The side of risk communication that built my reputation and sent my children to college was outrage management: what to do when people are excessively frightened or angry about a small hazard and you want to calm them down. Telling people to “Calm down!” is obviously not how this goal is best accomplished. The strategies that actually work turn out to be profoundly counterintuitive: apologizing for your mistakes, giving others credit for your improvements, acknowledging their grievances and concerns, etc.
In the mid-1980s I coined the formula “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” to reflect a growing body of research indicating that people assess risks according to metrics other than their technical seriousness: that factors such as trust, control, voluntariness, dread, and familiarity (now widely called “the outrage factors”) are as important as mortality or morbidity in what we mean by risk. My clients tended to imagine that their neighbors, employees, or customers were upset mostly because of media sensationalism or activist distortions or their own ignorance; helping them understand the dynamics of stakeholder outrage was a prerequisite to helping them figure out how to reduce the outrage – mostly how to stop doing the things they were doing that provoked the outrage.
Of course reducing outrage is a socially valuable thing to do only if the outrage is misplaced – that is, if the hazard, the technical risk, is genuinely small. (Similarly, increasing people’s outrage, as activists do, is socially valuable only if the hazard is genuinely big.) A recurring theme in my writing, and in others’ writing about me, is the ethical issues raised by outrage management, especially when deployed on behalf of huge multinational corporations.
A lot of my writing on outrage management is repetitive. I have tried to pare down the lists below to reduce the repetition.
For a more interactive learning approach, you might also want to download my OUTRAGE Prediction & Management Interactive Software. I think it’s wonderful – with the help of Australian programming experts, I managed to create software that would give a client the same advice I’d have given if I were there. But it’s labor-intensive (you have to answer a lot of questions about what’s going on). It never sold well, and in 2009 I got permission from my Australian co-owners to make it available as shareware on this website. Even for free it gets less use than I think it deserves. Several reviews of the software have been published; check out Spin doctors may be obsolete (May 1999) by Tim Radford, or We can work it out with Outrage (May 1999) by Duncan Graham-Rowe, or Running risk of public outrage (June 1999) by Joanna Pitman.
Topical Sections in Outrage Management
My “Classic” Book and Video
from the 1990s
Published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association, Fairfax VA, 1993
Posted: February 3, 2012
This short book sold briskly for nearly 20 years until AIHA decided to stop distributing it in January 2012, giving me permission to post it on my website instead.
The book is a distillation of what I knew about outrage management as of the early 1990s – which is, frankly, not that different from what I know about outrage management in 2012. By far the longest chapter in the book (nearly half its length) is Chapter 2, which discusses the 12 principal components of outrage and how best to manage each component. These days I focus less on individual outrage components and more on generic outrage management strategies, so this is the most detailed treatment of the 12 components on the site.
Also unavailable elsewhere on the site is the discussion of cognitive, organizational, and psychological barriers to outrage management in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 respectively.
If you’d rather watch/listen than read, I cover the 12 components in my 1991 “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” video and the barriers in my 1994 “Implementing Risk Communication” video. Both videos were also produced and sold by AIHA, but are now available through this site without charge.Contents
- Front matter
- Chapter 1: Risk = Hazard + Outrage
- Chapter 2: Components of Outrage
- Chapter 3: Implications of the Hazard/Outrage Distinction
- Chapter 4: Acknowledgment: Key to Risk Communication
- Chapter 5: Yes, Buts: The Cognitive Barriers
- Chapter 6: Will They Let You? The Organizational Barriers
- Chapter 7: Will You Let Yourself? The Psychological Barriers
- End matter
“Risk = Hazard + Outrage”
Produced by the American Industrial Hygiene Association, Fairfax VA, 1991
Posted: January 30, 2012
This 111-minute video sold briskly for more than 20 years until the American Industrial Hygiene Association stopped distributing it in January 2012. 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. Although my standard spiel has changed some since 1991, everything here is still true and still useful. The video is especially valuable for its detailed discussion of the 12 principal outrage components and how to deal with them. These days I talk more about generic outrage management strategies, and less about these component-specific strategies. (Note that I’m using the original files from the AIHA DVD; some of the “parts” begin and end arbitrarily.)
If you’d rather read than watch/listen, I cover the same ground as this video in Chapters 1, 2, and 3 of my 1993 book, “Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication.” The book was also published and sold by AIHA, but is now available on this site without charge.
Especially Important to Read
Posted: October 21, 2011
One key purpose of advisory groups is to provide a credible accountability mechanism, especially in situations where regulators are not so credible. Advisory groups are also both a conduit and an early warning system for stakeholder outrage; they’re a two-way communications medium and a venue for visibly giving in; and of course they give advice. After reviewing the purposes of advisory groups, this column focuses on two contentious issues: who should be in the advisory group, and what its prerogatives should be. The column makes a case for flexible membership (“chaotic is probably better than stultified”) and for inviting extremists to join. Among the prerogatives discussed are the power to investigate, the power to publicize, and the power to manage themselves – but not the power to keep you from dialoguing with stakeholders in other venues as well.
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.
Posted: March 30, 2010
When opponents seek a meeting with your embattled company or agency, it’s as much a dare as an invitation, and in most cases you would be wise to say yes. Getting invited onto your opponents’ turf poses special problems and special opportunities. It’s not mostly a chance to win converts by rebutting false arguments. Rather, it is a chance to ameliorate outrage (especially on the part of those in the room who are more worried than hostile) by demonstrating that you are willing to listen respectfully to your most vituperative critics and to take at least some of their concerns onboard. Some of the recommendations in this column apply to all meetings with opponents, even if you're running the meeting; other recommendations are particular to meetings that are actually run by your opponents.
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.
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 counterintuitive ones are grounded in the work of psychiatrist Leston Havens.
The Boss’s Outrage, parts II and III
Posted: May 7, 2007
These two closely related columns address why outrage management is a tough sell to most corporate and government executives. It focuses particularly on the fact that when stakeholders are outraged at an organization, that organization’s leaders are almost always outraged right back. So if you want to get the okay to address stakeholder outrage more responsively, you will first need to address your own management’s outrage at the very idea that you’re not proposing to fight back. The columns offer some suggestions, grounded largely in the seesaw concept. I love the title of Part III: “Managing Management’s Outrage at Outrage Management.” That’s it in a nutshell.
Posted: September 6, 2006
This short column discusses seven principles for understanding and coping with the media’s entirely appropriate inclination to focus on the most newsworthy things you say – an inclination often labeled sensationalism. Of particular importance is the problem this raises for outrage management. The very same meeting at which you hope to say responsive, apologetic things in order to help reduce the outrage of angry stakeholders will also be attended by journalists, who will naturally convey your revealing admissions to readers and viewers who might otherwise never know. Managing a controversy well, in other words, is in some ways antithetical to managing the news clips well. You have to decide which task is more important. The column recommends managing the controversy.
Posted: February 6, 2004
This short column offers a checklist of 15 possibilities to consider when you believe people are over-reacting to a risk you consider small. The #1 possibility – mentioned but not discussed in the column – is that outrage at some aspect of the situation might be clouding their judgment. That’s the core of my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and my approach to risk communication when hazard is low and outrage is high. But the column identifies 14 other possibilities that ought to be considered before jumping to the conclusion that people are outraged … including #15, the possibility that they might be right and you might be under-reacting to a serious hazard.
Posted: February 21, 2002
My shortlist of principal strategies for reducing stakeholder outrage lists six recommendations; in seminars it takes me a half-day or more just to cover these six. I wrote this column for clients who thought that six wasn’t enough. I stopped (pretty arbitrarily) at 50, and invited readers to send me more. But so far I’ve received only one suggestion. So maybe 50 was enough, even if six wasn’t.
In Solutions to an Environment in Peril, Anthony Wolbarst (ed.) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 164–178
Back in the 1980s, Vincent Covello and I gave back-to-back presentations on risk communication as part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lecture series. When Tony Wolbarst of EPA decided to collect the presentations into a book, he offered everyone a chance to revise and update. Vincent and I decided to merge our efforts into a single article on the state of risk communication, based loosely on what we had said originally plus what we now consider important. The result is a pretty good overview of the shared opinions of two well-seasoned practitioners.
