Updated: August 23, 2009

Muddling My Way into
Risk Communication … and Beyond

Communication

In the fall of 1963, I was a freshman at Princeton. My roommate, Cliff Eames, decided to go to a Daily Princetonian open house, and I offered to keep him company. He quickly lost interest in trying out for the paper, but I signed up.

Psychology

In the spring of 1965, it was time to pick a major. My main interest by this time was the Daily Princetonian; I planned to be a journalist of some kind. But Princeton didn’t have a journalism or communication major, so I chose psychology, which looked like it would leave more time for newspapering than my other academic interests (philosophy, religion, literature).

Grad school

By the winter of 1966–67, I was engaged to Susan Goertzel. My fiancée (later my wife, still later my ex-wife) planned to go to graduate school in music. Though journalism didn’t require any advanced degrees, grad school sounded like fun. She applied to music programs at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, and a few other places; I applied to Harvard’s School of Social Relations, Yale Law School, Columbia’s psychology program, and Stanford’s grad program in communication. We both got into Stanford, so I started a Ph.D. in communication.

Environmental issues

In 1969, I picked my dissertation topic, why trade book publishers knowingly publish titles that won’t make money. Then one day California Governor Ronald Reagan hosted a speech by Nixon’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Robert Finch. Student protesters disrupted Finch’s speech; he responded that they were students and if they really cared about social issues, they ought to be doing research on them, not marching around empty-headed. He invited any student demonstrators in the audience to submit research proposals on socially relevant topics directly to his office. More or less in fun, five of us Stanford grad students (none of us very active protesters) submitted a proposal on media coverage of the environment. It was funded, and I found myself with a new dissertation topic.

Activism

After completing my dissertation (on the impact of corporate environmental advertising on audience attitudes toward the environment), I got my first full-time teaching job in the School of Journalism at Ohio State University. One afternoon in the spring of 1972, I got a call from Bill Stapp, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources. Bill wanted to know if I would be interested in starting a graduate program at Michigan in environmental communication. When I asked “What's environmental communication?” he said I ought to know, since mine was among just a handful of names that had turned up in a literature search with key words “environment” and “communication” (a laborious task in those days of primitive and mostly manual data bases). At my interview, a student asked about my commitment to saving the environment. I answered that I figured he’d provide the commitment; I intended to provide knowledge and skills. I launched the new program in the fall of 1972, closely linked to another new program in environmental advocacy: Both were aimed at Earth Day veterans wanting to learn how to persuade the world to care about the environment. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, I soon became an environmental activist myself.

The reassuring side of the alarm/reassurance dichotomy

When the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor malfunctioned in 1979, I was running a communication program at Cook College, the environmental and agricultural college of Rutgers University. (The move from Michigan to Rutgers was tied up in my 1977 divorce; lots of muddling there too, but that’s a different story line.) The Columbia Journalism Review asked me and colleague Mary Paden to go to TMI, follow the reporters around, and “cover the coverage.” The long article that resulted led to my being asked to join the staff of the Kemeny Commission, appointed by President Carter to investigate the accident. TMI broadened my environmental focus to include health and safety. More importantly, at TMI my customary preoccupation with “alerting the apathetic” was clearly not the main issue; much more crucial was “reassuring the hysterical” and avoiding panic. For the first time, I paid serious attention to the other side of the problem. By 1983 I was applying this new interest to a wide range of situations, from the siting of hazardous waste facilities to the emerging controversy over genetic engineering.

Working for corporations

I came back from the Kemeny Commission work and found myself in demand as a consultant to nuclear utilities trying to figure out how best to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Even the activist in me felt this was honorable work, but lots of activists elsewhere did not; my name (I was told) was erased from a national list of activist-leaning academic experts. Meanwhile, Rutgers colleague Michael Greenberg, a cancer epidemiologist, wanted to do some research on media coverage of the environment – mostly so he could understand how to be a better source on his “cancer alley” research. In 1984, Greenberg, David Sachsman, and I (and several others) founded a research program called Environmental Risk Reporting. Our grants came mostly from corporate sources.

Risk communication and “hazard versus outrage”

I now had three fields: figuring out how to alert people to serious risks; figuring out how to reassure people about not-so-serious risks; and assessing media coverage of both sorts of risks (and of controversies over which sort a particular risk actually was). My efforts to unify the three led to a spate of 1985–87 speeches and publications about “apathy versus hysteria.” But that didn’t quite do the job, and by 1987 I had reframed the problem as “hazard versus outrage,” arguing that the technical seriousness of a risk was virtually irrelevant to public and media reactions, which were instead a reflection of the risk’s “outrage components” such as control, dread, and trust. In January 1987 I used the new distinction in my two presentations at the first national conference on the newly named field of risk communication.

