After The Disaster: Communicating With The Public

Q. Although we don’t know yet exactly how it happened, the ag retail industry (the audience for this piece) is slowly getting more scrutiny. If you are a retail fertilizer dealer that sells ammonium nitrate, how do you quell the fear among the public about the product you sell? What do people want to know and how do you convey it?

Before I address this question, let me react to your use of the word “quell.” The desirable level of public concern about a hazardous substance is proportional to the actual hazard. If people are more fearful than the hazard justifies, “quelling” their fear (in my jargon, outrage management) is appropriate. If they’re less fearful than they should be, arousing fear (precaution advocacy) is what’s called for. I don’t know how dangerous ammonium nitrate in a retail fertilizer outlet actually is. Maybe “quell” is the right word. I just don’t think it should come automatically to mind merely because your audience is dealers rather than activists.

Kneejerk quelling of justified concern may be part of the problem here. When industries keep their stakeholders in the dark about relevant risks, or bend over backwards to over-reassure, they may or may not get away with it. Sometimes people smell a rat; sometimes over-reassurance backfires and makes people more concerned instead of less. (This is an example of what I call the seesaw of risk communication.) But even when over-reassurance works in the short term, it’s a long-term liability. After a disaster, or even sometimes after a near-miss, people who were successfully over-reassured belatedly awaken to the risks they have been encouraged to ignore. Instead of reaching a balanced judgment about those risks, they typically jump to the other side of the seesaw. Having been misled makes us extremely likely to overreact.

I won’t take the time to analyze how these dynamics have played out in industry after industry.

Here’s the bottom line: A wise industry doesn’t aim for public concern that’s as low as possible. Unrealistically low public concern is unsustainable, and the overcorrection when it comes is often devastating to the industry.

The wiser course is to aim for a public that:

• understands the risks;

• is used to them;

• knows what precautions are being taken;

• feels empowered to help decide what additional precautions should be taken; and

• feels comfortable with the risk management decisions that have been made.

My comments here are grounded in an assumption I should make explicit: that a retail fertilizer outlet that sells ammonium nitrate poses a non-trivial risk to its neighbors – not huge, presumably, but not negligible either. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. If the risk is genuinely negligible, there is still need for risk communication. The fears of neighbors deserve to be addressed even if they’re completely unjustified. But if the risk is negligible, the appropriate goal is to reassure, and my advice to avoid over-reassurance is irrelevant. I’m assuming the risk is non-negligible.

So, should a retail fertilizer dealer that sells ammonium nitrate talk about the West explosion?

It’s obvious to me that if questions are being raised, addressing them is smarter than dodging them. The people raising the questions are already worried. No answer at all will only exacerbate their worries. So will an over-reassuring “nothing to worry about” answer. A thoughtful answer that takes their worries seriously is a retailer’s best bet. If the risk is genuinely small, a thoughtful answer is likeliest to convince worried neighbors that it really is small. If the risk is not so small, a thoughtful answer is likeliest to keep worried neighbors from escalating their alarm beyond the realm of the reasonable. Once people are concerned, nothing the retailer says can reduce their concern to less than the actual situation justifies (and the retailer shouldn’t want to do that anyway!) – but a thoughtful answer is the best way to keep them from becoming more concerned than the actual situation justifies.

Talking to people who are more concerned than the actual situation justifies is the focus of the kind of risk communication I call outrage management. Its core strategies are profoundly counterintuitive: Acknowledge that people are worried; acknowledge the ways in which their worries are justified; tell graphic stories about their most-feared outcomes; give them credit for any safety improvements you implement; share control with them and offer them some oversight over your precautions; etc. See my Outrage Management Index for more than you want to know about these and related strategies.

And I would caution the retailer: Don’t forget that many of your less worried neighbors are paying close attention to your dialogue with your most worried neighbors. In the world before social media, it mattered less how you addressed the concerns of a few worrywarts. In today’s world, their worries are likeliest to prove contagious if you blow them off. (Of course small towns have always had effective social media: the back fence, the front porch, the local market.)

But suppose no one is asking questions. Should a fertilizer retailer raise the safety issue and the West example proactively?

The conventional public relations answer is no. Public interest in the West explosion was very brief. As this Google Trends graph vividly demonstrates, Google searches for “fertilizer” in the U.S. reached a sharp sudden peak on April 18, 2013, the day after the explosion. By a week later, the number of “fertilizer” searches was almost (but not quite) back to its pre-explosion background level, where it remains to this day.

In the conventional PR view, it would be foolish to retrigger or prolong people’s interest in fertilizer explosions by raising questions they’re not raising themselves. Even if the retail fertilizer industry is “slowly getting more scrutiny” – the premise of your question – most PR advisors would tell their clients to wait to talk until the scrutiny gives them no choice. The longer the time gap between the West explosion and the regulatory discussion that may be coming, they would advise, the better for the industry.

The risk communication answer is different. Risk communication (especially the outrage management side of risk communication) focuses far more on stakeholders than on publics. If you’re a fertilizer retailer that sells ammonium nitrate, you don’t care what “the public” thinks nearly as much as you care what your neighbors think. And even if they’re not saying so out loud, in the wake of the West explosion, at least some of your neighbors are wondering whether your facility is safe to live near. A risk communicator wants to surface those unvoiced concerns and get them addressed.

Bear in mind what I said earlier: The wise goal for the fertilizer retailing industry isn’t a public that is unaware of the risks; that’s a recipe for later overreaction when people belatedly learn the truth. The wise goal is a public that understands the risks and considers them well-managed. This advice is even truer for stakeholders – a retailer’s neighbors, for example – than it is for the general public.

From that perspective, the West explosion created a teachable moment. For a week or so after April 17, people who live near where lots of fertilizer is stored were avidly interested in fertilizer risks. It was an ideal time for the fertilizer industry and fertilizer retailers to do some teaching. Of course, it was an even more ideal time for proponents of greater regulation to make their case, but that doesn’t mean the industry should have gone silent. At a time when public and media interest was briefly high and critics were aggressively vocal, the industry needed to be vocal as well, nationally as well as locally – not defensive, not over-reassuring, but thoughtfully explaining the realities of fertilizer risks.

Has the teachable moment passed? Not really. Not entirely, anyway. Public interest (and especially stakeholder interest) is still higher than the pre-West baseline, and probably will remain that way for some months to come. And public and stakeholder interest is easy to revive – for either side – simply by reminding people of West. Any time a retailer of ammonium nitrate is ready to come out of the closet, he or she can show neighbors a photo like this one to launch the conversation.

The post-West teachable moment should be used not just to explain fertilizer risks and the precautions that are being taken, but also to engage neighbors in a dialogue about what I earlier called the values question: How safe is safe enough?

There are only three post-West choices for a fertilizer retailer that sells ammonium nitrate:

• Duck the teachable moment. Hide. Pass up the opportunity to frame the issues thoughtfully, and wait to see how your critics will choose to frame them sooner or later.

• Misuse the teachable moment. Over-reassure. Tell a one-sided story. Maybe you’ll get away with it for now (or maybe not) – but the moment of truth will for sure be all the more painful when it comes.

• Seize the teachable moment. Explain the risks thoughtfully, and launch a mutually respectful dialogue about what precautions are being taken and what additional precautions, if any, might be worth taking.

The third option is the way to go.

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