Articles categorized as:  Crisis Communication index

Dr. Peter M. Sandman
Crisis Communication
(High Hazard, High Outrage)

For roughly twenty years I defined myself as a specialist in risk communication, not crisis communication. The distinction, I kept telling people, is that risk communicators deal with what might happen, while crisis communicators deal with what just happened or is still happening.

Of course the distinction was always pretty arbitrary. Some of my earliest risk communication work focused on the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident. That certainly felt like a crisis, no matter whether the discussion centered on what had gone wrong at the power plant (a crisis communication issue) or on how much radiation might be released (a risk communication issue).

Still, I felt that crisis communicators needed expertise I didn’t really have – running evacuations, coordinating emergency responders, fielding thousands of simultaneous telephone calls, etc. I was comfortable working on “reputational crises,” controversies that felt like crises to my clients, but were simply hot issues to their stakeholders and the media. I was comfortable advising on potential future crises (worst case scenarios) and even past crises (recriminations). But real crises? I wasn’t sure I had much to say.

This changed after September 11, 2001. Like just about everyone else, I desperately wanted to help. After dozens of false starts, I wrote a long “column” for this website on “Risk Communication and the War Against Terrorism.” Soon afterwards the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked me to help with anthrax communication, and then with smallpox and other bioterrorism communication issues. Other terrorism and crisis communication clients started calling. I found I did have things to say after all.

Roughly a third of my professional work is now focused on terrorism, disease outbreaks, and other emergencies.

My work on pandemics and other infectious disease outbreaks, in fact, has become voluminous enough to require its own index. Only a little of that work is listed in this index as well.

Topical Sections in Crisis Communication

The Basics in One 2004 Video

  • by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Produced by the American Industrial Hygiene Association, Fairfax VA, 2004
    Posted: January 29, 2012

    This 166-minute video, produced by the American Industrial Hygiene Association in 2004, covers 25 crisis communication recommendations, focusing chiefly on the most difficult messaging challenges that even experienced crisis communicators may get wrong. AIHA stopped distributing the video in January 2012, so now it᾿s available for free on Vimeo (video) and on this site (audio). Unlike many of my videos, this one was professionally produced in a studio, with multiple cameras and an actual set – and it features not just me but also my wife and colleague Jody Lanard. Although some of the examples may be dated – there᾿s a lot of SARS and bird flu throughout the video – the recommendations themselves haven᾿t changed. A complete set of handouts to accompany this video is available.

    Part One (51:59)

    Part One introduces where Jody and I think crisis communication fits in risk communication (high hazard, high outrage), and then discusses the first six of our 25 crisis communication recommendations:

    1. Don᾿t over-reassure.
    2. Put reassuring information in subordinate clauses.
    3. Err on the alarming side.
    4. Acknowledge uncertainty.
    5. Share dilemmas.
    6. Acknowledge opinion diversity.
    Part Two (57:11)

    Part Two covers numbers 7 through 16 of the 25 crisis communication recommendations discussed in the video:

    1. Be willing to speculate.
    2. Don᾿t overdiagnose or overplan for panic.
    3. Don᾿t aim for zero fear.
    4. Don᾿t forget emotions other than fear.
    5. Don᾿t ridicule the public᾿s emotions.
    6. Legitimize people᾿s fears.
    7. Tolerate early over-reactions.
    8. Establish your own humanity.
    9. Tell people what to expect.
    10. Offer people things to do.
    Part Three (57:10)

    Part Three covers numbers 17 through 25 of the 25 crisis communication recommendations:

    1. Let people choose their own actions.
    2. Ask more of people.
    3. Acknowledge errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
    4. Apologize often for errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
    5. Be explicit about “anchoring frames.”
    6. Be explicit about changes in official opinion, prediction, or policy.
    7. Don᾿t lie, and don᾿t tell half-truths.
    8. Aim for total candor and transparency.
    9. Be careful with risk comparisons.

