2001 Guestbook
Comments and Responses

What did Rudy Giuliani do right?

name:David Kurland
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Date:December 28, 2001
Location:Pennsylvannia, U.S.


Before Sept 11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was not very popular, and had some serious problems with credibility and popularity. After his handling of the atrocities, he’s a hero. What do you think he did right?

Peter responds:

Of course part of the widespread admiration for Giuliani is simply how badly New Yorkers and the rest of us needed to believe in our leaders in the wake of September 11. It’s like the inevitable rise in Presidential popularity in wartime.

And part of it is that Giuliani’s long-standing virtues were just what we needed in a crisis. His personal style – calm, steely command – worked better for a deeply wounded and necessarily united New York than it had for a more optimistic and individualistic New York. It’s not clear to me whether calm, steely command will be what we want over the long run either. I suspect a more collaborative style will be needed for the long-term battle against terrorism.

But Giuliani also showed two unexpected virtues in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. First, he showed compassion. I have no idea if he is generally a compassionate man. He had not projected a compassionate image prior to the attacks. After the attacks, compassion was as badly needed as calm leadership, and to the surprise of many Giuliani had it and could show it.

The other unexpected virtue has been less commented upon, but I think it was critical both to our new admiration for Giuliani and to our ability to recover from September 11. In the wake of the attacks, Americans were more miserable, even depressed, than we were frightened. Our reaction focused less on the fear that we might be next than on the awful reality that so many had died so horribly while we watched, and that others might die just as horribly in future attacks, while we would again have to watch. Giuliani modeled coping with misery: feeling it, not denying it; but bearing it, not crumpling under the burden. The moment that crystalized his leadership came only hours after the attacks, when he was asked to estimate how many had died at the World Trade Center. “More than we can bear,” he said, bearing it. Of course a mayor who couldn’t bear it would not have been able to lead us. But a mayor who found it easy to bear, who seemed not to feel the misery, would not have been able to lead us either.

Risk to children and other specially vulnerable populations; also environmental justice

Date:December 7, 2001
Location:Minnesota, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

I would enjoy more information about how to respond specifically to claims of environmental injustice.


Great site with lots of information. Thanks for making it available.

Sometimes risks from exposure to chemicals are greater for children than for adults. How should this information be presented? Is it ever ethical to not present information on the possibility of children’s unique vulnerabilities to a chemical?

Peter responds:

Children are a specially vulnerable population in two senses: They are often at greater hazard, and their vulnerability virtually always provokes greater outrage. Largely because of the second difference, ignoring the first is seen as a very serious ethical infraction. You must say so if you know you are dealing with a risk to which children are especially susceptible (typically because their bodies are still growing, though there are other reasons – children’s diets, for example, include far more milk, fruit juice, and soil than adults’ diets). If you don’t know, you must try to find out. And even if children are no more vulnerable than adults to the risk in question, you must nonetheless make a special effort to protect them.

The uniqueness of children’s risk inevitably makes them frequent pawns in risk controversies. When the Natural Resources Defense Council launched a campaign against pesticides and related compounds in 1989, for example, it intentionally chose to focus its attack on Alar, a chemical then used by the apple industry – precisely because children drink so much apple juice. Defenders of a controversial technology are likelier to concentrate on the risk to the “average person,” ignoring especially vulnerable populations as statistical outliers. Neither decision is flat-out unethical; but neither is neutral, either.

Nor is it neutral to look at the entire population, throwing together the especially vulnerable and the less vulnerable. The risk of radon, for example, is disproportionately great for smokers, because the radon hitchhikes to the lungs on smoke particles. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started urging homeowners to test for radon in the mid-1980s, it initially decided to conflate smoker and non-smoker risk. The goal was to make non-smokers feel at greater risk than they actually were, and thus to encourage them to take protective action. (Smokers were considered a lost cause.) The current controversy over smallpox vaccination, similarly, is grounded in estimates of the frequency with which the vaccine can kill. But the vaccine is far more dangerous to the elderly and the immunocompromised than it is to the rest of the population. Those who want to encourage a smallpox vaccination program focus on the fact that healthy people’s risk from vaccination is very low. Those who don’t want such a program report the statistical risk to the overall population, so the risk to vulnerable groups can make the risk to the rest of us look higher. And of course if it were kids instead of the elderly and immunocompromised who were most at risk from vaccination, pointing that out would be a good way to harness the outrage and stop the program.

