My principal claim to fame as a risk communication expert is my “Risk = Hazard+ Outrage” formula and the three risk communication paradigms derived from the formula.

In my terms, “hazard” is how dangerous a risk is, while “outrage” is how upsetting it is. Thus:

  • When hazard is high and outrage is low, the paradigm is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!”
  • When hazard is low and outrage is high, the paradigm is “outrage management” – reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.”
  • When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the paradigm is “crisis communication” – helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We’ll get through this together.”
  • And when hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot” where risk communication is easy (though still worthwhile) – unhurriedly chatting with interested people about moderate risks. “Here’s what we know….”

What about the lower left-hand corner of my risk communication “map,” where hazard is low and outrage is also low? In hundreds of presentations, I have dismissed this corner with a one-liner: “In a low-hazard, low-outrage situation, there’s simply no need for risk communication. What would you say to people? ‘You’re absolutely right that this risk is trivial. Congratulations on your apathy.’”

Not communicating is a fine answer when a situation is permanently low-hazard, low-outrage. But sometimes you’re in the lower left-hand corner of the map but you don’t think you’ll stay there. There’s very little hazard or outrage now, but you anticipate that one or the other (or both) will increase. It’s the calm before the storm. Isn’t that an opportunity for some kind of risk communication – pre-precaution advocacy or pre-outrage management or pre-crisis communication?


The most basic need in the lower left-hand corner of the map is surveillance.

All assessments of hazard and outrage are snapshots; they are specific to the audiences you’re assessing at the moment you’re assessing them. So you need to review your assessments periodically, asking yourself whether anything has changed or appears to be changing.

If you’re already coping with high hazard or high outrage (or both), you probably won’t miss the need to surveil for changes. But surveilling for changes is just as important in the lower left-hand corner. Are any of your stakeholders more endangered than they were last time you looked? Are any of them more upset? Are there any new stakeholders who weren’t in the picture before but now are beginning to look endangered or upset?

I don’t have much advice to offer on surveilling for hazard, other than not to forget to do it. Hazard surveillance isn’t my field. And how you do it depends entirely on the sort of hazard. Has the weather system shifted so it’s headed your way after all? Has an older population with different sorts of health problems moved into your hospital’s catchment? Is there new research suggesting that a longtime (or long-ago) emission from your factory might be a carcinogen?

Surveilling for outrage has two components. The easier of the two is surveilling for manifest outrage – actual expressions of outrage by your stakeholders. Count angry or frightened letters to the editor, letters to your management, web posts, and tweets. Count attendance at public meetings. Count “likes” of other people’s online expressions of outrage. Count petition signatures. Figure out what it makes sense to count and impose a schedule on yourself to keep counting. The goal is not to end up counting the rocks people are throwing through your office windows, having missed all the earlier signs of manifest outrage.

Latent outrage is tougher to surveil for, because your stakeholders haven’t expressed it yet. They may not even be fully conscious of it yet. Among the leading indicators you might track:

  • Google searches of your organization and its issues.
  • Manifest outrage against similar organizations with similar issues elsewhere.
  • Activists beginning to mobilize on your turf. Activists are highly skilled at surveilling for latent outrage as they decide how to allocate their limited resources. If they think you’re a worthy target, odds are they’re right – and they’ll soon be hard at work converting your stakeholders’ latent outrage into manifest outrage.
  • Survey data. Asking your stakeholders how outraged they are won’t work; that’s a lagging indicator. But asking about specific outrage components like trust, control, fairness, and responsiveness can tap into the sources of people’s outrage before they’re ready to articulate the outrage itself.

These specific surveillance recommendations aside, my most important recommendation is simply to ask yourself whether you see any signs that stakeholders are starting to get upset. In my 40+ years of consulting, it was rare for a client to ask this question and then come up with the wrong answer because of insufficiently sophisticated outrage surveillance. Clients who missed emergent outrage almost invariably weren’t looking for it.