Administration

In 1985 The University of Missouri asked me to chair its science journalism program. Unaccountably attracted to the idea of heading an organization, I challenged Rutgers to let me start something, and in 1986 the Environmental Communication Research Program (later the Center for Environmental Communication, admirably directed by Caron Chess) was launched. I soon had half a dozen staff and maybe a dozen grants. I hated it. Teaching, consulting, and research had in common the absence of an organizational hierarchy. I had been good at instructing, good at advising, and good (well, adequate) at collaborating. I found I was rotten at managing.

Full-time consulting

When Jody Lanard and I started thinking about marriage in 1989, it was clear we would live in the Boston area, where Jody had a psychiatry practice and joint custody of a six-year-old child. (The six-year-old is now grown and on his own, and in 1999 we moved back to New Jersey.) Jody supposed I would find another academic job. But I was already finding consulting by far the most satisfying part of my work, having learned to my great surprise that corporate executives listened more attentively and intelligently than sophomores, and had more of interest to say back. And even part-time consulting was already earning me more than my salary. We married and moved to Boston in 1990. I cushioned the departure from Rutgers with a sabbatical followed by some part-time appointments, and didn’t actually give up my tenure (in fear and trembling) until 1994. By then I was traveling at least 150 days a year, mostly in North America but increasingly in Europe and Australia as well. My list of clients skyrocketed; my list of publications plummeted. I was no longer an academic, and when asked my occupation I started answering “risk communication consultant.”

Reputation management

My stock-in-trade as a risk communication consultant was the claim that outrage, not hazard, determined the outcome of risk controversies. Companies and governments were of course obliged to manage the hazard properly, but to cope with the controversy they needed to manage the outrage properly as well. I was used to advising clients on how to “mitigate the outrage” (and activists on how to exacerbate the outrage) in the context of controversies over environment, health, and safety. I did my first consultation on outrage management in a non-risk context in 1993; by 1996 clients were routinely asking me to advise on controversies over everything from retirement plans to aboriginal rights. The first time I used the term “reputation management” in a speech title was June 1997; the client was Shell.

The cyber world

An Australian safety consultancy called Qest worked for a lot of the same mining companies in Australia that I was working for. I helped them manage the outrage; Qest helped them manage the hazard. Qest also used proprietary software for its safety training, and in 1996 a client asked Qest to work some outrage material into the software. Instead, Qest invited me to collaborate on software of our own, and in 1998 OUTRAGE Prediction & Management® was launched. (Always something of a technophobe, I was still working on a computer that couldn’t run my own software. Qest had to lend me something more powerful.) So what about the Internet? Years earlier, technical editor Elenor Snow had attended a risk communication seminar I gave in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. She posted her “Notes from a Class” on her own web site, and over the years it was a steady source of referrals for me. My wife Jody started exchanging emails with Elenor in 1999. Qest had already registered the domain name psandman.com by then. In 2000 I took over the registration, Elenor started designing the web page, and here we are.

Employee safety

Even though outrage management had become my chief claim to fame and income source, I never entirely abandoned my earlier focus on arousing concern in high-hazard low-outrage situations. Starting in the 1980s, research with Neil Weinstein and others on how to persuade people to test their homes for radon kept me thinking about ways to sound the alarm. A decades-long consulting agreement with the Environmental Defense Fund (whose head Fred Krupp was my student in the 1970s) has also helped me keep my hand in, along with periodic work for other environmental NGOs. Then in the late 1990s my outrage management clients started asking me about the other side of the coin. This time the focus wasn’t environmental issues or radon testing; it was employee safety. A mining company in Australia wanted help persuading its employees to obey safety regulations. An oil industry trade association in Canada asked me to do a half-day training on why employees ignore safety and what to do about it. A U.S. safety consulting business posed an even more fundamental question: Why do corporate managements so often overlook safety precautions, even when the return-on-investment of those precautions compares favorably with the ROI of their core businesses? With a delighted feeling of returning to my roots, I dusted off my precaution advocacy skills and started working on employee safety.

Semi-retirement (but it didn’t take)

As Jody and I got financially closer to our retirement goals, I noticed a distinct psychological shift: I was working less for the money than for pleasure and impact on the world. That didn't keep me from continuing to charge an arm and a leg with clients I thought could afford it. But it did lead me to take on more low-budget, non-corporate clients that were dealing with extremely serious problems but couldn’t afford my normal fees. It also led me to put as much of my thinking as I could onto this website, where it would be available to all without charge (and without further effort from me). And it led me to stop “goosing” potential work. I’m still too obsessive not to return every email and phone call, but I decided I would no longer follow up again and again; I’d let opportunities go cold and clients drift away if they chose. The goal was to cut my workload and move slowly toward retirement.

