Your organization faces a controversy – any kind of controversy. Neighbors are worried that you might do X; employees are angry that you did Y; activists are fighting to keep you from doing Z. Maybe it’s about health, safety, or the environment; or jobs and the economy; or discrimination and social justice. Maybe all of the above.

Manage the controversy or ignore it?

You don’t necessarily have to manage the controversy. It might be small enough or short-lived enough to ignore. If it isn’t doing you all that much damage, you might choose to just go about your business and let it simmer (or rage). You might be able to rely on authority – your own, your management’s, or the government’s – to get your way despite other people’s opposition.

So one controversy-related question an organization always faces is how much effort, if any, to devote to managing the controversy. It’s mostly an empirical question: Is managing the controversy worth the investment, or is it wiser simply to bulldoze your way through?

In recent decades more and more organizations have decided it was worthwhile to manage their controversies, both because the cost of bulldozing their way through has gone up and because organizations have become more sensitive to that cost.

Inside an organization, employee concerns are likelier to get aired and addressed these days. Of course morale has always been important, but dictatorial management has never been more out-of-style than it is today. Very few management theories suggest ignoring internal controversies.

Externally, it’s all about what many of my mining and petrochemical clients call “Social License to Operate” (SLTO). The SLTO concept reflects their growing awareness that public opposition constitutes a significant threat to their ability to do business. A new facility, for example, needs to earn not just a license from the government (permits and such) but also a “license” from the larger society and the local community. The social license may be as formal as a government license, such as a referendum or a negotiated agreement with critics. Or it may just be the absence of much controversy.

Controversies are often local, but their reputational impact can be global. How your company handled opponents at a facility in Sri Lanka is likely to get raised by opponents at a facility in Honduras. The two facility managers may know next to nothing about each other’s situations. But thanks to social media, activists have globalized whether your organization has or not.

My mining and petrochemical clients don’t always act as if they believed in SLTO. It’s something community relations people talk about incessantly. Operations people may talk about it a lot less, or talk about it contemptuously, occasionally pronouncing the acronym “slutto” – which to my ear suggests how they really feel about the claim that they need permission from the society, not just the government, to mine their own land or run their own refinery.

Still, many companies (at least the ones that hire me) do think that SLTO is an issue. However resentfully, they have concluded that controversies are bad for business and need to be managed.

Focus on supporters, neutrals, or opponents?

Having decided to devote significant effort to managing a controversy, organizations face a second question: how to divide the effort among three alternative strategies.

You can focus on your supporters: mobilize them; empower them; arouse and sustain them. Turn weak supporters into strong supporters, thus making them more likely to speak up on your behalf in conversations with neighbors or coworkers, more likely to show up at a key hearing when you ask them to, more likely to contribute time or money, etc. And keep strong supporters strong – keep them motivated; keep them agitated; give them direction and new ammunition; make sure they feel needed and appreciated.

Let’s call that first strategy support mobilization.

Or you can focus on neutrals, reaching out to them with your side’s arguments and narrative. Since people who stay neutral in the midst of controversy are usually uninformed and uninterested (they’re uninformed because they’re uninterested), the job here is mostly to get them interested … and then to satisfy their interest with a one-sided précis of the controversy.

A less common way to reach out to neutrals is to try to rebut opposition arguments they might have heard or “inoculate” them against opposition arguments they’re likely to hear.

We don’t need to invent a label for this second strategy. It has one already: public relations. The essence of PR is appealing (often via the media) to people who are relatively uninterested, uninformed, and uninvolved, trying to convert neutrals into weak supporters. (It’s extremely difficult to convert neutrals into strong supporters all at once.)

Finally, you can focus on your opponents, aiming to ameliorate their opposition, to turn strong opponents into weaker, less passionate opponents or weak opponents into neutrals. (It’s also extremely difficult to convert strong opponents into neutrals or any kind of opponents into supporters all at once.)

This goal may lead you to stake out the middle rather than championing the most extreme version of your side’s position; to validate the strongest opposition arguments and abandon your side’s weakest arguments; to acknowledge and apologize for your prior misbehaviors and errors; to acknowledge your current problems and let opponents watch you struggle to solve them; to give credit to critics for changes they have forced you to make; to share control and find ways to make your actions and decisions more accountable; etc.

I have devoted much of my career to this third strategy. I call it outrage management.

The three strategies are in conflict

Why can’t you just pursue all three strategies at the same time?

To some extent you can. You can certainly search for the optimal compromise. And you should. But you can’t do all three to the max, for several reasons.