A Canadian oil industry client, for example, let a comparatively small investment in an African oilfield embroil it in human rights controversies, culminating in charges that the company was underwriting the host government’s genocidal campaign against a minority tribe. The financial and reputational costs of this investment far exceeded its value. When I asked the CEO whether the company had misjudged its outrage due diligence, he frankly conceded that it hadn’t done any outrage due diligence.

If you stay alert for signs of emerging stakeholder outrage, I don’t think you need sophisticated outrage surveillance tools. But I can’t resist recommending one such tool. If you’re looking for a structured set of questions to ask yourself about why your stakeholders might be getting upset about your activities, my 1998 “OUTRAGE Prediction & Management” software is available as freeware on my website.

Okay, your surveillance leads you to think that your stakeholders’ hazard or outrage (or both) may be on the rise. What are the risk communication implications? What can you do now to ease your burden later?

Pre-precaution advocacy

The core task in precaution advocacy is to warn apathetic people about a significant risk. The core barrier is their apathy. Virtually everything I’ve written about precaution advocacy focuses on how to pierce people’s apathy: how to arouse outrage and thereby motivate precaution-taking.

That’s challenging enough when the hazard is ongoing, imminent, or at least on the horizon. When the hazard isn’t yet in evidence, piercing people’s apathy is arguably too challenging to be worth the effort.

This is especially the case if the precautions you want to recommend aren’t available yet or don’t make sense yet. Flu vaccination campaigners have a tough enough time convincing people to get their flu shots in October and November, as the Northern Hemisphere flu season begins to make its appearance. Nobody recommends launching a campaign in April to urge people to get their flu shots next fall.

On the other hand, many precautions (pre-cautions) have to be taken before the hazard makes its appearance. You can’t buy insurance after you’ve got a claim. You can’t decide to install a backup generator after you lose power. You can’t get your flu shot after you’ve got the flu. By the time the hazard is visible, it’s already too late for some precautions. Sometimes, in short, pre-precaution advocacy – difficult as it is – is your only option.

But if you can afford to wait, pre-precaution advocacy is a misuse of resources. Arousing the outrage of apathetic people is a bit easier if you can at least point to the hazard.

There’s one important exception: when something happens in the external world that briefly pierces the apathy for you. Suppose your company is building a new unit. Of course you plan to give your workforce new safety training geared to the new unit – but not till it’s built. Now suppose a similar unit at some other company’s facility has a newsworthy accident. Safety issues vis-à-vis the unit are suddenly, unexpectedly, and briefly on your people’s minds. If they’re not exactly outraged, they’re at least interested. It’s a teachable moment – a golden opportunity for pre-precaution advocacy.

Pre-outrage management

Because you’re using the web to track controversies that might someday embroil your organization, you see that an issue you’re vulnerable to has recently gotten hot in other communities. Or because you’re reading activist newsletters, you see that they’re planning to send campaigners to your community. (If you’re not reading activist newsletters and tracking web content about issues you’re vulnerable to, it’s time to start.)

Or maybe your organization is quietly making plans for a new facility that you know will arouse some outrage once it’s announced.

One way or another, you anticipate high outrage about something you consider low-hazard. (If you anticipate high hazard as well as high outrage, you’re in pre-crisis communication territory. I’ll get to that next.)

There are three ways to prepare for likely future outrage.

The first option is support mobilization. Reach out to potential future allies. Build closer and better relations with them. Help them with some of their issues so they’re likelier to return the favor when you need help. Do pre-precaution advocacy about other people’s future outrage – warning potential allies about the controversy you anticipate and why they should be on your side when the time comes.

The second option is public relations. Reach out to neutrals, people you expect will sit out the controversy-to-come as publics, not stakeholders. Give them a little background now on the issue as you see it, so when it gets hot later they’re likelier to see it your way. Maybe even tell them beforehand what your critics are likely to say and why you think the criticisms are misguided. (This strategy is sometimes called “inoculation.”)