Posted originally on Elenor Snow’s personal website, 1995
In 1993–1995, I had a contract with Westinghouse to do training and consulting in association with the company’s contract to manage the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (a key weapons manufacturing site during the cold war). Elenor Snow was then a technical editor at Hanford. She attended one of my seminars in September 1994, and later posted her notes on her personal website. Over the years, I got periodic referrals from Elenor’s website – and she became a website designer. So in 1999 when I decided to launch a website of my own, it was natural to ask for Elenor’s help. Almost a decade later, she is still my webmaster – and her “Notes from a class” is still a good summary of what I was telling people back in the 1990s about where outrage comes from and how to reduce it, particularly at a nuclear cleanup.
EPA Journal (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), September/October 1991, pp. 39–41
This short article argues that dialogue works a lot better than monologue, especially when people are outraged about a technically small but nonetheless frightening or offensive risk. It ends with a list of questions sources should ask themselves when trying to convince an audience some risk isn’t worth worrying about.
Based on Remarks at a Chemical Manufacturers Association meeting, New York, NY, November 6, 1990
In the late 1980s, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) inaugurated its “Responsible Care” program in the U.S. In 1990, I spoke at a national CMA meeting on how to address skepticism about the program – not just external skepticism, but skepticism inside the industry as well. I later massaged the speech into a CMA pamphlet. Most of the advice is generic; any company or trade association can expect to encounter the same sorts of skepticism today about its “pro-social” initiatives. As for Responsible Care, it continues to be an influential internal initiative, ratcheting performance ever-upward in such areas as process safety and product stewardship. But the industry has pretty much given up on persuading outsiders that it’s meaningful. There’s a nice irony here. Critics assume the industry has terrific rhetoric and poor performance – but Responsible Care has been much more successful as performance than as rhetoric.
EPA Journal (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), November 1987, pp. 21–22
This is one of the earliest – and the shortest and most often cited – of my articles about the distinction between hazard and outrage. The focus is on the factors that determine whether people will over-react or under-react to a risk.
Spanish translation available
Seton Hall Legislative Journal, Spring 1986, pp. 437–465
This article got its start as a 1985 report for the New Jersey Hazardous Waste Facilities Siting Commission. New Jersey never sited a facility; on the other hand, most of the advice in the article was never implemented either. I've since been involved in dozens of siting controversies (some of them over facilities that actually got built!), and I've learned a lot that isn't in this article – but the basics haven't changed, and this is a pretty solid summary of them. (P.S. Jim Lanard, who helped develop the ideas in this article and wrote the foreword, is also my brother-in-law; he introduced me to his sister in 1985 and we were married in 1990.)
Explaining Environmental Risk
Published by TSCA Assistance Office, Office of Toxic Substances, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, November 1986
This EPA booklet has long been out-of-print. It predates my articulation of the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, but contains much of the thinking that went into that distinction. In fact every time I reread this it reminds me of principles and examples I ought to reinstate in my presentations.
Key Aspects of Outrage Management
Posted: November 3, 2012
Familiar risks lose their capacity to provoke outrage, and people get careless. Unfamiliar risks, on the other hand, are likelier to be upsetting. So if you’re doing outrage management – if you’re a factory manager trying to keep your neighbors calm, for example – familiarity is your ally. But if you’re doing precaution advocacy – an activist trying to arouse public concern, or a safety professional trying to motivate employees to wear their hardhats – familiarity is your enemy. Either way, managing familiarity is a significant part of the risk communication job. Those are the basics. But this column goes beyond the basics, getting down in the weeds of managing risk familiarity. It focuses especially on two distinctions: the distinction between familiarity and perceived familiarity (fluency); and the distinction among familiarity with the overall situation, familiarity with the risk, and familiarity with the bad outcome (memorability).
Posted: June 5, 2012
The need to simplify technical content is not an acceptable excuse for “simplifying out” information that is essential to credibility – especially information that seems to contradict your message, and that will therefore undermine your credibility if you leave it out and your audience learns it elsewhere. The obligation to include that sort of information is called the communicative accuracy standard; the failure to include it might appropriately be called “misoversimplification.” The column distinguishes three levels of misoversimplification, depending partly on how controversial the issue is and partly on whether you’re on the warning (precaution advocacy) or reassuring (outrage management) side. The three levels are illustrated with infectious disease examples: whooping cough, bird flu, and polio.
First Outrage Management Strategy: Stake out the Middle
Presented to the Rio Tinto mining company, Brisbane, Australia, September 16–17, 2010
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses one key outrage management strategy: staking out the middle ground by acknowledging your opponents’ best arguments right along with your own best arguments.
A short excerpt from this clip has been posted on YouTube (more or less as an advertisement for the clip, and the course as a whole):
Second Outrage Management Strategy: Acknowledge Prior Misbehavior
Presented to the Rio Tinto mining company, Brisbane, Australia, September 16–17, 2010
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses one key outrage management strategy: acknowledging and apologizing for your prior misbehaviors and errors.
A short excerpt from this clip has been posted on YouTube (more or less as an advertisement for the clip, and the course as a whole):
Third Outrage Management Strategy: Acknowledge Current Problems
Presented to the Rio Tinto mining company, Brisbane, Australia, September 16–17, 2010
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses one key outrage management strategy: acknowledging your current problems.
Fourth Outrage Management Strategy: Give Away the Credit
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses one key outrage management strategy: giving credit to your critics for improvements they pushed.
Fifth Outrage Management Strategy: Share Control and Be Accountable
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses two key outrage management strategies: sharing control with stakeholders, and (when you’re unable or unwilling to share control) setting up accountability mechanisms so stakeholders can at least watch and criticize.
Sixth Outrage Management Strategy: Get the Underlying Issues into the Room
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses one key outrage management strategy: getting underlying issues and motivations (such as greed and ego) at least “into the room,” if not actually on the table.
Four Kinds of Stakeholders
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip introduces the four kinds of stakeholders (fanatics, attentives, browsers, and inattentives), and outlines the very different outrage management goals for each.
Organizational Barriers to Outrage Management
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip addresses the internal barriers organizations must surmount to enable them to implement the strategies discussed in previous segments.
Posted: December 3, 2010
Just about everything I have read about reputation assumes that it’s a single variable. Good reputation is on one side of the scale, bad reputation is on the other side, and zero is in the middle. I don’t buy it. I think it makes much more sense to conceive of “good reputation” and “bad reputation” as separate variables. How loved you are is virtually unrelated to how hated you are; plenty of companies (and individuals) are both much-loved and much-hated. So which is more important, increasing your positives or decreasing your negatives? This column argues that buffing your good reputation has upsides and downsides, while ameliorating your bad reputation is all upside. It argues that when a controversy or a crisis arises, a prior bad reputation is sure to make things worse, while a prior good reputation may or may not provide some protection. And it argues that talking about your reputational strengths always backfires when the audience is focused on your current misbehavior.
A Polish translation was published in two parts in September 2011 and December 2011 in Bezpieczeństwo i Technika Pożarnicza (Safety & Fire Technique).
Polish translation available
Posted: February 18, 2010
Honest mistakes turn into culpable deceptions when organizations hesitate to come clean. This column outlines ten key recommendations for telling people you got it wrong. It starts with the basics: “Don’t stick to your guns.” “Don’t think that quietly publishing the data protects you.” “Don’t expect misleading ambiguities to save you.” Then it works its way to more complicated advice: “Explain what happened.” “Explain what’s going to happen.” “Explain what else might need to be rethought.” Of course it’s also important to acknowledge uncertainty from the outset. As the column points out, “It’s a lot easier to tell people you got it wrong if you didn’t sound cocksure in the first place.”
Published in ISHN (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News), May 2008, pp. 1, 24, 26
Dave Johnson, the editor of ISHN, admired my website column on “Empathy in Risk Communication.” But of course it was much too long for him to republish. So he excerpted the less complicated sections, made a few editing and formatting changes, and came up with a shorter, more accessible article.
Posted: April 25, 2008
Everybody’s interested in how to respond to rumors, especially false ones. Do you ignore them? Rebut them? Acknowledge the accurate bits? This short column covers all that, but it also addresses a less sexy but ultimately more important topic: the importance of tracking down rumors that may be true.
