This is the 27th in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (with minor copyediting changes) in the September 2013 issue of The Synergist, pp. 34–37.

From a risk communication perspective, the most important characteristic of a crisis – an actual emergency – is that people are rightly upset. You don’t need to warn them; they know they’re endangered. And it would be wrong to reassure them; they need their high level of attention and concern to motivate them to take protective actions. In crisis communication, your job is twofold: to validate their distress and to guide their choice of protective actions.

But before a crisis, people are not yet endangered. And maybe they’re not yet upset either … until you start talking to them about the crisis.

Why do that? Why communicate in advance about possible emergencies that may never happen? I see at least four reasons:

  1. If the emergency actually happens, you need people to know what to do: whether and how to evacuate, where to tune their radios, etc. You have practical things to tell them in advance.
  2. If the emergency actually happens, people will control their emotions better if they had some forewarning. They need to be emotionally ready as much as they need to be practically ready.
  3. You need their support now – support for emergency preparedness expenditures, for example. And you need their input, both because their ideas will improve your emergency planning and because giving you their ideas will increase their buy-in, making it likelier that they’ll follow the plan when the time comes.
  4. They have a right to know. Except for a few details that may need to be withheld for security reasons, your neighbors and your workforce are entitled to be told what emergencies you anticipate and how prepared you are. If it’s serious and likely enough to plan for, it’s serious and likely enough to talk about.

Relief: The Other Shoe Dropping

The most debatable part of this rationale is the second point – emotional preparedness. Some communicators worry that telling people about possible future emergencies could cause excess anxiety. Wouldn’t it be better to leave them blissfully unaware?

One part of the answer: In many cases, people aren’t blissfully unaware of the emergencies your organization is planning for. They may already be worried – which explains why pre-crisis communication is often more calming than terrifying.

A wonderful example is the experience of companies under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Risk Management Plan” (RMP) regulation. Under RMP, industrial facilities whose air emissions pose a significant risk to the community are required to model their worst case, then present it in detail to their neighbors at a meeting. In other words, companies are legally obligated to talk about what might go wrong, how many might die, what steps they are taking to prevent it, what “precursor” events – smaller accidents – have already happened, etc.

Companies were initially convinced that RMP would force them to terrify their neighbors. Many struggled to find ways to meet the regulation’s requirements without being candid … for example, to focus on “alternative” scenarios that were likelier and less serious instead of the worst case. But most eventually figured out that these efforts backfired, and that candor worked better than they’d expected.

In fact, the most common reaction when companies explained worst cases to their neighbors was a sense of relief. At last the other shoe had dropped. People explained to plant management that they had realized long ago that the plant was dangerous. It was a relief to have it on the table, where it could be discussed. And it was a relief to know management was taking the risk seriously.

Apathy and Denial

When people are already worried about a risk, the most common reaction to pre-crisis communication is relief.

But lots of people aren’t already worried. They may genuinely be “blissfully ignorant.” Or they may be somewhat aware of the issue, but busy with more imminent issues in their lives. They have ongoing “crises” of their own, and your possible future crisis didn’t make it onto their worry agenda. With regard to your particular issue, they’re apathetic.

Apathetic people pose a huge challenge for pre-crisis communication. They daydream through the safety briefing; they don’t read the pamphlet. Getting their attention requires a difficult combination of brevity (because their attention span is short) and creativity (because they’ll quickly tune out anything that’s not interesting). Moving them beyond attention to actual concern and precautionary action is tougher still.

I’m not going to say more here about the problem of reaching apathetic people. It’s too big and too familiar. But I don’t want to pretend it’s not there. (For an overview, see my article “’Watch Out!’ – How to Warn Apathetic People,” from the August 2008 issue of The Synergist.)

Other people are in denial. They may look apathetic and sound apathetic – but they have a different problem: The risk is too scary for them to think about, so they deep-six it … and claim apathy. Distinguishing apathy from denial is important, because what works best to arouse concern in apathetic people – scaring them, basically – will only push people in denial more deeply into denial.

The recipe for preventing and mitigating denial, in a nutshell:

  • Validate people’s fear. “Don’t be alarmed” forces alarmed people into denial; “this is really scary for everybody” validates the fear, making it more bearable.
  • Give people things to do to prepare. As psychiatrists and soldiers know, “action binds anxiety.” Being busy makes you better able to bear your fear.
  • Give people choices of things to do. A menu of possible precautions confers more sense of control than a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
  • Mobilize love. People can bear their fear better if they’re bearing it for the sake of those they love (family, community, country).
  • Express determination, not false optimism. When in doubt, read some of Winston Churchill’s World War Two speeches.

Getting through the Adjustment Reaction

One common side-effect of pre-crisis communication is a temporary overreaction. People aren’t endangered, at least not yet. But the possible future risk you’re telling them about is unfamiliar; it’s highly dreaded; it’s memorable, vivid to the imagination; it’s pretty much out of their control; they don’t trust the people who control it; etc. It’s got a lot of what I call the “outrage factors.” So they start to get upset.