Especially Important to Read

  • Ebola Risk Communication: Talking about Ebola in Dallas, West Africa, and the World

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: October 6, 2014

    In early October, I started getting media inquiries about Ebola risk communication. Three such inquiries led me to write emails (two of them jointly with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard) that collectively summarized most of our thinking about how U.S. sources and the U.S. media were handling Ebola – the first U.S. case in Dallas, the disastrous epidemic in West Africa, and the global pandemic risk. Included in this column are: (a) Our October 3 response to Sharon Begley of Reuters; (b) Our much shorter October 5 response to Kai Kupferschmidt of Science; and (c) My short October 6 response to Paul Farhi of the Washington Post. The articles that Sharon, Kai, and Paul wrote are referenced and linked at the very end of this column, or will be once they’re published. (Note that I had some follow-up communications with Kai, by phone and email, that he relied on in his article but are not included in the column.)

  • Pre-Crisis Communication: Talking about What-Ifs

    Website column

    Posted: September 13, 2013

    This column is devoted not to crisis communication but to pre-crisis communication: how to talk to people about a possible future emergency. In building the case for communicating before you absolutely have to, the column examines four principal responses to pre-crisis communication: (1) People who were worried already are usually relieved that the issue is on the table. (2) People who have too many other things to worry about are usually apathetic and hard to reach. (3) People who were already too worried to bear it are usually in denial and hard to reach in a completely different way. (4) People who are hearing the scary news for the first time usually go through an adjustment reaction, a temporary and useful overreaction. If the crisis is actually coming, the column argues, pre-crisis communication has considerable upside and no downside. The column ends with recommendations for minimizing the downside of warning about a possible crisis that fizzles.

  • Explaining and Proclaiming Uncertainty: Risk Communication Lessons from Germany’s Deadly E. coli Outbreak

    Website column by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: August 14, 2011

    Together with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I have long advised clients to release risk information early – and since early information is almost always uncertain, to acknowledge the uncertainty. But even when clients (and non-clients) do what we consider a pretty decent job of acknowledging uncertainty, they often end up in reputational trouble when they turn out wrong, largely because journalists and the public misperceive and misremember their statements as having been far more confident than they actually were. So we have come to believe that it’s not enough to acknowledge uncertainty; you have to proclaim uncertainty, repeatedly and emphatically. This long column uses a severe German E. coli food poisoning outbreak in 2011 to explore the complexities of proclaiming uncertainty: the myriad ways government agencies and industry spokespeople get it wrong, and some recommendations for getting it right … or at least righter. Proclaiming uncertainty is important in all kinds of risk communication – outrage management as much as precaution advocacy and crisis communication. But our focus here is mostly on how to warn people about an imminent, uncertain risk: in this case, how to tell people which foods not to eat because you think they might be contaminated and deadly.

  • Risk Communication Lessons from the BP Spill

    Website column

    Posted: September 13, 2010

    This is my eighth (but probably not my last) website commentary on the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This one also appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Synergist, published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. So it starts with two risk communication lessons especially appropriate to industrial hygienists: Don’t believe your own propaganda about safety and emergency preparedness, and work to build a safety culture where employees are willing to blow the whistle about unsafe conditions. Then it discusses four more traditional crisis communication lessons: Don’t over-reassure; make contrition credible; make compassion and determination credible; and say how stupid you feel.

    An Italian translation was published in Darwin, November–December 2010, pp. 26–31.

  • Empathic Communication in High-Stress Situations

    Website column

    Posted: June 8, 2010

    These are the notes I developed for a multinational management consulting firm that asked me to help give empathy training to its top consultant-managers. Though applied (as best I could) to a management consulting context, these notes are based largely on my 2007 column “Empathy in Risk Communication,” supplemented with such risk communication basics as the “donkey” game, the risk communication seesaw, and acknowledging uncertainty.

  • Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial

    Website column

    Posted: February 11, 2009

    Arousing apathetic people to care enough about global warming that they’re actually willing to do something about it is a difficult precaution advocacy challenge. Activists are chipping away at that task with slow but significant success. But there’s another audience for climate change risk communication that I think activists aren’t paying nearly enough attention to: people who are in denial about the crisis because it threatens the way they see the world or because it arouses intolerable levels of fear, guilt, sadness, hopelessness, or other emotions. For people in or near denial, outrage is high, not low; the risk communication paradigm is crisis communication, not precaution advocacy. This long column builds a case that global warming denial is a growing problem, and that messaging designed to work on apathetic audiences can easily backfire on audiences in denial. The column focuses on six common activist messages that need to be rethought in terms of their likely negative impact on people who are in or near global warming denial: fear-mongering; guilt-tripping; excessive hostility to narrow technological solutions; unwillingness to pay attention to climate change adaptation; over-reliance on depressing information and imagery; and one-sided contempt for contrarian arguments.

  • Managing Justified Outrage: Outrage Management When Your Opponents Are Substantively Right

    Website column

    Posted: November 19, 2008

    This long column tries to correct a serious oversimplification in my previous writing about risk communication. Outrage management isn’t just for calming people down when they mistakenly believe they have substantive reasons to oppose you. It is also for calming people down when they rightly believe they have substantive reasons to oppose you. Converting justified opposition that’s outraged into justified opposition that’s calm doesn’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate the opposition, but it does accomplish several things: It lowers the level of passion; it opens people up to the possibility of altruism; it gets them in a mood to negotiate; and it enables them to be more realistic in defeat or more generous in victory. While all the usual outrage management strategies apply, two strategies are particularly crucial when your critics are substantively right: acknowledging that they are right, and being candid about the distribution of power. The column also has an important “postscript” on the role of outrage management in a genuine high-hazard, high-outrage crisis.

  • Empathy in Risk Communication

    Website column

    Posted: July 30, 2007

    Everyone knows risk communicators need to be empathic, but all too often empathy gets operationalized as telling people you know how they feel – or, worse yet, telling them how they feel. This long column argues that the essence of empathy is “sort-of acknowledgment,” finding a middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness. The column goes on to discuss ten elements of empathic communication. Some are pretty obvious (listening and echoing, for example); some are easy-to-learn tactics (such as suggesting that “some people” might feel a particular way instead of accusing your stakeholders of feeling that way); some are complicated and counterintuitive. The most complicated and counter-intuitive ones are grounded in the work of psychiatrist Leston Havens.

  • “Speak with One Voice” — Why I Disagree

    Website column

    Posted: July 27, 2006

    This column dissects an issue – one of the few – on which I disagree with most risk communication and crisis communication professionals: what to do when there are differences of opinion within your organization. The conventional advice is to “speak with one voice” – that is, to paper over the disagreements. I urge my clients to let the disagreements show. The column distinguishes the ways of showing opinion diversity that really do undermine public confidence from the ways that (in my judgment) do not, and identifies many reasons why it is beneficial to let the public know that you’re not all on the same page about every issue. Perhaps most importantly, it details what tends to go wrong when organizations muzzle their staff in order to speak with one voice.

  • Katrina: Hurricanes, Catastrophes, and Risk Communication

    Website column

    Posted: September 8, 2005

    When I wrote this column shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck, I didn’t realize that it would still be an ongoing disaster years later. So the column focuses on risk communication failures before the hurricane reached New Orleans (especially the failure to scare people sufficiently) and immediately after the hurricane reached New Orleans (especially the failure to acknowledge emergency response inadequacies and to communicate with victims desperate for information). I saw these failures not as unique to Katrina but as warnings relevant to the next big earthquake or infectious disease outbreak. This perspective may have led me to go too easy on the specific defects of Katrina response.

