Updated: February 6, 2012

What I Do:
A Note to Prospective Clients

by Peter M. Sandman

The purpose of this website is not mostly business development, but information dissemination. I have other ways to woo new clients. The website is to spread the word about how to do risk communication my way – and create a readily available repository of my thinking so I can retire when the time comes. But the time hasn’t come yet. I still sell risk communication seminars, consultations, and presentations for a living, and I’m still on the lookout for interesting work. So if you’re a prospective client, here’s the pitch. (If you’re not, read the rest of the site instead.)

My work focuses on problems of risk communication. When a hazard is serious and some public is ignoring the risk, I help my client overcome the apathy – for example, when employees are neglecting to wear their respirators or elderly people are neglecting to get their flu shots. When a hazard is small and some public is exaggerating the risk, I help my client reduce the concern – for example, when neighbors are worried about harmless industrial emissions or customers are worried about insignificant product risks. And when a hazard is serious and some public is rightly alarmed, I help my client help people bear their feelings and respond appropriately – for example, when a terrorist attack or an infectious disease outbreak looms.

There are thus three paradigms of risk communication: precaution advocacy (“watch out!”), outrage management (“calm down!”), and crisis communication (“we'll get through this together”). I do all three. For a quick introduction to all three, see my “Introduction to Risk Communication and Orientation to this Website.”

I usually start by taking my client’s word for it about which of the three is called for. The client tells me that people are apathetic even though they’re in danger, or that people are getting upset over next-to-nothing, or that the risk is real but people aren’t handling it very well. But as we get down to work, sometimes that analysis won’t hold up. The client’s own data suggest a different assessment. Part of my job in these cases is to try to convince the client to switch paradigms.

Clients

My clients in the first category – alerting people to serious risks – have traditionally been activist groups, where my risk communication consulting began in the 1970s. I still do some of that work, with enormous pleasure. But government agencies also seek my help in this area, on issues from home radon testing to AIDS prevention to pandemic preparedness. So do corporations, especially when they’re getting into trouble because employees are ignoring safety regulations. Still, precaution advocacy currently consumes less than 20% of my workload; I wish it were more.

In the second category – managing outrage when people are excessively concerned about small risks – my clients run the gamut from the carpet industry (volatile organic compounds emitted by new carpets) to the water industry (arsenic, lead, radon, fluoride, etc. – risks that are sometimes quite serious, of course, and sometimes not so serious). Roughly half of my outrage management work is with the oil, chemical, waste, mining, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and electric power industries. About 20% of this work is with federal, state, and municipal regulators; people get understandably outraged when they don’t think the regulators are protecting them adequately. And about 20% of the work is outside North America. I also include in this category efforts to manage outrage that is more justified than not; sometimes the company or agency really has unduly endangered people, and outrage management must begin with apology and reform. In addition to working on traditional risk controversies, I am often asked to help with similar controversies in non-risk situations – customer, employee, and shareholder outrage when a company is accused of complicity in oppression overseas, for example – or when a company is accused of shipping jobs overseas in the first place. All told, my outrage management work is about 50% of my workload.

Outrage management isn’t spin – though both my clients and my critics sometimes think it is. For me the baseline assumption is that when people are upset over a risk that’s technically small, it isn’t because they’re stupid or because journalists or activists have manipulated them. It is because the company or government responsible for that small risk is doing something wrong. Perhaps my client has been less than candid; perhaps it has been arrogant; perhaps it has been unwilling to share control. The main thrust in outrage management is to identify and change the misbehaviors that are leading your stakeholders to overestimate the risk. It’s not about telling them where they’re wrong; it’s about correcting where you’re wrong.

The final third of my workload is devoted to crisis communication. Although this work dates back to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979, it obviously got more important (for me and everyone else) after September 11, 2001. In recent years I have worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on anthrax and smallpox; with the World Health Organization on SARS, avian flu, and swine flu; with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; with the Governments of Canada, Singapore, and New York City; etc. Most of my crisis communication work has been for governmental or international agencies. But companies also seek my help periodically on crisis communication problems – whether they are preparing to communicate in a possible future crisis or actually communicating in one that has already occurred; and whether the crisis is company-specific (such as a factory fire or a food recall) or has its origins elsewhere (such as a pandemic or a hurricane). I also do a lot of work with companies on pre-crisis communication – for example, how to talk to neighbors about possible plant explosions and other worst case scenarios. And companies routinely ask me in on controversies that they consider crises because corporate reputation and profitability are threatened, but I don’t because public health and safety are not.