When people are upset about a hazard that’s actually low and pretty much guaranteed to remain low, the risk communication job is to calm them down, to convince them (empathically and respectfully) that they’re mistaken to be upset.

But the premise of pre-crisis communication is that the actual hazard is low so far, but could easily get serious sooner or later. So your audience isn’t wrong to be upset, just premature. This is called an “adjustment reaction.” Adjustment reactions are common – maybe even inevitable – when people first learn about an upsetting risk that could turn out serious.

People going through an adjustment reaction put aside their everyday concerns to some extent, making room for the new issue on their worry agendas. They become hyper-vigilant, scouring the environment for evidence that the crisis has arrived – and sometimes imagining that they have found such evidence. They rehearse in their minds what they’ll do when the crisis comes – and sometimes they start doing it even though the crisis hasn’t come yet.

Then they calm down.

Adjustment reactions are temporary and useful. People who have gone through an adjustment reaction before a crisis begins are likelier to respond proportionately once the crisis arrives. They are also likelier to notice if the crisis never arrives, or if it recedes.

Adjustment reactions, in short, are better experienced pre-crisis than mid-crisis. They are vicarious rehearsals for the real thing – one of the ways people learn and integrate alarming new information.

So when your pre-crisis communication 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 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.

Four Responses to Pre-Crisis Communication

Those are the four principal responses to pre-crisis communication:

  • People who were worried already are usually relieved that it’s on the table.
  • People who have too many other things to worry about are usually apathetic and hard to reach.
  • People who were already too worried to bear it are usually in denial and hard to reach in a completely different way.
  • People who are hearing the scary news for the first time usually go through an adjustment reaction, a temporary and useful overreaction.

Notice what’s not on the list: panic. As disaster researchers have known since the 1950s, real panic is rare even when a full-blown crisis materializes suddenly. As a response to pre-crisis communication, panic is virtually unknown.

So pre-crisis communication is all upside and no downside. There are people who are easy to reach and people who are hard to reach … but there isn’t anybody who’s harmful to reach.

But What if the Crisis Doesn’t Happen?

That’s fine as long as the crisis you’re preparing people for happens soon. But suppose it’s delayed, or doesn’t happen at all. Aren’t people going to be angry at you for scaring them unnecessarily? Won’t they accuse you of hyping the risk? Won’t you lose credibility? Won’t they be likelier to ignore your recommendations the next time?

The short answer to these questions is yes. Pre-crisis communication is all about warnings, and warnings can backfire if nothing bad happens.

To minimize the risk of a backfire, pay serious attention to both the fizzle scenario and the catastrophe scenario.

The seriousness of a risk is a function of two variables: its probability (how likely is it?) and its consequence (how bad might it get?). Most potential future crises are high-consequence low-probability risks.

But pre-crisis communicators often try to reassure people by emphasizing the low probability of the crisis and understating its high consequence. This unwise strategy often boomerangs when people feel over-reassured, leaving them frightened and mistrustful. Or it “works” and leaves them overconfident. Either way, it doesn’t help them prepare emotionally or logistically for the crisis.

Or pre-crisis communicators try to arouse people by pretending that the crisis is likelier than it is, giving the impression that they’re sure Saddam has weapons of mass destruction or that the pandemic is bound to start in the next few weeks. This unwise strategy often boomerangs when people feel misled. It leaves them neither emotionally nor logistically prepared if the crisis eventually materializes – and if it doesn’t your future warnings about other risks are seriously undermined.

Skilled pre-crisis communicators emphasize the high potential consequence of the crisis, while fully acknowledging its low probability. “Maybe nothing will happen. In fact, probably nothing will happen. But look at what might happen! Don’t you want some protection in case it does?” That’s how insurance people sell insurance year after year – not by implying that your car is sure to crash or your house is sure to catch fire, but by painting vivid pictures of the possible consequences if it did. That’s how you sell preparedness without too much boomerang effect if the crisis fizzles.

Responsible Speculation

Effective pre-crisis communication requires you to speculate responsibly.

Yes, speculate. You will see advice never to speculate. But speculation is the very core of risk communication, and especially of pre-crisis communication: You’re talking about a possible future event. It’s all about what-ifs. So go ahead and speculate.

Responsible speculation is anchored in two scenarios: the likeliest outcome and the worst outcome that isn’t vanishingly unlikely. Those are the two questions we ask our doctor or our plumber: What’s likeliest and what are you most worried about? They’re the two questions the Board of Directors asks the CEO, and the two questions the CEO asks the safety professional. And they’re the two questions you should focus on in your speculations about possible future emergencies.

The best outcome, of course, is the fizzle scenario: Nothing bad happens after all. It isn’t an anchor for pre-crisis communication. It doesn’t deserve equal time. But it does deserve some time. You need to “warn” people that your warnings might turn out unnecessary – and in fact that you hope they will.

Above all, make sure your speculative communication sounds speculative. If there are things you’re confident of, say so. If there are things you think are likely but far from certain, say that. If there are things you think are unlikely but so horrific they deserve preparedness anyhow, say that. Convey as accurately as you can how confident or uncertain you are about each important aspect of the potential crisis.

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.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter M. Sandman