  • Bird Flu: Communicating the Risk link is to a PDF file

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Published in Perspectives in Health (Pan American Health Organization), vol. 10, no. 2, 2005, pp. 2–9

    PAHO asked us to combine a primer on risk communication with a primer on avian influenza. The resulting article talks about the challenge of alerting the public to bird flu risks, then offers ten risk communication principles, each illustrated with bird flu examples. The PDF file also includes the cover, an editor’s note entitled “Communication: risky business,” and the contents page.

    ( There is an online version (same text, but easier to read than a PDF file) posted on the PAHO website. The entire issue is also there.

  • Pandemic Influenza Risk Communication: The Teachable Moment

    Website column by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: December 4, 2004

    This is the first column Jody Lanard and I wrote about pandemic preparedness. We wrote it when many experts believed a devastating H5N1 flu pandemic might be just around the corner – and so we thought so too. (We still think the risk is serious, but there’s much less sense of imminence as I write this blurb in mid-2008.) The thrust of this long column is how to sound the alarm. After a primer on why H5N1 is “not your garden variety flu,” the column proposes a list of pre-crisis pandemic talking points. Then it assesses how well experts and officials were addressing those points as of late 2004. The experts, we wrote, were doing their best to arouse the public. But governments and international agencies were undermining the sense of urgency with grossly over-optimistic claims about pharmaceutical solutions.

  • Worst Case Scenarios

    Website column

    Posted: August 28, 2004

    Most of this long column is addressed to risk communicators whose goal is to keep their audience unconcerned. So naturally they’d rather not talk about awful but unlikely worst case scenarios. The column details their reluctance even to mention worst case scenarios, and their tendency when they finally get around to discussing them to do so over-reassuringly. It explains why this is unwise – why people (especially outraged people) tend to overreact to worst case scenarios when the available information is scanty or over-reassuring. Then the column lists 25 guidelines for explaining worst case scenarios properly. Finally, a postscript addresses the opposite problem. Suppose you’re not trying to reassure people about worst case scenarios; you’re trying to warn them. How can you do that more effectively?

  • Three Mile Island – 25 Years Later link is to a PDF file

    Published in safety AT WORK, April 24, 2004, pp. 7–11

    When the Three Mile Island nuclear accident began in late March of 1979, I was asked by the Columbia Journalism Review to go to the scene and “cover the coverage.” The resulting article, “At Three Mile Island,” was written jointly with Mary Paden. This new article focuses on some of the crisis communication lessons I learned at Three Mile Island – lessons many corporate and government crisis managers have yet to learn.

    In March 2006, this article was reprinted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in its IAEA Bulletin (vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 9–13) under the title, “Tell It Like It Is: 7 Lessons from TMI.” The IAEA version is available online in the following languages:

  • Crisis Communication: A Very Quick Introduction

    Website column

    Posted: April 15, 2004

    This short column is made up of two lists. First comes a list of six “focus areas” of crisis communication – including the one I consider most in need of improvement: metamessaging. (This jargony word is the best I can come up with to describe all the content of crisis communications other than information content: how reassuring to be, how confident to sound, how to address emotion, etc.) The rest of the column is a list of 25 crisis communication recommendations – most of them about metamessaging. The 25 recommendations are discussed in more detail in my crisis communication handouts. But this column lists them all conveniently on one page.

  • Fear of Fear:  The Role of Fear in Preparedness ... and Why It Terrifies Officials

    Website column by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: September 8, 2003

    My government clients often tell me they want to persuade the public to take precautions against some risk … but not if they have to frighten anybody. Jody Lanard and I wrote this long column not just to argue the necessity for warnings to be frightening, but also to analyze the widespread official “fear of fear.” We explore its origins in officials’ justified concern that they will be criticized for frightening people, and in their unjustified concern that the people they frighten will find the experience permanent and unbearable. We also investigate a closely allied phenomenon, “panic panic” – the panicky feelings officials experience when they wrongly judge that the public is about to panic, and the unwise crisis management strategies they typically attempt in order to “allay” the public’s panic.

