagnosis
The question of interest to me is what sort of risk communication the kratom ban calls for.
If you’re on the DEA’s side of the controversy, the answer to that question is perfectly obvious. Your task is precaution advocacy, aimed at diminishing kratom use. At least three kinds of precaution advocacy are called for:
Of course the DEA and its allies have no business making these arguments unless they believe the arguments to be true. I have zero reason to doubt their sincerity, just as I have zero reason to doubt yours. Either side may turn out right or wrong – or, likelier, both sides will turn out partly right and partly wrong – but I take it as a given that both sides believe what they say.
That doesn’t mean the DEA is necessarily always completely candid in its attacks on kratom. In my decades of consulting on hundreds of risk controversies, I have never had a client I thought was completely candid. Typically, my clients genuinely believed they were right. So did their opponents. Secure in their “rightness,” both sides told lots of half-truths, cherry-picking facts and framing arguments in ways that were often one-sided and even misleading but rarely outright lies. This website is full of examinations of various sides’ half-truths with regard to all sorts of risk controversies, from e-cigarettes to Zika.
I’m not knowledgeable enough to catch most of the DEA’s half-truths about kratom … or the American Kratom Association’s. But I assume they’re there. And whenever people are outraged – as the DEA’s side is outraged about kratom risks and your side is outraged about the DEA’s proposed kratom ban – they’re that much likelier to resort to half-truths, and to feel justified in doing so. At least in the short term, one-sided messaging is actually more effective than two-sided messaging when talking to allies. But of course it can be devastating to credibility when the audience is neutral or hostile. One of the toughest tasks I have faced in my consulting is helping clients manage their own outrage so they could do a better job of policing their own half-truths.
However scrupulously or carelessly the DEA adheres to its vision of the truth, its proper risk communication strategy is obvious: to warn people about kratom risks.
But you’re on the other side. You’re trying to fight the kratom ban. And your risk communication task is more complicated. Let me break it down.
Copyright © 2017 by Peter M. Sandman