The third option – and the one I consider most promising – is real pre-outrage management. Reach out to the people you think are likeliest to become outraged, and take steps now to address what you see as their likeliest future grievances. Nearly all the things I have urged clients to do to respond to stakeholder outrage can also be done to prevent stakeholder outrage. Among them:

  • Acknowledge your prior misbehaviors and say you’re sorry about them.
  • Acknowledge your current problems and explain how you propose to cope with them.
  • Seek guidance on how best to address your current problems, take some of the guidance, and give your stakeholders credit for what they successfully pushed you to do.
  • Share power with stakeholders and create mechanisms for them to hold you accountable.
  • Stake out the middle by admitting that the risks your activities pose are middling instead of claiming they’re tiny. (Critics will say they’re huge.) Give yourself a B- instead of an A. (Critics will give you an F.)
  • Look for ways to address trust, control, fairness, responsiveness, voluntariness, dread, familiarity, and all the other components of outrage.
  • Don’t just change what you say. Change what you do (or plan to do) so you provoke less outrage.

In a nutshell: Instead of waiting for the outrage to emerge and then taking action to reduce it, you can act now to reduce how much outrage you’re likely to face later.

In the previous section I said that pre-precaution advocacy is woefully inefficient; it’s dauntingly difficult to get people upset about a hazard before that hazard is even on the horizon. Pre-outrage management, on the other hand, is more efficient than outrage management. Keeping people calm is way cheaper and easier than calming them down again after they’re upset.

But convincing your organization to do pre-outrage management is a tough sell. The recommendations on my outrage management (and pre-outrage management) bullet list are counterintuitive and uncomfortable. They fly in the face of organizational egos and your organization’s own outrage at its critics.

Convincing yourself and your bosses to implement these recommendations is challenging enough when outraged stakeholders are already kicking in your door, threatening your reputation and your bottom line. It’s tougher still to convince yourself and your bosses to do these things when it’s not yet clear that they’re needed: to shoot yourself in the foot as a way of reducing the odds that stakeholder outrage will eventually shoot you in the gut. I have occasionally succeeded in getting clients to implement a pre-outrage management agenda – but not often.

Even after the fact, pre-outrage management is a tough sell. If you do a good job of preventing stakeholder outrage, the senior executive team will notice that there wasn’t a lot of outrage after all, and will wonder in hindsight why you insisted on all those humiliating outrage management strategies. They’ll tell you you were snapping your fingers to keep away the elephants. When pre-outrage management works, it looks like it wasn’t needed.

Pre-crisis communication

During a crisis – an actual emergency – people are rightly upset. They’re endangered and they know it. So you don’t need to warn them and it would be wrong to reassure them. The task during a crisis is to validate people’s outrage, help them endure and manage their outrage, and help them choose precautions wisely.

But before a crisis, they’re not yet endangered. Maybe they’re not yet upset either, until you start talking to them about the crisis. Or maybe they’re upset already. Possible future emergencies are a lot easier to get people upset about than possible future ordinary chronic risks. That’s what makes pre-crisis communication more worthwhile than pre-precaution advocacy. Instead of desperately trying to gin up some outrage about a boring hazard that isn’t even around, you’re warning people about an awful possibility that they may already be imagining and that’s all too easy to imagine.

Getting people to imagine the hazard now if they’re not doing so already is the essence of pre-crisis communication. The hazard is guaranteed to arouse plenty of outrage when it arrives. Your goal is to arouse some of that outrage in advance, and harness it to motivate preparedness, both logistical and emotional.

I wrote an entire article about pre-crisis communication for the September 2013 issue of The Synergist. I made four main points I want to summarize here:

1. Why you do pre-crisis communication.

The most obvious rationale for pre-crisis communication is so people know what to do – what to do now to get ready and what to do later if the crisis actually happens. But it’s also important to help people prepare emotionally. If they’re blissfully unaware of what might be about to happen, pre-crisis communication gives them a much-needed heads-up.

But often they’re already worried, sometimes even unconsciously worried. And so people often find pre-crisis warnings paradoxically calming. At last the other shoe has dropped. They’re not alone with their worry anymore. Knowing that the authorities are worried too helps people face their worry and actually start preparing.