Terrorism and crisis communication

Then 9/11 happened. At a critical moment in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character realizes that his whole life has been preparing him to cope well with that moment. That’s how I felt after 9/11. Not immediately. For about a month I wasn’t sure whether what I knew about risk communication was relevant or not; my website column Risk Communication and the War Against Terrorism: High Hazard, High Outrage went through a dozen agonized drafts before I posted it on October 22. Even after I posted it, I was hesitant about reaching out to the U.S. government agencies I thought I might be able to help. When the anthrax attacks started, the CDC reached out to me. I began to work on terrorism. And I began to think seriously about how crisis communication draws on the two other kinds of risk communication I’d been working on for decades: precaution advocacy (high hazard, low outrage) and outrage management (low hazard, high outrage). Soon other high-hazard high-outrage situations started cropping up: first SARS, then bird flu and the risk of an influenza pandemic. Crisis communication work – some of it full-price; some reduced-price or completely pro bono – grew till it was about half my workload. And my workload grew till I could no longer think of myself as semi-retired.

Partnership … and international health communication

A psychiatrist with an interpersonal and family systems theory orientation, my wife Jody Lanard has influenced my thinking about risk communication since we met in 1985. By the time we were married in 1990, Jody was reading and commenting on nearly everything I wrote, and what I wrote was showing her influence. Such trademark concepts as the risk communication seesaw and the strategy of surfacing and counter-projecting unacknowledged audience reactions started with Jody. In the years after 9/11, Jody began to get interested in a more visible role. Our first coauthored column, Duct Tape Risk Communication, was posted in February 2003. Soon after, Dick Thompson of the World Health Organization asked me for advice on SARS communication; Jody pushed me to say yes, and did the lion’s share of the work tracking SARS news coverage via Google News and drafting overnight memos to Dick on our reactions and suggestions. Pretty soon Jody was doing her own gigs, with WHO, CDC, and others. Her focus is public health communication, especially international public health communication. Her long-term goal is to disseminate our brand of risk communication throughout Asia. She’s well on her way. If I don’t want to stay home alone, this is no time for me to retire.

Pandemic obsession (and a real pandemic)

The SARS outbreak in 2003 looked at first like “The Big One” that public health epidemiologists have nightmares about, and for months it took up nearly all my time. But what really focused me on infectious diseases was bird flu, which I started working on, with ever-increasing intensity, in 2004. The bird flu situation called for all three of my risk communication paradigms – precaution advocacy was needed to warn people of what might be coming; outrage management was needed to help people realize it hadn’t come yet; crisis communication would surely be needed if it ever actually came. (Because the topic was such a hybrid, I soon realized this website needed another index for pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks.) By the time swine flu emerged in April 2009, Jody and I were major players in the small world of pandemic communications. As I write this in August 2009, my risk communication website has become temporarily a swine flu communication website. I admit to mixed feelings: obsessed with pandemics and at the same time a little bored with pandemics; excited that I’m getting to work on a real live pandemic before I retire and relieved that it’s a very mild pandemic so far….

Legacy obsession

When I was a university professor, my legacy was my students, especially my graduate students. Decades later it remains a huge pleasure to follow my ex-students’ work. But since 1990 my “students” have been practitioners, who sat through a presentation or at most a two-day seminar … not years of courses. I gave up on having a big effect on a few people in order to have a small effect on a lot of people. So as I approach retirement again – though this time nobody will believe it till it happens – I am thinking more and more about trying to improve the odds that my approach to risk communication will outlast me. This website is the most obvious cornerstone of my legacy effort. I plan to keep working on it even after I retire from most other things – and I am trying to forge an agreement with a university to make sure it will survive (and maybe even keep growing) after I stop working on it. I’m also planning to start teaching a “master class” that I hope will create a cohort of risk communicators who will have spent a week a year with me for several years, and will continue to hang together as a support group for each other. Year one of the master class was put on ice when the economy collapsed, but I’ll relaunch it when things look better. The final leg of my legacy plan is a series of strategic partnerships with organizations that want to institutionalize my approach to risk communication as one of their areas of strength. The first such partnership is with the International Association for Public Participation, which now runs its own trainings on outrage management. I am still looking for a public relations firm and a management consulting practice that might see my bag of tricks as a competitive advantage. For more on my legacy planning, see “Working Toward a Legacy.”

Copyright © 2009  by Peter M. Sandman

Contact Information:   Peter M. Sandman

Mailing address:
9 Prospect Park W Apt 15A
Brooklyn, NY 11215-1741
Email:  peter@psandman.com
Phone: (718) 208-6271
Fax: (609) 683-0566


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