  • “Fear Is Spreading Faster than SARS” — And So It Should!

    Website column by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: April 28, 2003

    Until it turned out less contagious than initially thought, SARS looked to many experts like it might very well be the devastating pandemic they had spent decades fearfully awaiting. When Jody Lanard and I wrote this column in April 2003, that was still an open question. The public’s SARS fears were entirely justifiable – yet many governments, experts, and even journalists were working overtime to dampen those fears. The column describes this “soft cover-up” of SARS over-optimism, tries to explain why so many officials were seduced by it, and offers both good examples of guiding the public’s fear and bad examples of trying to allay that fear. The column concludes with a list of 18 specific risk communication recommendations for talking about SARS.

  • Duct Tape Risk Communication

    Website Column by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: February 20, 2003

    One of the things the U.S. government got wrong after 9/11 was its failure to offer people things to do. So when it started listing some steps ordinary people could take to help prepare for the possibility of more terrorist attacks, Jody Lanard and I noted with interest the widespread disdainful response, most of it linked to the inclusion of duct tape on the government’s list of items a prepared citizen ought to have on hand. In this column, we analyze the reasons for this weird response, which we liken to a similar cynicism about anti-nuclear precautions in the 1950s. The column ends with suggestions for improving the U.S. government’s post-9/11 risk communication, starting with the need to ask more of people.

  • Beyond Panic Prevention: Addressing Emotion in Emergency Communication link is to a PDF file

    In Emergency Risk Communication CDCynergy (CD-ROM), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 2003

    This is one of three articles I wrote for the CDC’s CD-ROM on emergency risk communication. This one deals with the likely emotional impacts of terrorism (and other major emergencies), and how communicators can best help the public cope with these emotions. The focus is especially on denial and misery as more common emotional reactions than panic – reactions that may be mishandled if the communicator is over-worried about panic prevention instead.

    This project was supported in part by an appointment to the Research Participation Program for the Office of Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education through an agreement between the Department of Energy and CDC. The The entire CD-ROM is available at http://emergency.cdc.gov/erc/erc.asp.

  • Dilemmas in Emergency Communication Policy link is to a PDF file

    In Emergency Risk Communication CDCynergy (CD-ROM), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 2003

    This is one of three articles I wrote for the CDC’s CD-ROM on emergency risk communication. Based partly on my earlier Anthrax, Bioterrorism, and Risk Communication: Guidelines for Action, this one deals with ten “dilemmas” facing emergency communication planners:

    • Candor versus secrecy
    • Speculation versus refusal to speculate
    • Tentativeness versus confidence
    • Being alarming versus being reassuring
    • Being human versus being professional
    • Being apologetic versus being defensive
    • Decentralization versus centralization
    • Democracy and individual control versus expert decision-making
    • Planning for denial and misery versus planning for panic
    • Erring on the side of caution versus taking chances

    For each of the ten dilemmas, my own position leans toward the first of the two poles – and the natural instinct of communicators in mid-emergency leans toward the second.

    This project was supported in part by an appointment to the Research Participation Program for the Office of Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education through an agreement between the Department of Energy and CDC. The The entire CD-ROM is available at http://emergency.cdc.gov/erc/erc.asp.

  • Obvious or Suspected, Here or Elsewhere, Now or Then: Paradigms of Emergency Events link is to a PDF file

    In Emergency Risk Communication CDCynergy (CD-ROM), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 2003

    This is one of three articles I wrote for the CDC’s CD-ROM on emergency risk communication. The usual paradigm for emergency communication is the obviously horrific event that is happening right here, right now. This article focuses on communication strategies to address six other paradigms:

    • Obvious/here/future
    • Obvious/here/past
    • Obvious/elsewhere/now
    • Suspected/here/now
    • Suspected/here/future
    • Suspected/here/past

    Among the topics covered are worst case scenarios, uncertainty, and dilemma-sharing.