Posted: March 19, 2008
Whenever I advise clients on how to manage meetings with angry stakeholders, I’m aware that I’m impinging on a kindred field, public participation (also called public consultation). Our goals aren’t incompatible, but they’re certainly different: Public participation professionals want to facilitate a substantively productive meeting, whereas I want to help calm the meeting’s most outraged stakeholders (which can help clear the way for a substantively productive meeting). This column outlines five differences between outrage management and public participation – the value of venting, who you want at the meeting, whose side you’re on, the relative importance of substance and process, and what skills you need. It then tries to assess the proper role of outrage management in public participation.
Posted: January 15, 2008
My clients endlessly claim not just that the risk of X is tiny, but that anybody who thinks otherwise is “irrational.” This short column takes the irrationality claim seriously, and examines some alternative hypotheses. Even assuming your worried stakeholder is wrong about X, he or she may not be irrational – but rather mistrustful, postmodernist, cautious, uninformed, misinformed, intuitive, emotionally upset, motivated by personal or social values, or pursuing a different agenda. When we ignore these possibilities and assume our risk-averse stakeholders are irrational, the column suggests, we raise questions about our own rationality.
Posted: December 12, 2006
Month after month, this is one of the least often read of my major columns. I’m not sure why. It covers an outrage management strategy I consider one of the most important (and most difficult) of any on my list: attributing your desirable behavior not to your saintliness (the “responsibility” claim) but rather to pressure from your stakeholders (the “responsiveness” claim, which is usually much closer to the truth). The column outlines the main reasons for giving away the credit, from the practical (it meets your critics’ ego needs) to the theoretical (it nurtures the public’s understanding of how capitalism works), and it addresses the main reasons why my clients resist giving away the credit. If you’re trying to think through how to reduce stakeholder outrage, this is one you ought to read.
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.
Posted: April 20, 2006
This short column has two goals. It introduces readers to the invaluable risk communication strategy of dilemma sharing – telling people you’re torn between options and not sure what to do. This strategy is fundamental to both crisis communication and outrage management, but it is seldom utilized, largely because it threatens management egos. The second goal of the column is to apply the dilemma-sharing approach to the specific problem of “how safe is safe enough.” Risk managers have no choice but to prioritize precautions and decide which ones they can implement. The claim to be taking “every possible precaution” is always a lie. Risk managers who don’t want to lie can use dilemma sharing to explain why they have chosen not to take some possible precautions.
Posted: March 21, 2006
This column describes the battles that ensue when activists or journalists are trying to arouse stakeholder outrage about some situation while companies or agencies are trying to reduce that outrage. Some of what goes on in these battles is symmetrical. Both sides lie only occasionally; both sides routinely mislead without lying; both sides see their own misleading statements as much less dishonest than the other side’s. Some of what goes on is not symmetrical. Misleading works when you’re trying to arouse outrage and backfires when you’re trying to reduce it. Another asymmetry: The outrage-arousing side should aim to show that the other side is simply wrong, whereas the outrage-reducing side should aim to show that it has taken the other side’s criticisms to heart.
Posted: December 13, 2005
This short column considers the four possibilities when you are trying to convince me of X: I could have no prior opinion about X; I could believe X already; I could believe Y instead; or I could be ambivalent, torn between X and Y. Each of these four situations has its own risk communication game, described in the column: follow-the-leader, echo, donkey, and seesaw. Good risk communicators need to master all four games. And they need to know how to decide which game they’re playing – or, if they’re playing several at once, which game is most crucial to their communication goals.
Posted: April 16, 2005
In February 2005, the New York City health department issued a warning about a possibly disastrous new strain of AIDS. It was widely criticized for alarming people before it had solid evidence that the strain was spreading. Also in February 2005, the United Kingdom’s Food Safety Authority held off announcing that many prepared foods were contaminated with tiny amounts of the banned red dye Sudan 1, because it wanted to prepare a list of affected products first. It was widely criticized for the delay. Obviously, when to release risk information is a tough call. In this column, Jody Lanard and I lay out the pros and cons, and conclude that early is almost always better than late. We also analyze the New York City decision in detail, and offer some ways to reduce the downsides of early release.
Posted: November 11, 2004
This column is in two parts. Part One lists some basic tips for overcoming the universal temptation to sound overconfident; it’s a primer on how to sound uncertain instead. Part Two goes into detail on the toughest part of acknowledging uncertainty: deciding just how uncertain you ought to sound, and then coming up with words (or numbers) that capture the right level of uncertainty. It assesses five biases that tend to distort our judgments about how uncertain to sound, even after we have accepted the principle that we should acknowledge our uncertainty. Compare “I can’t guarantee that it’s safe” with “I don’t know if it’s safe.” Both acknowledge uncertainty – but very different levels of uncertainty. Which of the two is likelier to get said when the other would have been closer to the truth?
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?
Posted: March 18, 2004
Mad cow disease has never been a serious threat to human health in the United States. When it tries to convince people of this truth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture often says things that aren’t quite true. In this long column, Jody Lanard and I painstakingly dissect nine instances of misleading USDA mad cow risk communication in the wake of the December 2003 discovery of the first known mad cow in the U.S. Not that the USDA was unusually dishonest. This sort of dishonesty is routine in risk communication, especially when its perpetrators know they are in the right. This column introduces the phrase “misleading toward the truth” to describe the well-intentioned – but ultimately ineffective – dishonesty of information sources who are convinced the unvarnished facts might themselves be misleading.
Report for Vodafone Group Services Limited, 2003
In the fall of 2003 I was commissioned by Vodafone Group Services Limited to think through and write up my opinion on the following question: Assume that a particular risk is probably not serious from a technical perspective, but some people are worried or upset. Should governments impose more stringent precautions in such a situation then they would impose if people were calm or apathetic? The question arose because of a draft document being circulated by the International EMF Project of the World Health Organization, proposing that public concern itself can justify a “precautionary” approach to controversial risks. Originally raised with respect to the risk of mobile telephones and telephone towers (hence Vodafone’s interest), the new standard was – and still is – being floated as a possible extension of the Precautionary Principle to a whole range of risk controversies where hazard is uncertain but probably low, and outrage is undoubtedly high.
The resulting essay turned out more nuanced than Vodafone probably expected. In general, I did reach the conclusion Vodafone was presumably looking for – that government precautions and government warnings are not reliable ways to reduce outrage, and probably should not be deployed for that purpose. I found surprisingly little research on point, but lots of theoretically interesting arguments in both directions to dissect. There is a certain irony that the most thoughtful, tentative, balanced, academic writing I have done in years was done for a corporate client.
Posted: June 12, 2003
This column covers everything I think my clients need to know about stakeholders, especially hostile stakeholders – the difference between stakeholders and publics; the kinds of stakeholders, depending mostly on their level of arousal and the actual hazard they face; the key guidelines for stakeholder involvement, grounded in the distinction among “fanatics,” “attentives,” “browsers,” and “inattentives”; and the complications caused by the presence of stakeholders who aren’t hostile (supporters, involved neutrals, and uninvolved neutrals). The column ends with this wrap-up: “Managing risk communication requires analyzing your stakeholders…. Which analytic scheme works best depends on the situation. Somewhere in this column I hope you can find a scheme (or several) that helps make sense of the situation you’re facing at the moment.”
Posted: October 28, 2002
One of the core outrage management recommendations on my shortlist is accountability. I see it both as a replacement for trust and as a step in the direction of sharing control. This column covers everything I want my clients to know about accountability, especially its relationship to trust and control, to “being small,” to giving away credit, and to contractual agreements. The last section of the column addresses the question of “accountability to whom.” The short answer: Everybody – but especially the “extremists” you least want to be accountable to. “Remember,” the column concludes, “the purpose of accountability is to reduce stakeholder outrage…. If you really hate it there’s a good chance you’re doing it right.”
Posted: July 11, 2002
I almost entitled this column “Lawyers v. Outrage Management,” because it’s mostly about the conflicts between what I advise my clients and what their attorneys advise them. The column starts by acknowledging that a legally ill-advised outrage management strategy can have disastrous legal repercussions. That said, it addresses a variety of reasons why most lawyers dislike outrage management even in situations where there are unlikely to be any legal ill effects. After a section on what outrage management can offer the legal process – that is, how lawyers might actually benefit from paying attention to outrage issues – the column zeros in on five genuine areas of conflict between law and outrage management: ignorance, silence, candor, apology, and tone. These are the areas where wise clients force their legal and communication advisors to find a middle path.