Approach

In all three areas, my approach to risk communication starts by helping my client tease apart the hazard (technical risk) from the outrage (trust, responsiveness, control, dread, etc.). An assessment of the hazard and the outrage is essential to deciding which risk communication “toolkit” is needed to address the problem: a precaution advocacy toolkit for high-hazard low-outrage situations; an outrage management toolkit for low-hazard high-outrage situations; or a crisis communication toolkit for high-hazard high-outrage situations.

In all three areas, also, I focus mostly on how to address the outrage – the apathy or denial, the concern, fear, anger, etc., as well as the factors that have provoked these feelings. Depending on the situation, the goal may be to increase the outrage, to reduce or prevent it, or to help people bear it. For each situation, the main help I offer is a set of counterintuitive but proven strategies for influencing outrage. (Merely explaining hazard data is seldom an effective way to influence outrage, and therefore plays only a minor role in my presentations and consultations – though I do help clients understand the need to acknowledge their uncertainty about the data.)

Seminars

My presentations run the gamut from a 20-minute dinner speech to a week-long training. But my favorite lengths for seminars are a half-day, a full day, and two days – or longer if consultations or “mini-consultations” are appended.

I have posted a number of sample seminar agendas of varying lengths, focusing on one or more of my three risk communication paradigms.

The half-day seminar on precaution advocacy is built around one or both of two main precaution advocacy challenges. The first challenge is convincing people who would rather remain apathetic to make room on their “worry agenda” for a new risk. It’s something of a slog, but there are some sophisticated shortcuts available that make use of cognitive dissonance and other aspects of the psychology of persuasion. The second challenge is overcoming what I call “willed inattention” – the reasons why people (employees, for example) often ignore health and safety precautions, even when they are fully aware of those precautions already. For each reason, several solution strategies are presented, with examples. The full-day seminar covers both challenges in more detail, as well as some additional topics – for example, why corporate managements often ignore safety precautions even when those precautions offer an enviable return-on-investment; and how to distinguish apathy from denial and how to address the latter.

The half-day seminar on outrage management explores the distinction between hazard and outrage, and then goes into detail on six core strategies for reducing or preventing outrage:

  • stake out the middle, not the extreme;
  • acknowledge prior misbehavior;
  • acknowledge current problems;
  • discuss achievements with humility (give away the credit);
  • share control and be accountable; and
  • pay attention to unvoiced concerns and underlying motives.

The full-day seminar adds three more specialized topics. Among those that clients can choose from: explaining risk data; dealing with activists and journalists; public consultation strategies; overcoming internal barriers; managing specific outrage factors (trust, control, dread, etc.); and addressing specific controversy types (facility siting, environmental justice, etc.). A two-day version covers more outrage reduction strategies and more of the specialized topics, with more time for examples, exercises, and discussion.

The half-day seminar on crisis communication focuses on the most problematic “communication dilemmas” in crisis situations – how alarming or reassuring to be; how confident or tentative to be; whether and how to speculate; whether and how to acknowledge disagreement; and above all how to respond to such audience emotions as fear, panic, denial, apathy, misery, guilt, hurt, and anger. The full-day seminar broadens its scope to cover 25 crisis communication recommendations, each of which is grounded in a dilemma. A two-day version allows time for discussions of additional topics, including pre-crisis communication, crisis communication planning, and the role of outrage in crisis communication.

Clients often ask me to do back-to-back seminars on two of the three risk communication paradigms, occasionally even all three. Where this is not possible, clients sometimes ask for an hour on the one(s) we’re skipping. Especially common is a one-day seminar on outrage management, with an hour at the end on either precaution advocacy or crisis communication. I also offer a one-day and two-day “Introduction to Risk Communication” that covers all three paradigms.

