This column was written as a feature article for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Though posted on this website in November 2007, it eventually appeared (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the August 2008 issue of The Synergist, pp. 52–57.

Readers of my columns in The Synergist know that I divide risk communication into three tasks, based on how endangered people are (the “hazard”) and how concerned or upset they are (the “outrage”):

  • Precaution advocacy is alerting people who are insufficiently upset about serious hazards. “Watch out!”
  • Outrage management is calming people who are excessively upset about small hazards. “Calm down.”
  • Crisis communication is guiding people who are rightly upset about serious hazards. “We’ll get through this together.”

Industrial hygienists have need for all three skill sets – but the meat and potatoes of IH risk communication is precaution advocacy: warning apathetic people.

Reality is sometimes a little more complicated than my three paradigms suggest. When employees aren’t wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, insufficient outrage about workplace hazards is only one of many hypotheses about why. Here are some others:

They might not have the right gear.

They might not know they’re supposed to wear it, or how to wear it.

They might find it too uncomfortable or too geeky to wear. (That would amount to being excessively outraged about the precaution, rather than insufficiently outraged about the hazard. The risk communication task would thus be outrage management, not precaution advocacy.)

Rather than being apathetic, they might be knuckling under to peer pressure, or to double messages from their supervisor, or to an internal macho voice telling them that wearing PPE is for sissies.

They might even be so anxious about workplace hazards that they can’t bear to think about them; since wearing the equipment reminds them of the danger, going unprotected becomes a way to stay in denial.

Or they might simply be apathetic about the hazard.

What follows is a checklist of things to do when apathy is the problem. Any one of the 20 recommendations in this article could be expanded into an article of its own. But here are the basics.

1. Keep it short.

Apathetic people have a short attention span. Out in the world, we’re talking about an eight-second TV news sound bite, a 15-second public service announcement, or a one-page flyer. On the job you have a more captive audience. But as every industrial hygienist knows, at an endless, dreary safety meeting you may have their bodies but you don’t necessarily have their minds. A 10-minute presentation is a l-o-n-g presentation on a topic that everybody agrees is boring.

Of course you also need longer messages for more interested audiences. It’s a sin to arouse people’s interest and then not have enough information available to satisfy them. But assuming you have all the info you need for those who are interested, don’t try to cram it down the throats of those who are not.

2. Make it interesting.

Seducing attention is the essence of precaution advocacy. Even your very short messages need to be seductive; extremely successful seduction might even earn you attention for a longer message.

The need to make warning messages interesting is obvious. Yet my clients often talk themselves into ignoring it. “This is pretty dull stuff,” they privately admit. “Nobody’s going to be listening.” And then they shrug and give the presentation anyway. They decide that it’s important to stay dignified, or that everything they can think of to make the presentation more interesting is hokey, or that there’s so much important detail to cover they simply haven’t got time for a limerick or a contest or even an anecdote. This is an incredibly self-defeating mistake. Boring messages are worse than no messages at all.

3. Stay on message.

When people are barely paying attention and may lose interest at any moment, you need to make every word count. Having decided what you think your best shot is, take it! Don’t get seduced into talking about some sidelight.

If the audience you thought was apathetic starts getting interested and asking questions, don’t worry that the questions focus on a sidelight. Shout hosannas (to yourself) and interrupt your message to answer people’s questions and launch a dialogue. But you’re not expecting that. You expect a monologue, and you should stay on message.

This is a good point to pause and note how different these first three precaution advocacy principles are from the principles of outrage management or crisis communication. In a low-hazard high-outrage situation, for example, there is no need to keep your message short; people come to a meeting and stay till midnight. You are not trying to make the topic interesting; people are obsessed already, and your long-term goal is to make the topic boring. As for staying on message, in outrage management listening is a lot more important than talking – and when you finally get to talk, acknowledging your stakeholders’ main points is a lot more important than asserting your own.
A good risk communicator has three toolkits, not one. This article focuses on the toolkit for precaution advocacy only. This is what you do when the hazard is serious and the audience is apathetic.

4. Test your messages.

You’re interested in your topic and your audience isn’t – so almost by definition your judgment about what’s interesting to the audience is going to be unreliable. You know a lot about your topic and your audience doesn’t – so your judgment about what the audience already knows (including what it “knows” that isn’t so) will be similarly off-target. Basically, subject matter experts should always assume that they’re a rotten judge of what messages will work on normal audiences. Don’t guess. Find out.

