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Three Tough Q’s: Peter Sandman

I’m delighted to launch this interview series – dubbed Three Tough Q’s – with one of the true luminaries of risk and crisis communication, Peter Sandman.  If you haven’t had the privilege, I encourage you to attend one of Peter’s speaking engagements or tap the cornucopia of resources on his Web site

Interview highlights appear here, but each question also links to the complete, robust responses that appear on Peter’s Web site. 

Without further ado – enter, Sandman:

 Q1:  Has the rise of online social networks changed outrage management (low hazard, high outrage), for better or worse?

Asking someone over 60 to comment on the impact of online social networks is pretty risky.  Asking me is very risky.  I’m trying, but I’m not really a netizen.

People who learn things about your organization via online social media are somewhere in the middle between publics and stakeholders.  They’re not the passive, barely attentive publics of the mainstream media, glancing at a story about you before moving on to something else.  Nor are they active, committed, and comparatively as well-informed as stakeholders.

Two aspects of this new intermediate space strike me as especially relevant to outrage management: 

  • Online social media facilitate participation without requiring serious interest.  It’s easy to add an offhand comment to somebody’s blog, to forward an interesting online article to groups of friends, to retweet something you saw on Twitter, etc.  And that, of course, may trigger greater interest and more involvement down the road.
  • A large percentage of participants in online social media are expressing a viewpoint and selectively marshalling information to support that viewpoint.  Credibility in social media (I would bet) is grounded much more in emotional expressiveness and in coming across as similar (in feelings and values) to the other participants in the dialogue.

Many organizations have learned to interact with their outraged stakeholders in ways that are participatory, two-sided, responsive, human, emotionally expressive, and empathic.  But when targeting less involved publics, those same organizations tend to churn out the usual one-way, one-sided, just-the-facts “public education.”  Now they’ll need to learn to talk to relatively uninvolved people via online social media in ways they have learned to talk to stakeholders.

Q2:  Can organizations mitigate public panic – and a current zeal for instant information – when hazard levels are unclear?

Let me start by saying that panic – real panic – is quite rare.  What you’re calling “public panic” isn’t panic at all, I think.  It’s rationally high levels of concern about a situation that may be genuinely dangerous.  Organizations shouldn’t want to “mitigate” that concern.  They should want to guide it.

The effect of uncertainty on what I call outrage – on people’s inclination to get upset – is binary.  If outrage is low, uncertainty keeps it low: “I won’t worry till the experts are sure there’s really a problem.”  If outrage is high, uncertainty makes it higher: “How dare they expose me to this contaminant when they know so little about its long-term health effects!”  You can see this dual response to uncertainty in a lot of risk controversies, from global climate change to industrial air emissions.

For the people who are frightened or angry about a particular risk, then, uncertainty exacerbates their feelings – adding to what you call “a current zeal for instant information.”  I think the solution is to provide as much information as quickly as you can, while trying to highlight the most important and actionable information.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean providing more information than you have!  Some of the most important information you give people in an uncertain situation is information about the uncertainty itself:  

  • How much you don’t know.
  • What you are doing to learn more, and when you expect to have some answers.
  • How much you won’t know for years, if ever – and why some questions are difficult or impossible to answer.
  • How awful it is for everybody – for you and for your stakeholders – to have to endure so much uncertainty and to have to make uncertain decisions knowing that they may turn out mistaken in the end.
  • What sorts of decisions you are making in the face of your uncertainty, and what sorts of decisions you are advising your stakeholders to make.
  • Your two guiding principles for decision-making in the face of uncertainty:
    • Erring on the alarming side (“better safe than sorry”), but not in such an extreme way that over-preparedness or over-reaction will do as much damage as the hazard itself.
    • Staying flexible, reconsidering prior decisions as you learn more and as the situation changes.
  • Your advice to your stakeholders to adopt the same two guiding principles.

Of course you should also tell people what you do know – and not just what you’re certain about. 

Bottom line: The best response to people’s zeal for instant information is instant information – especially information about uncertainty.

Q3:  Over your lifetime of study, contribution and counsel – any professional regrets?

My biggest regret by far is that I have not managed to create a cadre of people who do what I do.

On the one hand, “risk communication” is now a recognized field.  But most of what goes under that name seems more like conventional public education or public relations to me.  The principles of precaution advocacy, outrage management, and crisis communication that I have been trying to articulate for years are still very far from conventional practice.  And I don’t really see a new generation of risk communication consultants emerging to push the rock further on up the hill.

There are plenty of people coming out of universities with at least a little exposure to risk communication … and even to my approach to risk communication.  (I sometimes meet young people at seminars or consultations who tell me they studied me in college and seem surprised to learn that I’m not long dead.)  Still, when clients ask who else does what I do, I don’t have a lot of names to give them.

I am doing what I can to try to remedy this defect.  I’m negotiating with a university to host and sustain my Web site when I’m not doing so any longer.  I was about to launch a “master class” (asking participants to commit a week a year for at least two years) when the economy collapsed – and I plan to restart that effort when the economy recovers sufficiently.  I’m also looking for commercial partners to let me train their key people (and would send a few champions to the master class).

If I had it all to do again, I would make “legacy” a higher priority earlier.  Maybe I’d affiliate with a university and have graduate students again.  Maybe I’d set up some kind of apprenticeship program.  If I’d launched the master class a decade ago, it might have a couple of hundred alumni by now, and maybe they would be linked to each other in some kind of intranet.

Very few people are fortunate to change the world even a little. I have had more impact than I ever expected.  And I know all impact is transient.  Still, my biggest regret is not finding a way to keep my approach to risk communication going and developing after I’m not doing it anymore.

Is it possible that is already happening, and I just don’t get to see it?  I hope so.

4 comments to Three Tough Q’s: Peter Sandman

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