I usually use the term “seminar” rather than “training” because my seminars tend to be more conceptual than experiential. There is plenty of time for Q&A; in fact, I prefer to take questions and comments all day as we go along. And there are plenty of examples – my seminars are applied, not abstract or theoretical. But I make time for role-plays, group breakouts, and the like only in multi-day seminars; in half-day and one-day seminars we stay together as a group and talk to each other. The tradeoffs here are obvious: Experiential learning goes deeper, but lecture/discussion covers more. I am always willing to cut some content to make room for a role-play and debriefing if that’s the client’s preference. My usual preference is to meet the need for experiential learning with mini-consultations instead.

Mini-Consultations

A popular option is to schedule a full-day seminar followed by a second day comprising five 75-minute mini-consultations on five specific problems. Also common: a little over a day of seminar content, followed by four hour-long mini-consultations. Of course, other combinations of seminar and consulting are easy to plan: half-day seminar plus half-day consulting; full-day seminar plus half-day consulting; one-and-one-half-day seminar plus half-day consulting; etc. Nor do the mini-consultations need to be all the same length. Perhaps one problem deserves a half-day and three others deserve an hour apiece … or whatever.

Since my seminars build on the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, and the consultations build on the seminars, it is important to try not to have people coming in halfway through. But there is no problem with people (senior management, perhaps) staying only for the initial half-day of a seminar, then leaving while staff remain for more detailed training and the consultations.

I am a big believer in mini-consultations. In 60 to 90 minutes we are unlikely to solve a complicated problem and outline an implementation plan. What we can do in that time period is get you unstuck – identify barriers you haven’t consciously noticed and possible paths forward you haven’t seriously considered. Just as important, a mini-consultation can make the preceding seminar “real” in a far more visceral way. Ideas that seemed interesting and provocative when the examples were somebody else’s mess come to seem enticing – or off-putting – when applied to a case at hand. For this reason I urge clients to do the mini-consultations in fishbowl format: The whole group watches as I dialogue with the people most closely involved; then we change to a different case and a new group is on the hot seat. Organizations worried that a fishbowl might limit people’s candor can opt for less threatening formats instead.

Projects

Apart from introductory seminars of various sorts, I typically work with clients on the following sorts of tasks:

  • Diagnosing why the target public is excessively or insufficiently outraged, and what the client is doing that exacerbates the problem.
  • Developing a strategy to reduce or increase the outrage.
  • Developing a crisis communication plan, or helping to implement one, or helping to communicate in a crisis that wasn’t planned for.
  • Identifying and overcoming barriers to implementing a risk communication strategy – particularly internal organizational barriers.
  • Training the client to manage his or her own public contacts.
  • Integrating risk communication with technical, legal, and other non-communication priorities.
  • Reviewing drafts of important documents – both planning documents and documents for public dissemination (brochures, reports, etc.).
  • Reviewing media coverage and the communications of stakeholders to assess how client communications need to change.
  • Participating in periodic meetings on ongoing projects (such as an infectious disease outbreak, a siting effort, or a waste cleanup).
  • Liaising with in-house or contract public relations personnel (integrating risk communication principles into ongoing PR practice).
  • Trouble-shooting when specific problems arise.
  • Actually drafting documents (planning documents or documents for public dissemination).

Most of this work is done collaboratively with the client, with the dual goal of dealing with the problem at hand and providing a model so the client becomes increasingly able to deal with comparable problems without my help. Most clients work with me extensively by phone and email, reserving in-person meetings for situations where they are truly necessary.

I very seldom act as intermediary between the client and the public – facilitating a public meeting or a negotiation, for example. The coach and the referee cannot be the same person, and I usually prefer the coach role. And I seldom represent the client in interactions with the public; an adequately prepared client can do a far better job on his or her own behalf than any outside spokesperson, however skilled.

Finances

My current fee is $800 an hour plus expenses (first-class airfare, hotels, meals, and ground transportation). I charge the same rate whether the time is spent preparing, speaking, consulting, or traveling. (I don’t charge sleeping time!) I am always willing to translate this hourly rate into a flat fee, based on our joint estimate of how much time the job will take.