    This project was supported in part by an appointment to the Research Participation Program for the Office of Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education through an agreement between the Department of Energy and CDC. The The entire CD-ROM is available at http://emergency.cdc.gov/erc/erc.asp.

  • Smallpox Vaccination: Some Risk Communication Linchpins

    Public Health Outrage and Smallpox Vaccination: An Afterthought

    Website columns

    Posted: December 30, 2002 and January 19, 2003

    In December 2002, I was asked to help plan and run a meeting on risk communication recommendations for the U.S. program to vaccinate healthcare workers and emergency responders against smallpox. The first column is an edited version of my introductory remarks. It addresses some familiar “risk communication linchpins” – paying attention to outrage, doing anticipatory guidance, expressing wishes and feelings, tolerating uncertainty, sharing dilemmas, riding the seesaw, etc. – all customized for the controversies I thought likeliest to emerge over smallpox vaccination. What I learned from the meeting was that most of the public health professionals implementing the smallpox vaccination program were themselves outraged that it even existed. So I wrote an “afterthought” on the sources of that outrage, and the need to deal with it lest it undermine the program … which, in my judgment, it later did.

  • Anthrax, Bioterrorism, and Risk Communication: Guidelines for Action

    Website column

    Posted: December 29, 2001

    Accustomed to naturally occurring diseases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had a difficult time coping with the anthrax bioattacks of late 2001. Since risk communication was one of its core problems, it asked me to come to Atlanta and help. This four-part “column” grew out of my Atlanta notes. If the CDC was adjusting to bioterrorism, so was I. I put aside my usual outrage management recommendations and developed 26 recommendations specifically on the anthrax crisis. These became the basis for my (sadly) expanding work in crisis communication, and for the crisis communication CD-ROM and DVD Jody Lanard and I ultimately put out in 2004. This column was my first extended discussion of most of these crisis communication recommendations, and it is my only published assessment of the CDC’s anthrax communication efforts.

  • Risk Communication and the War Against Terrorism: High Hazard, High Outrage

    Website column

    Posted: October 22, 2001

    It took more than a month after the 9/11 attacks for me to decide that I had relevant expertise to offer. (This column was first posted on October 22, 2001, revised and reposted on November 10.) My wife Jody Lanard crystallized it for me when she said, “You’ve been doing high-hazard, low-outrage risk communication and low-hazard, high-outrage risk communication for years. This time it’s high-hazard, high-outrage risk communication.” But this column isn’t my first crack at a list of generic recommendations for communicating in high-hazard, high-outrage situations; that didn’t come till my anthrax column a couple of months later. This one is more a meditation on the risk communication significance of 9/11, a very tentative first effort to consider how best to talk to people in the wake of that still-shocking event.

Other Articles by Peter M. Sandman

  • An Ebola Empathy Exercise (pure speculation, based on hypothetical what-ifs)

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Posted: October 3, 2014

    Throughout August and September, my wife and colleague Jody Lanard and I obsessed over Ebola. We wrote part or all of several Ebola risk communication columns, only to have our thinking overtaken by events. This short column, completed in one day, focuses on a very narrow question: What might have happened at Texas Health Dallas Presbyterian Hospital on September 25–26, 2014, when Thomas Eric Duncan came to the emergency room with fever and abdominal pain, said he was visiting from Liberia (the heart of West Africa’s Ebola hot zone), and was nonetheless sent home? Two days later, days in which he might have infected other people, Duncan was brought back to Texas Health Dallas by ambulance. That time Ebola was suspected, and later confirmed, making Duncan the first Ebola patient to be diagnosed outside Africa. Commentary has been understandably hostile to both Duncan and the hospital staff for what may turn out to have been a tragic miscommunication. Jody and I felt that anger too. We have tried to temper it with this Ebola empathy exercise, a purely speculative effort to look at a ghastly mistake without assuming reckless irresponsibility on either side. As more facts come out, our speculations may well be proven entirely false. Even so, the need for people to respond empathically to Ebola will not go away. Empathy is needed for the horrific conditions West Africans are enduring; for the threat to the rest of us; for the ways people at overwhelming risk may resort to denial, while people whose risk is much smaller may temporarily overreact; even for the officials who yield to the temptation to oversimplify or over-reassure. The column isn’t about all that, though. It’s just an attempt to imagine empathically what might have happened in that Dallas emergency room.