2. Adjustment reactions.

One common effect of pre-crisis communication is a temporary overreaction called an adjustment reaction. People aren’t endangered, at least not yet. But the possible future risk you’re telling them about upsets them – sometimes to the point where they imagine the crisis has already arrived and start acting accordingly. Their outrage isn’t misguided, but it is premature.

Adjustment reactions are one of the ways people learn and integrate alarming new information. So even though they can sometimes lead to premature precautions, adjustment reactions are better experienced pre-crisis than mid-crisis. People who have gone through an adjustment reaction before a crisis begins are likelier to respond proportionately once the crisis arrives.

The key lesson for pre-crisis communicators: When your messaging provokes an adjustment reaction in some members of your audience, don’t overreact to their overreaction. Don’t think you shouldn’t have frightened them, and don’t try to take it all back and tell them everything will be fine. Instead, guide them through their adjustment reaction, so they’ll be ready to face the crisis calmly.

3. The fizzle scenario: magnitude versus probability.

The main downside of pre-crisis communication is what happens if the crisis you warned people about doesn’t materialize on schedule. Warnings can backfire if nothing bad happens. You can lose trust and become the target of a lot of outrage. To minimize these risks, it is helpful to “warn” people that the crisis may fizzle.

Similarly, it’s important to focus on the high magnitude of the possible crisis without sounding like you’re claiming super-high probability. The crisis really may turn out awful – which is why you’re urging precautions – but it probably won’t be that bad and it might not happen at all. This is how insurance people sell insurance year after year. It’s how you sell preparedness without too much boomerang effect if the crisis turns out minor or fizzles altogether.

Too much pre-crisis communication does this exactly backwards: understating the magnitude of the most worrisome scenario, overstating the probability of a pretty bad scenario, and ignoring altogether the fizzle scenario.

4. How to speculate.

Speculation is the very core of pre-crisis communication. You’re talking about a possible future event. It’s all about what-ifs. So go ahead and speculate – but do it responsibly. Anchor your speculation chiefly in two scenarios: the likeliest scenario and the “worst case” scenario that’s not too unlikely to be worth considering. The best case scenario (the fizzle scenario) doesn’t deserve equal time, but don’t leave it out.

Above all, make sure your speculation sounds speculative. Pre-crisis communication isn’t predicting a crisis. It’s warning about a possible crisis. False predictions undermine credibility big-time. Warnings that turn out mistaken, if they were skillfully delivered, undermine credibility just a little.

Officials are often ambivalent about pre-crisis communication. They want the public to take precautions that will provide some protection if the crisis materializes. And they want the public to support the societal precautions they’re advocating. But they don’t want anybody to get upset, especially prematurely upset. (When people do get prematurely upset, officials often misinterpret the adjustment reaction as panic.) And if the crisis fizzles, they don’t want anybody to blame them for all that unnecessary worry and preparedness effort.

These are unrealistic expectations. You can minimize the downside of pre-crisis communication, but you can’t make it disappear. The downside of not doing pre-crisis communication is far worse: a public that confronts the crisis logistically and emotionally unprepared.

In a nutshell

Here are the basics vis-à-vis the lower left-hand corner of my risk communication map:

  • Pre-precaution advocacy is too inefficient to bother with if you can afford to wait till the hazard materializes. But sometimes you can’t wait, and sometimes you shouldn’t wait because an external event has aroused much-needed interest.
  • Pre-outrage management is actually more efficient than outrage management – keeping people calm instead of trying to calm them down once they’re upset. But it’s a very tough sell internally.
  • Pre-crisis communication – getting people ready for a possible future crisis – is both doable and worth doing. But it has two mitigable but unavoidable downsides: premature precautions caused by adjustment reactions and outrage at you if the crisis fizzles.
  • None of this is possible unless you’re surveilling for hazard and outrage, so you can see what’s coming and decide how best to prepare.

Copyright © 2018 by Peter M. Sandman