After The Disaster: Communicating With The Public

Q. What is/are the biggest mistake(s) that businesses make when they face public concern/regulatory scrutiny about what they do in the course of business?

I will answer this question purely from a risk communication perspective, although I realize that industries and companies must consider many other perspectives as well when they’re deciding what to do. All I can ask is that they consider risk communication too.

The biggest risk communication mistake industries and companies make when they see regulatory scrutiny on the horizon – after a disaster like the one in West, for example – is to go silent. In the hope that the public’s concern will abate, and the regulatory fervor with it, they pass up the teachable moment – and let their critics frame the issues. I’ve said enough about this already.

The biggest risk communication mistake industries and companies make when regulatory scrutiny is manifest and unavoidable is to construct a one-sided case. As I wrote in my 2002 “Laundry List of 50 Outrage Reducers”:

The dynamics of outrage are not symmetrical. Whenever you are trying to increase people’s outrage, exaggeration is a useful tool. There are limits beyond which the claim lacks credibility (and ethics), but within those limits, the more you exaggerate the more outrage you will get. When you’re trying to diminish people’s outrage, on the other hand, exaggeration backfires. It follows that most well-fought controversies are battles between the outrage-increasing extreme and the outrage-reducing middle. If the fight is between their extreme and your extreme – that is, if they con you into a polarized debate – they win. Those of you who yearn for the pleasures of exaggeration, go join an activist group. When playing defense, exaggeration has no place in your playbook. Stake out the middle ground.

Or as I put it in a 2011 Guestbook answer on “How not to play into the hands of extremists”: “Going to war with extremists is nearly as self-defeating as ignoring them…In a battle of extremes, the alarming extreme, the outrage-provoking extreme, has a natural advantage. So if you’re on the reassuring, establishment side of a controversy, you need to stake out the middle. That means putting a higher priority on demonstrating your responsiveness to the extremists’ valid claims than on rebutting their invalid ones.”

(For still more on staking out the middle, see this video.)

Staking out the middle is never wiser than in the midst of a highly publicized regulatory battle. Industries and companies that come across as intransigent often end up over-regulated. Industries and companies that say which of their critics’ regulatory proposals they think are feasible and sensible, as opposed to the ones they consider extreme and unworkable, are less likely to end up getting saddled with the latter.

Of course, staking out the middle is just one of many strategies for ameliorating stakeholder outrage and thus avoiding over-regulation. Among the other standbys: acknowledging prior misbehavior, acknowledging current problems, sharing control, being accountable, giving credit to critics, etc.

If and when regulatory attention turns to fertilizer retailers, I have no doubt activists will be talking about West: how awful it was and what lessons need to be learned so it won’t happen again. The question is whether retailers will be smart enough to talk about West too – and smart enough to have been talking about West all along.

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