There may be times when risk communicators need to shoot from the hip. In a crisis, for example, you can’t stop everything while you do an audience survey (although you can do more audience assessment than you think you can, even in an acute crisis). But in precaution advocacy you’re presumably free to set your own schedule, so there’s no excuse for running with untested messages.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got enough time, budget, and expertise to conduct perfect scientific research, with all the right methodological bells and whistles. More often than not you’ll need to cut some corners. A focus group with a “sample of convenience” (e.g., your mother, your kids, your neighbor, your bus driver, and three people you met in the elevator) isn’t as reliable as a random sample survey, but it’s a lot more reliable than your intuition.

5. Plan for a slog.

Precaution advocacy is a slog – a marathon, not a sprint. It often takes a generation for a society or an organization to absorb a new risk or accept a new precaution. Think about global warming and HIV, seat belts and smoke alarms. And think about all the workplace risks that we tolerated for decades before we implemented appropriate remedies – from emissions of suspected carcinogens to loud noises to falling objects. (Yes, even hardhats took a generation to gain acceptance.)

There’s a chance your precaution advocacy efforts may fail altogether. People have lots of things to worry about already, and lots of advocates trying to add to their worry agendas. You may not make the cut. But assuming you succeed, you’re very unlikely to succeed quickly.

Events in the real world, of course, sometimes catch up with your warnings and change the risk communication paradigm overnight. A year before the September 11, 2001 attacks, I participated in a workshop on how to persuade Americans to take the risk of terrorism more seriously. The day after the attacks, the task switched from precaution advocacy to crisis communication; at least for awhile, Al Qaeda had persuaded Americans to take terrorism seriously. Pre-pandemic precaution advocacy will similarly morph instantly into pandemic crisis communication if a severe pandemic materializes.

6. Appeal to needs.

Persuasion theory in one sentence: Identify a need people already feel, remind them of that need as forcefully as you can, and then tell them you have a way to help them satisfy the need. That’s how advertisers sell consumer products: If you use our brand you spouse will keep loving you, or you’ll succeed in your career, or whatever. That’s also how political candidates sell themselves. And it’s how social marketing professionals sell new precautions. Creating needs is much tougher. So look for existing needs you can connect to the precaution you’re advocating.

Start with the obvious one: the need to feel safe. But bear in mind that people have another way to feel safe besides taking precautions. They can simply decide that the risk isn’t worth worrying about in the first place. So supplement your appeals to safety with appeals to less obviously relevant needs.

Hardhats, for example, don’t just protect the wearer’s skull from trauma. They also identify the wearer as a courageous individual who is comfortable in a dangerous workplace – the sort of workplace where you need to wear a hardhat. And with the addition of decals of various sorts, hardhats can become simultaneously a symbol of group membership and a symbol of individuality. When hardhats were first introduced in industrial settings, many employees who resisted appeals to safety were much more responsive to appeals that addressed the need to look and feel courageous, the need to identify oneself with the group, and the need to express one’s individuality.

Decades ago I was involved in a community campaign to persuade people to use the local recycling center. (This was back in the days before government recycling.) The need to be (and feel) environmentally responsible was real, but often weak. We supplemented it with less relevant but potentially stronger needs. We taught schoolchildren to grouse when their parents threw away recyclable materials. We made sure the recycling center volunteers who helped people empty their cars were young, friendly, and attractive. We tried to make the center a place to relax for a few minutes and meet your neighbors. These need appeals helped get people to start recycling. Then – after initiating the new behavior – they often got interested in the environmental benefits of what they were doing.

7. Appeal to emotions – especially fear.

Emotions fuel action. For precaution advocacy the most appropriate emotion is obviously fear – fear that is proportionate to the size of the risk. Trying to motivate precaution-taking without frightening people is like trying to write a novel without using the letter e. It’s not impossible, but it’s a helluva handicap.

For a variety of reasons, fear appeals have gone out of favor. Industrial hygienists sometimes worry that employees will get too frightened – that they’ll panic or freeze up and be unable to function on the job. Or they worry that employees will get desensitized, requiring ever more terrifying messages just to sustain a useful level of fearfulness. Or they worry that employees will find the fear appeals more titillating than aversive; instead of feeling deterred from daredevil behavior, employees might feel encouraged to give it a try.

All these objections have a germ of truth. But the research evidence is unequivocal. The optimal level of fear is the level that provokes appropriate precaution-taking. And most employees most of the time are below that level, not above it.