Posted: April 10, 2002
When things go badly wrong for a company or government agency, there were usually precursors, and the failure to heed these warnings is a familiar feature of post-disaster recriminations. I call the precursors/warnings “yellow flags” – yellow, not red, because in real time it’s usually impossible to tell whether they’ll turn out to be a minor wrinkle or a major flaw. This column addresses the choices companies and agencies face with regard to yellow flags: whether to let yourself know about them at all; whether to investigate the ones you know about; whether to stop what you’re doing while you await the results; and whether to tell the rest of us what’s up. The column focuses on the last of these choices, arguing that transparency about yellow flags is not just the best way to get them investigated properly; it is also the only way to prevent people from imagining afterwards that they were red flags.
Posted: May 4, 2001
If you want to know how apology and forgiveness work, ask a Catholic. The secular process, outlined in this column, closely tracks the Catholic process: admit you did it; then say you’re sorry; then correct the problem and compensate your victims; then do a penance. The evidence that going through this process reduces people’s outrage is even stronger than when I wrote the column. Today, even medical malpractice lawyers routinely urge their clients to apologize. But mostly for ego reasons, companies and government agencies still resist admitting they did it, letting themselves get yelled at, saying they’re sorry, or doing a penance. They are comfortable correcting the problem and compensating the victims – which rarely does much good without the other, more humiliating steps.
Posted: January 29, 2001
Whenever a company does something wrong, the public wants to know why. The two contending explanations are stupidity and evil – you made a dumb mistake or you did it on purpose. Since most people imagine that corporate evil is far more common than corporate stupidity, the “evil” explanation is the default. (Government agencies are different; people believe governments make stupid mistakes all the time.) Of course the “evil” explanation also does more harm to corporate reputation than the “stupid” explanation. What follows from this reasoning is what I call the stupidity defense. As this column argues, when a company makes a stupid mistake, it needs to say so – early, often, and penitently. That’s its only shot at avoiding the assumption of evil.
Posted: February 27, 2011
This 76-minute video, produced in 1994, went out of print in January 2011. In February 2011, with the AIHA’s permission, I posted it on Vimeo.
When people are excessively concerned about a small risk, the biggest problem isn’t figuring out what to do. It’s getting your company or agency to do it. After a six-minute introduction, this video is devoted to three kinds of barriers to implementation … and ways to overcome them:
- Cognitive barriers (34 min.) – the “yes buts” that organizations give as their reasons for not moving forward.
- Organizational barriers (18 min.) – the characteristics of organizations that actually keep them from moving forward.
- Psychological barriers (18 min.) – the reasons even people who consider themselves committed may hesitate to move forward.
In 1994 I wasn’t yet routinely using the term “outrage management.” In the terminology I now use, this video is all about overcoming cognitive, organizational, and psychological barriers to outrage management.
If you’d rather read than watch/listen, I cover the same ground as this video in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of my 1993 book, “Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication.” The book was also published and sold by AIHA, but is now available on this site without charge.
Consensus, July 1992
This short article starts with the assumption that coercion is an unreliable way to site controversial facilities, and tries to offer some better answers grounded in risk communication. An earlier and much longer treatment of the same themes can be found in Getting to Maybe: Some Communications Aspects of Siting Hazardous Waste Facilities.
Published by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council), Washington DC, 1988
This manual on how to use risk comparisons and risk statistics was commissioned to help chemical plant managers explain air emissions to their neighbors. Chapter III on risk comparisons, especially, is still relevant. Later research hasn’t borne out all its seat-of-the-pants conclusions, but the advice at the end of the chapter about the worst risk comparisons holds firm – in my terms these comparisons fail (especially when people are outraged) because they try to compare the hazard of high-outrage and low-outrage risks. The other chapters are also useful and not really outdated, I think. The appendices are both outdated and all too likely to be misused. They’re what the client originally wanted most. Vincent Covello, Paul Slovic, and I wrote the rest of the manual to soften them.
Applications to Specific Industries,
Controversies, and Situations
Posted on the website of Adweek, March 23, 2014
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.
Posted: December 9, 2013
The battle over fracking of shale gas and shale oil keeps getting hotter, in large part because the fracking industry does such a lousy job of communicating with its stakeholders. This column lays out some of the pluses (mostly economic) and minuses (mostly environmental) of fracking, and builds a case that the fracking industry should acknowledge the genuine minuses far more than it does, rather than focusing so much on selling the pluses of fracking and rebutting its not-so-genuine minuses. Other ways in which the fracking industry has forfeited trust are also discussed: using a narrow definition of “fracking” to mislead people about environmental risks; refusing to disclose the contents of frac fluid; insisting on nondisclosure agreements. But while it urges the fracking industry to become more trustworthy, the column puts more faith in accountability as a replacement for trust – accountability to neutral third parties, to governments (that is, regulation), and especially to neighbors and activists. The column ends with a list of eight additional recommendations for reducing stakeholder outrage about fracking.
Published in Adweek, September 11, 2013
Email to David Gianatasio, September 10, 2013
On September 10, 2013, David Gianatasio sent me an email, seeking comment for an Adweek story he was writing about “pro sports teams with Native American names.” He cited a new advertising campaign to pressure the Redskins to drop their name, and asked what “teams like the Redskins, Indians, Braves, Blackhawks, etc.” can do, “short of changing their names, to stave off bad PR ” – or whether they should “seriously consider name changes to stave off bad publicity around the subject once and for all.” This is my brief response, some of which he used in his story. (I’ve interpolated one paragraph from an email later that day responding to a follow-up question.)
Published in the Montreal Gazette, August 28, 2013
Email to Monique Muise, August 28, 2013
On August 28, 2013, Montreal Gazette reporter Monique Muise emailed me for comment on a PCB controversy in the nearby city of Pointe-Claire. An illegal and potentially dangerous PCB storage facility had gone unnoticed for years until a leak brought it to official attention in March. But officials still hadn’t told the public (or the neighbors) when a local journalist broke the story five months later. Monique wanted me to comment on the pros and cons of the decision to keep the information secret. My email focused on a common risk communication paradox: Officials suppress risk information because they mistrust people’s ability to avoid overreacting; when the information comes out, the secrecy makes people overreact; this convinces officials they were right to suppress the information. Monique used a few quotes from the email in her story, along with some excellent quotes from my Canadian colleague Bill Leiss.
Posted on the CropLife website, July 1, 2013
The deadly April 17, 2013 explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas was a pretty big story despite being overshadowed by the Boston Marathon bombings two days earlier. On May 17, exactly a month later, Paul Schrimpf of the CropLife Media Group (a chain of agriculture-related trade journals) emailed me four questions about risk communication aspects of the explosion. I sent Paul my answers on May 26, and on July 1 the complete Q&A was posted on the CropLife website. (Excerpts are scheduled to be published in hard copy later in July.) Paul’s questions focused on how much fertilizer retailers and distributors elsewhere should say about the West explosion. Not surprisingly, I thought they should say a lot, using the event as a teachable moment rather than trying to avoid mentioning it. The beginning of my response also addresses questions I think need to be addressed after every industrial accident: Is this an example of egregiously bad risk management and/or risk regulation, or was this facility fairly typical until the accident? And was this an unlikely disaster with few if any policy implications, or was it “an accident waiting to happen” that should lead to new industry practices and new regulatory standards?
Aired on National Public Radio’s “On the Media” and posted on its website, June 21, 2013
Risk Communication in Practice(Note: Link launches the MP3 audio file on this site: 79.5MB, 49 min.)
(Complete) interview with Peter Sandman by Brooke Gladstone, June 20, 2013
Brooke Gladstone of “On the Media” interviewed me in my home for 49 minutes. We started out talking about claims by opponents of NSA telephone and email surveillance (in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks) that “more people have died from [whatever] than from terrorism” – and why these sorts of risk comparisons are unlikely to be convincing. That soon got me to the distinction between hazard and outrage. But Brooke didn’t let me do my usual hazard-versus-outrage introductory shtick. Instead, she kept asking for specifics – examples of how precaution advocacy and outrage management strategies work in practice. Toward the end of the interview, she pushed me to shoot from the hip about applications I hadn’t thought through: How would I use risk communication to defend government surveillance? To oppose it? To defend shale gas “fracking”? To oppose that? The interview that resulted is a different sort of introduction to risk communication than the one I usually give. The 10-minute broadcast segment is nicely edited; it’s very smooth and covers most of my main points. But I prefer the roughness and detail of the complete interview.