  • Why Do Captains Abandon Ship?

    by Sheila M. Eldred

    Posted on the Discovery News website, May 1, 2014

  • When a Ship Captain Abandons Ship Prematurely

    by Peter M. Sandman

    Email to Sheila M. Eldred, April 30, 2014

    On April 29, 2014, reporter Sheila M. Eldred of the Discovery News website emailed me about an article she was writing in the wake of an April 16 ferry disaster in South Korea on “why captains abandon ship.” My brief email in response stressed that a captain who abandons ship prematurely isn’t panicking, but is simply failing to be a hero in a situation where duty demands heroism. The temptation afterwards, I wrote, is to self-justify instead of admitting as much. Sheila’s story used a lot of my email.

  • Retailers Are Finding That Data Vulnerability Can Undo Years of Brand Equity: How to bolster defenses and clean up the PR mess

    by David Gianatasio

    Posted on the website of Adweek, March 23, 2014

  • Data Breaches: Managing Reputational Impact

    by Peter M. Sandman

    Email to David Gianatasio, March 4, 2014 (with two March 16 emails interpolated)

    David Gianatasio of Adweek emailed me in mid-February 2014 about an article he was writing on “how data breaches and security concerns might impact brands such as Target” (which had announced a huge data breach two months earlier) and “how companies can handle the fallout.” In the weeks that followed, Dave sent me more specific questions. My answers stressed the importance of addressing the concerns of affected stakeholders as opposed to the general public; and of focusing on negative reputation as opposed to positive reputation. The reputational impact of a data breach, I argued, depends mostly on two factors: how competently a company was protecting customer data before the breach, and how empathically it responded after the breach. Very little in my answers is unique to data breaches. Similar advice can be found, for example, in “After the Disaster: Communicating with the Public,” my response to a different journalist’s questions about an April 17, 2013 explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas. Dave ended up focusing more on the specifics of the Target breach than on what companies should do about breaches, but he did find room in the last half of his March 23 article for several snippets from my answers.

  • Other People’s Crisis: Talking to Bystanders

    Website column

    Posted: March 5, 2014

    During a health or safety crisis, the most important audience is obviously the people who are at risk. But what about the people who aren’t at risk, but merely bystanders? This column argues that bystanders are also an important crisis communication audience, for six reasons: (1) They may find out about your crisis some other way if you don’t tell them, which could cause them to over-react. (2) They may feel at risk even if they’re not and intellectually know they’re not. (3) They may be feeling miserable about your crisis and what it’s doing to other people. (4) They may not actually be bystanders, but affected in some way you’re not noticing. (5) They may want to help – and helping may be psychologically important for them. (6) Other people’s crisis is a teachable moment, an opportunity to convince them to take seriously the possibility that it could happen to them too someday.

  • Il processo dell’Aquila agli scienziati dei terremoti e il rischio della fuga

    by Anna Meldolesi

    Published in Corriere della Sera, October 22, 2012

  • Convicting and Maybe Imprisoning Scientists for Bad Risk Communication: Italy’s L’Aquila Earthquake

    by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

    Emails to Anna Meldolesi, October 16 and October 22, 2012

    In April 2009, a powerful earthquake devastated the Italian city of L’Aquila and surrounding villages. The quake had been preceded by a “swarm” of tremors, which many townspeople interpreted as a warning. So a panel of experts was invited to L’Aquila to assess the evidence and try to reassure the populace. The news conference that concluded the panel’s deliberations was indeed reassuring – excessively reassuring. As a result, six scientists and one government official were tried for manslaughter after the quake, and in October 2012 they were convicted – a rare and perhaps unprecedented case of imposing prison sentences on scientists for doing bad risk communication. In response to emails from Anna Meldolesi of Corriere della Sera, my wife and colleague Jody Lanard and I wrote two sets of comments on the case, some of which Anna used in her October 22 story. Both Anna’s story and our emails to her are linked above.