8. See fear arousal as a competition.

If you suffer from “fear of fear” – that is, if you’re reluctant to alarm your audience – it may help to remember that you’re not going to make people more fearful in general. Fearfulness is a stable personality trait. Most people are pretty much as fearful this month as they were last month. It’s true that catastrophic events like 9/11 really can make us more fearful in general for a while. But an employee safety meeting or even a really scary safety movie is profoundly unlikely to have that effect.

And even for 9/11 the effect was short-lived. The majority quickly settled into the so-called New Normal, somewhat more afraid of terrorism than previously but no more afraid of anything else. In fact, as they reallocated their “fearfulness budgets,” many people actually ended up less afraid of various other risks. Telephone calls to pollution hotlines plummeted in the months after 9/11.

So when you try to frighten people about a particular risk, think of yourself as competing for your slice of the fearfulness pie. Greenpeace wants your company’s employees to be afraid of genetically modified foods. Moral Majority wants them to be afraid of gay marriage. Their doctors want them to be afraid of eating too much and exercising too little. And you want them to be afraid of workplace hazards. Overall, they’re going to be as fearful as they’re going to be. The only question is whether workplace hazards will get their rightful share of the fearfulness.

9. Don’t neglect emotions other than fear.

Although fear – along with its wimpy cousin “concern” – is the 800-pound gorilla in precaution advocacy, other emotions can also play a role.

For example, people are often more inclined to take precautions on behalf of loved ones than on their own behalf. (People are also more willing to take risks on behalf of loved ones than on their own behalf. Whether love motivates risk-taking or precaution-taking depends on many factors, including which one communicators hook it to.) Wellness programs and safety programs both benefit from asking employees what life might be like for their families if they were killed, injured, sick, or disabled. Something like love is also behind the success of IH programs that focus on building a good group safety record or urge employees to speak up when they see a buddy acting unsafely.

Greed is another useful emotion in precaution advocacy. Rewarding employees for safe behavior is a proven way to get more safe behavior out of them. Some pretty complicated psychological processes determine when rewards help build an organization’s safety culture (“I’m doing it so I must believe in it”) and when they undermine the safety culture (“I’m just doing it for the money”). But at least as long as the rewards keep coming, greed is an effective motivator.

10. Give people things to do.

The relationship between fear and action is fundamental in precaution advocacy. Fear motivates action, of course. Why bother to take precautions if you’re not afraid of the risk?

But consider what’s going on in the other direction. For one thing, the possibility of action justifies the fear. Why let yourself be afraid if there’s nothing to be done? And at the same time, the possibility of action also helps manage the fear. We can bear our fear better if we know there are things we can do, and better still once we get busy doing them. The more things you give people to do, the more you can afford to frighten them. If you have nothing for them to do, trying to frighten them is unkind and ineffective.

Precaution advocacy, in short, should be about precautions, not just risks. Even symbolic precautions are better than none at all. But usually you have specific, concrete precautions in mind. Don’t get so caught up in talking about the risk that you neglect to talk enough about the precautions. Sometimes, in fact, it’s easier to motivate precaution-taking first, then teach people about the risk they’ve already started protecting themselves against.

11. Give people choices of things to do.

Offering people a menu of things to do allows them to choose, which leads to a deeper commitment to the precautions they take. So try to surround your list of recommended precautions with two other lists: less difficult ones (“if you think we’re over-reacting”) and more protective ones (“if you think we’re not doing enough”).

Industrial hygienists sometimes resist this advice on the grounds that precautions are either wise or unwise; wise ones, they tell me, should be required, while unwise ones should be forbidden. I don’t agree. People are a lot likelier to actually take the precautions, and keep taking them, if they picked them. At the very least you can offer several different models of safety glasses (for example), so employees can decide for themselves which pair they consider most comfortable or most stylish or most effective.

People’s commitment to precautions tends to be deeper still when they have come up with their own. This has some disadvantages: They might not think of any, or the ones they think of might not be acceptable to the company. That’s why it’s best to offer a range of choices, so that for the most part people are choosing, not merely complying but not inventing from scratch either. Still, you should always be open to good ideas arising from the ranks. And when you do adopt an employee’s suggestion, be sure to say so. See it as an opportunity to increase the group’s buy-in and feeling of control, not as an insult to your leadership.

12. Sequence recommended precautions.

The “foot in the door” principle of social marketing teaches us that if you ask for too much too soon you’re likely to get nothing at all. Ask first for something easy. Once people have made a behavioral commitment, pivot on that first step and ask them to do more.