Guest column (part one), “energybiz” website, May 30, 2013
Guest column (part two), “energybiz” website, June 2, 2013
On May 16, 2013, Ken Silverstein interviewed me by telephone about a controversy regarding the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Had the plant’s owner, Southern California Edison, been warned in advance about a possible steam generator problem? If so, should the company have redesigned the system, and should it have told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? And later, when the problem materialized, led to radiation leaks, and forced the plant to shut down, did it lie about whether it had been warned? I later followed up with an email, focusing on the case against keeping secrets. Both Ken’s May 17 Forbes story and my email are online.
On May 29, Ken sent me a link to a follow-up story he had posted on the “energybiz” website, and asked for further comment. When he read the email I sent in return, he requested my okay to post it on “energybiz” as a two-part guest column. Part one considers what sort of risk communication Southern California Edison should be doing to address the issue, and whether it is a “crisis” or merely a “controversy.” Part two argues that while the company may deserve criticism for how it handled the steam generator warning, we shouldn’t criticize any company merely for having “warnings in its files about possible problems it decided not to fix.” A reader's comment on Part two provoked me to add a comment of my own, addressing the “near miss paradox”: whether near misses should be seen as evidence of safety or of danger.
Atomic Show #205 – Peter Sandman teaches nuclear communicators (Note: Link goes off-site to a page with this 102-min. audio)
Podcast for the “Atomic Insights” website, May 31, 2013 (with Rod Adams, Margaret Harding, Meredith Angwin, and Suzy Hobbs-Baker)
Rod Adams runs a website called “Atomic Insights” that promotes nuclear power. In early May 2013 he discovered my approach to outrage management, and put posts on his own website and on an American Nuclear Society website urging nuclear power proponents to learn outrage management. The responses to his two posts led Rod to invite me to do this podcast.
The podcast itself runs 1 hour and 42 minutes. Most of it is a basic introduction to risk communication and then to outrage management: the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, the components of outrage, the three paradigms of risk communication, the key strategies of outrage management, etc. But I did try to focus especially on what the nuclear power industry and its supporters get wrong – for example, imagining that their core communication mistake is failing to sell their strengths effectively, whereas I believe it is failing to acknowledge their problems candidly. There are recommendations for nuclear communication throughout the podcast, and a Q&A at the end with Rod and fellow proponents Margaret Harding, Meredith Angwin, and Suzy Hobbs-Baker. The plan is to follow up with a second podcast, a more narrowly focused roundtable discussion among the five of us on nuclear power outrage management.
Posted on the Forbes website, May 16, 2013
Excerpts from an email to Ken Silverstein, May 16, 2013
On May 16, 2013, Ken Silverstein of Forbes interviewed me by telephone about a controversy over whether Southern California Edison had withheld information about problems at its San Onofre nuclear power plant. I didn’t know anything about the specifics of the controversy, but I was happy to talk about the generic question of why companies shouldn’t keep damaging information secret. In an email later that day, I elaborated on some of the points I had made on the phone. Ken’s online article and some edited excerpts from my email (only some of which Ken used in his story) are linked above.
Published in Corriere della Sera, October 22, 2012
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.
Published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 19, 2012
Email to Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, April 17, 2012
Reporter Ben Bloch of the New Orleans Times-Picayune emailed me about a story he was writing on why many people were put off Gulf seafood by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – so much so that now, two years later, 30% of the respondents in a recent survey said they were still apprehensive. This is the response I sent him. He used only a little of it in his story, not including my suggestion that officials might have been too quick and too keen to tell people there was no problem. But he did find a lot of other good material on the psychology of stigma in such situations.
Posted on the website of Pallet Enterprise, April 1, 2012
In the ongoing war between the wood and plastics industries, each side likes to accuse the other of manufacturing a dangerous product. One front in this war focuses on the pros and cons of wooden pallets versus plastic pallets. And apparently one of the arguments against wooden pallets is that the wood may be treated with hazardous chemicals or contaminated with bacteria, and may transfer the chemicals or bacteria to food that is stored on wooden pallets. It’s an issue I have never worked on. But this article by Rick LeBlanc does a good job of applying basic principles of outrage management to the wooden pallet food risk controversy.
Taped for Freakonomics Radio, July 25, 2011
This was a 48-minute telephone interview with Stephen Dubner, for a Freakonomics Radio program (and podcast) on climate change. The interview never made it into the program/podcast, but excerpts were added to the Freakonomics website on November 29, 2011. The first 17 minutes of the interview are generic – Risk Communication 101, basically. The rest is grounded mostly in my 2009 column on “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial,” though Dubner periodically pushed me to speculate on new aspects of the topic. My main argument: Climate change risk communicators are good at informing and scaring apathetic people, but need an entirely different strategy – something more like outrage management – for people who are in denial about climate change.
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.
Published in the March 2011 issue of Intellectual Property Magazine, pp. 20–22
Maura O’Malley of Intellectual Property Magazine asked if she could interview me for an article on “management of reputations online” – particularly on how the rise of social media had affected the way companies manage (or should manage) reputational crises. In the 40-minute telephone interview that resulted, I argued that it has always been a mistake for companies to ignore, patronize, or attack their critics instead of being responsive. The growth of social media has made this mistake much more obvious and much more damaging, I said; even the most recalcitrant companies are beginning to learn the lesson. We also talked about the role of lawyers (the magazine’s main audience) in reputational controversies, plus some other topics.
Maura’s article, entitled “Reputation 3.0,” is posted on this site with permission.
Posted: January 30, 2011
One of the toughest questions in risk communication is what to say – if anything – about the strongest arguments against the position you’re advocating for. The aspirational goal is presumably full disclosure. But most risk communicators fall far short of that goal, preferring to ignore or dismiss opposition arguments. The temptation not to disclose is especially powerful when you're urging people to do something that entails small-but-scary risks; when you’re confident that the benefits to your audience greatly exceed the risks; and when you’re worried that the audience won’t see it that way if you’re completely candid. This column offers two examples: trying to convince a community to accept a new chemical factory and trying to convince parents to vaccinate their children against polio. The column discusses eight reasons why full disclosure of small-but-scary risks isn’t just the most ethical strategy. In many cases it is also the most effective.
Components of Outrage and a Sample Outrage Assessment
Posted: January 12, 2011
This video clip runs through the twelve principal components of outrage (voluntary versus coerced, natural versus industrial, etc). Then it illustrates these components with a seat-of-the-pants “outrage assessment” of genetically modified food.
Published in Marketing Daily, November 15, 2010 (posted on the Marketing Daily website November 14, 2010)
As the crippled cruise ship Carnival Splendor limped home to San Diego after an engine room fire, I followed the story casually, noticing that Carnival management seemed to be handling the communication fairly well. Then Tanya Irwin of Marketing Daily left me a phone message asking me to email her a few paragraphs of comment. So I checked out the coverage a little more carefully, confirmed my impression, and sent her a brief response (“Carnival Manages to Avoid Defensiveness about Its Crippled Cruise Ship”). The published article uses some of what I said, including my suggestion that Carnival might have made better use of the risk communication seesaw.
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.
Posted: May 2, 2010
I have been following the Goldman Sachs controversy with considerable outrage – not at the company but at the widespread conviction that it obviously did something both wrong and illegal. In a series of email exchanges with my daughter’s fiancé, a banker named Daniel, and my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I have been trying to figure out what Goldman Sachs did wrong. This column consists of the emails themselves (lightly edited), preceded by an introduction that addresses why people interested in risk communication might want to pay attention to what's happening to Goldman Sachs.
Posted on the website of CIDRAP News (Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, University of Minnesota), January 26, 2010
Charges that the World Health Organization (WHO) exaggerated the risk of the H1N1 pandemic in collusion with drug companies came to a head in a January 26 hearing of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs. Lisa Schnirring covered the story for CIDRAP News. While she was working on her article, I sent her an email offering some comments. My wife and colleague Jody Lanard did so as well (at Lisa’s request), and Lisa wound up quoting us both – Jody mostly on the normal antipathy between WHO and Big Pharma and thus the irony of the conflict-of-interest charge; and me mostly on WHO’s failure to concede two valid charges among the invalid ones: that WHO hadn’t sufficiently acknowledged the pandemic’s mildness and that WHO had dropped severity from its characterization of flu pandemics at the last minute.
