Risk = Hazard + Outrage - Dr. Peter Sandman Responds

Dr. Peter Sandman graciously took the time to provide feedback on my previous article.

Dear reader,

In my last issue of the Wag The Dog newsletter, I discussed two theories on communication during times of risk and crisis.

The first one is the risk communication theory, developed by Dr. Peter Sandman. The second one is the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), created by Prof. Timothy Coombs.

I was a bit nervous writing about this as I knew both esteemed researchers would be reading my newsletter issue.

Well, today I am more than thrilled to let you know that Dr. Peter Sandman graciously took the time to provide feedback on my article by email!

Below, I am sharing the insightful feedback email I recently received from Dr. Peter Sandman in response to my article summarising his work.

In his email reply, Peter Sandman pointed out the important distinction between hazard and outrage.

"Hazard" indicates how much harm a risk is likely to do, while "outrage" indicates how much it upsets people.

On this basis, Sandman categorises risk communication into three main tasks:

  • Precaution Advocacy: When the hazard is high, but the outrage is low, the goal is to warn insufficiently concerned people about serious risks. The message is: "Watch out!" (Read Peter’s articles on the topic here).

  • Outrage management: When the hazard is low, but the outrage is high, the objective is to reassure overly concerned people about small risks. The message is: "Calm down!" (Read Peter’s articles on the topic here)

  • Crisis communication: when both hazard and outrage are high, the goal is to help appropriately worried people cope with large risks. The message is: "We will get through this together." (Read Peter’s articles on the topic here)

Dr. Peter Sandman continues:

“When there is moderate hazard and outrage, then the goal is to involve the public in the decision-making process through consultation. The objective is to engage in dialogue and reach a consensus.

And when hazard and outrage are both low, there’s not much need for risk communication, though if you suspect one or the other or both are likely to rise, there may be an opportunity to do some preparatory risk communication, striking while the iron is cold.

Why the hazard-versus-outrage distinction matters:

People’s responses to risk are determined mostly by their hazard perception—how safe or dangerous they think the situation is. However, outrage plays a far greater role in hazard perception than actual hazards do.

So if you want people to take, demand, or tolerate more precautions, your best bet is to figure out how to get them more upset.

And if you want them to take, demand, or tolerate fewer precautions, you need to figure out how to get them less upset. The goal in these two situations is to get your audience’s outrage commensurate with the hazard.

In crisis communication, on the other hand, hazard and outrage are already commensurate; both are high, and your goal is to help people cope.

Here’s what’s most crucial for practical risk communicators. Precaution advocacy, outrage management, and crisis communication are radically different paradigms requiring radically different risk communication strategies. We need three toolkits, not one. And we need some diagnostic skill to determine which toolkit to deploy in the situation at hand.

Dr Peter Sandman

Distinguishing outrage management from crisis communication is crucial.

If a company’s or government’s stakeholders are highly outraged but not seriously endangered, that may very well be a crisis for the company or government.

But the paradigm is outrage management, not crisis communication. The stakeholders aren’t in crisis. The company’s crisis is because the stakeholders mistakenly think they’re in crisis. The risk communication task is to ameliorate their outrage, or at least stop provoking it.”

I want to express my gratitude to Peter Sandman for sharing these valuable thoughts and allowing me to publish them here. 🙏 I hope you find them as helpful as I did.

Please let me know if you have any further thoughts or questions!

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