Sandman says

Good neighbor policy

03 September 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Chemical companies willing to offer more than facts and figures can build good relations with neighboring communities, and so reduce potential outrage

Clay Boswell/New York

SUPPOSE YOU run a company called HappyChem. One day you discover that a HappyChem plant has been emitting unpermitted chemicals for years. What do you do?

First, you tell state and federal regulators about the problem, and they levy fines. Then you change the plant or the process to stop the emissions, or obtain permits if possible. You also check with technical experts to ensure the health effects from your unpermitted emissions were minimal. These measures may cost a lot of money, but you would do no less because you run a responsible business.

But, despite your well-intentioned actions, your neighbors are upset. You've been in this business too long to be surprised, but they're just not being rational.

To account for this phenomenon, risk-communications expert Peter Sandman developed a definition of risk in the mid-1980s. Risk had always been defined from the strictly technical perspective assumed by industry, but Sandman recognized that risk in the public arena meant acknowledging a public dimension. This broader understanding incorporates not only the likelihood of harm (hazard), but also the degree to which people are upset (outrage). In the formulation that has become famous, Risk = Hazard + Outrage.

ENGINE OF RISK RESPONSE

This simple equation is the keystone for a pragmatic and psychologically sophisticated approach to communication about risk.

"The engine of risk response is outrage," Sandman explains. "Sometimes the problem is too little outrage - people are apathetic -and I help my client arouse more outrage so they protect themselves. Other times the problem is too much outrage - people are excessively angry or frightened, usually because of things my client has done wrong -and I help find ways to calm the situation. Still other times the outrage is high about a risk that is genuinely serious, and the job is to help people bear it, sustain it and act on it."

Sandman has divided risk communication into three categories. When the hazard is high, but the outrage is low, communication is "precaution advocacy."

"'Watch out!' is the message," says Sandman. "Precaution advocacy is a lot like traditional public relations, in that it aims to arouse interest in an apathetic audience." Health education, safety education and environmental activism are examples.

When the hazard is low and the outrage high, people are unnecessarily upset about minor risks, and the task is "outrage management."

"'Calm down!' is the message, though it can't be said that way - 'calm down' rarely calms people down," Sandman points out. "Outrage management is, in some ways, the opposite of traditional public relations, as it addresses highly involved people, and its key strategies are profoundly counterintuitive -apologizing for misbehaviors, sharing control and sharing credit with critics."

SHARED VALUES

When both the hazard and the outrage are high, and people are upset about serious risks, the task is "crisis communication."

"'We'll get through this together' is the message," says Sandman. Rather than raise or lower people's levels of concern, crisis communication aims to help them bear it and take wise precautions.

Over 20 influences on outrage have been identified (see box). From a traditional, technical perspective, where risk is the possibility of harm, these "outrage factors" distort the perception of risk. In public, however, they are intrinsic to what is meant by risk.

"Many risk experts resist the pressure to consider outrage in making risk management decisions," Sandman observes. "They insist that 'the data' alone, not the 'irrational' public, should determine policy. But we have two decades of data indicating that voluntariness, control, fairness, and the rest are important components of our society's definition of risk. When a risk manager continues to ignore these factors - and continues to be surprised by the public's response of outrage - it is worth asking just whose behavior is irrational."

The risk manager must work with the fact that the public responds more to outrage than hazard, he continues. If the objective is to warn the public of serious hazards, then it pays to make the hazards more outrageous, as in the campaigns against drunk driving and passive cigarette smoke.

If the objective is to decrease concern about modest hazards, the risk manager must work to diminish outrage, a task that will require more than data.

"People care about morality, fairness, trust and the rest," Sandman points out. "These aren't alien, Martian values. They are our values. We want to live in a world in which they influence risk-management policies, not a world in which they are considered irrelevant. When the public includes outrage in what it means by risk, it is being wise, not misled.

"Of course it is still appropriate to try to keep outrage from contaminating our perceptions of hazard. That's hard, and it's important," he continues. "But that doesn't mean trying to keep outrage from influencing our decisions about which risks are acceptable and which are not. That would be a huge mistake. Fortunately, it's a mistake that the public is in no danger of making."

The lesson of outrage, Sandman explains, is not that the public should learn how to stop becoming outraged by small hazards. but that companies should learn how to stop outraging the public about those small hazards.

EMPATHY, NOT ARGUMENT

Sandman pioneered environmental communications in the 1970s, but his horizons expanded when he served on the staff of the Kemeny Commission investigating the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (TMI).

"At TMI, my customary preoccupation with 'alerting the apathetic' was not the main issue," he says. "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."

Nuclear utilities trying to implement the commission's recommendations sought Sandman as a consultant - "even the activist in me felt this was honorable work," he says wryly - and Sandman's interest in the industrial side continued to develop.