After Lisa’s article was published, Jody and I decided to expand my email to document more thoroughly the two valid charges, the risk communication case for acknowledging them, and WHO’s failure to do so. The resulting critique (“It’s Not a Fake Pandemic – but WHO’s Defense Lacks Candor”) is a lot tougher on WHO than the CIDRAP News article.
Posted: November 18, 2009
As in most other developed countries, the fall rollout of the U.S. pandemic vaccination program has been hampered by a shortage of vaccine. The result is outrage – outrage that there isn’t as much vaccine as people wanted and expected, and outrage that the distribution process feels so chaotic, frustrating, and in some cases unfair. The shortage itself is nobody’s fault; the vaccine virus turned out to be difficult to grow. But officials are very much at fault for having overpromised, frequently predicting that there would be ample vaccine by mid-October. Even before the pandemic began, in fact, the meme was established that it would require only three to six months after the emergence of a pandemic influenza strain to manufacture sufficient vaccine. Managing public (and health care provider) outrage about vaccine supply and vaccine distribution has thus become an important pandemic risk communication task, a necessary distraction from the paramount task of convincing people to get vaccinated. This column describes how officials are handling the outrage so far, and proposes some improvements.
Posted: April 19, 2009
Tough economic times are tough on safety. Workers may be distracted or distressed, while safety budgets (like all budgets) may be reduced. Tough economic times are also tough on safety controversies. Not only do workers have real reasons to suspect that they might be more endangered than usual; they also have less patience and forbearance, and perhaps more motivation to project their economic worries onto an on-the-job safety situation. This short column for industrial hygienists offers some tips on ways to adjust safety risk communication when the economic situation is bad.
Posted: January 10, 2009
Convincing health care workers to get a flu shot might normally be seen as a straightforward problem in precaution advocacy, but this column focuses on an aspect of the problem that’s grounded in outrage management: flu protection hype. By means of three case studies, Jody Lanard and I document that hype – misleading, one-sided messaging on behalf of vaccination and other flu precautions – does in fact characterize much of what’s produced by flu prevention campaigners. We also argue, with much less evidence, that the hype leads health care workers to mistrust what the campaigners are telling them, and that the mistrust probably reduces their willingness to get vaccinated. The column ends with a list of less tendentious recommendations for convincing health care workers to get a flu shot.
Posted on “The ScienceBlogs Book Club,” October 7, 2008
There has been a lot of discussion of Paul Offit’s new book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure – a thorough rebuttal of the claim that vaccinations cause autism. The discussion on “The ScienceBlogs Book Club” led to an offshoot, a post by “Orac” criticizing my view that vaccination proponents (including Dr. Offit) would be more effective if they practiced better risk communication. Orac is particularly angry at two positions I have taken: (1) that proponents would be wiser to acknowledge the few valid arguments and accurate factoids that vaccination critics use, rather than ignoring or disparaging them – that claiming to be 99% right works better than claiming to be 100% right; and (2) that proponents would be wiser to show more empathy for people who still worry about a possible vaccination/autism link – for example, by acknowledging that it was a setback in the fight against autism when the hypothesized connection between autism and thimerosal in vaccines turned out to be a blind alley. Orac doesn’t really seem to disagree with me that vaccination proponents should be more empathic, though he fervently disagrees with my example. As for acknowledging the other side’s good points, he agrees that that’s a good idea too – but he’s enraged that I don’t think proponents are doing it already. Some of the follow-up discussion of Orac’s post is off-topic, but much is worth reading. Orac later reposted his comment on his own blog, “Respectful Insolence,” where it attracted quite different comments.
Posted: June 5, 2008
When Barack Obama accumulated enough delegate commitments to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, the defeated Hillary Clinton faced a classic risk communication challenge – managing her followers’ outrage (and her own) so as to enable them to transfer their loyalty to Obama. Politicians were of course giving her traditional public relations advice – stress your enthusiasm about Obama; don’t mention your followers’ anger or your own; etc. But her problem wasn’t a public relations problem. So Jody Lanard and I decided to give Sen. Clinton some risk communication advice. This column is the result.
Posted: February 17, 2008
Written for a forthcoming Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication, this short column tries to free the NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) impulse from its pejorative connotations. It distinguishes the literal NIMBY position (“this is okay, but not here”) from closely related positions (such as “this shouldn’t be built anywhere”), and discusses its role in siting controversies. The column argues that managing outrage – either upward or downward – is the key to arousing or diminishing NIMBY, and thus to stopping or siting locally controversial land uses (LULUs).
Posted: September 12, 2007
The basic risk communication dilemma in most IAQ controversies is that indoor air quality usually has genuine deficiencies, but if people’s IAQ complaints and symptoms are largely psychogenic – more an outcome of bad process (and the resulting outrage) than of bad air – then just fixing the air quality deficiencies isn’t likely to relieve the symptoms or reduce the controversy. The core of the solution, this short column argues, is to talk – and listen! – before you fix anything.
Published in The Age, “Business Day,” June 16, 2007, pp. 1, 6
This article on crisis communication from Australia’s number one newspaper covers the basics of what author Vanessa Burrow calls “crisis communication” (in my terms it’s mostly outrage management). The article also includes a handful of brief Australia case studies, and a summary of my “tech specs” for forgiveness. I really enjoyed the cartoon. (The front-page version was originally in color.) Vanessa initially emailed me a list of seven questions; I answered the ones on the role of apology in crisis situations, on organizations’ preparedness for crises, and on how Australia’s AWB controversy might have played out if the company had shown contrition. I have posted the original questions and answers on this website.
Published in Impact (Public Affairs Council), January 2007
Despite its misleading title, this article by Alan Crawford deals with my views on the pros and cons of candor about embarrassing information. I argued that businesses should usually be aggressively candid, wallowing in apologies when they have messed up, because their most important audiences are attentive stakeholders who will find out anyway. Politicians, on the other hand, are often talking to the much more apathetic general public. Ignoring embarrassments sometimes works for them, so they get into bad habits that backfire when the public turns attentive.
Posted: January 7, 2007
I have long been interested in why corporate managements reject safety improvements that look eminently cost-effective – in some cases, improvements that have a better return-on-investment than the company’s principal product line. This short column explores some outrage-grounded reasons why senior managers might shy away from sensible safety investments. Among them: guilt/responsibility, ego/stature, hostility/contempt, fear/denial, and performance anxiety. The column suggests some ways safety professionals can break the logjam when factors like these are keeping their companies from making safety progress.
Published in Vaccine, vol. 24, 2006, pp. 3921–3928
This article assesses the controversy over whether the MMR vaccine might cause autism in terms of my list of outrage components, and offers some outrage-based recommendations for ways public health communicators could better address the controversy. Published in 2006, it is grounded in my 1993 book “Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication,” and doesn’t reference any of my more recent writing on this website (on the vaccination/autism controversy or on outrage management generally). Nor, of course, does it reference recent developments in the controversy itself. A similar analysis of the mobile telephone controversy, written by Simon Chapman and published in 1997, is also on this website.
Submitted to the Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, November 24, 2006
After running across this website a year or so ago, Vivian Krause started corresponding with me about the risk communication implications of her various interests, including salmon farming and child adoption services. This PowerPoint presentation is her effort to persuade British Columbia legislators to take steps to manage people’s outrage over salmon farming, in addition to whatever they might decide to do to manage its environmental hazards. (You may also want to read the transcript of Vivian's actual testimony.) It is always a pleasure to see people make use of my work with regard to issues I know nothing about – especially when they “get it” as thoroughly as Vivian does.
Various newspaper clippings, 2006
In 2006, I was a peripheral part of a huge controversy in Australia over kickbacks allegedly paid to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq through a company called AWB (formerly the Australian Wheat Board). AWB had asked (and not taken) my advice on how to handle the issue – and a government investigation made the advice public. The link is to a fuller explanation and to nine specific clips.
Talking about “What Happened”: Post-Event Risk Communication
Published in ISHN (Industrial Safety and Hygiene News), May 2005, pp. 19–20, and June 2005, pp. 36, 38
A lot of what gets called risk communication actually deals less with future risk than with past events: “What happened?” This short two-part article offers ten pointers on talking about a recent accident, regulatory action, etc. It’s a start toward a post-event risk communication checklist.