  • Over-Reassuring Thai Crisis Communication about the Great Flood: When “Restoring Trust” Is Too Much to Expect

    by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

    Posted: December 8, 2011

    The flooding that began in northern Thailand in late July 2011 has been Thailand’s worst flood in at least five decades. This column assesses the Thai government’s crisis communication at the height of the flood, especially its tendency to over-reassure. The column puts this performance into context by reviewing other examples of Thai over-reassurance from our files, and speculates on whether and why over-reassuring the public during emergencies might be more characteristic of Thai crisis communication than of crisis communication in other countries. A final section addresses how the Thai government (or any government or company) might begin to dig itself out from such a history – that is, what to do when your audience has learned to expect dishonest over-reassurance from you.

  • Why We’re Vilifying BP

    by Peter M. Sandman

    Solicited letter to the editor, London Evening Standard, June 4, 2010

    On June 3, the London Evening Standard published a piece by City Editor Chris Blackhurst urging everybody to “Stop putting the boot into BP – we need it to survive.” The editors asked me to write a response for the next day’s paper. So I wrote one, agreeing with Blackhurst that vilifying BP is unwise and in some ways unfair, then pointing out some other ways I think the vilification is justified. I don’t know if the response was published (the Evening Standard website doesn’t include letters), but here it is.

  • Communicating about the BP Oil Spill: What to Say; Who Should Talk

    by Peter M. Sandman (with contributions by Jody Lanard)

    Posted on Daily Kos, May 30, 2010

    On May 29, one of the editors of the popular left-leaning blog Daily Kos, who goes under the nom-de-Web “DemFromCT,” wrote to ask my views on two risk communication aspects of the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: What should the sources be saying about the likely future course of the spill, and who should do the talking. He quoted liberally from my response in his May 30 post, entitled “Risk Communication and Disasters: Just Tell the Truth.” He also posted my whole response at the end of his piece. I focused mostly on telling the whole truth, avoiding over-reassurance, and letting everybody talk instead of trying to “speak with one voice.”

  • BP’s Communication Response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill
    (Note: This link goes to a written summary, which includes a link to the MP3 audio file)

    by Peter M. Sandman

    BBC Radio 4 interview with Peter M. Sandman, broadcasted on the “PM” newscast, May 3, 2010

    On May 3 I did a brief interview with BBC Radio on risk communication aspects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the interview was prerecorded, to my surprise they used the whole thing. This page has the link to the MP3 file with the interview. It also has a summary of what I said and what else I’d have liked to say.

  • Presented to the National Public Health Information Coalition, Miami Beach FL, October 21, 2009
    Posted: January 2, 2010

    Although this six-hour seminar was entitled “Three Paradigms of Radiological Risk Communication,” NPHIC asked me to go easy on the “radiological” part and give participants a broad introduction to my approach to risk communication, mentioning radiation issues from time to time. So that’s what I did.

    Fair warning: These are not professional videos. NPHIC member Joe Rebele put a camera in the back of the room and let it run. You won’t lose much listening to the MP3 audio files on this site instead.

    Part 1

    Part One is a introduction to the hazard-versus-outrage distinction and the three paradigms of risk communication.

    Part Two

    Part Two discusses the seesaw and other risk communication games (thus completing the introductory segment), then spends a little over an hour each on some key strategies of precaution advocacy and outrage management.

    Part Three

    Part Three is a rundown on some key crisis communication strategies.

See especially Part Three.

Handout Sets

Interviews, Summaries, etc.

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