Ultimately, Sandman developed his formulation, Risk = Hazard + Outrage, and by the early 1990s, he left academia to pursue full-time consulting. Clients have included BP Amoco, Dow Chemical, DSM, DuPont, GlaxoSmithKline, Monsanto, Novartis, Procter & Gamble, and Roche. They have also included Environmental Defense, the Consumer Federation of America Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the World Health Organization.

Sandman's advice sounds nothing like a lawyer's because it addresses the psychology of the other side. It is akin to the difference between a divorce court and couples counseling. For example, he insists on the importance of listening, because outrage responds to empathy, not argument.

Sandman illustrates by describing a typical outraged public meeting. "Some expert is standing at the front of the room saying something like this: 'We've done a quantitative risk assessment on the situation, and we found that the odds of anyone in this room dying of our dimethylmeatloaf emissions are less than one in a million,' and you're booed. Then somebody stands up in the back of the room and says: 'You're lying! We're all going to die of leukemia.' And there's tumultuous applause.

"What does it take for people to applaud the idea that they're going to die of leukemia?" Sandman asks. "The answer is outrage. When people are that outraged, you're going to have a very difficult time convincing them that they're not going to die of leukemia. They'd rather think they're going to die of leukemia than conclude that you're not the Antichrist after all."

Ironically, even if the expert manages to convince the audience that "dimethylmeatloaf" cannot cause leukemia, the outrage will usually not dissipate, he says. "All you've done is taken away the substantive issue, the ammunition they were using to express their outrage. The outrage may actually go up when people feel their rationale has been undermined but their feelings haven't been assuaged." A new rationale will take its place -e_SFlbperhaps the suggestion that dimethylmeatloaf causes birth defects.

In some ways, the relationship is like a marriage, Sandman says. "Outraged spouses do the same two things I just described for a public meeting. Your husband or wife has trouble learning that you're right on the substantive issue. But if you succeed in proving that you're right, outrage goes up, not down -and your husband or wife will soon pick a fight on another substantive issue," he notes.

"One of the key points here is the need to acknowledge the validity of criticisms whenever possible," he adds. "Outrage management is much more about 'yeah, you're right, I'm sorry' than it is about 'that's crap, how dare you say that.'"

RESPONSIVE CARE

The case of HappyChem, taken from one of Sandman's actual clients, shows one way this can play out in practice. The company had demonstrated its accountability to the state and federal governments by taking the measures already described, but the community remained skeptical.

It therefore worked on fostering community accountability. It hired a consulting firm to study the illegal emissions and their potential health impact it established a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to oversee the process, and paid for CAP's consulting firm, which reviewed the first consulting firm's report it scheduled a series of open public meetings and briefings of local government paid for independent, third-party monitoring of ongoing emissions arranged for the monitoring company to do additional sampling on dates specified by CAP and unknown to HappyChem encouraged CAP to remain open to local activists and met separately with all activists who sought a meeting.

HappyChem rebuilt its relationship with the local community by demonstrating its accountability to every segment, including the most extreme activists, says Sandman.

"The purpose of accountability is to reduce stakeholder outrage," he points out. "You accomplish this by not asking to be trusted, by coming as close as you can to sharing control, by making yourself and your company 'smaller', and by getting your critics to take credit for your good behavior. Whether you rely on a formal contract or something more casual, if you really hate it there's a good chance you're doing it right."

Now HappyChem is not only responsible, it is also responsive - and that makes all the difference.

Peter Sandman has compiled his writings on risk communication and outrage reduction at his website, www.psandman.com

KEY OUTRAGE FACTORS

Risk-perception scholars have identified over 20 outrage factors - that is, considerations additional to technical risk that the general public factors into its broader conception of risk. The following are 10 of the most important.

  • Voluntariness: A voluntary risk generates much less outrage than one that is coerced.
  • Control: Almost everybody feels safer driving than riding.
  • Fairness: People who endure greater risks than their neighbors, without access to greater benefits, are naturally outraged - especially if the rationale seems political.
  • Trust: Does your organization come across as trustworthy (or accountable) rather than dishonest?
  • Process: Is your organization responsive or unresponsive, courteous or rude, empathic or arrogant?
  • Morality: Talking about cost-risk trade-offs sounds callous when the risk is morally relevant.
  • Familiarity: Exotic, high-tech facilities provoke more outrage than familiar risks such as peanut butter.
  • Memorability: A memorable accident or a potent symbol makes the risk easier to imagine.
  • Dread: Some risks are more dreaded than others compare AIDS or cancer with emphysema, or hazardous waste with equally hazardous raw materials.
  • Diffusion in time and space: Hazard A kills 50 anonymous people a year across the country. Hazard B has one chance in 10 of wiping out its neighborhood of 500 people sometime in the next decade. Risk assessment tells us the two have the same expected annual mortality of 50. Outrage assessment tells us that hazard A is probably acceptable and hazard B is certainly not.




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