Posted: February 8, 2005
After nearly every natural disaster (earthquake, flood, etc.), the survivors feel an urgent need to bury the dead, often in mass graves that later complicate everything from mourning to inheritance. Yet with some exceptions, the bodies of natural disaster victims are not a significant disease threat to the living, and burying them should therefore have a lower priority than other rescue and recovery tasks. International emergency response agencies do their best to convince local officials and local populations that this is so – but more often than not they fail. In this column, Jody Lanard and I discuss the reasons why the impulse to bury the bodies is so powerful, and offer some empathic ways to counter that impulse, rather than simply explaining the scientific data.
Published in Hydrocarbon Processing October, 2004, p. 15
Tim Lloyd Wright initially wrote to me for my comments on the oil price hike as a source of outrage.
My complete response is on this site.
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water, U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Oversight Hearing on the Detection of Lead in D.C. Drinking Water, April 7, 2004
When a U.S. Senate committee decided to look at a lead-in-drinking-water controversy in Washington, D.C., it invited my wife and colleague Jody Lanard to speak. Her written testimony reviews some of our principles of crisis communication and outrage management, and applies them to the way Washington’s water utility was handling the finding of too much lead. The hearing itself can be viewed as streaming video on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee website at http://epw.senate.gov/epwmultimedia/epw040704.ram. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s comments about Jody’s testimony (and about risk communication) start just after 2:02:00. Jody’s oral testimony starts at 2:35:24. Her Q&A starts at 2:50:20, and includes several of her favorite teaching examples.
Posted: October 29, 2003
Most of my risk communication consulting focuses on external stakeholders – neighbors, activists, customers, etc. But sometimes I’m asked to address a controversy between a company (or a government agency) and its own employees. Outrage is outrage, and for the most part labor-management controversies play out the same way external controversies do. But there are a few ways employee outrage is different. This short column discusses five differences.
Posted: August 15, 2002
This column was inspired by the Enron debacle, and the lesson (re)learned from that debacle that corporate financial audits can be pretty slippery. (In case you’ve forgotten, Arthur Andersen audited Enron’s books and said everything was hunky-dory; it wasn’t, and the accounting firm went down with its client.) The column asserts that corporate environmental audits can be similarly slippery, and asks whether there are any lessons companies can learn from Enron about their environmental auditing. It offers six ways to make environmental audits more reliable and more credible, focusing especially on the virtues of picking not just an auditor who doesn’t rely on the company for other business, but also an auditor whose natural biases are more activist than corporate.
Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association, June 2002
In June 2002 I gave a keynote presentation with the above title to the annual meeting of the Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association. I focused on some ways the chemical industry’s Responsible Care program wasn’t working, and what the industry might want to do next. CCPA followed up with an interview covering roughly the same ground, which was posted on its members-only website. The interviewer was Harvey Chartrand.
Posted: March 17, 2001
I wrote this column after doing a radio talk show with Sheldon Rampton, in which he argued that corporate experts misuse their scientific expertise to defend corporate misbehavior. The column doesn’t really disagree with Rampton’s claim that many company experts can’t be trusted. But it does dispute his view that anti-company experts can; ideology, I think, distorts science as much as avarice. And the column also disputes Rampton’s conviction that one-sided science is working stunningly well for evil corporations. It argues to the contrary that companies sacrifice credibility when they employ experts who reliably favor their position regardless of the data. Activists can get away with that kind of one-sidedness, the column suggests, but companies are better off hiring activist-leaning experts, who will be hugely credible when they reluctantly admit the company is actually right about something.
Published in Reputation Management, May 2000
I am one of several experts quoted in this analysis of what the food biotech industry has done wrong in its management of public outrage.
Published in ABSP Linkages, the Newsletter of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project based at Michigan State University, Third Quarter 2000
Ag biotech leader Catherine Ives heard me speak at a biotechnology conference. Her short column summarizes my presentation and draws some conclusions for reducing people’s outrage at biotechnology.
Published in New Scientist, March 27, 1999
Instead of criticizing the public for getting outraged about biotech, this short piece criticizes the industry for ignoring and mishandling the public’s outrage.
Published in Food Quality, June/July, 1999
This is a pretty good overview of various expert opinions (including mine) on how food companies should behave after a recall.
Technical Peer Review for the Massachusetts Military Reservation (with Michael C. Kavanaugh, Andrea Leeson, James W. Mercer, Tara O’Toole, and Resha M. Putzrath), Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence (Environmental Restoration Division), Brooks Air Force Base, TX, October 1999
In 1999, I was part of a review team analyzing a groundwater contamination controversy at the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod. Most of the team focused on technical issues, but Tara O’Toole and I wrote a chapter arguing that MMR should take community involvement even more seriously than it already was doing, and should consider a range of other outrage management strategies as well.
Published in Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 1997
The authors did a qualitative content analysis of Australian media coverage of controversies over mobile telephone towers, searching for my various “outrage factors.” They found plenty of good examples to support their conclusion that the media pay more attention to outrage than to hazard.
The Hanford Reach, May 9, 1994, pp 12–13
In the mid-1990s I consulted on and off for two years at the Hanford nuclear waste cleanup. My client was Westinghouse, then a major Hanford contractor. This interview with Westinghouse’s Peter Bengston was published in the site newsletter. It’s a pretty decent overview of what I was trying to accomplish there. Roughly a decade later, by the way, I was brought to Hanford again, on and off, for a year. The contractor wasn’t Westinghouse any longer and the technical issues had evolved some. But the basic problem of insufficient attention to the outrage half of the risk equation was unchanged. (Doesn't say much for the value of consultants, does it?)
Management Quarterly (Public Service Electric & Gas Company), Summer 1993, pp. 32–34
Power line EMFs have greatly declined as a public controversy since this short article was written in 1993 – mostly because the industry took the issue seriously and learned with us that the risk was low. But comparable issues (cell phone EMFs come to mind) are still hot, and the article’s advice is relevant to any risk controversy.
Industrial Epidemiology Forum’s Conference on Ethics in Epidemiology
Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Supplement I to Volume 44, 1991, pp. 41S–50S
I wish I could publish an article like this for all the professionals I work with who tend to do their jobs in ways that make my job harder. Two come immediately to mind: emerging communication responsibilities of toxicologists ... and of lawyers. Still, epidemiology has the worst communication problems of the three – especially when public outrage is high, hazard is probably low, the epidemiologist is working for the company that made the mess, and the science falls far short of definitive. This article focuses on my wishful recommendations for such situations. I feel them today even more strongly than I did when I wrote the article more than a decade ago.
Other General Descriptions of the
Outrage Concept and Outrage Management
Published in Fuel Cycle Week, June 27, 2013, p. 5.
Margaret Harding participated with me in a May 31, 2013 podcast entitled “Peter Sandman teaches nuclear communicators.” A few weeks later she wrote this one-page article summarizing some of what I said. The article includes some useful comments about the outrage management challenges facing proponents of nuclear power, but I like it mostly because of its excellent summary of the core principle that people judge risks to be serious because they’re upset, not the other way around.
Posted: April 14, 2011
I speak and write endlessly about ways to increase people’s outrage when you think they’re insufficiently upset about a serious risk and ways to decrease their outrage when you think they’re excessively upset about a not-so-serious risk. I call these two kinds of risk communication “precaution advocacy” and “outrage management” respectively. This column makes a point I too often forget to mention: Except in emergencies (real or imagined), it’s impossible to get people more or less outraged. Mostly what we do is reallocate their outrage. The column calls this “the Law of Conservation of Outrage,” and discusses six corollaries that are fundamental to risk communication: the natural state of humankind vis-à-vis any specific risk is apathy; outrage is a competition; there’s no reason to worry about turning people into scaredy-cats; if people are more outraged at you than the situation justifies, you’re doing something wrong; excessive outrage aimed at you isn’t your critics’ fault; and outrage causes hazard perception – and we know what causes outrage.
Published in PR News, March 14, 2011
Scott Van Camp’s article is a brief summary of my approach to risk communication, especially outrage management (which Scott – like most PR people – insists on calling “crisis communication”). The article is noteworthy mainly for the skeptical interest shown by the PR people Scott interviewed about my approach. As Scott points out near the start of the article, “Sandman has built a successful crisis career on imparting risk strategies and tactics that have resonated with clients, although they have never taken full flight within PR.” I have also posted our 50-minute March 10 telephone interview (“Outrage Management: A Tough Paradigm for Public Relations to Swallow”). Anticipating the likely thrust of the article, I devoted a lot of the interview to the difficulties PR people have with outrage management.