For one thing, you have finite and often inadequate SLTO resources to allocate. The three strategies compete for time, budget, and other resources.

Even more problematically, the three strategies are likely to compete politically within an organization. This is largely because they are in different hands. One client I worked with recently was pretty typical in this way:

  • The lobbyists and other government relations people wanted everybody to focus on support mobilization, in order to demonstrate to politicians and bureaucrats that the proposed project had widespread and passionate support.
  • The communications people were much more interested in PR. They wanted to generate lots of pro-project media clips that would sell the project to marginally interested neutrals. (This would also please top corporate management, which tended to monitor media coverage as a stand-in for the controversy itself.)
  • And the people responsible for on-the-ground local community relations were struggling to calm the controversy, to ameliorate opposition via outrage management.

What happens when goals and strategies for managing a controversy diverge within an organization? Sometimes the different departments work separately at cross-purposes, each in its own silo. Sometimes they fight – arguing explicitly about which strategy to pursue or more subtly working to undermine each other’s efforts. And sometimes senior management adjudicates their differences, forcing everyone to row in the same direction.

Outrage management is least likely to win these internal battles, because it is the most counterintuitive of the three strategies. When organizations face controversy, mobilizing supporters and winning over neutrals make intuitive sense. Being conciliatory with opponents, on the other hand, is challenging to most organizational cultures. For all sorts of reasons – ego and outrage paramount among them – organizations under attack want to fight back instead.

Finding compromises

Even without internal battles, allocating resources among the three strategies is hard.

The optimal allocation depends on the situation. In an election campaign, for example, the key strategy is usually public relations. People who don’t know much or care much comprise the majority of voters, and you want them to vote for you. Support mobilization is also important, because you need money and labor, and only your most passionate supporters are likely to contribute or volunteer. Outrage management matters least. Opponents who hate you less than before are still going to vote against you.

In a regulatory controversy, the priorities may be very different. Often the smaller and less passionate the public controversy is, the likelier you are to get your permit. So reducing the number of passionate opponents will help more than increasing the number of passionate supporters. You want fewer people at the hearing, less polarization. Focusing on supporters will make the controversy hotter. Focusing on neutrals will make it bigger. Focusing on opponents will make it cooler and smaller, and is thus the top priority for this sort of controversy.

Outrage management is also likeliest to matter most in small controversies inside an organization. Suppose a handful of employees are upset about some new safety procedure you’ve just instituted. Another handful think the first bunch are being stupid, and most of the workforce doesn’t even know the issue has arisen. It’s pretty obvious that you should spend most of your effort trying to calm the few employees who are upset, not rallying your supporters against them or trying to attract new allies among the oblivious majority.

Another reason it’s hard to allocate resources among the three strategies: Some of what you do in pursuit of one strategy may undermine another strategy.

This is especially true of support mobilization versus outrage management. What you do to mobilize supporters tends to mobilize opponents too – e.g. emotional arguments and nasty attacks. And what you do to ameliorate opposition tends to irritate supporters – e.g. apologizing for prior misbehaviors and acknowledging the project’s downsides.

You can diminish the incompatibility by explaining outrage management to your supporters, so they understand why you’re conceding points they wish you wouldn’t concede. But you can’t make the problem go away. Standing tall for your side is in many ways antithetical to reaching out to the other side.

Public relations can run counter to outrage management or to support mobilization, depending on what sort of public relations you choose. If your outreach to neutrals is one-sided, it will please supporters and infuriate opponents. If it’s more balanced, it will infuriate supporters and conciliate opponents.

Other times and in other ways, the three strategies are compatible. In the recent consultation I mentioned earlier, local supporters were upset that the controversy was dividing the community. “Every time we speak out in favor of the project,” one supporter told me, “we feel like the target on our backs gets bigger.” When asked how the company could manage the controversy better, some supporters said it should try to reduce community polarization, thereby reducing the emotional and political cost of supporting the project.

It was heartening to hear supporters asking for more outrage management. But it was also unusual. More typically, supporters want you to stand tall for your side. Doing so does indeed increase the fervor of their support. But it also increases the opposition’s fervor. Whether that’s a net gain or a net loss depends on your strategy for achieving your business goals – whether you’re aiming to “win” an ever-bigger controversy or to make the controversy smaller.

The fact that the three strategies are in some ways incompatible with each other doesn’t mean that you should pick one and forgo the other two. But it does mean that you have to prioritize among the three for the situation at hand. Once you have determined their relative priority, you can start your search for ways to integrate them when you can, and prepare to compromise (or even choose) among them when you must.

Copyright © 2016 by Peter M. Sandman