In today's world of accidents, terrorism and unpredictable incidents, the public is hypersensitive to perceived and actual risks in their community. Unfortunately, even if the measurable risk is extremely low, the public's response and actions to threats on their security and quality of life is legitimate-regardless of how non-rational it may be. Organizational leaders misappropriating attention away from the seriousness of the emotional state of a community during an environmental incident are dangerously distancing themselves from the veracity of a situation.
At a recent national conference, Dr. Peter Sandman, known writer, lecturer and consultant on risk communication, shared a simple equation designed to better understand the public's perceptions during a crisis.
Risk = Hazard + Outrage
He explained that scientific experts attempt to control hazards by both minimizing the probability of an incident and developing mitigation plans. According to Sandman, this is classic hazard management, but may not address the fullness of the risk associated with a problem when management does not consider public outrage.
Public outrage can be defined as how the public chooses to cope with stress originating from a situation. It is the emotional reaction that drives an attitude that influences how a person chooses to respond to a set of inputs. Because an incident is as much about perception as it is fact, managing public outrage is key to reducing risk. Consider the results of an experiment published by Sandman and others in 1993 regarding the perception of risk that describes hazard versus outrage:
"Newspaper articles were written about a hypothetical chemical spill in a residential neighborhood. Three factors were systematically varied: whether the spill was technically serious or technically minor; whether the article contained a lot of technical information or very little; and whether the agency responsible for the cleanup was open and responsive and the neighbors were calm, or the agency was secretive and unresponsive and the neighbors were upset. 600 adults read one story each, then answered questions about how serious they considered the spill. The results: ?he relationship between the agency and the neighborhood affected perceived seriousness more than five orders of magnitude of actual seriousness."
In other words, the technical information had little to no effect, while the clean-up agency's actions overwhelmingly impacted the subjects' perception on the seriousness of the situation.
According to Sandman, "When people are outraged, they tend to think the hazard is serious. Trying to convince them that it's not as serious as they think is unlikely to do much good until steps are taken to reduce the outrage." Sandman offers the following principal strategies to reduce outrage:
- Stake out the middle, not the extreme. In a fight between "terribly dangerous" and "perfectly safe," the winner will be "terrible dangerous." But "moderately dangerous" is a contender. If you deserve a B-, activists can get away with giving you an F instead; you can't get away with giving yourself an A.
- Acknowledge prior mistakes. The more often you apologize and acknowledge the sins of the past, the more quickly others decide it's time to move on.
- Acknowledge current problems. Recognize that your lawyer's advice is designed to win lawsuits; their key audiences are judges and juries. Outrage managers want to resolve controversies; their key audiences are hostile or potentially hostile stakeholders that may or may not seek legal council based upon how the outrage is managed. In this respect, don't lie or use "spin," it will only damage your credibility. Go beyond mere honesty to "transparency." Sandman discusses numerous cases in which a CEO's decision to go against their lawyer's advice during environmentally endangering incidents and become more transparent to the public resulted in long-term savings, in orders of magnitude, compared with companies that chose distortion and controlled information at the advice of their attorneys.
- Discuss achievements with humility. Odds are you resisted change and/or environmentally responsible behavior until regulators or activists forced your hand. Have the grace to say so. Attributing your good behavior after the fact triggers skepticism; attributing it to regulatory pressure increases the likelihood that you will be believed. Share control and be accountable. Let others-regulators, neighbors, and activists-keep you honest and certify your good performance.
- Pay attention to unvoiced concerns and underlying motives. Ask, "I wonder if anyone is worried about?" Remember to diagnose stakeholder motives other than outrage and hazard: ideology, revenge, self-esteem and greed.
Information for this article was taken from Dr. Peter Sandman's presentation at the Academy of Hazardous Material Manager's national conference. For more information on outrage management contact: www.psandman.com.