Do I ever work for less than $800 an hour? Absolutely – all the way down to zero. (I even cover my own expenses occasionally.) The fee depends partly on whether I’m feeling busy or underutilized; partly on whether or not I see the work as particularly interesting (or particularly useful to society); partly on whether the work is likely to lead to something later I especially want to do; and partly on mood, vibes, and other intangibles. Currently about three-quarters of my work is at full price. Prospective clients are free to make me a firm offer of any sort. (I may say no but I certainly won’t take offense; every offer is a compliment.) I do not bargain with myself, however. Please don’t ask me to make an offer different from the one I am making here, until you have made one of your own first.

Note also that my wife and colleague Jody Lanard M.D. is available for less. Jody’s specialty is crisis communication, especially international public health crises. She sets her own prices, usually about half of mine. We love to work together, and sometimes negotiate a “bargain” package price to enable us to do so.

I am deeply committed to getting as much of what I know as possible onto this website, where it is available worldwide without charge. Building and maintaining the site consumes much of my time, Jody’s time, and the time of our dedicated webmaster, Elenor Snow. Everything that’s feasible to post is posted, even my seminar handouts. I also have a risk communication book, link is to a PDF file, three outrage management videos, and a crisis communication CD/DVD – all now available without charge on this website or linked from this website. If you’re worried about the cost of a seminar or consultation, see what you can find on the website instead. And if you can’t find anything relevant, send a query to the website Guestbook: Guestbook answers come free too.

Why me?

I am often asked what distinguishes me from others who offer risk communication consulting and training. Six answers come to mind:

  • I am one of the most active risk communication consultants in the world today, working with a wide range of industry and government clients on issues ranging from facility siting to consumer products, from effluent to EMFs, from warning people about serious risks to reassuring them about tiny ones. Constant consulting on real-world problems enables me to identify approaches that actually work, as opposed to those that just look like they ought to work.
  • As the creator of the “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula for risk communication, and author of dozens of articles, books, and research reports, I am also one of the acknowledged leaders in risk communication theory and research in the world.
  • My approach to risk communication focuses far more on why various publics have trouble accepting my client’s data than on ways of presenting the data more clearly. Like any risk communication expert, I can also advise on how to explain technical information. But I start with the presumption that diagnosing and addressing unacknowledged concerns and grievances will do more good than designing better charts and graphs, that the client’s ear probably needs more help than the client’s mouth.
  • I am an excellent public speaker and presenter, capable of keeping the level of interest (and even entertainment) high and holding a group’s attention for a full day or even several days. I am skilled not just at lecturing but also at adjusting to particular audience needs and concerns, and at facilitating discussion and debate – including debate on my own viewpoints.
  • Whether consulting or speaking, I focus my attention not just on what the client ought to do, but also on why the client has trouble doing it, suggesting ways around the conceptual, psychological, and organizational barriers to effective risk communication. I seem to have an unsuspected knack for helping individuals and organizations understand and accept their past errors and get “unstuck.”
  • I have a reputation for candor that I value highly. Too many consultants tell their clients what they want to hear. While I try to remain sensitive to the client’s tolerance level, I would rather risk being thought abrasive than being thought mealy-mouthed. My regular clients appreciate that I will not waste their time.

There are excellent risk communication consultants and speakers available who concentrate more on tactics than on strategy, more on “how to say it” than on what to say (and what to do!). Their work is first-rate and their clients are usually highly satisfied. But sometimes they leave their clients feeling better rather than doing better. I tend to address more fundamental problems. I try to leave my clients feeling understood and supported but also challenged and provoked; and I try to motivate real change in how they deal with their publics.

I should add that I am more expensive than the competition. It’s not for me to say whether I’m worth it, but it is worth noting that my clients are often grappling with risk communication dilemmas that threaten tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Next to these numbers, the marginal cost of one risk communication speaker or consultant versus another pales to insignificance. Of course if the client has no reason to prefer one over another, it makes sense to choose the least expensive – but if the choice isn’t random, other factors should logically weigh more heavily than price. In any case, my approach is less common than the dominant alternative, and it currently commands a premium in the marketplace.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter M. Sandman

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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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