The generic issue here is how to choose the denominator in a risk fraction. Hazard is calculated by dividing the frequency of the bad outcome (the numerator) by some number (the denominator) representing all those who could have been hurt. If you want to make the risk look high, pick a small denominator; if you want to make it look low, pick a big denominator. The risk of getting killed by a tornado, for example, is far greater if your denominator is golfers during a sudden Kansas storm (a small group at high risk) than if it's the U.S. population overall (a big group at low risk). Factory emissions are less hazardous to people within a ten-mile radius than they are to fenceline neighbors.

The most defensible way to handle such problems is to tell all: the risk to kids and other vulnerable populations, the risk to those who are not especially vulnerable, and the overall risk when the groups are combined. Any single risk estimate will reflect the source’s choice of one denominator among many, and that choice is likely to have been influenced by the source’s policy preferences.

I’ll save my detailed comments on environmental justice for another time. But I can’t resist a brief remark. Two things are indisputably true: that oppressed groups bear more than their share of environmental insults; and that this is unlikely to be as serious a problem for them as education, jobs, crime, etc. Companies that are embroiled in environmental justice controversies are wisest if they emphasize both points about equally – then begin, very gingerly, to move toward a bargain whereby the increasingly empowered oppressed community chooses to tolerate some environmental injustice in return for enforceable company contributions to reducing the more damaging injustices that community faces. This tradeoff is objectively a win–win. But outrage and injured self-esteem often propel oppressed communities to prefer a lose–lose, forcing the company out instead of demanding much-needed benefits as the price of staying. (Outrage and injured self-esteem can also prevent the company from acknowledging and deferring to the community’s growing power to halt environmental injustice.) That’s why moving toward a bargain is so delicate.

Workplace safety – how organizational culture affects whether employees take risk seriously

name:Elenor Snow
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index

Field:Technical editor, safety fanatic
Date:November 3, 2001
Location:Georgia, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

More articles


Reading your interview on Motivated Inattention reminded of me an incident that encapsulated for me my manager’s manager’s view of safety when I worked at a wholly-owned subsidiary of a major aerospace company providing support services at a *nuclear* facility.

Employees were told over and over than they were to STOP WORK: that they had the right, the responsibility, and the freedom to immediately Stop Work if they saw an unsafe condition or possible hazard. We were still having accidents because employees DID not and would not call a Stop Work when they found an unsafe condition – because the pressure for production and schedule outweighed the company’s lip service to employee (or environmental or nuclear) safety.

This senior manager, in a meeting with the department’s safety groups reiterated “Department policy is safety first!” But he followed it with a speech about how the people planning the work, the folks in the meeting, the ones who were NOT calling a Stop Work should have PLANNED for the unsafe condition. He made it clear (and with a straight face: I REALLY don’t think he heard himself) that if you FOUND an unsafe condition and called a Stop Work, you were indicting YOURSELF (!) for not doing a good enough job of planning for <wryly> unforeseen circumstances.…

And then he couldn’t figure out why folks would rather risk (and incur) injury than call Stop Work!! (But employees understood quite clearly that if you called a Stop Work, it meant management would conclude that you were incompetent at your job.)

Peter responds:

Your story is a terrific example of something that happens often, I think (though one hopes not too often at nuclear facilities). There are really three possible problems here:

  • Top managements that don’t mean it when they claim to put a priority on safety, and employees are hearing them right when they ignore such claims;
  • Top managements that do mean what they say about safety, but the claims are so exaggerated and surrounded by double messages that employees wrongly think they’re supposed to ignore them; and
  • Middle managers who undermine top management’s sincere safety efforts with their own commitment to productivity, hostility to the workforce, or other competing goals and values.

The specific conflict between looking on top of your job and preventing accidents is also endemic. The conflict occurs on the individual level too; there are employees and managers who would rather risk causing an accident and getting hurt than admit they’re anxious or not sure how to handle a situation. (This is perhaps analogous to men who prefer to drive around lost rather than stop for directions.) But it’s a bigger problem when the entire corporate culture is dominated by the need to appear knowledgeable, strong, confident.

Probably the most telling question is what happens to an employee who sees what looks like a risky situation, blows the whistle (perhaps literally), and turns out wrong. It’s easy to reward an employee who stops production and actually prevents a bad accident. But what about an employee whose caution turns out to have been mistaken? If unnecessary caution is punished, necessary caution won’t happen. And as your story shows, the key issue isn’t how top management sees the STOP WORK; the immediate supervisor and the supervisor’s supervisor matter more.

Guilt and ego as drivers in environmental risk controversies

Name:Jos Tissen
Field:Environmental consultant, TINA Consultants Ltd.
Date:October 26, 2001
Location:Alford, Scotland


Your book on risk communication and your various articles on the Web have been an inspiration to me.

A year ago, I started my own one-man company to have more freedom in approaching environmental management from a perspective that includes yours. I have worked long enough in the industry to realise that many environmental issues are outrage rather than hazard issues. I have developed an environmental issues management methodology which gives outrage a dominant role.

The problem that I try to tackle is the established belief among many environmentalists that development is wrong. Having worked in different cultures, I have felt the need to ask myself the question why I care for the environment. I have come to the conclusion that I care out of feeling guilty. I believe that feeling guilty is very much part of Western thinking, and that people that claim to care for the environment should not always be taken literally. To me, environmental management is “working with guilt” rather than “out of guilt.” This is not to say that I don’t care for the environment; I do. I believe that environmental management is hazard management PLUS outrage management PLUS guilt management.

Can you agree?

Peter responds:

Over the years I have come to identify three principal motives underlying the behavior of my clients’ opponents:

  • Greed – they want what’s good for themselves;
  • Outrage – they want what’s bad for my client; and
  • Ego – they want to feel better about themselves.

(There are of course other motives – ideology, revenge, and, yes, hazard.…)

Under ego I put all the negative inward emotions that are likely to be projected outward. Guilt is one of the key components of what I mean by ego. This includes not just the “global” environmental guilt you are addressing – which I may have paid too little attention to – but also more specific sorts of guilt. For example, suppose I moved in next door to your chemical plant without considering whether it might damage my children’s health. Now that that concern has been raised I feel like a bad parent. I am likely to project my guilt into outrage at you for running an unsafe plant.

I think you’re on to something important in your focus on global environmental guilt. Take oil for example. If I drive an SUV, keep my home toasty warm, use plastics freely, and generally participate in the benefits of a petroleum-based economy, I have to know in my gut that I share also in the blame for the environmental downside of that economy. To avoid the guilt I find it convenient to hate the oil industry. And of course for the oil industry to point out my hypocrisy would only exacerbate the problem.

Besides guilt, I include under ego such responses as shame (consider the psychic pressure on customers of silicone breast implants to project their shame onto the product), injured pride of various sorts, and even oppression and environmental justice (feeling better about themselves is a key motive of oppressed peoples in their interactions with multinationals).

Ego (and guilt) also plays a major role in corporate responses to environmental controversies. Corporate leaders get much angrier at activist claims that are valid than they do at the silly claims. Some of this, of course, is that valid attacks tend to do more harm. But a lot of it is defensiveness – that is, guilt projected into outrage. Similarly, companies that have been forced by activists to improve their performance are very likely to deny the activists the credit they deserve, insisting instead that the change was “voluntary.” This inevitably undercuts the credibility of the improvement, and of course it greatly irritates the activists. It’s ego talking.

Guilt even plays a role in safety policy. Companies often resist safety innovations that represent a very good return on investment (that is, the resistence is not rational from a self-interest perspective). One of the reasons they do so, I think, is that accepting the innovation requires accepting guilt for prior accidents they could have prevented.

Bioterrorism and anthrax – candor (even about “what-ifs”) reduces panic

name:Jonathan Rosen
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Field:Industrial hygienist, director, OS&H for
state government labor union
Date:October 25, 2001
Location:New York, U.S.


Many state managers and State Police responders don’t seem to understand risk communication basics. It would be most helpful if you could address basic principles of risk communication and how they might be applied to contaminated letters, suspected or real anthrax incidents. Love your stuff!

Peter responds:

Some of this is in my most recent web site column:   Risk Communication and the War Against Terrorism:  High Hazard, High Outrage.

If I had to pick one key point to stress, it would be the relationship between candor and panic. People don’t panic in the face of danger, even incredible danger. (Consider how people at New York’s Ground Zero responded on September 11.) What engenders panic is feeling misled and abandoned in the face of danger. Whether you’re a national leader addressing the country or a first responder addressing an officeful of people, false reassurance is the worst approach. And the second worst approach is stonewalling. Candor doesn’t cause panic. Candor helps prevent panic. It is essential to tell people what you know, and what you don’t know, about the risk they are facing.

It’s even a good idea to tell people what you think you know. Communication experts quite properly advise their clients not to speculate, because being proved wrong can devastate a source’s credibility. But refusing to say anything for days, weeks, or months while the data are quality controlled is just as intolerable. Sources must learn to say, “We think it's probably X, and here’s why. But we haven’t ruled out Y, and here's what we’re doing to find out, and to be prepared. And just in case it’s Z or something else we haven’t even thought of yet, we’re taking the following additional steps as well.… But still, it’s probably going to turn out to be X.”

Fundamentally, responders need a protocol for dealing with bioterrorism threats – not just for dealing with the potentially anthrax-laden envelope and those who might have been infected, but for dealing with everyone else: those who never saw the envelope but saw you arrive in your hazmat suit, or saw the yellow tape across the mailroom door, or just heard about it all from a fellow employee. Actually, responders need several protocols – one for probable false alarms, a different one for situations that seem likely to turn out serious, a third for situations that have turned out serious, and a fourth for situations that have turned out false alarms.

Readers of this web site don’t need to be told that risk communication is a field. There's no reason to expect politicians or toxicologists or cops to have expertise in risk communication too. But to cope well with bioterrorism, they're going to need to acquire some. (Yes, I sell it. But this web site, and lots of other sources, also give it away.)

Aftermath of September 11 – first thoughts on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, apathy, denial, and risk communication

name: Kathleen Lauckner
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Field:Instructor/project coordinator
Date:September 16, 2001
Location:Nevada, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

Updates on environmental policies developing from good communications around the globe.


I have read about you and your works since 1992. It was at this time that I was asked to coordinate the efforts to identify the Lead hazards in the State of Nevada. In 1996 I was asked to coordinate public meetings at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on the issue of radiation hazards from groundwater at the Nevada Test Site and most recently I am involved with issues concerning Yucca Mountain. Outrage is a common thread in each of these topic areas so you can see why I have an interest in your work.

I am curious if you are working with any client on the latest events of 9/11/01. This seems silly and trivial next to the tragedy that occured but when I saw the debris from the towers rain down on the city all I could think of was asbestos exposure. I see the workers without respirators and wonder how many other “aftermath” issues will there be to deal with?

Thank you for having this site and offering the opportunity for comments. I am a 40-something doctoral student in Environmental Policy I hope I can accomplish something as worthwhile as you have.

Peter responds:

I am only just beginning to think about an appropriate professional response to September 11. (And I admit I never even thought about the asbestos issue.) Surely there is a desperate need now for Americans to figure out how to cope with our national outrage. We can’t let it deter us from living our lives – from flying on planes or from living in cities or from caring about the civil liberties of those with whom we disagree. We can’t let it seduce us into forgetting crucial distinctions – the distinction between loyal Muslim citizens and those who abhor our way of life … but, far more difficult, the distinction between those who abhor our way of life but are not part of any terrorist conspiracy and those who are. Nor can we pretend that we aren’t outraged, that our world didn’t change on September 11.

I ought to have something to say that is less shallow and simplistic than the previous paragraph. I do think my approach to risk communication and outrage management has a contribution to make to dealing with the current crisis. But I don’t yet see very clearly what form that contribution should take.

Some months ago I spoke at a conference on risk communication and weapons of mass destruction. I focused on the tendency of most Americans to think a “WMD event” – that is, a terrorist attack on the U.S. – was far less likely than the experts considered it to be, and I argued that this underestimation of the risk of terrorism was not apathy but denial. I advanced a risk communication agenda for addressing a public in denial, as opposed to an apathetic public. Among other things, I argued that denial, unlike apathy, tends to flip into overreaction.

Obviously no one any longer considers terrorism unlikely. Have we flipped into overreaction? Are we experiencing more subtle sorts of denial? Is the current level of public concern/outrage about right (whatever “right” means here)? This is a fundamental question, and I don’t have much of an answer.

But I suppose I will; after all, ginning up answers is what consultants do.

Mobilizing outrage on environmental causes – anger as antidote to apathy

name: Jeffrey
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Field:CEO of a biopesticide company
Date:August 11, 2001
Location:Colorado, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

Acknowledgement of some years at Michigan. You impacted more than just New Joisey. Good Website!


Remember outrage is the antidote for apathy. It is a great motivator for action. Two fabulous graduate students of some communications guru at Michigan showed that empirically some years ago!

Peter responds:

When I was at Michigan (1972–1977), my exclusive focus was on how to arouse and mobilize outrage on behalf of environmental causes. I still do this work – Environmental Defense is my longest-running client – but it’s true that the web site is preoccupied with how to reduce outrage, an issue I started addressing in 1979, when I worked for the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. Readers interested in the Michigan work should check out the chapter (Chapter 11, “Media Campaigns”) from Brian Day and Martha Monroe’s book (Environmental Education & Communication for a Sustainable World), which is available online at Peter Sandman in the News. I’ll think about adding some other work from that era as well.

It is true, and important, that outrage is in most cases the strongest available antidote to apathy. In particular – and this is the study the comment refers to – anger motivates a lot more action than guilt. Even if the ultimate goal is to motivate people to change their own behavior (quit smoking, test for radon), a frontal attack that arouses guilt is less likely to bear fruit than an outrage-arousing message. If I can get you angry at the cigarette industry for hooking you or your children’s school for not testing their classrooms, my chances of getting you to quit or test yourself improve significantly.

Transparency and information overload (especially in Australia)

Name:Kevin Duffy
Field:Power company engineer, and environmental activist
(contradiction in terms – not?)
Date:May 26, 2001


Just love your site, and especially the line:

“People trust contract law much more than regulatory law; contracts share power, while regulations protect victims.”

I think you’re right about people’s higher trust of contract law. But at least in relation to electricity markets in Australia, we’ve seen good transparency provisions in the regulations that provide the public with an opportunity to act pre-emptively before becoming victims.

This could work if it was backed up by say funding of public advocacy groups to keep on top of the literal mountain of stuff being pumped out.

The difficulty is the public maybe aren’t really aware of any troubles that might be brewing, and maybe only learn all about this transparent stuff in a “well, we told you so…” fashion.

They won’t accept information overload as being an effective form of communication.

If and when we get California style black-outs here, I suspect there'll still be plenty of outrage here.

If you’ve not already been over here, maybe there’s an opportunity for you to market your wares to this industry :-).

Peter responds:

I agree with everything you say. Transparency, I think, has to mean we know what they’re up to, or at least we know they’re trying to tell us – not they tell us later how we could have found out.

By the way, I did a lot of work in Australia in the mid-to-late-1990s, but nothing for a couple of years now. In general, I find that Australian culture responds better to the outrage management approach (and to my consulting/speaking style) than anywhere else in the world … one of several reasons I hope to come back soon. Meanwhile, Australian readers of my web site might want to check out www.reputation.com.au – run by an Australian consultancy called Reputation Qest that takes outrage management seriously

Apology, forgiveness, and greed

Name:Glen Dale Savoy
Field:PSM/RMP consultant
Date:May 18, 2001


Your web site was identified in a recent AIChE newsletter. I have read your articles, including the latest, “Saying You're Sorry,” and found them to be insightful and entertaining. Thank you! I look forward to future articles and have set your site in my list of Favorites.

I do take exception with your statement that “Greedy people – that is, self-interested, profit-oriented people – want to benefit themselves.” I don't usually consider myself greedy, but your definition would include me – I dare say that this definition includes most, if not all people. The exception, and maybe only really applicable part of the definition, is “profit-oriented.” Even people who perform anonymous good deeds have a self-interest, namely to “feel good about themselves.”

Your use of Catholic doctrine on forgiveness was excellant, and accurate. I believe that you are right-on. Companies should take notice. This should be considered as training material for all company public relations officers. Thanks again.

The other article that I enjoyed is “The Stupidity Defense.” I passed this one along to one of our lawyers. He also enjoyed the article and thanked me for sharing your web address. He had comments, but those are“Attorney / Client Privileged” (just joking). Keep up the good work!

My specific concerns include catastrophic industrial incidents and what we can learn from such incidents. Check out my web site for links to other interesting articles and incident summaries.

Advocacy for the disabled – shame, oppression, and outrage

Field:Federal human services exec
Date:May 14, 2001


I remember a speech you gave to the Metropolitan Council in MN several years ago – I am now wondering how to use your approach to help in the field of human services delivered to people who have severe disabilities – where the advocacy community is driven by outrage and we in government (especially with the pressure of the GPRA) are driven by cold hard data, i.e., “hazard.” There seem to be many applications.

Peter responds:

Think about the possibility that some of the outrage expressed by the disabled community may be projected shame. I’m not suggesting that disabilities are shameful! But it isn’t rare for oppressed stakeholders to feel ashamed of their own oppression, and then to convert these intolerable feelings into outrage at others … especially when outrage at the actual source of the oppression turns out to be impossible or unsatisfying. I’ve seen this in contexts as far afield as medical patients in breast implant litigation and Indonesian communities in mining license conflicts. The question is whether a stakeholder wants what’s best for herself (call that hazard) or wants to do you damage (that’s outrage) or wants to feel more adequate (ego – shame, guilt, and their cousins). Empowerment movements work in part because they address that third corner of the triangle.

Public relations versus stakeholder relations

Name:Dave Vincelette
Field:Quality assurance engineer on Superfund Cleanup site
Date:April 23, 2001
Location:Colorado, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

Maybe a few short case studies and analysis.


I’m an Environmental Policy Management (EPM) student in 4370 “Strategic Environmental Management” at the University of Denver. I’ve spent 17 years in the mining and environmental field and can relate to risk management, Public Relations, and NIMBYism. I feel that good public relations can help avoid putting any organization on the defensive. whatever the case; a US spy plane colliding with a Chinese jet, mining near the Grand Canyon, a youth sex-offender home slated for my neighborhood, etc. I can see application in almost every situation. Very good site!

Peter responds:

Thanks for your comment. You might want to think about the distinction between public relations and stakeholder relations. “Publics” are typically apathetic but credulous. Getting their attention requires enormous skill, but once you have their attention you can shove any crap you want down their throat. Your precious 15-second sound bite is thus like a free kick in soccer, and you wouldn’t want to waste it by acknowledging a problem or apologizing for a misbehavior. In stark contrast, stakeholders are attentive but skeptical or even hostile. Getting their attention isn’t a problem. You have more attention than you want; they come to a meeting and stay till midnight. But they don’t believe a word you say.

Risk communication and outrage management are essential in stakeholder relations. They play little or no role in traditional public relations.

In most controversies, I think, stakeholders matter more than publics. But consumers and voters are publics. You can’t sell toothpaste or win elections by paying attention only to the people who care passionately about which brand/candidate they endorse. This explains why advertisers and politicians – and PR people – are typically rotten outrage managers. And I’m not very good at PR.

Of course it’s possible to be good at both. But most professionals either start out assuming an audience that is hard to reach but easy to convince (a public) or an audience that's easy to reach but hard to convince (a stakeholder). The approaches on this site are designed with the latter audience in mind.

Radon risk communication, the natural-versus-industrial distinction, and risk comparisons

name:Mike Brandolino
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Field:Biologist – agricultural research
Date:April 5, 2001
Location:New Jersey, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

More examples of real v perceived incidents.


I too am a DUXL EPM4370-Strategic Environmental Management student. Your site raises some good points pertaining to real v perceived risks. Since I am from NJ (albeit central), I found the natural v industrial comparision to be somewhat amusing. Some of the north jersey residents were ok with radon in their homes, because its “natural,” but the radioactive tailings were not because they were “industrial” …hmmm. Your site can prove to be very useful for the DUXL EPM students.

Peter responds:

Yes, geological radon is usually a low-outrage risk, though it’s often high-hazard. And the fact that it’s natural is part (though not all) of the problem. Radon-emitting industrial wastes or mine tailings are a different story.

Notice that it doesn’t help anything to point this out. When a company compares a risk it is responsible for to a lower-hazard risk that’s natural, it is as if the company were saying, “If you think what we’re doing to you is bad, check out what God is doing to you. And if you’re not angry at God, you've got no right to be angry at us.” People's reaction: “That company thinks they’re God!” And the outrage goes up.

More generally, comparing a high-outrage low-hazard risk to a high-hazard low-outrage risk is bound to backfire. You’re talking about hazard, so you’re telling the truth when you say the first risk is smaller than the second. But your audience is listening in terms of outrage – and in outrage terms the first risk is bigger than the second. So it feels to your audience like you're lying.

Community right to know – how activists use it and how companies respond

Name:Kate Sanders
Field:Environmental manager / EPM4370 University of Denver student
Date:April 4, 2001
Location:South Carolina, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

Your opinion of community right to know.


I have read all of the articles on your site at this time. I have found them to be very informative. Two items that I found most interesting were about the established statistical rate between morale and accident rate/sabotage & the amount/type of coverage that environmental stories get. I agree with both of your opinions.

Peter responds:

As you might guess, I thoroughly approve of the right-to-know concept – for three quite different reasons. First, the obvious reason: The more people know about the emissions and accident possibilities of neighboring facilities, the more effective they can be in protecting themselves … whether that means raising hell or leaving town. Right-to-know thus reduces hazard. Second, the conceptual reason: A major societal trend of the last fifty years has been reduced understanding of and control over our own lives; technology improves our world but diminishes our sense of autonomy. The right-to-know concept counters this trend. And third, the outrage reason: Assuming the hazard isn’t huge in a particular situation, right-to-know can keep people from imagining it is. Right-to-know reduces hazard over-estimation by reducing outrage. It does this in a host of ways: it increases familiarity; it reduces dread; it shares control; it builds in accountability; it provides an opportunity for dialogue; etc.

All of that notwithstanding, activist demands for right-to-know are only sometimes grounded in a desire to know. Other times, activists frame right-to-know demands that will look reasonable to the public but unreasonable to the companies, thus conning the companies into fighting back and looking like they have something to hide. The activists’ goal (in this situation, not always) is to lose … and mobilize outrage around their loss.

I sometimes think none of the major actors in risk controversies really trusts the public to act wisely if well-informed. Industry is afraid people will overreact to small risks (and, yes, sometimes afraid people will find out about not-so-small risks the company has kept under wraps). And activists are afraid people will be much less nervous about a well-understood industrial hazard than they are about a mysterious one. I think that the activists’ fear is, on the whole, more on target than industry’s fear. Where hazards are adequately managed, in other words, I think right-to-know will help the reassuring side of risk controversies more than the alarming side.

Military risk communication

Name:Dena Sonneborn
Field:Captain, US Army, engineer
Date:April 2, 2001
Location:Massachusetts, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

More articles!


I really enjoyed your site. I logged on as a requirement for EPM 4370, but found myself reading everything! I particularly like your statements regarding corporations admiting stupidity. I believe the Army has encountered some of the same credibility problems – especially regarding Gulf War Syndrome and exposure of US troops to chemical weapons. While the military is not directly concerned with a “bottomline,” we are concerned with our reputation since we rely on an image to recruit new soldiers. Re-evaluating how we acknowledge mistakes to the media, public, and ourselves may prove to be an important component in our competition with corporate America for skilled, committed young people.

Peter responds:

I agree that the military needs risk communication. And as you know better than I, risk communication’s demand for candor, apology, power-sharing, and the rest is even tougher on military culture than it is on corporate culture.

Outrage and outrage management in other cultures – international risk communication

Name:Steve Botts
Field:Vice president, EHS Mining Co.
Date:April 1, 2001

What I would add to this site:

More information on the use of hazard communication in developing countries. Do you think the same principles apply, or do they require modification when dealing with a less sophisticated public?


Very good site on Hazard communication. I hope to use some of this material as part of the EPM 4730 class I am taking at DU.

Peter responds:

Some things about outrage are universal; others are culture-specific. The most important universal is the fact that outrage overrules hazard. Every culture (even the weirdest culture I routinely work with, that of middle-aged white male engineers) shares this characteristic: When you’re upset, you’re a lot more likely to exaggerate small risks.

What’s culture-specific? The way outrage is expressed – the U.S. relies on lawsuits and demonstrations; other cultures lean more on political parties or labor unions. How quickly outrage is expressed – English-speaking Canadians tend to hide outrage with courtesy until it explodes; in the U.S. we express it earlier and more freely. How outrage mitigation works – apologizing in the U.S., for example, is very different from apologizing in Japan, or in Australian aboriginal cultures. And even which outrage components are paramount – a controversy that in the U.S. would be mostly about control (“let us decide”) in central Europe might well be mostly about trust (“bring in a more trustworthy decision-maker”).

Cultures in the developing world are at least as varied as in the developed world. If there is any generalization worth making, it isn’t about people’s sophistication; economic development aside, everyone’s sophisticated about outrage and no one’s sophisticated about hazard. What many developing world cultures do have in common is ego issues, arising from a supressed feeling of inadequacy/shame/low-self-esteem. People and peoples who have been oppressed may be more focused on feeling better about themselves (ego) than on protecting themselves (hazard) or getting even with you (outrage). Of course it isn’t rare to face damaged egos in the developed world either. Wherever the problem arises, ego often overrules outrage the same way outrage overrules hazard. Helping people feel better about themselves is sometimes a prerequisite to helping them be less outraged at you.

Impact of outrage (including employers’ outrage) on employee safety

name:Tom Vinson
This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Crisis Communication index

Field:Manager, waste operations
Date:March 29, 2001
Location:Colorado, U.S.


I found your site to be informative and very useful. I am currently enrolled in DU’s Environmental Policy and Management course “Strategic Environmental Management.” This web page will be useful for this course as well as provide useful information for me professionally. We are having a difficult time getting our accident incident rates down and being in a managerial position, this is a topic I am very concerned with.

Peter responds:

My work on employee safety doesn’t get much emphasis on the web site; the site focuses mostly on low-hazard high-outrage situations. But since you mention bringing down the accident rate, notice three aspects of safety management that are really about outrage:

Sometimes employees are insufficiently outraged about the risk. This is where the corporate safety manager’s job overlaps that of an environmental activist: Getting people outraged about accidents.
Sometimes employees are excessively outraged about safety itself, or about particular precautions, or about how safety professionals go about their job. The way employees often respond to safety lectures (and safety lecturers) bears an uncanny resemblance to a child’s or adolescent’s response to an overprotective parent: “Get off my back!” Outrage about being protected comes much earlier in a child’s development than outrage about being endangered – and corporate safety efforts can restimulate this childish outrage. Here, outrage reduction strategies can help.
Sometimes employers let their own outrage get in the way of implementing safety policies even when they are cost-effective. Among the hidden motives here:
  • Guilt– if I can reduce the accident rate now, then I could have reduced it last year. Rather than feel responsible for last year’s accidents, I may choose to define this year’s (and next year’s) as inevitable.
  • Hostility– if I dislike my employees, it may feel better to let them have accidents than to take steps to prevent those accidents, especially if I can tell myself that they’re too stupid to work safe anyway.
  • Status– safety people are low on the corporate totem pole. “I make deals! I don’t wrap handles with duct tape.”

Like any other source of outrage, these hidden motives distort managers’ judgment of the substantive issues … and so safety policies that are good for workers and good for management may go unimplemented. And like any other source of outrage, once recognized they can be mitigated.

Risk communication at a coal-fired power plant – hazard management versus outrage management; lawyers versus admitting fault

Field:Power company environmental manager
Date:March 28, 2001
Location:Colorado, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

More information in the form of quick read charts would be helpful. Sometimes it can be difficult to read lengthy articles – but easier to read summaries.


I’m an Environmental Policy and Management (EPM 4370) student at the University of Denver. I found the information in your site quite useful. I recently began work for a coal fired power plant (in a pristine part of Colorado) that was sued by an environmental group over air emissions. We are the bad guys around here and I get lots of questions when people learn my occupation. Your discussions about the importance of admitting fault in order to gain trust was especially interesting to me. That would be an especially difficult point to make to lawyers though, who often seem to lead the charges. At least from my experience…

Peter responds:

Two points: First, bear in mind that a coal-fired power plant in a pristine area may be the bad guys (or may not). Outrage management can help keep stakeholders from imagining you’re doing harm when you’re not. It can’t (thank God) keep stakeholders from realizing you’re doing harm when you are. My clients figure out fast that managing the outrage is something they need to do in addition to managing the hazard … not instead. But sometimes prospective clients (and critics) get it wrong.

As for lawyers, it is certainly true that by training and disposition most lawyers dislike candor; if they had their way your employer would be an “alleged coal-fired power plant.” But there are more and more exceptions, as attorneys warm up to alternative dispute resolution, and realize that outrage has costs in the courtroom too. (Consider punitive damages, or the relationship between outrage and whether prospective plaintiffs sign onto a class action suit.) Even when lawyers are so focused on winning cases that they ignore the broader reputational problem, they’re not the problem. The problem is managements that defer to their lawyers and ignore their communication advisors. Once again, the solution isn’t to replace the current imbalance with a new imbalance: Managements need to listen to both their lawyers and their communication advisors, and find compromise approaches that both can live with.

Any lawyers out there want to respond?

Risk communication bibliography – recommended books

Field:Senior envirnomental analyst for fossil power plant
Date:March 26, 2001
Location:Arizona, U.S.

What I would add to this site:

Books you would recommend on effective risk communication.


I’m an EPM student with the University of Denver. I’ve been in this field for over five years and have now just realized the importance of damage control dealing with utilities. We are so often accused of being evil and the discussion of the four types of publics helped a great deal in understanding how to approach different groups. You have an excellent site, and I particularly enjoyed your essay on “Trust Us, We’re Experts.”

Peter responds:

Apart from my own Responding to Community Outrage (which I do recommend), I also recommend two manuals in which I played a role: Improving Dialogue with Communities and Industry Risk Communication Manual, both by Hance, Chess, and Sandman. All three are listed in the curriculum vitae on this web site.

Improving Risk Communication, published by the National Research Council in 1989, is very old but still very good. (And I had nothing to do with it!)

For a recent bibliography of other resources (articles as well as books), see http://dccps.nci.nih.gov/DECC/riskcommbib/.

Readers of this site with risk communication books they particularly recommend, feel free to add a comment; we'll attach it to this one.

Development in South Africa – corporate outrage can lead to “insensitivity” to public outrage

Name:Mabotha Solomon Manyaka
Field:Public participation in the natural resources sector
Date:March 5, 2001
Location:South Africa


What caught my attention is where you say your approach to risk communication focuses on helping your client tease apart the “hazard” (technical risk) from the “outrage” (trust, responsiveness, control, dread, etc.), and then helping them to figure out how to manage, minimize, or prevent the outrage. This is very important in that often developers who happen to be the clients are less sensitive to the public’s outrage which is due to the destructive nature of their development. I deal with this type of problems in my work as a public participation practitioner in South Africa which has a legacy of poor development diplomacy.

Peter responds:

Good luck trying to help South African resource developers (mining companies?) be more sensitive to stakeholder outrage. As you think through the causes of their “insensitivity,” don’t forget to consider their own outrage. The managers of companies under attack tend to behave the way we all tend to behave when under attack – they get rigid, defensive, or punitive. What looks like the insensitive pursuit of profit is sometimes just an effort to shore up wounded self-esteem. (Of course it’s sometimes the insensitive pursuit of profit.)

Copyright © 2001 by Peter M. Sandman

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