Here’s where it gets complicated. If you give the impression that the first precaution you ask people to take is enough, taking it won’t motivate much desire to do more – and when you come back later asking for more, people may very well feel misled and misused. Instead of a foot in the door, you could end up with an I’ve-done-enough-already response: “I gave at the office.” On the other hand, if you give the impression that the first precaution is useless, it’ll never happen.

Ideally, here’s what you want people to know about that first precaution:

  • that it’s easy;
  • that it is nonetheless useful, genuinely worth doing for its own sake;
  • that there’s plenty more they can do once they get started; and
  • that it will be up to them whether to stop after the first precaution or move on to more demanding ones. (Of course if it’s not going to be up to them, you need to say so from the outset: “This is the first step in a series of precautions management has decided we must take.”)

13. Think in stages.

People adopt precautions in stages:

  1. First they’re unaware of the risk.
  2. Then they’re aware but unengaged.
  3. Then they become engaged; they haven’t decided yet what precautions if any to take, but they’re ready to think about it.
  4. Then they decide what to do – but they haven’t actually done anything yet.
  5. Then they act on their decision.
  6. Finally they decide to keep acting, or even to do more.

Except for trivial precautions that are easier to just do than to pause and think about, we don’t usually skip any stages. So trying to convince somebody to take a precaution who hasn’t yet thought about the risk is premature, and usually a waste of time.

Each transition has its own communication strategies.

  • Getting people from unaware to aware is mostly an agenda-setting task, for which media information is well-suited.
  • Getting people who are aware to become engaged is mostly about telling them how serious the risk is.
  • Getting those who are engaged to decide to do something is more about telling them how relevant the risk is to them personally and what precautions make sense for them.
  • Getting people who have decided to act to take action is partly about reminding them (again and again, sometimes) and partly about the foot in the door – convincing them that the recommended first precaution is both easy and effective.
  • Getting people who have acted to keep on acting depends mostly on positive reinforcement.

People who have fallen off the track, who have decided not to act, require an entirely different set of messages.

14. Focus resources on teachable moments.

Although the audience for precaution advocacy is typically apathetic, there are moments of interest, sometimes even pretty intense interest. These are the teachable moments, when people are temporarily paying attention. A teachable moment may occur when your issue is in the news, for example, or when it’s featured in the plot of a popular television show. A major accident at another facility or a near-miss at your own is also a teachable moment. Anticipate these teachable moments (or provoke them), and make the most of them.

Between teachable moments, do what you can to keep the issue alive, and work with the minority that is already interested (perhaps as a result of the previous teachable moment). But don’t invest too much effort striking while the iron is cold. Your time is probably better spent preparing for the next teachable moment.

Too often we get this exactly backwards. We’re out there struggling to arouse concern in an apathetic audience. And then when something happens and the audience is concerned at last, we succumb to our fear-of-fear and our panic that people may panic and start putting out reassuring messages. When a teachable moment comes along, capitalize on it!

15. Be alert for a short-term over-reaction.

When people first learn about a serious and scary risk, they may go through a phase during which they over-react. The psychological pendulum swings too far, from apathy to over-alarm. People imagine that the risk is already happening; they become hyper-vigilant, spending far too much time checking for signs of danger; they take precautions that are excessive or at least premature. This is called an “adjustment reaction.”

Adjustment reactions are vicarious rehearsals. They are useful because they help people get ready, emotionally and logistically, for what may be coming. And they normally last only a short time, before we settle into the New Normal – more concerned about the particular risk than we used to be (and better prepared to cope with it), but no longer excessively preoccupied with it.

People are likeliest to have an adjustment reaction when they learn about a possible crisis, such as a plant explosion worst-case scenario – especially if there’s reason to think it might be imminent. Adjustment reactions are less common, though still possible, with regard to chronic risks like emissions. If your audience seems to be going through an adjustment reaction in response to your precaution advocacy, don’t think they’re panicking, and don’t bemoan the fact that they’re temporarily over-reacting. Be glad they’re reacting at all. Instead of regretting (or worse, ridiculing) their adjustment reaction, guide them through it. An adjustment reaction offers you the ideal teachable moment. Use it to inculcate safe work practices.

16. Be alert for signs of denial.

Sometimes people become so upset about a risk that they trip a psychological circuit-breaker and go into denial. (That’s partly why panic is rare; people at risk of panicking normally go into denial instead.) Both apathetic people and people in denial decline to take precautions. But instead of being a genuine absence of concern, denial results from unbearably high concern.

The key difference is how people respond to precaution advocacy. When you say alarming things to apathetic people, they get more alarmed – which is good, because it makes them take more precautions. But when you say alarming things to people in denial, you push them more deeply into denial – which is bad, because it makes them take even fewer precautions.

It is vanishingly rare for precaution advocacy to overshoot, propelling people from apathy right into denial, bypassing concern and fear. What’s not so rare is to misdiagnose denial as apathy – and therefore to prescribe the wrong “medicine”: alarming communications. An employee who claims not to be at all worried about that funny smell, for example, may actually be so frightened that he or she has “switched off” and gone into denial. The most important antidote to denial is validating people’s fears; by contrast, saying “don’t be afraid” to people who are afraid virtually orders them to go into denial. Other bulwarks against denial include offering people things to do, offering them choices of things to do, building their sense of efficacy instead of futility, and appealing to powerful emotions like love and anger.

It’s important to look for signs of denial. Women who don’t check their breasts for lumps, for example, are likelier to be in denial than apathetic. And if so, scaring them about breast cancer will be worse than useless; the core task is to validate their fear and offer them hope that breast cancer can be cured if it’s caught early. Still, people who fail to take precautions are usually apathetic. Denial is a zebra. The horse is apathy.

17. Identify and address persuasion facilitators.

Even apathetic people aren’t blank slates for you to write on. They have pre-existing attitudes and values, emotions, and needs that are relevant to your topic – or that can be made relevant. They may even have some information. A big piece of precaution advocacy is figuring out what already predisposes people to do what you’re urging, so you can remind them of it, reinforce it, and link to it.

Sometimes what predisposes your audience to do what you’re urging doesn’t have much to do with why you’re urging it in the first place. I gave the example earlier (#6) of wearing a hardhat because it symbolizes courage, group membership, or individuality – rather than because it protects against traumatic injury. Many other factors might also predispose employees to wear their PPE: wanting not to be embarrassed; wanting not to be punished; wanting not to get the rest of the team into trouble; etc. Don’t get over-committed to your reasons for advocating the precaution; focus on their reasons for taking it.

18. Identify persuasion barriers – and consider addressing them.

Some of what’s already in the minds of your audience members may predispose them against you rather than for you. For apathetic audiences, reinforcing what’s on your side usually matters more than rebutting what’s working against you. The main thing working against you is the apathy itself.

But it’s always worthwhile to figure out what else is working against you – what pre-existing attitudes and values, emotions, needs, facts, and mistaken “facts” your audience members conjure up when they’re telling themselves why they don’t need to do anything about that particular risk. Then you can decide how much effort to devote to rebuttal. Sometimes it’s wise to remind people of why they have decided they’re not interested, and then explicitly, respectfully, and empathically suggest why they ought to reconsider. I call this playing the “Donkey” game. Other times it’s best to stay focused on the persuasion facilitators and leave the barriers unaddressed. You can’t decide until you know what the barriers are.

19. Express empathy for apathy.

Some of what predisposes your audience against you is simply a disinclination to take on yet another worry and yet another task. Precaution advocacy always means trying to add to people’s burden. Yes, it’s for their own good – but most people feel burdened enough already. The least you can do is show them you know that what you’re asking is burdensome, and you wish you didn’t have to ask.

And think seriously about whether there’s anything you can in good conscience urge people to stop worrying about, any precautions you can urge them to stop taking, to make room for the new burden. Maybe there is new technology at your workplace that renders some longstanding precaution superfluous. Nothing makes a new precaution quite so credible as when it’s offered as a replacement for an old one, rather than as an add-on.

20. Consider an alternative: pre-crisis communication.

Perhaps some in your audience really are burdened enough already; perhaps your issue actually deserves their attention less than what’s already on their plate. Industrial hygienists typically have a long list of precautions they wish employees would take onboard. Just as you have to prioritize what you ask management to do (or let you do), you should also prioritize what you ask of the workforce. Some precautions shouldn’t make the cut.

For precautions that don’t make the cut, the alternative to precaution advocacy may be pre-crisis communication. As the label suggests, this applies only to potential crisis situations, not to chronic risks. It would mean restricting your current messaging to the minimum people need to know now – for example, where to look for more information when the time comes – and saving the rest for pre-planned just-in-time communication if and when the need is urgent.

This is often a very tough call. What should you do about a possible flu pandemic, for example? Should you push your workforce to take precautions now, “using up” some of their precaution-taking capacity that might otherwise be applied to other risks? Or should you hold most of your pandemic messaging until the pandemic looks imminent, leaving your workforce less prepared than it could have been? If you decide to dial up your pandemic precaution advocacy, what will you dial down to make room?

Copyright © 2007 by Peter M. Sandman