Posted on the pearltrees website, January 6, 2011
Rusty Cawley is a seasoned public relations professional who got interested in my approach to outrage management in 2001. As he explains on his “Outrage 2.0 Blog,” he decided in 2011 to take a stab at “connecting the dots” in my “sprawling” website using pearltrees software to organize some of what I’ve written about outrage management. (He doesn’t touch precaution advocacy and crisis communication at all.) If you’re looking for an organized entrée to outrage management and the structure of this website doesn’t do the job for you, check out Rusty’s restructure and see what you think.
Posted on the Vivian Krause’s “Fish Farm Fuss”
Vivian Krause is a former employee of the farmed fish industry and now a citizen activist on behalf of fish farming, and against what she sees as an unfair campaign by many environmental groups on behalf of wild fish. She is also extremely interested in outrage management. For several years now she has tried to help the farmed fish industry listen better and respond better to the outrage of its critics. She understands how difficult industry finds that task, because she finds it difficult herself, lapsing periodically into venting her own outrage at the critics instead. In 2006 I posted a set of Vivian’s PowerPoint slides on “Risk Communication for Salmon Aquaculture.” This new slide set makes no mention of the fish-farming industry. It is also revised in other ways. I don’t always agree with the details of Vivian’s interpretations of my work. But she makes it simple, keeps it interesting, feels it deeply, and gets it mostly right.
Three Paradigms of Radiological Risk Communication: Alerting, Reassuring, Guiding
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 One (90 min.)
Part One is a introduction to the hazard-versus-outrage distinction and the three paradigms of risk communication.
- Part Two (155 min.)
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 One (72 min.)
Part Three is a rundown on some key crisis communication strategies.
See especially Part Two.
Trust the Public with More of the Truth: What I Learned in 40 Years of Risk Communication
The National Public Health Information Coalition is an organization of federal, state, and local health department communicators. NPHIC asked me to give its 2009 “Berreth Lecture” at its annual conference in Miami Beach – and specified that the presentation should be about myself and my career, not the substance of risk communication. But as I walked the group through my 40 years in risk communication, a substantive theme emerged: that public health communicators are at least as untrustworthy as corporate communicators, that nobody has the courage to trust the public with those parts of the truth that conflict with the message, and that public health agencies need to learn how to cope better with mistrust and outrage. I illustrated my thesis with a lot of flu and other infectious diseases examples. I had written the speech out in advance – something I almost never do – but I departed from my text more than a little, so both versions are here.
A Polish translation was published in December 2010 in Bezpieczeństwo i Technika Pożarnicza (Safety & Fire Technique).
Excerpts from the RISKANAL listserv, March 24–25, 2009 (plus some follow-up offline correspondence)
In late March of 2009, discussion on the RISKANAL (risk analysis) listserv turned to the psychology of people – including people on the listserv – who are skeptical about global climate change. I had recently dealt with this question in a column for this website on “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial.” So I posted a comment on the listserv referencing and summarizing the column. The resulting brief dialogue dealt with the motives not just of global warming skeptics but also of global warming supporters. And it led to a further discussion of whether strategic persuasion (on behalf of global warming or any topic) is antithetical to sincerity. I thought it was a good, thoughtful and respectful discussion – worth reprinting here (with the permission of all the participants). After the RISKANAL discussion petered out, I continued to exchange emails (also posted here) with one participant in the dialogue, Stephen L. Brown. Our focus slowly shifted from climate change risk communication to outrage and outrage management – and led to some observations on Steve’s part about outrage that I think are well worth reading, whether you’re interested in global warming or not.
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SUBSCRIBE RISKANAL First_Name Last_Name
Published in ICIS Chemical Business, and on its website, September 3, 2007
Clay Boswell started out wanting to write a “profile” for the chemical industry trade journal he works for, but the article turned out less a profile than a summary of the basics of risk communication, especially outrage management. It’s a good summary, I think. The original title was “Sandman says outrage is the key to community relations,” but I like how the piece got retitled on the website: “Sandman says.” Period.
Keynote speech presented to the Annual International Corporate Citizenship Conference of the Center for Corporate Citizenship of Boston College, San Francisco, March 30, 2004
This speech was basically my standard intro speech on outrage management – the distinction between “hazard” and “outrage”; the four kinds of risk communication; the risk communication seesaw; and six key strategies for reducing outrage. Since the audience was made up of corporate PR people and Corporate Social Responsibility specialists, comments are interspersed throughout on how risk communication relates to PR and CSR.
Susan Kelly is a “graphic facilitator” in San Francisco. For every presentation at the International Corporate Citizenship Conference, she produced a poster in real time and posted it immediately afterwards – an incredible tour de force! Even the dull presentations turned into lively posters. Here’s mine.
Published in Industrial Heating, November 2002
Based on a speech I gave, this short article summarizes my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and my six key strategies for managing outrage.
Published in Zurich Risk Engineering’s magazine the linkbetween, Issue 33, Jan 2001
Because of the insurance industry focus, this summary of my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula picks up on some aspects that are usually ignored, such as the very different reasons why employees and employers can get outraged at efforts to improve corporate safety.
Published in CAREline® Global Responsible Care® News, Volume 16, 1999
Nothing new here – but it’s convenient if you want my six principal outrage management strategies, my four stages of a risk controversy, and my twelve principal outrage components all in one spot.
Engineering News-Record, October 4, 1999, pp. A19–A23.
This short overview was written for public utilities – sewage treatment plants, water companies, power companies, etc. The focus is especially on the benefits of sharing control ... or even abandoning control altogether. Includes a sidebar article: Managing Outrage: A Primer.
Company Director (Australian Institute of Company Directors), 14:8, September 1998, pp. 24–25
This short article features a rationale for focusing more on outrage management, and a summary of five key strategies for managing outrage. It was aimed at corporate directors in the Australian mining and minerals industry. The editor’s introduction includes a thinly disguised advertisement for my outrage management software; that was my price for the article.
Published in Business Review Weekly, August 31, 1998
This quick overview of my “Outrage” software was written for a business audience.
Research on Outrage Management
Risk Decision and Policy 3 (2), 93–108 (1998)
The experiment reported in this article deals with ways of depicting risk when you’re trying to get people to realize how serious the risk is ... or how serious it isn’t. In other words, how do you explain risk data so your audience will neither underestimate nor overestimate seriousness? The study shows some strategies that help, even in the face of outrage. The study also documents – for readers who need it documented – that outrage does make people consider a risk more serious.
Risk Analysis, Vol 13, No. 6, 1993, pp. 585–598
My conviction that the “outrage” component of risk influences public responses more than its “hazard” component is grounded in two decades of consulting experience ... and a scant handful of empirical research studies. This article reports most of the latter.
RISK: Issues in Health and Safety, Fall 1992, pp. 341–364
A recurring question among my clients is: “Why can’t we just explain the data so people won’t be outraged any more?” This article reports some research on the efficacy of technical information as a way to shape risk perception. The results are not encouraging to my clients’ fondest hopes.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, November 1992
This DEP “Research Project Summary” reports research comparing the impact of outrage management and technical detail on public perception of risk. Guess which one wins.
An Extended Critique of the
Outrage Management Approach
This is an entire issue of the quarterly PR Watch, devoted to a variety of articles critiquing me and my approach to risk communication, nearly all of them by Bob Burton. PR Watch watchdogs the public relations industry from a generally left perspective; Bob Burton writes mostly about the mining industry from that perspective. Obviously, I don’t share the author’s and publisher’s view that helping corporate polluters listen better is a dangerous new sort of “greenwashing” manipulation. But the quotes are all accurate and the description of my positions is mostly on-target. (Corporate dinosaurs also tend to see my approach as dangerous; maybe the polarizers always detest the compromisers.) Anyway, who wouldn’t be flattered to be the subject of a whole magazine issue?
- Flack Attack
- Advice on Making Nice: Peter Sandman Plots to Make You a Winner
- Some Clients of Peter Sandman
- Chilling and Gassing with the Environmental Defense Fund
- Community Advisory Panels: Corporate Cat Herding
- Mad as Hell? This Program May Have Your Number
- Packaging the Beast: A Public Relations Lesson in Type Casting
- Letters responding to the PR Watch issue: