Peter Sandman’s work defies easy definition. Once a leading environmental activist academic, he is now America’s pre-eminent risk communications specialist. Instead of teaching college students and public interest groups how to deliver environmental messages, now he consults for big corporations – the very ones that his students hoped to take down, or at least humble a little.
Half of Sandman’s consulting work is with oil, chemical, waste, biotech, nuclear, and electric power industries. He also advises government agencies and industry regulators. The names of his clients read like a laundry list of environmental offenders. Such multinational heavyweights as Monsanto, DuPont, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Arco, BHP Petroleum, Exxon, Shell, and the U.S. Department of Energy have sought – and presumably benefited from – his advice.
At the same time, Sandman has consulted for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the US Environmental Protection Agency, SustainAbility, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Defense, and Greenpeace.
The founder of the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers University, Sandman has written several trade books, outrage prediction software, and widely used texts, including Media: An Introductory Analysis of the American Mass Communications. He has published over a hundred articles and papers.
His book, Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication (published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association), expands on Sandman’s aphorism: “Risk = Hazard +Outrage.” That is, a risk comprises a hazard (technical danger, such as an oil spill or radiation leak) as well as outrage (a combination of fear, anger, and helplessness, such as the emotions of the community living around the oil spill). “Outrage management” is Sandman’s specialty.
One half of risk communication, according to Sandman, is “increasing outrage,” which environmental groups do in order to rally public support. For many of his clients, Sandman advises on how to develop and channel outrage.
But the other half of risk communications, and the majority of his work, is “outrage reduction,” or “calming people down.” He consults on how to reduce outrage to take attention away from issues that his clients consider relatively unimportant. Many of these issues are environmental hazards.
But if Sandman is a spin doctor, he spins in unusual directions. He argues that it’s in his clients’ best interests to communicate honestly and directly about risks they are causing. He persuades clients to listen better, tell the truth consistently, take responsibility for their actions, and treat critics with respect. They usually need to share control, and sometimes they even have to “lose.”
Why, then, are the big bad multinationals eager for his help? Though fees are negotiable, Sandman commonly commands some $650 an hour for his services. But when potential losses are in the multiple millions, a good consultant is worth his weight in whatever currency he requests.
Personally, Sandman is about as engaging as human beings get. He talks fast and fluidly, repeating and interrupting himself as ideas emerge. He laughs often, and sometimes he uses language that he would prefer wasn’t quoted. At his request, some potentially offensive words have been removed.
The following transcript is drawn from interviews in the spring and summer of 2003. Sandman’s website is www.psandman.com.
Kendall: You’ve defined the premise of your work as “Risk = hazard + outrage.” In redefining risk so that it includes outrage, it seems you’ve also redefined what the risk is threatening. In other words, in the traditional definition (risk = magnitude of hazard x probability) it was the community or the environment under threat. Now, with your definition, it looks as if the “risk” is partly to a company’s public image. Is that true?
Sandman: Well, no, but you’re not the first to think of it that way, so there must be some sense in which that is true. But it’s not what I mean. What I meant to say when I said, “Risk equals hazard plus outrage” is essentially a linguistic claim. When people say “This is a serious risk,” they mean some combination of : This is likely to kill me and This really pisses me off. If you prove to them that it’s not likely to kill them, they wind up saying, “All right, but it’s still a really serious risk.” And you say, “But I just showed you that it’s not likely to kill you,” and they say, “Yeah, but they [the corporation causing the risk] are really bad people, and they’ve lied to me, and they’ve misled me, and they’re contemptuous of me, so it’s a serious risk even though it’s not going to kill me.” So, the claim I’m making epistemologically is that the way people use the word ‘risk,’ it means not just Will it hurt me or kill me or hurt the ecosystem? but also, Are they honest, are they responsive, do they know that they’re talking about? and a variety of other things that I’ve collectively called ‘outrage.’ It’s certainly true that outraged people are a risk to the company, but that wasn’t what I meant to point to.
Kendall: When you’re working with big corporations on developing strategies to reduce outrage, how often do you suggest minimizing or removing hazard? How likely are companies to take those suggestions?
Sandman: What I say to clients is, “Look, if the hazard is serious, you’ve got to fix the hazard. If the outrage is serious, you’ve got to fix the outrage. If they’re both serious, you’ve got to fix them both. But you don’t fix one in order to remedy the other. You don’t give people an apology and expect it to save their lives. And you don’t build a vapor recovery system and expect it to calm them down. So the literal answer to the question is that I almost never tell clients to reduce the hazard, because it’s not my expertise, it’s not the problem they bring me in for.
Now, I will often tell clients that insofar as they are going to remedy the hazard, to do it in a way that gets them outrage reduction, too. I’ll say, “Don’t just fix it and then when people come and yell at you, say, ‘It’s already been fixed.’ Let them yell at you and demand that you fix it, and then bring them with you and negotiate with them about what you’re going to fix, how you’re going to fix it, how they’re going to know it’s fixed, and produce something that is more accountable, and more collegial, more collective and collaborative.” And the client will often say, “Well, fixed is fixed, why should I go through all those extra hoops to involve my neighbors in fixing the problem? They’re coming and telling me it smells, they’re right that it smells, the reason it smells is that the ferjabble* isn’t working right, and we’re going to go fix the ferjabble and then it will smell less.” * Of the made-up term, ‘ferjabble,’ Sandman says, “It’s in the same category as ‘dimethylmeatloaf,’ a nonsense word for all kinds of things the real names of which I don’t know, because I am technically illiterate.” And I say, “Why don’t you get them to help you fix the ferjabble, why don’t you get them on an advisory committee that looks over your shoulder, why don’t you involve them?” And the client says, “The bottom line is that I’m going to do the same thing but your way will take longer, it will be less efficient.” And I say, “Yes, but if you just fix the hazard without involvement, they’re not likely to buy it, they’re not likely to believe it.”
The thing that happens – and I know it’s going to happen, and I tell the clients it’s going to happen, but they never quite believe me – is that when, for reasons of outrage management, they open themselves up to dialog with the public about the hazard, they wind up with a different hazard remedy. Commonly, the people in the community wind up wanting something that someone in the company already thought of, but someone else in the company who was higher-ranking said, “No, that’s a dumb idea,” so it never got considered. Then along comes a citizen who says the same damn thing, and the person who got overruled inside the company keeps his mouth shut, if he’s smart, and the same executive who told a subordinate, “No, we’re not going to go that way, we’re going to go this way,” is likely to tell a community group, “Well, that’s an interesting idea, let’s look at it.” So in point of fact, if you’re solving the hazard with attention to the outrage, you usually wind up with a different hazard solution. But that’s not what I’m selling. What I’m selling is, I don’t know how to solve hazards, but let’s get some outrage management along the way.
Kendall: When you do that sort of negotiation, to get a different hazard solution, do you diminish the public’s revenge factor as well?
Sandman: Yes, people feel terrific when they feel smart. My corporate clients, and government clients even more, always assume that if someone in the public has an idea and that idea is adopted, then the company or the agency will look stupid and incompetent and unprofessional for not having thought of it themselves. But that just never happens, except in their own minds. In the minds of the public there’s a gleeful feeling, like, “You have a Ph.D. and I came up with a better idea than you did.” They’ll cackle at you, but they’re not mad at you. They’re just delighted! And if you feel belittled, that’s going on in your head, but they’re just having a wonderful time coming up with an idea that works. And they feel great. Somewhere along the line, revenge as a motive gets much mitigated.
Kendall: In cases where the outrage is in your view justified, should it still be managed?
Sandman: Well, it should be responded to. There are two ways the outrage can be justified: the outrage can be justified because the hazard is serious – for instance, you’re doing something dangerous and people are outraged that you’re doing something dangerous. Then you’ve got two tasks: one is to improve your management of the hazard, and the other is to do something about the outrage. If you’re mistreating somebody, you don’t just stop, you also apologize. It’s not as if hazard management is all you need to do when people are outraged about a serious hazard – you need to do the hazard management because they are right to be outraged and you need to do something about the outrage too, but not instead of doing something of the hazard.
The second situation is when the outrage is justified not by hazard but by other things. Almost a paradigm of situations I work on would be a situation where the neighbors of a factory believe that the factory’s emissions are dangerous. They’re angry and frightened and outraged. In the paradigmatic situation – this isn’t always true but it is in the paradigmatic situation – the neighbors are wrong. The emissions are not dangerous, or they are dangerous very, very modestly. They represent a tiny risk – one which, if the neighbors weren’t outraged, they would shrug their shoulders at. But management has been arrogant, management has been dishonest, management has been contemptuous. Neighbors raise concerns and get told, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart,” or neighbors ask questions and get no answers, or make calls and the calls aren’t returned. So that’s a situation where their outrage is absolutely justified, but it’s not justified by the hazard; it’s justified by the outrageous mistreatment with which the company has treated them. In that situation there is no call for hazard management, and outrage management is the thing you have to do.
Kendall: Let’s go back to the first scenario. If the hazard justifies outrage, you want to tell your corporation to diminish the hazard. Then how do you handle the outrage?
Sandman: Mostly with a forgiveness process. In situations where you genuinely have misbehaved and you’ve genuinely done damage, there’s a pretty well-established process of forgiveness. Interestingly enough, in the West the experts on forgiveness are the Catholic Church. They’re not very good at asking for it for themselves but they really do know how to give it.
The process of forgiveness has got six steps. You start by admitting what you did, which of course politicians hate to do – they want to apologize in a hypothetical way, saying, “Whatever it is I might have done, I’m sorry.” That doesn’t count; you have to give chapter and verse of what you did.
Then in the second step – and it’s the only one that isn’t necessary in a religious context, only a secular context – you shut up while they yell at you. God does not require that – you just keep on talking. But as anyone who has ever been married knows, when you’ve misbehaved you don’t just say, “Here’s what I did and I’m sorry.” You say, “Here’s what I did,” and then they tell you what a jerk you are. And you wait, and when they’re done, you say you’re sorry. That’s funny, but it’s genuinely important. It’s important that in interacting with outraged people, you give them a chance to vent. Pre-emptive apology is not smart and not effective. It’s what men love to do with women, but it’s not good sexual politics and it’s not good environmental politics.
So step one is you say what you did. Step two – the one that is not in the Catholic process – is you let them yell at you.
Step three is you say you’re sorry. Saying you’re sorry has components. Part of being sorry is regretting that it happened, part of being sorry is sympathizing with the victims, and part of being sorry is being responsible. You can be regretful and sympathetic and still not be forgiven if it sounds like you think someone else did it. This is the difference between, “I’m sorry your precious lamp got broken,” and “I’m sorry I broke your lamp.” There has to be responsibility in there also.
When you’re done saying you’re sorry, the fourth step is some kind of compensation. If you try to compensate without apologizing, that doesn’t work. But when you’ve done a good job apologizing, one of the steps along the way to forgiveness is to make the person whole again. So compensation is relevant.
The step after that is to improve. It’s a wonderful thing about human nature that we don’t just want you to make us whole again; we want to know that you won’t do [the same harm] to someone else next week. So it’s some functional equivalent of what Catholics call “a sincere act of repentance” or “a sincere act of contrition.” In Catholicism you can’t be forgiven unless you plan to try not to do it again. You don’t have to be perfect, but if you intend to keep sinning you don’t get forgiven. Exactly the same thing happens secularly: you have to present evidence that you’ve learned from the mistake or from the misbehavior and you’re making some credible effort to do it less in future.
The sixth and final step, as all good Catholics know, is the penance – some kind of humiliation that symbolizes that you messed up and you know you messed up.
When you’ve gone through all those steps, you’ve sort of earned the right to be forgiven. I spend a fair amount of time with clients who have genuinely misbehaved, and this is true not just in the first scenario but the second as well. Genuine misbehavior could be about emitting dangerous chemicals or it could be about lying. But either way you have to go through the forgiveness process.
Kendall: You’ve said that you’re not an expert at risk assessments. How do you assess the hazard level if you’re not an expert in the field?
Sandman: Well, the usual answer is that the client gives me that information. Interestingly, the client usually gives me that information even in situations where the client is being self-deceptive. Not infrequently clients will say to me, “This is a trivial problem, nothing to worry about. We want you to advise us on how to reduce people’s outrage about it.” And I say, “Fine, send me the relevant reports, send me the government documents, send me the technical stuff.” And after I read it, I call them back and say, “I’m not sure why you think this is trivial. Look here [in your document], look at this. It’s not the worst threat ever to come down the pike, but it’s not as trivial as you’re making it sound. Your summary to me and your summary to the public isn’t very well borne out by your data.” It’s really very interesting. People are much more capable of self-deception that they are of self-aware evil.
So it’s not common, I believe, for a company to have information that shows that the problem is real, know that information shows the problem is real, and hide the information. What happens usually is they have the information that shows the problem is real, but they look at that information and say, “Eh, it’s not such a big deal; the information is not that bad, but if people saw it, they’d be scared. They’d be wrong to be scared because if they really understand this information it shows that the problem is tiny, but rather than mislead people into thinking there’s a serious problem, we will suppress this information.” Then they send that information to me, forgetting that it has bad stuff in it. I look at the information and I say, “One of the things we are going to have to do is change how you describe this to the public because it’s worse than your description to the public implies.”
Once in a while I have to go beyond the client. Obviously, I read the material produced by the client’s critics. I read whatever the activists are saying as well as what the client is saying and usually what the government is saying. That I do routinely. Maybe once a year I have to call somebody I know from another situation, and say, “Can you give me a two-minute briefing on the risks of dimethylmeatloaf? I smell that the client is misleading me here, but I haven’t got the goods and I just want to know what I am getting into.”
Kendall: I wonder if you could comment on a scenario that all of us know about. How are Bush and his administration doing at communicating risk in regards to war with Iraq? First, on the risk coming from Iraq, second on the risks of war.
Sandman: Good question…I’m not sure I know the answer. The thing that I for a long time thought the Bush administration was doing most well, with respect to Iraq, was allowing disagreement within the government to show. I thought the ongoing battle – that’s not fair, the ongoing respectful disagreement – between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense was spectacular. It was enormously better than almost any other administration that I’ve seen. Nobody was shutting these people off. They were expressing respect for each other’s opinions, but they were also expressing their own opinions, and the difference of opinions was clear. I thought it was marvelous that it looked, as it should, like the government was considering a difficult decision, and had inside it people with differing views on that decision. The Bush administration has been willing to make hard decisions look hard, even after it makes them. I think that’s a real strength.
The same thing happened with respect to smallpox vaccination, which, unlike the war in Iraq, is something I worked on. There you had very high-ranking people, up to and including the vice president of the United States, who wanted to vaccinate huge numbers of people, and you had very high-ranking people, up to and including the head of CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], who wanted to vaccinate very few people. It wasn’t suppressed; it was all public. They testified for and against and wrote Op Eds and expressed their viewpoints, and the president listened to it all and reached a decision that was kind of a compromise. It left the public health people thinking he was vaccinating far too many people, and the anti-terrorism people thinking he was vaccinating far too few.
But once again, the normal tendency is to hide a dilemma, to make hard decisions look easy. Many of the government agencies I advise on something like smallpox vaccination try to suppress dissent at the local level. There they are telling the local health department people, “You have to express support for the policy!” and I say I don’t see why, since there were all of those Federal people recommending alternative policies. If it was a hard decision before it got made, why did it suddenly become an easy decision after it got made?
So that was kind of a strength of the Bush administration, but it’s kind of disappeared in the last week or two, with Powell sounding more and more like a hawk, and the gap between Powell and Rumsfeld less and less visible.
That said, more broadly, what kind of a job do I think Bush is doing at explaining both the risks of going to war and the risks of not going to war? I think he is vaguer than I would want him to be about both. Bush is too emphatic – vague but emphatic on the side he’s on, and vague and unemphatic on the side that he’s not on.
That’s not how you sell a difficult policy. You sell a difficult policy by saying, “We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. This is really, really hard.” All that dilemma-sharing is helpful. You say, and it’s true, that this is a choice between two very unattractive alternatives. Going to war is awful, and not going to war, for different reasons, is awful.
He’s pretty much said that, but he’s been vague about both and much more emphatic about one than about the other. So he winds up sounding like he’s trying to sell the war, rather than like he’s trying to explain the anguished decision he made in order to decide to go to war. The vast majority of people I talk to believe that Bush really wants to go to war. I am convinced he doesn’t, but that’s due to his mistake. Giving the impression that he does is his communication failure. His style of communication has allowed liberals and moderates alike to think that he’s looking forward to it.
Kendall: What makes you think he doesn’t want to go to war?
Sandman: I’m convinced he doesn’t want to. Partly that’s because nobody in a position of authority would want to send people to their death, and he strikes me as a decent person who wouldn’t want to. But also, if you want a more cynical analysis: you don’t launch a war two years before an election campaign. Two months before a re-election campaign, maybe. But two years is enough time that if it goes well it would have been forgotten, and if it goes badly, you got us into the morass.
I like my first reason more than my second reason, but if you don’t give the man credit for being a decent person – which I do, but lots of people don’t – he’s at least not stupid and not advised by stupid people, and he couldn’t possibly want to go to war now – leaving aside psychobabble stuff about pulling his father’s irons out of the fire and stuff like that.
On the whole, it seems overwhelmingly likely that he wanted to be and would still like to be a sort of moderate to conservative, domestically-focused president. But after 9/11 he said, “Oh, I have to take foreign policy seriously. Wish I didn’t, but I do.” I think he really wanted to keep it confined to Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda, and that he thinks that would be a mistake. I think he feels like the presidency collectively really screwed up in Korea, and the Korean peninsula is a less awful place to have that screw-up happen than the Middle East would be. He’s got one guy with nukes pointed at South Korea and Americans that are stationed in South Korea, he doesn’t want another one with nukes pointed at Americans in the Mediterranean, and Israel, and all those oil wells. But who knows? What I know is that the way he has communicated, particularly the way he has allowed the dilemma to be framed, his enthusiasm for the war is clearer than his reluctance. And that’s his mistake.
Kendall: It seems to me he’s not doing a good job at convincing the public that there’s a great risk coming from Iraq. What do you think?
Sandman: I think he hasn’t sold it, but it may be that it was impossible to sell. I don’t know. It’s clear that for a while people were saying, “I don’t quite see why it’s necessary, but if you think so, George, all right,” but now people are starting to say, “I still don’t think it’s necessary and now I’m starting to think you really shouldn’t do it.” It’s been a real change in U.S. public opinion.
I’m not sure what I would have advised him to do differently, other than what I’ve been just talking about. The thing about balance is, people think ‘balance’ means toning down your rhetoric, but balance means you goose your rhetoric on both sides. You don’t achieve balance by making it a choice between two lukewarm alternatives, you achieve balance by making it a choice between two truly awful alternatives. That he has not done well.
More than the vast majority of public issues in the last twenty years, this is one that leaves me confused. I supported – at least in the back of my mind – reluctantly supported the Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear power plant when it looked absolutely clear that, absent that attack, Iraq would have and would use nuclear weapons, and there would be no more Israel. Then ten years later was the Gulf War, and I didn’t like it as much when it came from my country as when it came from Israel, but I found myself saying, I guess I have to support that one too, because it’s certainly the same damn risk, and if it made sense for Israel to stop it, it makes sense for the U.S. to stop it. And there I am again, now, kind of feeling the same way.
If I could be convinced that inspections meaningfully prevented Iraq from acquiring and using these weapons, I’d be all for inspections. But it’s hard to be convinced of that. Too many inspectors and former inspectors are saying, “We really aren’t staking our reputations on the claim that this stuff isn’t going on underneath our nose, all we’re saying is that if this stuff is going on underneath our nose, we don’t see it.” I don’t know. It’s very rough. I don’t like the United States ignoring international opinion, I don’t like the United States ignoring international law, but I guess on balance, I like that more than I like Saddam Hussein with nukes. But the stakes are very high on both sides. That’s what hasn’t been well enough said.
Another thing the Bush administration did badly with respect to the Iraq war was its tendency to sound much too confident – too confident that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, too confident that the war would go well and end quickly, etc. It is always a mistake to sound more confident than you are … and always a mistake to talk yourself into being more confident than the situation merits. This is a common mistake, made by advocates on all sides of all issues. Consider three entirely different horrific scenarios: Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons, terrorists launching a smallpox attack on the U.S., and global warming leading to huge temperature changes and massive death and dislocation throughout the world. All three are high-magnitude, low-probability risks. The cases for regime change, smallpox vaccination, and Kyoto are all three grounded in precaution, in the judgment that it makes sense to take steps to prevent awful outcomes even if they are unproved – in fact, even if they are fairly unlikely. Insisting that those outcomes are proved or likely – when the data show only that they are possible – is not good risk communication.
Similarly, almost everyone has a sense that bringing democracy to Iraq is a long shot. President Bush would have been wiser to say so, and to make the case that it was a long shot worth trying – a high-magnitude low-probability improvement. He should have said it would be a long, difficult, expensive effort without any guarantee of success. He should have said it has a very substantial downside, including the risk of fomenting more hatred of the U.S., the setting of an awful precedent for preemptive war, the inevitability of charges of American imperialism. He should have said the people who think this is too high a price to pay for a long shot chance at creating a Muslim democracy in the Middle East aren’t foolish or unpatriotic. And then he should have said he believes it is a chance worth taking …especially since there are other, more certain benefits, such as ridding the world of one truly evil tyrant (granted, one among many).
Kendall: I wonder if you could comment on what some environmental groups such as Greenpeace or Earth First!, are doing well and doing badly in terms of risk communication.
Sandman: Well, the environmental movement has been extremely good, historically, at two things. It was very good at institutionalizing in virtually everybody and virtually every institution a sense that the environment matters. And it was very good at creating a cadre of very serious, very committed, deep environmentalists. And it still manages to create such people, in significant numbers.
Where it has had trouble is in the middle between those two. It created lots of people who think of themselves as environmentally concerned, but don’t mind that they also drive SUVs. They recycle, they maybe join Environmental Defense, and when the PIRG person knocks on the door, they say, “All right, I’ll give you some money.” They consider themselves to be supporters, but it’s integrated into life at a very low level; it feels stable to them, they don’t feel much inconsistency, they don’t worry enormously about what their own lifestyle and their friends’ lifestyle is doing to the environment. In my classes, we used to talk about the “Suburban Compromise.” [The movement] has not come up with a way of getting people to end up somewhere in the middle between that very low level of commitment and the very deep level of commitment that characterizes either the radical activist or the lifestyle dropout, the person who says, “I have to move to the woods and not consume anything.” Nobody has found a way to get the low-level environmentalist to be more serious. So there’s this huge gap between the very large number of people who care but not much, and the fairly small number of people who care deeply. I think part of the reason is because the second group is contemptuous of the first.
Kendall: Yeah, you sounded a little contemptuous, talking about them.
Sandman: The contempt is there, it’s always characteristic of extremists that they see moderates as sell-outs, or as hypocrites, sort of unworthy of the movement’s mantle. Most groups like Greenpeace make a real distinction between their contributors, who are ordinary people, and their activists, who are not ordinary at all.
They’re perfectly happy to take ordinary people’s money, but they don’t see themselves as working for those people, or representing those people. They just took their money, in something that was almost a scam. It’s not a scam, in that Greenpeace stands for what it stands for, and it does what it tells you it’s going to do. But what it’s really selling you is a chance to pretend you are the kind of person who would spend two years on the Rainbow Warrior. You know perfectly well you’re not, but for twenty-five dollars you get to pretend you are.
They have no problem getting people to ride the Rainbow Warrior, those are a different bunch of people entirely, but they have real trouble getting the person who gave them twenty-five dollars to go some second or third step.
Kendall: So if you were advising them to devise a strategy to move people out from the Suburban Compromise out towards the edges, what would you do?
Sandman: For one thing, I would pay a whole lot more attention to member service than Greenpeace does. I would organize my member service with an eye towards making cadres of moderates – moderate activists. I would be organizing locals who are not Rainbow Warrior material to do meaningful stuff that is more than giving money. That is real activism, but it’s real local activism and compatible with a normal life.
Greenpeace – and I’m using them as a symbol for the environmental movement generally – doesn’t for the most part nurture local moderate activists, and it could. Other movements do, and the environmental movement doesn’t.
Something else that’s very interesting here. With all its failures, another thing the environmental movement has accomplished is, it’s made environmental risk enormously more a source of concern than virtually any other kind of risk. If you look at environment and safety in contrast. . . a factory that makes plastic medical supplies and things like that exploded in the Southeast yesterday, and three people died and a whole bunch of people were hurt. That kind of thing happens pretty often. And it’s considered kind of acceptable, in spite of evidence that in terms of lives saved per dollars spent – and I do understand that there’s more than lives at stake with some environmental issues – but, in terms of lives saved per dollars spent, you can do much more [with safety than environment].
But we don’t care; we think that environment is more important. Environment generates more outrage. Partly that’s intrinsic, but partly that’s because there is no safety movement. You can list environmental organizations till you run out of fingers and toes. But try and list the safety activist groups – try to list one! The single most activist group is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That’s like if EPA was as far as the environment got. There are no safety activists. There are the unions, but the unions usually trade safety for money. The unions have done more on safety than any other activist group, but safety is not their top priority.
So, here you are, you’re a company, and it makes more sense for you as a company to spend ten million dollars to reduce environmental mortality by one hundredth of one person, than it does to spend one million dollars to reduce safety mortality by three or four people. That’s kind of crazy, but that’s what the world is telling you. The world is telling you, “If you want to kill somebody, knock them off a ladder, don’t pollute them.” You knock them off a ladder, you explode in their face, that’s all right. But if you pollute them, you’re going to be in serious trouble.
Kendall: Why is that?
Sandman: Because there are more environmental activists in the world. And there are environmental activists in the world partly because environment touches more than human health. A large number of environmental activists frankly don’t care about people.
[One of my students] at Rutgers was a PIRG [Public Interest Research Group] stream walker, and she got all bent out of shape because she found pollution that she thought was endangering the groundhogs. You know, the groundhogs were going to get polluted. I said to her, “You know, there are also people who live along that creek,” and she said, “I don’t care, let the people take care of themselves – the groundhogs have only me.” I haven’t seen her for twenty-five years, and that may not be her current opinion, but I think there are a lot of environmental activists for whom people are the villain, and not the victim. Creatures are the victim, or the ecosystem generically conceived is the victim. So, it’s easier to generate outrage about the environment than it is about safety.
If you want to talk about the cheapest lives saved, safety isn’t the cheapest either. Safety is several orders of magnitude less expensive per life saved than environment, but there are things lots cheaper than safety, such as infectious diseases in the third world. We start out thinking, Let’s save as many lives as we can, let’s make our money go as far as we can, what’s the cheapest life I can save? Then we turn around and say, What really pisses me off? Those are the lives I will save. The fact that it turns out to be the environment has some virtues, but cost-effectiveness is not among them.
Kendall: Let’s go back to “managing outrage.” What do you see as the end result of reducing public outrage?
Sandman: The end result of reducing public outrage is reduced pressure to do more than the hazard itself justifies. From the company’s point of view, that’s the benefit they’re seeking. To use safety as an example, if you can reduce the outrage about an environmental problem, it’s still in the hopper, but it’s in the hopper along with safety and a variety of other problems, where you’re looking at how much benefit you can get for how much cost. Outrage distorts that and sort of forces you to jump the line and put certain risks ahead of where they would belong in a pecking order without outrage. That’s because the outrage changes the cost to you. It doesn’t change the cost to society, but it changes the cost to the company, so the company says, “Because this is really making people unhappy, I’ll deal with this instead of these other things.” So the company’s main gain [in outrage reduction] is getting the thumb off the scale, so that risks are dealt with in proportion to how technically serious they are, rather than how much outrage they engender.
From the regulators’ point of view, it has the same benefit: it gets the thumb off the scale. But it also has an effect that is not a benefit at all: it reduces the pressure behind the whole enterprise. Then you’re in a position of being very ambivalent when on the one hand, outrage about a particular environmental risk distorts your regulatory attention to that risk. But on the other hand, at least it gets you your budget, and at least there’s some risk that the world is going to pay you to deal with, thanks to the outrage.
Kendall: Is there not a danger that outrage reduction could reduce pressure on a company to below the point where it should be?
Sandman: I think there’s a short-term risk of that, but only short-term. The classic example is smoking. You can do anything you want about anti-tobacco outrage, and when all is said and done, it’s still killing hundreds of thousands of people. It’s hard to imagine that the society will not attend to something that kills hundreds of thousands of people.
But the answer to the question depends on what universe you’re using for context. If you look narrowly at a particular risk, and you say, “I really want this one dealt with,” then the more outrage you get, the likelier it is to be dealt with. And if the outrage is reduced, the likelihood of its getting dealt with maybe gets reduced below where you wanted it to be, but it won’t be reduced below where other deadly things that nobody’s pissed off about are. And I think that’s probably the right standard.
There is a law of conservation of outrage. People only have as much outrage as they have. When outrage gets reduced, it doesn’t really get reduced, it gets reallocated. So if I calm you down about issue X, you have energy to devote to whatever you choose to devote it to. You may devote it to your family, you may devote it to a variety of other public interest concerns, or you may devote it to a very similar issue. That’ll be your choice, [although] there are factors that enable us to predict what’s going to happen.
An activist could see an effort to calm people down, and say, “Well, riled-up people get more done than calmed-down people; you calmed down all these people and all that energy dissipated.” But it didn’t. It got reallocated.
Kendall: Is it true that riled-up people get more done?
Sandman: Sure. Some of what they get done may not be the right stuff to get done, but it’s certainly true that riled-up people get more done.
What I help my clients to do is not so much calm people down, as calm them down about X, so they have more energy to devote to Y and Z. Which is part of why companies doing siting, for example, have long understood that the last thing you want to do is site a facility in a place where a community organization just had a significant victory. Because they just stopped the airport, they’re feeling terrific, their outrage about the airport is reduced, and because they won that one, they’re looking around saying, “Now what am I going to do with my evenings?” That’s a terrible time to have a newspaper story that says you’re proposing a trailer park, or a factory, or whatever. You’ve got people with sort of free-floating outrage ready to reallocate. The fact that every company knows that that’s one of those things you think about in choosing a location suggests very powerfully that the effort to calm people is really only an effort to calm them about a particular object, and it frees energy for others.
Just to belabor the obvious, if you calm them about something that’s a small hazard, and you free energy that gets attached to a bigger hazard, then the ability that outrage generates to make progress has been reallocated to something where progress is more needed. And that’s good for the world.
Kendall: What about when the outrage is justified? What if there’s high outrage about a high hazard?
Sandman: Yes – if it’s high outrage about a high hazard, you ought not to diminish it. That’s what crisis communication is.
If you look at hazard and outrage, you can vary them to get four kinds of risk communication. If hazard is high and outrage is low, what you’re doing is public relations. It’s also health education. You know, “Please get your hepatitis B shot. Please wear your respirator when you’re on the line.” You’re talking to people who are not interested and don’t want to hear you. You’re talking in sound bites because that’s as much time as you’re going to get. You’re trying to figure out how to rile them up. This is what Greenpeace does for a living: Greenpeace does PR. You’re trying to get them to have more outrage about something you consider a significant hazard.
If you get medium hazard and medium outrage, you’ve got stakeholder relations. The stakeholders are people who are interested; they’re involved, they see themselves as having a stake. By definition that means their outrage is not low anymore, but they’re willing to talk to you and listen to you. In this second category, it’s personal rather than media, it’s dialog rather than monologue. There’s some use of media, but it’s specialized media. Stakeholders use your website, stakeholders get the newsletter. It’s the ideal kind of risk communication. It’s two rational, interested, concerned people sitting together trying to make sense out what’s going on.
If there’s low or moderate hazard and the outrage gets really high – low hazard compared to the outrage – then we have outrage management. Now the media are useless, because you’re talking to fanatics who are sources for the media, and they are not about to learn anything from the media, or they’re certainly not going to be happy to learn anything from the media that they think you should have told them directly. It’s back to monologue, only it’s not your monologue now, it’s their monologue, and it becomes enormously important to listen. With what time you have to talk, you’re going to do the things that I write about endlessly. You’re going to acknowledge what you did wrong, you’re going to give away credit, you’re going to stake out the middle, apologize for screw-ups, all the things I write about in talking about outrage management.
The fourth one, the one you alluded to, high hazard, high outrage, is crisis communication. People are upset and they’re right to be upset, it’s likely that some of them may die, and you’re not trying to calm them down, at least not too much, because calming them down is not appropriate.
I advise New York City government now about communication about terrorism. You don’t want to tell the people of New York not to worry about terrorism. They ought to worry about terrorism! You want them worried, you want them fearful, you want them vigilant, you want them attentive, you want them calling hotlines when something weird is happening. Apathy is not your goal; your goal is to have them bear their fear, rather than to have them not experience it. You’re not worried about apathy particularly, you’re worried about denial. You’re worried about them being unable to bear their fear and therefore flipping into denial, or escalating into terror or conceivably panic. There’s a whole different bunch of communications.
And the strategies are fairly different. It’s rather like what we were talking about with Bush: acknowledging uncertainty, sharing dilemmas, giving people things to do so that they can bind their anxiety in action and feel part of the solution, not over-reassuring them, helping people bear their fear rather than telling them they shouldn’t be afraid, a whole different bunch of strategies, which are as different from outrage management as outrage management is from public relations.
Kendall: In your column that you wrote shortly after 9/11, you talk about giving people things to do. You said that going shopping didn’t seem quite satisfactory…
Sandman: That’s right. Flying flags is a good thing, although it has a downside if it leads to jingoism. Giving blood had a downside, too, if the blood isn’t used, but people who gave blood came through 9/11 trauma better than people who didn’t, even though the blood was thrown away. Giving people things to do isn’t easy, but action binds anxiety. That is, doing things to help makes it easier for us to bear our fear and misery about terrorism. The government isn’t asking nearly enough of people. It’s not asking as much as we’re willing to do. Ideally, you’d want the government to offer people a range of things to do, not just a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Part of giving people things to do should include giving them a choice of things to do, so that you’re involving not just their ability to act but their ability to decide.
I had a big fight with CDC over Cipro [antibiotic for treating anthrax]. CDC didn’t want to and didn’t recommend that people get Cipro prescriptions, and that was all right, but they didn’t even sort of allow them to. About 250,000 people did it anyhow, but as far as CDC was concerned those people were misbehaving, and CDC was inclined to say they were panicking. That was crap – people weren’t panicking, they were just disobeying.
CDC was appropriately concerned that people would actually take Cipro in the absence of an illness – it’s a bad thing to take antibiotics you don’t need – but as we now know, 250,000 people got themselves prescriptions, but virtually none of them took it. They put it on the shelf next to their Ipecac and other things they have no intention of taking unless they need to. I urged CDC, “Look, you’re not recommending that they get it, but at least list it as one of the things they can do if they’re doing more than you’re recommending. There should be Column A, for people who think this is all overblown, Column B for people who agree with you, and Column C for the people who think you’re under-reacting and want to go further.” Then you’re not only asking people to do things, but also to decide what their own judgment is about how much is worth doing. That binds anxiety.
Outrage is not mostly about fear in a crisis; it’s also not mostly about anger in a crisis. In routine outrage management, anger is the biggie and fear is number two. In crisis communication, misery is the biggie and fear is number two. After 9/11 people didn’t think they were going to get attacked by terrorists: they thought that someone else was going to get attacked by terrorists, and they were going to have to watch it on CNN again. Even now, a year and a half later, the fear is mostly gone and the misery is still very much there.
Kendall: Is there anything people can do?
Sandman: Yeah, there’s a lot of things people can do… One of them may be go to war in Iraq (laughs), but that may not be a very wise one. There are self-protective things people can do, getting gas masks and packing go bags, all sorts of stuff equivalent to the fallout stuff in the 50s. Some of the things that make sense to do are so ordinary that people tend to react with something like contempt. They’ll say, “You want me to have a flashlight and a battery radio and some extra food and water? That’s how I’m going to fight Al-Qaeda? With duct tape?” The contempt isn’t fair or wise, but it’s understandable. This is all Column A, the minimum. The government hasn’t really offered us Columns B and C yet, and that’s a mistake.
In addition to things you can do to feel that you are, and to be, more ready for various kinds of attack, there are things you can do to help prevent the attack, including, you know, be alert, reporting suspicious behavior, a variety of things, all of which help.
It’s interesting, because as I give you this list, it’s clear to me that it’s not a very good list. I think that there are other lists in the process of being developed, but it’s very clear that people really need to feel that they are part of an effort to prevent terrorism and to feel prepared for terrorism, that they’ve integrated that into their lives, that fighting terrorism is compatible with not exactly life as it used to be, but life that is normal enough. That routinization of terrorism awareness is essential, absolutely essential…it’s what Israel has accomplished. People go to work and go to movies and Bar Mitzvahs. They fall in love and have fights and do absolutely everything that you do in the middle of a normal country, in the middle of terrorism.
Kendall: But they have their gas masks or they wear bullet-proof vests on the drive to work.
Sandman: That’s right, they are not in denial, they have integrated the problem into a life that is relatively normal in spite of it. That’s what we need to do.
Kendall: Are there some situations, for instance when corporate negligence leads to innocent deaths, where you would not feel comfortable trying to reduce public outrage?
Sandman: (Sighing) Yeah. I would work for a company that has done awful things and killed people, if they were prepared to say, “We did awful things and killed people,” and it was a matter of, now that we’ve admitted we did awful things and killed people, now what? I am really interested in the process of repentance and eventually forgiveness – but the company doesn’t get to decide that, the rest of us decide that.
I would have loved to work for Enron. It would have been exciting, and in my judgment appropriate, to help a company that has seriously misbehaved, and dialog with its stakeholders about whether it ought to be allowed to continue to exist. It’s clear that forcing Enron to die is a soul-satisfying punishment. And it’s also perfectly clear that it has innocent victims. The question would have been, Can we punish the people we really want to punish without punishing innocent victims, and if so, is that preferable to the punishment we have in mind at the moment?
I expect it would have been possible. It is usually possible for a company that has misbehaved seriously to survive, if it is prepared to repent and compensate, and be appropriately humiliated. If the only humiliation anyone can think of is to put the company out of business, then we put the company out of business.
You know, we got so upset at the asbestos industry for having lied to us about the risks of asbestos that we killed the industry. And we created a new industry of asbestos litigation (laughs) but we did not do well by the victims, because we were much more preoccupied with punishing the evil-doers, so we killed the industry that could most easily have reimbursed the victims. And along the way, we not only stopped the dangerous uses of asbestos, we stopped the benign uses of asbestos. We so stigmatized the product that it can’t be used now even when it’s safe. We put the industry out of business and we put the substance out of business, in order to satisfy our need for vengeance. That’s the asbestos industry’s fault for not having come up with some other way to punish them that would have been better for us. I wouldn’t help a company weasel out, but I would certainly help a company stand up.
Kendall: Doesn’t Japan have a tradition of business leaders committing suicide if they have brought shame to the company?
Sandman: Yep. Now they just resign. But at least they resign! But quite seriously, if we had better ways of humiliating the individual leaders who have mishandled the situation, we wouldn’t have to destroy the companies. Destroying the company really means punishing the shareholders, who didn’t do anything wrong, and the employees, who didn’t do anything wrong. We picture the company as owned by its CEO, so we punish the CEO by destroying the company. Terribly inefficient. So I could happily work for a company that said, “Look, why don’t you string our CEO up by the balls instead?” (laughs) It would be a win-win.
Kendall: You seem to be focusing on individual employees who might be responsible for evil. However, a corporation made up of employees and shareholders has several potential sources of evil. There can be individual evil but there can also be systemic evil or individual evil that is compelled by the system.
Sandman: Yes, both of those things happen. Evil systems need to be extirpated unless they can be reformed. You want to conserve as much as you can conserve, but you don’t want to conserve the evil. So, yes I think it is often true that a problem is not just caused by a rotten apple or bad actor or some sort of maverick who is misbehaving, but by the system itself – the incentives are all wrong, and people are under pressure to behave in ways that wind up doing great harm. Then you need to change the incentive system.
But it’s still not automatically true that you need to destroy the organization and start from scratch. At one company I worked with, the managers of a particular plant had illegal emissions and lied about them. When corporate management found out, it got rid of the people who misbehaved, and it told the regulators and the public what had happened.
But there was also a systemic problem. One of the things the company needed to do was to was to revamp its surveillance program so that it wasn’t trusting local environmental managers so much, so that it was realizing that they had too much incentive to hide problems and too little incentive to come forward with them. As a result of learning that the local managers had for years lied about emissions, lied to the government, and lied to the company, one of the things the company did was institutionalize a system by which a much larger number of employees, including employees at a range of levels in the company, would be systematically asked a set of questions. Some of the questions are things like, “Is there anything going on that we don’t know about or that you think we might not know about that we ought to know about?” And the second one, which I think is wonderful is, “Is there anything that you are not sure is a problem but you think might be a problem and doesn’t look to you like it’s being taken seriously by local managers?” The second is a great question because it’s not just fishing for crookedness, but it’s also fishing for self-deception at the local level, where the local manager really isn’t lying, but is just looking at a potential problem and saying, “No biggie. I don’t need to worry about that.”
So the corporate environmental manager of this company came out of that situation thinking, “I don’t want to trust the honesty of my local people as much as I have, and I don’t want to trust the wisdom and freedom from self-deception of my local people as much as I have,” and he has put in place different systems to correct the errors. It doesn’t seem to me that it would have been useful to fire him. He was the guy who didn’t see it, but he seems very able to see that he didn’t see it, and that that was a big mistake and he doesn’t want to make it again.
Kendall: In cases where the company structure and goals or incentives promote wrongdoing on the part of individual employees, then are the shareholders culpable?
Sandman: That’s a very good question. I’m not sure. I mean, shareholders are also self-deceptive. Enron is a wonderful example of shareholders sort of knowing that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. As children, we were all told by our parents, “If it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.” And if you were an Enron shareholder, you may not have known that they were doing things that were illegal – the courts still haven’t decided whether they were doing things that were illegal – but you probably knew that this was some sort of bubble. At some level of consciousness you bought Enron stock at whatever level you bought it at, then it went up and up and up, and you knew you were in a game of musical chairs and eventually the music was going to stop and you had to not own the stock by then. I believe that when grown-ups own stock in companies that are very high flying, at some level they know all that stuff is going on that may or may not be dishonorable but at least it is unreliable. It may collapse. But they are self-deceptive and they put that out of their minds.
Then when awful things happen, it is normal human nature that the more self-deceptive you were, the more angry you are at somebody else. All that “I was a jerk, I knew there was something wrong, I thought I should sell that stock last year, my wife told me I was speculating too aggressively” – all of those feelings get converted into, “Those bastards! Let’s string them up!”
I certainly think that shareholders are accountable for the behavior of the companies they own. They do own the company. In theory they are supposed to control what the management does. At the very least they are supposed to notice what management does, and if [it’s wrong and] they can’t change it, sell the stock. So yes, there is some kind of accountability. But at the same time you’d have to be awfully punitive to want to punish shareholders. The market punishes shareholders – if you bet on the wrong horse and your horse winds up in jail, then your bet is lost. But you shouldn’t wind up in jail.
Kendall: You talk about one scenario in which you can imagine a company would have to be punished by going out of business. Would it ever be justified to shut down a company as punishment for corporate wrongdoing?
Sandman: The hairy word there is ‘justified.’ It’s morally justified. It’s certainly emotionally satisfying when the company is misbehaving to shut down the company. It’s just that the collateral damage is so huge.
It’s easier to understand if you think of companies as analogous to countries. When countries are misbehaving, there are lots of people who find it tempting to bomb them back to the Stone Age. But most of the people you bomb back into the Stone Age aren’t the ones who are misbehaving. They just happen to live in that country. So most of us wind up thinking no, if the government of the country is misbehaving – I am going to get through this without using the phrase ‘regime change’ – if the government of a country is misbehaving, you need to do something about that, but you don’t need to take over the country. Or destroy the country or bomb everybody in it. I think the same is true of companies. If the only way we can stop the company misbehaving is to destroy it, then you have to destroy it. If the company has no value anyhow and if it is intrinsically destructive, then you have to destroy it. I certainly wouldn’t argue that companies or countries have a right to exist forever just because they exist currently. If they are no longer useful or they are much more harmful than they are useful and there is no visible way to change that other than to put them out of their misery – or put them out of our misery – then you do it. But it’s terribly inefficient and unkind to do it if you can find a way to punish the people who behaved wrongly and replace them and hold onto the rest of the company.
Kendall: Your website mentions that your fees are negotiable, based partly on how good for society you think the work would be. Have you or would you refuse any work on the grounds that it would be bad for society?
Sandman: I have and I would, yes.
Kendall: Can you say more about that?
Sandman: (sighing) No, I don’t think I want to. It’s not fair to have people in good faith ask me to work for them, and if I say no I say no, but I don’t want to say I said no because they are bad people…you can kind of guess.
Kendall: In an issue of PR Watch devoted to you and your work, Bob Burton quoted you as saying that you would not work for the tobacco industry in a way that would increase sales.
Sandman: I would not work for the tobacco industry in a way that would increase sales. I would – I am not going to affirm or deny that I’ve been asked (laughs). Tobacco is interesting. I did some work for the anti-tobacco people, and I quit them, because they were asking me to do things I felt weren’t honest, in ways that the tobacco industry would never dare ask.
It’s sort of like smoke alarms…we calibrate smoke alarms to give us false positives, not false negatives. We calibrate our environmental groups to give us false positives, not false negatives. So we don’t worry a lot if Greenpeace gives us an exaggerated warning. We’re much more unhappy if Dow gives us an exaggerated reassurance. You add to that that Dow knows they’re in it for the money, and Greenpeace knows they’re in it for reasons of ideology. When you lie based on ideology, you feel like you’re not really lying. When you lie based on money, you know you’re lying.
I’m not picking on Greenpeace, nor on Dow for that matter, I’m just using them as symbols. In a variety of ways, the good guys will cut corners that the bad guys simply won’t cut, because the bad guys know they’ll get creamed if they do that. A good example is playing fast and loose with data – I’ve encountered activists fudging data much more frequently than companies [fudging data]. Activists fudge data very routinely. Companies fudge data, you know, sometimes. Activists think it’s awful when companies fudge the data, but they don’t think it’s awful when they do, because the data should have shown that the problem is serious, and the data didn’t, so we fudged the data because we know the problem is serious.
I was on the New Jersey Board of the Cancer Society, and the Cancer Society’s big activity was smoking cessation. This was back in the seventies. We decided to commission a study to show that it does companies economic good to help their employees quit smoking. That was so we’d have more ammunition to persuade companies to fund smoking cessation clinics among their employees.
So we hired an economist, and the economist did the study, and the study came back – much to our surprise, this is commonplace knowledge now, but we didn’t know it then – the study came back saying nope, it’s not in the company’s interests. It turns out that the big cost to a company of its employees is pension. What you really want is people to die relatively soon after they retire. In terms of the self-interest of the company, in a company full of smokers, yeah, you’ll have to pay for a lot of cancer treatments, but people will die at 55 or 60 or 65, instead of 85, and that’s twenty years of pension you don’t have to pay. And that will cover a lot of cancer treatments. This is now well established, but back in the seventies, the study came back and we said, no, we can’t say that. So the board decided to hide the study – it was a proprietary study, there was nothing illegal about hiding it – we just said thank you very much, paid the economist, never gave anybody the results, and continued to go to companies and say, “It’s in your interest to do this.” We knew it wasn’t true; we knew we were lying. But lying in order to save lives – so most of the board felt that was all right.
Kendall: What do you think about that now?
Sandman: I think I won’t do it. I raised hell about it then – and didn’t get re-elected to the board, though I don’t know if that’s why. I raised hell, but I didn’t call The New York Times. I probably still wouldn’t call The New York Times. I don’t know if I’d whistle-blow on something like that, but I wouldn’t participate.
Kendall: I want to talk more about ethical behavior later, but first, one more thing about corporations. You make it clear that corporations, when they’re guilty, should take the blame. But isn’t it true that they can never take the blame because to do so would open them up to lawsuits?
Sandman: No, it’s not true that they can never do that. Read the column on lawyers on my website; there’s a long answer to that question. But the bottom line is, well, two bottom lines. One bottom line is that reputation affects corporate prospects at least as much as lawsuits do, so if you protect your defense in a lawsuit and your reputation goes down, your stock goes down, your customers disappear, you’re dead meat anyway. The other answer is that in a variety of ways, lawsuits are responsive to outrage. Most plaintiffs don’t sue to get rich, they sue to get even, because they are outraged.
There’s evidence, for example, that when doctors say they’re sorry, after a medical thing has gone awry, patients are enormously less likely to sue. It’s also true that if you say you’re sorry and they do sue, it’s harder to defend. So there’s a fair amount of care – there’s a difference between saying, “God, that’s my fault, I botched the operation,” and saying, “I’m really disappointed the way it turned out, I’m sorry and I wish it had turned out better.” The first really opens up the floodgates of liability. The second slightly increases your liability and significantly decreases my desire to sue you. So even narrowly, in legal terms, there is a net gain.
You can be responsible without being liable. The classic example I give is, you’re in a crowded elevator, and someone jostles you, and you step back in order to keep your balance, and you step on the toe of the person behind you. So you turn to the person behind you and say, “I’m sorry.” That does mean you’re the one who stepped on their toe. It doesn’t mean you’re liable. It doesn’t mean it was your fault, it means it was your foot on top of their foot. And even lawyers know that they don’t turn to the person behind them and say, “It’s not my fault.”
I think those [legal] problems are solvable, and the solution is to get the lawyer and the communicator in the same room and let them fight it out until they reach a way of apologizing that both of them can live with. I would add only one thing; in the U.S., punitive damages are the big money, and punitive damages are explicitly about outrage. So if you say you’re sorry, you might lose the case, but you’re certainly likely to lose it for a lot less money.
Kendall: That was about half of the questions. The rest of my questions are somewhat more personal.
Sandman: Okay, well, I’ll probably be somewhat less voluble.
Kendall: In the past 25 years, you’ve gone from doing mostly environmentalist work to mostly industrial. Your website mentions that when you started working for the nuclear power industry right after Three Mile Island, your name was wiped off a list of activist academics, but that you thought that your new work was honorable. At the time, you said that “it seemed churlish” not to help them, the companies who had previously been the opposition.
Sandman: Yes, they’re trying to handle an accident better. You’re not supposed to want them to mishandle the accident.
Kendall: What do you now think of your work for people you used to campaign against?
Sandman: Oh, I continue to think it was responsible, almost obligatory. I had served on a government commission to figure out what [members of the industry] should do to communicate better in the event of a nuclear power accident. I had done much of the research and helped draft those recommendations. Those recommendations had been converted into Nuclear Regulatory Commission policy.
Here were all these companies all over the country trying to learn from the Three Mile Island accident what they should do differently. One of the things they were being told they had to do differently was better communication and better preparedness to do communication, so they went looking for someone to tell them how to do it. They’re supposed to want to do it. It would be sort of nutty to tell companies what do to, and then refuse to help them figure out how to do it.
I thought then and think now that it was absolutely honorable work. I was surprised then, in ways I am not now, that it had the repercussions it had for the activists. But I’ve learned that that’s pretty normal in the activist community.
It’s funny. Before Rutgers, I was at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan program was a very engagé program, it came out of Earth Day, and the purpose was to train social change agents on environmental issues. The faculty included several community organizer types, and the courses were on things like “The conflict model versus the cooperation model of social change.” That was the title of a course, though that wasn’t a course that I taught.
When I was applying, there was a student search committee made up of pretty lefty students. And I can remember [a student] asking, What’s your commitment to the environment? And I said, “I haven’t got any commitment to the environment.” And there was this sort of shock around the room. I said, “As far as I can tell there’s enough commitment to the environment in the student body to suffice. You’re not going to school to learn to be committed, are you? I thought you were going to school to learn skills so you could use them in your commitment. My commitment is to teaching you folks about the media, and about persuasion, how you can use those skills to help the environment. I’m glad to help you, because I think you’re going to be exciting people to help, and I think my skills will be put to good use when you use them. But am I an environmental activist? No! I’m a communication expert. You’re the environmental activists, and you need a communication expert.” I said, “On the other hand, I will offer you a prediction. If you offer me the job and I take the job, within three or four years I’ll be an activist, because that’s what happens when you hang around activists. You wind up being one too, and one of the things you’ll learn in my courses is why.”
Kendall: And that prediction came true, yes?
Sandman: Yes. I became very interested and committed, and remain serious about environmental problems. But it was never my main focus. I was always more interested in the interaction than in the goal.
Communication people live in intersections. In any kind of communications, your job usually – well, maybe not written communications, but in most communications, it doesn’t matter whether you work for A or B, your job is to explain B to A and A to B. If you’re a PR person at a company and you take your job seriously, part of the job is to explain the company to the world, and part of the job is to explain the world to the company. You’re telling the CEO, no, this is not going to be a good policy, these people are going to hate it, and here’s why. I always liked being in intersections; I have a deficient sense of constituency.
Most people decide what they think by what their friends think. They have much deeper commitment to the groups they are members of than to their opinions. That’s why they find it easy to know what they think about the war in Iraq. If they’re left, they think what the left thinks. If they’re right, they think what the right thinks. They don’t have to decide what they think; they just have to notice what their peer group thinks. Such people are not good communicators because they don’t like living in intersections; they like living in wombs.
I like living at intersections. I have to figure out what I think all by myself, and by the time I get it figured out I’m really good at explaining to someone who thinks something different why I think what I think, and my understanding of what she thinks, and how come he doesn’t feel the way she feels. You can do a whole lot more as a communicator if your opinions are not grounded in constituency. So even when I became sort of an environmentalist because I was hanging out with environmentalists, I did less of that than most people would have. I did less taking on the views of the people I was hanging out with. And I am similarly able to spend a lot of time in corporate America without taking on their views too much.
So I wind up kind of in some ways where I started, much more interested in facilitating the process than I am in the substance. I am really interested in people understanding each other’s point of view, I’m really interested in people wanting to understand each other’s point of view, in people listening better. I’m interested in people talking in a way that’s easier to listen to, I’m interested in reducing the things that get in the way of people reaching their own decisions.
And I realize that’s a kind of Sisyphusyan task, because people don’t want to reach their own decisions. You’ve got a bunch of industry people and a bunch of activists, and they’re not really talking to each other, they’re doing theater with each other. The industry people are talking to the other industry people, treating the activists like a backboard, bouncing balls off that backboard, and the activists are doing the same thing with the industry people. I come in, and it doesn’t matter which side I am working for, I come in and I try to find a way in which it is in your interest, Client, to listen better. And to be heard better. I seem to be more interested in the listening and the hearing than in the outcome.
There’s one exception to that. Since 9/11 I’ve come to feel very strongly about helping Americans cope better with the threat of terrorism. I really want to contribute to our adjustment to what has come to be called “the new normal.” But except for terrorism, I tend to be more passionate about the process of communication than about the outcome.
So, my environmental opinions are much less strongly felt than my opinions about the process that gets used to resolve environmental questions. I have a much deeper commitment to the process being more open and collaborative and accountable than to what’s going to result from that. Now, I deal with people who care deeply what’s going to result from that, so I have to sort of know what’s going to result. But I didn’t deduce that outrage management was a good idea because I cared deeply that companies achieve their goals. That’s why they hire me, to achieve their goals. But I’m interested because I want to see outrage managed right.
Kendall: You talked about how you thought that being around activists made you more activist. Are you concerned that working with corporate executives might make your perceptions more like theirs or that it has made your values more like theirs?
Sandman: I think it has, though less than it would most people because I am so much less a creature of constituency than I think most people are. In many ways that’s to my disadvantage and in some ways to my benefit, but that’s the way I am. So I think I probably became less of an activist when I hung out with activists and I have become less of an industry person when I hang out with industry people than most folks would. But yeah – they say travel is broadening and it’s supposed to be – if you don’t learn anything from the people you hang out with, you’re going through life as you were when you were 17, and you don’t want to do that.
What’s clearest to me is that I understand industry enormously better than I did before I was doing a lot of industry consulting. I understand how much more diverse it is than I had thought. I understand what kinds of sins corporate clients are likely to commit and what kinds of sins they are unlikely to commit. I have learned an enormous amount about them. And usually when you know people well and from the inside, you have more sympathy for them. So I know them better and more sympathetically. I don’t think I’m less critical of them than I used to be, but I have the criticisms of someone who has been inside.
I clearly have more sympathy for them than I did when I was working exclusively with activists and never with corporations. But I also have a more vivid sense of how foolish they are, how self-defeating they are, and how unwise they are, and how they are consistently neglecting even what they claim to be their most cherished value – which is profitability.
They are neglecting it in favor of things like comfort and self-esteem. When I was a hippie in the sixties and when I was an activist in the seventies, I thought the main thing wrong with corporate capitalism was excessive preoccupation with profit. Now I am going to companies and saying, “Losing this fight would be enormously more profitable than winning it. You’re in a pissing match with Greenpeace and that is stupid. It is costing you all kinds of profitability, not just at this site but other sites, and it is immensely self-destructive, and what they want you to do is not nearly as expensive as the fight you’re engaging in not to do it. What’s going on here?” What’s going on usually it is that corporate executives are nurturing their self-esteem and nurturing their own comfort level and not particularly nurturing their corporate profitability. I would not have known that 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago I thought they were evil. It did not occur to me that they were foolish. Now it seems to me they are very often foolish and only occasionally evil.
Kendall: Can you say more about how they are nurturing self-esteem and comfort rather than the bottom line?
Sandman: I can give you an example. I worked with a mining company that was under public and regulatory pressure to clean up the remains of a smelter. This company had owned the smelter at the turn of the last century, a little over a hundred years ago. The smelter had gone through three or four other owners after them, and then the smelter had stopped being a smelter. It had been a shut-down industrial facility for decades, and homes had grown up around and on what had previously been the facility. As we got more and more sophisticated about environmental issues, people began to wonder whether the emissions from this hundred-year-old smelter might constitute a risk to the community. They did some work and decided – not stupidly – that there was some clean-up needed.
All the companies that had owned the smelter other than my client had gone out of business at some point in the ensuing hundred years. My client was the only one left who was responsible. Under Superfund, my client was clearly responsible. The fact that nobody knew better a hundred years ago is irrelevant, and rightly so. It’s not a criminal proceeding. You don’t have to have known you were doing something wrong to be required to fix it. So my client was on the hook for fixing this problem.
Importantly, the regulator had enormous discretion over what sort of cleanup was required. I don’t remember the exact figures, but the minimum requirement that would have met both health and environmental standards and legal standards would have cost something like $8 million. And a cleanup that dotted every ‘i’ crossed every ‘t’ and made the area pristine again would cost maybe $200 million. Between $8 million and $200 million was the range of regulatory discretion. In the middle was the range of regulatory discretion, so the client had 192 million good reasons to manage the outrage of the regulator well, so that the regulator wouldn’t want to punish my client with more cleanup than was necessary for health and environment reasons.
Now, the company’s people on site understood that. They were bending over backwards to be apologetic and helpful and compliant both with the regulator and with the neighborhood. The neighborhood was understandably freaked out. Imagine: you’re going about your business and then somebody tells you that something that happened a hundred years ago might constitute a threat to your health or your family’s health, not to mention your property values. You’re going to be very upset. The neighborhood was upset and the regulator was upset. The local people on site were doing their best to be responsive.
But the CEO of the company was angry. He was a year or two from retirement. He felt that this was terribly unfair, that he’d never heard of the smelter. It had been a smelter before he was born and before the environmental movement was born, and he felt it was terribly unfair to make his company spend a lot of money and damage his reputation just as he was about to retire. So he kept having temper tantrums. Out of his own self-esteem needs and his own emotional needs, he was making it much harder for the team managing the problem on site to make concessions. He was being stubborn and demanding that the team be stubborn. They were moving in the direction of the $200 million cleanup.
He was making them do things that made the regulator angry. He was filing retrograde legal actions that even his outside litigator told him were futile. When your outside litigator tells you you’re not going to win, you really know you’re not going to win, because the outside litigator has all these reasons to say, “Yes, let’s sue.” The CEO was sticking legal impediments in the way of the cleanup that were just making everybody angry. And it was his own self-esteem. I was able to help him see it and understand it and change, and essentially get out of the way of his own people so that they could make peace. They wanted to make peace before I ever got on the scene. I didn’t need to convince them. I needed to convince him. This is not rare.
I can think of another case where activists were demanding an extremely expensive piece of equipment that was only going to be marginally valuable. Maybe a $60 million piece of equipment to reduce a one-in-a-million risk to a one-in-two-million risk to town of 13,000 people. It was nuts! You can buy a town of 13,000 people for $60 million (laughs). It’s crazy. But the law was on the activist group’s side. It wasn’t legally crazy, but in terms of cost effectiveness you could save a lot more lives with that kind of money somewhere else. But it wasn’t legally crazy, and they might have gotten it.
I was basically trying to sell the manager on giving the environmental group another win, one that was just as much a win for them, just as much a humiliation of the company, less expensive, and better for the environment. I basically said, “Look, they’ve got you by the short hairs, and they know it, and they’re going to get that value out of this, but they would rather do something that was more valuable than less valuable, and you’d rather do something that was cheaper than more expensive, so there is room here for you to lose a different fight that costs you less and gains them more.” What was getting in the way was that the executive I was working with didn’t want to lose any fights. He was fighting the environmentalists. At one point I said, “If you keep doing this you’re going to wind up installing the $60 million piece of equipment.” And he said, “I would rather waste $60 million than hand these sons of bitches victory on a silver platter.”
It isn’t surprising any more, but it was surprising to me the first twenty times this kind of thing happened. Now I find this extremely common. It’s almost reassuring. The older I get, the more I feel, okay, the lesson here is that people are people and we all put our pants on one leg at a time. The kinds of human frailties that we come to expect in each other, we ought to expect in CEOs and presidents and other people. It’s kind of like a kid discovering that the grown-ups don’t know that much more than the kid does. In the case of corporations, I was discovering that I’d thought they were very sharp, very shrewd, very competent and very evil. And I found that I was wrong about all four!
Kendall: When you made that change, from working primarily for environmental organizations to working for the same people that you used to help campaign against, knowing all that you know about how your values and beliefs or at least thoughts were likely to change, how did you do that emotionally?
Sandman: I did it slowly. And originally, I did it reluctantly. When I started out at Rutgers, Michael Greenberg, a faculty member in urban planning, was an expert on cancer epidemiology. He was very often a news source in media stories on New Jersey as “cancer alley.” He felt that he was often misquoted, and he became very interested in the process by which the media processed environmental content. It was not his field, and he went looking for people who would study that with him. And he found David Sachsman in the journalism department. David Sachsman called me and said, “This is really your field, Sandman, not mine. Greenberg wants to learn how to do the work; do you want to do this?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, the money’s going to come from industry, isn’t it?” And he said, “Yeah.”
I thought about it a long time, and then I said, “I’ll do it but I want to make sure you and Mike understand right now that the first time one of these industry people tries to change something in a report to make it more pro-industry, I’m out of here, and I’m going to call The New York Times and blow the whistle. I’m not going to let these bastards compromise my integrity.” And Sachsman said all right, and Greenberg said, “You’re going to learn something, Sandman. They’re going to be delighted to have your opinion uncompromised. It’s not as if anyone reads these reports anyhow, and they’re looking to learn. They’re going to want to know the truth. They’re not going to tell you to hedge the truth.” I said, “Well, I don’t believe that, I’ve been an activist for several years now, and I think those people lie a lot, and I think they’re going to try to make me lie, and I’m just warning you in advance that I won’t be willing to lie.” He said fine.
And I went out of my way both in proposals and in reports to find unnecessarily nasty ways of framing things, because I was really, really looking for ways to push these funders to show their real colors. And I don’t know if they ever even read the stuff, but they certainly never objected to it. I was just waiting for the inevitable battle and then I’d quit, but three years went by, four years went by, and there I was doing it.
Kendall: You said that you wouldn’t let working on industry-funded research “compromise your integrity.” What does integrity mean to you, and what would be an example of compromising your integrity?
Sandman: The core example that that quote raises is hedging what I have to say. In that example, industry was interested in the research we were doing, but I was worried that the industry funders would want the study to reach predetermined conclusions that were conducive or comfortable to their ideology and goals. I was worried that they would be happier with a study that said “the media sensationalize and the public is stupid” than with a study that said “industry lies and the public is right not to trust them” – I am wielding stereotypes here. So my concern as a consultant and as a researcher is mostly about the integrity of what I say and what I do.
My wife is a psychiatrist, and she says you ought not to be a psychiatrist if you don’t like working with crazy people. In a similar way, you ought not to be a consultant if you don’t like working with people who have been misbehaving – at least not my kind of consultant. Companies don’t call me unless there is something going wrong. And usually when there is something going wrong, they’ve done something wrong. But it isn’t my notion of integrity that you shouldn’t help bad guys. I mean, bad guys are the ones who need the help. But you shouldn’t help them be more bad. And above all you should deal straight. I am enormously committed to saying exactly what I think at all times. I don’t care nearly as much who I say it to as I care what I say.
To go slightly off the subject, I often sign confidentiality agreements in which I promise not to reveal a corporate client’s secrets. It has always been clear to me that if I get really awful client secrets – if I find that the client is doing something that is killing people – I’m going to have to break my confidentiality agreement rather than allow that to continue. I would try to talk the company into going public itself, but if I failed and the company said, “No we are going to keep this secret and we are even going to keep doing it,” I would have to break the confidentiality agreement. That comes up very rarely.
But an issue that comes up more commonly is that the company doesn’t want me to reveal what I advised, because they’re not taking all of my advice. They don’t want to be in a position where hiring me is an additional liability, where listening to my advice gets them into trouble if they don’t take it. And that’s not foolish of them. When companies hire you to give advice, you’re giving confidential, proprietary advice. You’re saying, “I think you should do x, y, and z,” and you’re not supposed to be in the newspapers saying, “I told them I think they should do x, y and z,” because thereafter if they only do x, there will be editorials saying “Their own consultant told them to do y and z and they didn’t do it.” Nobody could afford to get advice if they were going to get into trouble for not taking it.
But I always try to say to clients, “Look, if you keep it confidential that I’m advising you, we don’t have a problem. But if you tell people that I’m advising you, I reserve the right to tell people what my advice was. By hiring me as a consultant, I don’t want you to buy the right to say, ‘We’re working with Sandman’ when you’re not taking my advice. If the advice is proprietary and the fact that you are getting it is also proprietary, fine. But as soon as you go public that you’re getting it, I reserve the right to go public with what it was. But if we are keeping it private that I am working for you, while I won’t go public with what I advised you, I reserve the right at some later date as a citizen to go public with what I think you should have done, but not with the fact that I told you to do it.
Now, all that may be insider baseball, but it’s all part of my sense that the most important thing to me is that I am free to say what I think, and that what I think and what I said don’t get misrepresented. Obviously integrity is more than that, but certainly my integrity as a consultant is mostly about that.
Kendall: Now that you’re working with industry, do you feel that you’re “sleeping with the enemy,” or do you think that your clients are basically good people doing good things, who just make mistakes and need help in reforming?
Sandman: I’d say about 75% the second, and 25% the first. There are certainly occasions when it seems to me that my clients are more than making mistakes, but even then I don’t usually find them to be self-awarely evil. Only half a dozen times in my entire life have I had a client that it seemed to me was knowingly, intentionally, consciously, doing evil things. It has happened, but only half a dozen times.
More often, it’s self-deceptive. They’re doing evil things and they can’t see it, and then I try to help them see it. Some of my proudest moments are when I’ve been able to persuade a client that not only is something they were doing going to backfire, but it’s wrong. It’s not something they’d want their kids to know about. Sometimes all I have to do is show them what they’re doing in a way that’s phrased less delicately, and they say, “I’m not doing that,” and I say, “Yeah, you are.” And they’ll look and look and then say, “You’re right. That’s not right.” And it’ll change. So, I’d say self-aware evil once in a while, self-deception pretty often, and just screw-ups an awful lot.
A good example is a client I’m working with now. This facility was emitting things it wasn’t permitted to emit, for years. And the environmental manager and the plant manager lied about it, not just to the government – they have to file reports every year, about what they were emitting, and they just lied – and they also lied to corporate management.
And the stuff they were emitting, they probably could have gotten permits for. It wasn’t terribly dangerous stuff, they just weren’t permitted for it. If they’d just said, “It would cost much too much money to stop,” and if they’d jumped through the permit application hoops. . . but they were understaffed, and they were lazy, and they thought environmental regulation was all stupid, so they lied! They cheated, they signed false oaths, they committed perjury, and they lied not only to the government, but also to the company.
I got called two years ago, two days after the company’s vice president for health, safety, and environment discovered the problem. He had already fired the plant manager, and he’d fired the plant environmental manager, and a whole bunch of people, and he’d already called the lawyer. He’d already informed the EPA and DEP, [saying,] “We don’t know how bad it is yet, but we have just discovered that this plant has been operating against the law for at least four years and maybe longer. We fired the relevant people, we’re going to have more data for you, we don’t know yet if it is a serious health problem or not, but it is certainly a serious violation.” And then they called me.
The guy had read a lot of my stuff and he had previously been at a company I’d worked with. He said, there’s going to be a lot of outrage, regulatory outrage and community outrage, but we don’t know yet whether it’s going to be justified. We don’t know if it’s going to turn out to be a significant hazard. [The question was] do we tell the community before we know whether it’s serious, or do we try and find out whether there’s a health risk before we tell the community? Not an easy decision, there were good arguments to be made either way.
That was two years ago, and I’ve been working with them routinely on this problem ever since. They paid a huge, multimillion-dollar fine. They did a study which found that the hazard was very small. They then passed that on to the government, which did its own study that found that the hazard was very small, and they then funded a community group that did a study that found that the hazard was very small. The company has consistently, with my help, taken the position that that’s lucky, but it doesn’t change anything. They’ve taken the position that, thank God, they didn’t do a lot of harm, but they weren’t in control; the plant was being run by crooks, who clearly didn’t give a damn, and if it had been dangerous they wouldn’t have known it, they were just lucky. And this huge fine is absolutely justified, notwithstanding the fact that the hazard is slim, because the failure of management has been atrocious. And they’ve been using words like that, phrases like that, and it’s pretty much over. And yeah, I think that’s good work! (laughs)
If the local guy who’d been hiding it had called me and said, “Look, I’ve been hiding this for years, and they just discovered it, and now I’m going to be creamed, can you help me?” I don’t know whether I would help him. It would depend on the extent to which he was willing to acknowledge how awful what he had done was.
The company really did screw up. In hindsight – and this is something I’ve tried to get them to say publicly – they had warnings. It should not have gone on for years without them knowing. They didn’t want to see it. I think they didn’t see it. I don’t think they saw it and closed their eyes. I think they were genuinely shocked, but they shouldn’t have been. In hindsight there were lots of clues that they missed, enough clues that they missed that they needed to revamp their corporate surveillance program – and now they have. The relationship between corporate headquarters and the local facilities had become much too decentralized. So, was there any evil there? Yeah, on the part of the local [managers] there was evil. On the part of my client, not that I can think of. But there was something more than making mistakes: they were closing their eyes.
Kendall: But isn’t closing your eyes also evil if you’re responsible for preventing evil and the only way to do that is to keep your eyes open? It sounds as if your client deliberately avoided legal and moral responsibility to prevent harm to the community. How can that not be morally objectionable?
Sandman: The answer depends on whether you believe in self-deception, whether you believe that powerful corporate leaders are also human and self-deceptive. If you close your eyes on purpose to a problem, you are fully complicit in a problem. If you close your eyes on purpose to an evil, you are fully complicit in that evil. If you sort of know and have reason to know and ought to know that your husband is abusing your daughter, but you can’t bear to fight with your husband and you can’t leave your husband and you let him abuse your daughter for years, and you close your eyes, yes, you’re evil.
But there is a distinction with lots of gradations between intentionally closing your eyes and deceiving yourself into thinking that there is nothing there to see. In the case that you are asking about, it’s fairly clear to me that this particular corporate leadership was far from intentionally closing their eyes. They thought it was enormously important to have an environmentally legal, environmentally appropriate, and environmentally sound operation. They did not want to be in violation of environmental law, and they certainly didn’t want to endanger anybody’s health. They took that really seriously.
The particular individual involved took it seriously for reasons that had less to do with profitability than with that fact that he was the corporate health, safety, and environment guy. He didn’t care all that much whether the company made money – that was somebody else’s department. He cared that the company didn’t hurt anybody. His reputation and his stake was entirely in the direction of compliance and even doing better than compliance, being an environmental leader. His self-esteem was very much grounded in doing that right. And he thought he was doing it right. He should have known better.
In hindsight, looking at the incentive system, [we can see] how easy it was for local management to misrepresent the situation. They did audits periodically and the audits would find problems and those problems would get fixed, and in hindsight it is reasonably clear that where your audits are finding problems, you probably ought to go back and see what the audits are missing, because those are facilities that have more than their share of problems. There are a variety of things that in hindsight one can say – and we did say and he did say – should have been straws in the wind. They should have been yellow flags – not red flags – it’s not like he had a smoking gun and closed his eyes. What he had was something enormously less than a smoking gun but more than nothing.
He did not close his eyes on purpose. He was vulnerable to self-deception; he imagined he ran a good operation; he imagined that the people he had working under him were honest. He neglected to respond appropriately to early signals that something might be wrong. And he’s accountable for that, but it isn’t evil. It’s error.
Kendall: Some environmentalists and left-leaning critics seem to feel betrayed because they perceive that you’ve gone from being on “our” side to being on “their” side. On the other hand, it’s possible that people for whom you consult may feel that they’ve “won you over.” Do you make such distinctions between factions, or do you see any value for anyone in making such an us/them distinction?
Sandman: Well, I notice that the distinctions are there, but I’m not on any side. I’m for hire. And I work for NGOs [nongovernmental organizations, or activist groups] for much less money than I work for corporations, partly because they don’t have the money, and partly because it does me good to continue to work for both sides.
I have worked for Environmental Defense, which some more radical groups consider to be not really an activist group, but I think it is. I’ve worked for them for decades. I have worked for Greenpeace, and would again with great pleasure.
So no, I haven’t gone over to the other side. I am a risk communication specialist who is happy to help any side, and I don’t decide who to help by what side they’re on. I decide who to help by what they want me to do and whether I think it’s honorable. So if the anti-tobacco people wanted me to do something I thought was dishonorable, I would say no. And if the pro-tobacco people wanted me to do something honorable – which is hard to imagine, but if it happened – I would probably say yes, because my standard is what you’re asking me to do, not what side you’re on.
Kendall: So, does that kind of polarization help anyone’s communication strategies?
Sandman: Well, it’s just inevitable. As I said earlier, I’m weird in having a weak sense of constituency and a strong sense of autonomy. Most people are much more normal, and wouldn’t sleep well if they didn’t know what side they were on. You grow up and your parents teach you what your religion is, and what your address is, and what your gender is, and you wouldn’t be happy if they said, “You can choose your religion and your address and your gender later, and for now it’s indeterminate.” You want to get those things nailed down – some people have more trouble than other people, but you try to get them nailed down. Your identity is in large part your group identity. Someone who is not highly sensitive to group identity is sort of statistically weird and shouldn’t be critical of everybody else. I think it’s inevitable that activists see themselves as a group, and allegiance to the group matters more to normal people, more, certainly, than your position on the specific issue, and probably it matters more than the outcome.
You ponder why it is that there’s one group of people who think that killing fetuses is fine, but killing animals is awful, and another group that thinks killing animals is fine, but killing fetuses is awful…as if they weren’t awfully similar. And the two positions that seem almost automatically more logical, which are: “I don’t like killing anything,” and “I don’t care what you kill,” are extremely uncommon. Most people who don’t care about fetuses do care about animals, and most people who don’t care about animals do care about fetuses, and that’s constituency. The left adopted animals, and the right adopted fetuses. So you don’t have to try and think it through, you just know what team you’re on. You know, you’re on the red team or the blue team and you obey the rules of your team. So, I’m not against that, that’s just the way people are. But I am less that way than most people, and that makes me lonely in some ways and useful in others.
Kendall: I’m wanting to ask a question that is not written down, which is something like this: Deep down, in your heart of hearts, aren’t you committed to the environment? Aren’t you really on our side?
Sandman: (laughs) Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I am committed to the environment, and I am not committed to the environmental movement. My commitment to the environment doesn’t look to environmentalists like commitment, because they are committed to the movement. Should I decide that I have this position on global warming but this position on SUVs, and it seems to me that overpopulation matters in this way but not in that way, if I slice and dice ‘em in the way that makes sense to me, that will feel to me like a commitment to the environment, but it won’t look to environmentalists like that, because it’s not a commitment to the agenda, it’s not a reliable foot soldier commitment. We all have to decide – it’s not enough to be committed to the environment, you have to decide what “being committed to the environment” means.
I don’t know if you’ve read much of Gregg Easterbrook’s stuff. Easterbrook is much hated by the environmental movement, because he argues that the movement is wrong-headed in a variety of ways, and is pushing the society to waste money on trivial environmental issues while ignoring environmental issues of enormously greater importance, because they are not on the agenda. And the environmental movement sees Easterbrook as an anti-environmentalist.
Easterbrook sees Easterbook as having a different judgment as to what ought to matter in the environmental arena than the movement thinks. There’s something called the Group of Seven, the heads of the seven major environmental groups in the United States, which meets once a week for lunch in Washington, and decides, I’ll work on this and you’ll work on that, and no one’s going to touch this other. (By the way, if industry did that, it might be considered restraint of trade, but we don’t care when activists do it.) It’s pretty orchestrated. And somebody like Easterbrook, who says, “Well, I just sort of read widely, reach opinions, and they’re idiosyncratic, and I agree with the green position on A and B, but I disagree with the green position on C and D” – he gets called an anti-environmentalist. And understandably, because he is not reliable. I am similarly not reliable. I don’t know nearly as much as Easterbrook does, so I haven’t reached as firm opinions as he has reached on as many topics. But I am, like him, inclined to decide for myself, and that makes me not an environmentalist, even though, yeah, I’m committed to the environment.
Almost everybody is “committed to the environment.” Remember, the people running the corporations, they’re in their fifties, so how old were they in 1970? They’re all children of Earth Day. They’re all environmentalists. The CEOs of huge corporations aren’t faking it when they say they care about the environment. They are not lying. They raise their kids to care about the environment. They care, but they think the environmental movement, so-called, has hijacked environmental issues in a cockamamie direction, and is pushing for a bunch of things that wouldn’t much help the environment, that would do more to hurt corporations than help the environment. The fact that they think that doesn’t make them right, but you have to notice they really mean it. And there’s some truth in it.
I could give you another example. There’s research going on at Princeton now, on finding a technical solution to climate change. The question is, in a nutshell, “Is there something we could put into the air that would neutralize the things that are going into the air, and prevent those things from causing climate change?” This is research that’s funded by huge corporations. It is research that the environmental movement considers evil.
It’s interesting, you get a Greenpeace person and you say, “Let’s suppose they could find something – dimethylmeatloaf, and they seed the air with dimethylmeatloaf – and you don’t have climate change, and the internal combustion engine is okay (until we run out of oil). Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?” And the Greenpeace person says, “That would be a bad thing, because we want to defeat the internal combustion engine, and technical fixes are dangerous, and as a matter of ideology, if you find something to put into the air, it will wind up having negative effects down the road. We don’t want to solve this problem with technology, or at least not high technology, we want to solve it with appropriate technology.” They’ll express the opinion, which is very likely true, that there isn’t going to be any stuff you could put in the air to stop climate change. All right, fine, maybe there won’t be, but the interesting question is, if there were, would you be for it or against it?
Environmentalists would be against it. And corporations would be for it, for an obvious reason, because then they could have their internal combustion engine and eat it too! They want that. But if you’re not thinking constituency, if you’re not trying to decide are you with corporate America or activist America, if you’re only trying to decide if you want to solve climate change, you would want to see that research move forward and you would hope it succeeds.
Kendall: You said, “Everybody is committed to the environment. The CEOs of huge corporations aren’t faking it.” But isn’t there more to being an environmentalist than simply thinking you are one? Wouldn’t one need to have a belief in protecting or improving the natural environment and more importantly wouldn’t an environmentalist need to take action? When you look at the actions of Shell in Nigeria and Brent Spar for example, it strains credibility to call the actions environmentalist, regardless of the image that the executives might have of themselves. Even if the CEOs aren’t lying when they say they care about the environment, they could be wrong about strength of their convictions. So what difference does that make if they think they are environmentalists?
Sandman: I think that is all true. I think there are people who claim to care about the environment, but when you look at their behavior, there is a clear pattern of environmental irresponsibility. They might be lying or they might be self-deceptive. Self-deceptive is probably more likely, but their claim that they care about the environment certainly isn’t valid.
That’s different from people who say, “I care about the environment but my vision of what’s good for the environment and your vision of what is good for the environment are different. I am reaching my own judgments about these issues and they’re different from your judgments. I will argue with you about which is better for the environment, but that argument has to be grounded in respect for each other’s sincerity. I won’t claim you’re just doing it because you’re employed by Greenpeace, and you won’t claim I’m just doing it because I am employed by Shell. We’ll put aside the fact that Shell constrains what I’m allowed to say and Greenpeace constrains what you’re allowed to say and we’ll give us both credit for sincerity, and we’ll compare our respective visions of what’s good for the environment on the merits.” That’s different.
You look at an issue like genetically modified foods, for example. You can make a good case that genetically modified foods are bad for the environment, and you can make a good case that genetically modified foods are good for the environment. They are different cases, grounded in different values and expectations, grounded largely in different visions about possible gain versus possible loss. People who say, “GM foods are good for the environment” are saying, “We may be able to do wonderful things with GM foods if we develop this technology.” So they’re looking at hypothetical future gains. The people who think GM foods are bad for the environment say, “This may turn out to be disastrous in ways we can’t predict.” They’re looking at hypothetical future losses. And both are valid. We have very little evidence that genetically modified foods actually do harm in the here and now, but they might, and we have very little evidence that they’ve done any good, but they might. But we have two different visions of the environment, one of which is essentially pessimistic and precautionary, and the other which is optimistic and incrementalist. Both of those are environmental visions. That’s not the same as self-deception. That’s having different value systems.
And there’s another situation which would be someone who says, “I care about the environment but you can’t get through life making one value your summum bonum”. Caring about the environment doesn’t mean sacrificing everything for the environment. I care about safety, but I still drive my car even though I know that it’s not safe. I actually drive faster than 2 miles an hour even though I know that 2 miles an hour is probably a safer speed than 10, and 10 is safer than 20, and 20 is safer than 40, but I still go 40 pretty often because in addition to caring about safety, I also care about getting there in reasonable time. And in much the same way, people can without hypocrisy say, “My environmental concern is genuine but it is not unconditional and has to be balanced against other concerns.”
One of the most vivid ways of making that claim is to point out the very solid data – that environmental activists hate to grapple with – on the relationship between the wealth of a society and its environmental quality. That is, one of the easiest ways to make sure that a society will protect the environment is to make sure that it does extremely well economically. There’s a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy where, you know, starving people do not worry about environment. In his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin says that we’ll all burn the trees if we need to in order to heat some food for our children, and the hell with the next generation’s need for the forest. There is very good evidence that societies that do well economically are far likelier to protect the environment than societies that don’t do well economically. Corporate apologists argue that we need to preserve jobs, we need to build the economy, we need an industrial capacity, and so on. But economic success is not a summum bonum either; you can’t make that your unqualified goal either. But just because you’re willing to do something that does a certain amount of environmental harm because you think it does sufficient compensating good somewhere else so that it’s worth it, doesn’t make you a liar or even self-deceptive about your environmentalism.
In summary, you might be lying, you might be deceiving yourself, you might have a different vision of the environment, or you might think that the environment is one of your values but not your only value. Those are four different situations.
Kendall: Earlier you said, “We all have to decide. It’s not enough to be committed to environment – you have to decide what being committed to the environment means.” How do you avoid falling into moral or ethical relativism in this position?
Sandman: You don’t. You don’t avoid it. If you’re looking at situations as they come along and you’re focusing on the particulars, you’re very likely to wind up a relativist. If you’re ignoring the particulars, you’re very likely to wind up absolutist. This gets to be excessively abstract, but absolutism and relativism have both been appropriately condemned as inadequate.
You sort of have to be relativist about the distinction between absolutism and relativism. If you’re always a relativist and you have no absolutes, you’ve lost your anchor. If you’re always an absolutist and you’re ignoring the particulars of the situation, you’re weighed down by your anchor, and you’re probably not going to get where you want to go. Grown-ups, all the time, face dilemmas in which their fundamental values don’t seem conducive to something important. Their fundamental values are pushing them in one direction and the particulars of the situation are pushing them in another direction. If they don’t notice both sides of that and cope with the ambivalence, they are not grown-ups. They either fall into perpetual relativism or they are over-anchored by absolutism. If you look at particulars, you’re at risk of relativism. If you’re not willing to risk relativism, you are not going to be very useful at resolving problems.
You’ll be useful in another way – it’s handy to have absolutists in the world. Absolutists are useful people. People who stand very rigidly on very narrow principles and refuse to look at the difficult cases are very useful. They cast a clear light, but you don’t want them in charge of things.
The danger of paying attention to particulars is that you will lose your anchor. The danger of not paying attention to particulars is that you will oversimplify the world excessively. If you try to be a grown-up you have to confront both dangers and not fall into either extreme.
Kendall: In your case, if you’re slicing and dicing the issues as you see fit, how do you know when you’ve reached ethical conclusions?
Sandman: I am a consultant: I tell people what I think and then I go home. I am able to be very candid, even very absolutist, more absolutist than I could in my clients’ shoes. I tend to be absolutist about process variables more than outcome variables, because I know more about them and I care more about them. So I’m up there saying, “You have to be and you ought to be totally candid!” And then my client comes up with a situation where total candor is going to be devastatingly damaging. I had this with a terrorism situation: total candor was going to freak out the population and get in the way of managing the situation, and if the client just waited a couple of hours until they knew more, they wouldn’t have to be so candid about how little they knew. As a consultant, I’m able to be fairly absolutist about the importance of candor, but I need to notice that my clients can’t afford to always be as absolutist as my advice tends to be. Part of the answer to how I avoid being too relativist is, I am a consultant, so it’s not hard to avoid.
It is possible to lose your way. If you see the world in too many shades of gray it is possible to lose your clarity of vision. If you insist on your clarity of vision at the expense of seeing shades of gray, you’ve got clarity of vision, but it’s not very realistic vision. Emerson said hundreds of years ago – this is not a quote but a paraphrase – that the key task is to see in shades of gray and act in black and white. Make difficult discriminations, see the shades of gray, but once you’ve decided, draw clear lines. I think that’s very good advice. It’s mature advice from someone who I think had seen the dangers of both sides.
Kendall: You used to teach a course in which you talked about behavioral commitments and cognitive dissonance. You said that people routinely seek out belief systems or reasons to support their actions, rather than finding actions to support their beliefs. In your own case now, could it be that you’ve built a moral and ethical case to support your working for companies who are misbehaving?
Sandman: Yes it could be. It’s clear that, at the beginning, my cognitive dissonance was all operating in the other direction. There were years in which I was trying to come up with a rationale for getting out of this compromising activity and going back to my comfort level as an activist sympathizer, an academic giving aid and comfort to one side of the fight and stereotyping the other side. I was much more comfortable. In the early years of my work with industry, the dissonance was all going in that direction. Now I spend a lot of time working with industry and yes, it is possible I’m misleading myself – absolutely! One thing operating against it is that I continue to work with activists, so I am hearing from that constituency as well. I think it would be much more dangerous for me if I were working on only one side of the street.
Another thing working against it is that I am by disposition fiercely independent. I said earlier anybody who makes outrage a key intellectual concept in his system is clearly a prickly person, and I am. One of the things that protects me from becoming too facile a servant of my clients is that I get irritable easily. I may do this too much and I’m not sure whether this is a virtue or a failing, but I take seriously how clients treat me as a very likely indicator of how they are behaving in the world. If clients are less than straight with me about logistics or less than straight with me about price, if they don’t seem to understand or respect my side in our business arrangements, then I’m inclined to say they are probably in the wrong in their dealings with stakeholders too. If they’re dealing with me in a way that makes me angry I see that as a sign.
I have very finely tuned antennae for outrage. That’s why I got interested in it, because I am very vulnerable to it. I get outraged easily, so I became interested in understanding the dynamics of outrage, how to create it, reduce it and manage it. I use my own outrage. It’s not an infallible indicator – sometimes it’s just that I’m in a bad mood or having a bad day -- but it’s a useful indicator of what is probably going on between my clients and their various publics.
Kendall: Bob Burton at PR Watch apparently thinks you have sold out. What would you say about that?
Sandman: Well, the case that I’ve sold out is that clearly, I’m making a pile of money. There’s no question about that.
I started out in life also believing that you don’t get to do well and do good at the same time, and you have to choose between those two. If you believe that, anyone who is doing well is not doing good. I think that I’ve found a niche – I didn’t know it when I crawled into it – where speaking truth to power, as a consultant, pays.
“Speaking truth to power” is an old Quaker term, and to me the remarkable thing is that I’m very often saying the same thing to my clients that their enemies are saying, only my clients are paying me a lot of money, and I’m trying to say it in a way that they can hear.
Bottom line is, no, I don’t think I’ve sold out. I continue to be prickly. Anyone who makes the concept of outrage the core of his intellectual work is probably prickly. I fire clients often. Clients fire me often because I was too much of a pain in the neck for them. And some of that, frankly, is probably my effort to prove to myself that I am not selling out. My wife will point out to me sometimes that I have picked a fight with a client in a situation where it was reasonably clear, at least in hindsight, that I could have made the point I needed to make and protected the integrity I needed to protect, without picking a fight. Periodically I’ll pick a fight with a client so I can go home and say, “Lost that client!” and feel, All right, see? I am still me. And that’s frankly childish, but it serves to reassure me that I am more attached to my prickliness than I am to my income.
But it’s got to be terribly irritating, if you’re outside some company’s headquarters marching around in a circle yelling at them that they are not listening, and they should listen, and you’re cold and you’re wet, and you’re certainly not getting paid for your time, and here’s this guy in a Brooks Brothers suit on the inside, saying, “You know, you really should listen,” and getting six hundred and fifty dollars an hour. It’s got to be infuriating. But I am telling them to listen.
And Burton [who wrote a critique of Sandman in PR Watch] had a hard time figuring out what it was he could accuse me of doing, given that I was telling clients to pay more attention to him and his allies. He had to get very convoluted and say, “Well, yeah, paying attention to us is a tactic for not giving us what we want.” Well, I don’t know, they’re marching around on the outside saying, “Pay attention to us,” and I’m inside saying, “Pay attention to them,” and it sounds like I’m rooting for them.
Do you know who Marcuse was? Herbert Marcuse was a radical philosopher, or at least a radical philosophy professor in San Diego. During the anti-war movement – the previous anti-war movement, the real anti-war movement –
Kendall: Our anti-war movement…
Sandman: Exactly! Marcuse argued that reform and reformers were the enemy of revolution. Which is certainly true. I can remember when a very rigid and right-wing president of San Francisco State University was fired, and he was replaced by a man who was much more moderate. And Marcuse and radicals generally saw that as a step in the wrong direction, because with a rigid, right-wing president, they could foment rebellion, but with an accommodationist, reformist, responsive, liberal president, it was harder. If you want a revolution you don’t want a bunch of reformists hanging out and telling the people you want to lead the revolution against that they should listen harder, and be more responsive.
I don’t want a revolution. I do want reform. So essentially, bottom line, I’m a reformer, so revolutionaries should disapprove of me. And I’m making a lot of money, so anybody who isn’t making a lot of money is going to disapprove of me. And insofar as I am actually saying the same thing they are, and getting paid for it, that’s got to be not an amelioration of my sin but an exacerbation of it.
Kendall: Is reform best achieved through compromise rather than revolution?
Sandman: Oh, I think so. Revolution has a terrible record. It gets change, but usually we don’t like the change it gets. Revolution tends to produce what the word implies, you know, the circle turns and other people are on top.
But I am a reformist, and I will say that reformists get their power from the existence of revolutionaries. It’s perfectly clear that Martin Luther King had a real impact on society because Stokely Carmichael was hanging out saying King was selling out. The AFL-CIO had impact because the Wobblies were there. NOW had impact because the radical feminist groups were around. In the ecosystem of social change, somebody’s got to be out there, very pure, very unreasonable, very unwilling to compromise, very ideological, and very prickly. And somebody’s got to cut a deal. And the people who cut a deal only get to cut a deal because there are revolutionaries in the yard.
Now, I don’t do either one. I don’t cut the deal, either. I’m in there paid by the hour to say, “You ought to listen to the revolutionaries and then cut a deal with the reformers.”
I approve of Burton considerably more than he approves of me. I see his role as absolutely essential to social change. There is no social change without revolutionaries, but the social change you get, if you’re lucky, isn’t a revolution. It’s incremental, progressive reform – under the threat of revolution.
Kendall: Is the reformist path one that you recommend for others?
Sandman: Well, I sort of just said it’s an ecosystem. We need to fill all the niches. There’s no shortage of reformers and no shortage of revolutionaries. We’ve got plenty of both. If I were advising my child on a career, I don’t know that I’d recommend either. Being who I am, I would say, you go where your values take you. Most people don’t, of course, they go where their constituency takes them. But in either case, there isn’t anybody sitting there saying, “Shall I be a reformer, shall I be a revolutionary, which pays better?” It’s not like, “Shall I go into computer programming or would I be better off going into finance?” Your politics are what they are, whether they are determined by your values or your peer group, and they take you where they take you.
And, obviously, just to say something everybody knows, the natural course of events is to get more conservative as you get older. My movement from the left to the right is much less interesting than if I had moved the other way. I think it was Churchill who said, “If you’re not on the left in your twenties, there’s something wrong with your heart, and if you’re not on the right in your fifties, there is something wrong with your head.” And there’s a modest amount of truth in that.
Now, I don’t see myself as on the right. But the left sees me as being on the right. I certainly don’t see myself as being on the left, but that’s back to the old problem. I don’t see myself as belonging to any constituency.
But I will say that my political values were most left in the late sixties and early seventies, when I was a grad student on the west coast and first teaching at Michigan. I started at Rutgers in ‘77 and had already cut my hair, and shaved my beard. I was a single father of two little girls, and I was beginning to behave responsibly. My personal political values are appreciably further to the right than they were then, but it’s not like I can talk to right-wing ideologues without going crazy. I can’t talk to ideologues on either side without going crazy.
Kendall: It sounds as if you’re more Libertarian.
Sandman: Well, no… Libertarian ideologues make me crazy too. I am a reformist! I reach narrowly construed opinions on narrowly defined questions, and ground my opinions in values rather than in memberships, and when a new issue comes up, like the war in Iraq, I don’t know what I think for quite some time. Because I haven’t got a firm ideology or a firm peer group to tell me what to think, so I have to decide, you know, fresh. It’d be nice if I could say, well, Bush is lying; therefore I’m against the war. But all presidents lie! You can’t be against everything they do for that reason. You’d be against absolutely everything that anybody in authority does.
I’ll tell you, for what it’s worth, everybody I hear speak on an issue moves me towards the other side. When I hear Bush talk, I’m against the war. When I hear the people who are demonstrating in the mall talk, I’m for the war. One of the reasons I like Gregg Easterbrook is that he doesn’t have that effect on me, because he also is valuing and positioning himself thoughtfully and unpredictably based on what he’s decided after looking at the evidence.
Copyright © 2003 by The Sun
A shorter version of this interview was published as “Risky Business: Peter Sandman on Corporate Misbehavior and Public Outrage” and is available on this website. I think The Sun’s editors did a superb job – the two interviews can be examined side-by-side as an example of the editor’s craft – but they still had to leave a lot out.
Four letters-to-the-editor responding to the published version were in the April 2004 issue of The Sun, together with my response.