2018 Guestbook
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The most pressing research priority for precaution advocacy, outrage management, and crisis communication

This guestbook entry
is categorized as:

      link to Precaution Advocacy index
      link to Outrage Management index
      link to Crisis Communication index

field:Journalist and Ph.D. applicant
date:January 13, 2018
location:Saudi Arabia


Thank you so much for your wonderful website. I was looking for a while for a specialized person in risk and outrage communication because I want to specialize in this area.

Based on your knowledge and experience, what do you think is the most important issue in the digital age that future research in risk and crisis communication should focus on?

peter responds:

Good luck in your doctoral studies, and thank you for your kind words about this website.

Let me answer your question about the most important issue for future research separately for the three paradigms of risk communication: precaution advocacy, outrage management, and crisis communication. Bear in mind that I might well give completely different answers on a different day; it is hard (and close to random) to pick just one research priority. I have often wished I had dozens of doctoral students to whom I could propose research questions they might want to study.

Vis-à-vis precaution advocacy, I’d like to see a lot more research to figure out which corners are okay to cut and which aren’t when designing and implementing a health or safety campaign. Especially in developing countries, but really everywhere, the vast majority of precaution advocacy campaigns are low-budget. Yet all too many experts insist on recommending the “right” way to do a campaign – even though they have to know that they’re talking to a group that lacks the resources it would need to follow their recommendations.

I wish I had a dollar for every time an expert from a well-funded national U.S. agency has urged a much tinier organization somewhere in the world to make sure to do lots of audience segmentation, lots of formative and evaluation research, etc. As so often happens, perfect is the enemy of good.

The problem is that once an organization has realized it can’t possibly attempt “perfect,” there’s not a lot of guidance out there on how to achieve “good” and avoid disastrously bad. I think there’s a desperate need for systematic research on which precaution advocacy corners to cut.

Vis-à-vis outrage management, I have to confess I’m torn between two diametrically opposed suggestions.

On the one hand, nearly everything I think I know about how to respond to outraged stakeholders comes from theory and on-the-ground experience, plus (at best) case studies. There’s far too little of the sort of research that might win over skeptics by dint of sound empirical methodology and careful quantification. For decades clients kept asking me for proof that my shortlist of core outrage management strategies link is to a PDF file – stake out the middle, acknowledge prior misbehavior, acknowledge current problems, give away credit, share control, etc. – was really the way to go.

I always wished I had better answers. So research that rigorously tested how well these core outrage management strategies actually work could be incredibly useful.

On the other hand, it might be just confirmation bias but I’m actually pretty certain these strategies work. Furthermore, I’m dubious that even the most compelling proof would have convinced my clients who kept demanding such proof. These outrage management strategies are profoundly counterintuitive; they’re organizationally and psychologically uncomfortable. My clients had powerful reasons to want not to believe they worked. In fact, they had powerful reasons to want not to believe their stakeholders’ outrage had anything to do with their own behavior. It was so much more soul-satisfying to blame the public for being stupid and the activists for making trouble.

The outrage management research I always felt I needed most was research on how to reconcile my clients to the wisdom of addressing their stakeholders’ outrage instead of giving in to their own outrage.

Vis-à-vis crisis communication, I think the biggest problem practitioners face is their tendency to conflate two kinds of crises: the low-hazard high-outrage controversy versus the high-hazard high-outrage genuine emergency. These are both crises for the practitioner’s organization, because in both cases stakeholders are upset and inclined to blame the organization. But in the first sort of crisis (which I have relabeled outrage management) they’re unduly upset and the task is to figure out how to calm them down, whereas in the second sort (real crisis communication) they’re rightly upset and the task is to help them bear the crisis and guide them through it.

Crisis managers frequently treat the second sort of crisis as if it were the first sort. Officials simply can't get through their heads that when hazard is high, outrage is an ally, not the enemy. Outrage is what motivates people to take precautions (and to tolerate official precautions). Calming people is the right goal in outrage management, but dead wrong in crisis communication. If panic were likely, that would be a different story. But people rarely panic in crisis situations.

So my top priority for crisis communication research is research that explores how high-hazard health and safety crises differ from low-hazard reputational crises, and nails down the differences in how these two sorts of crises should be managed.

Your comment asked what research needs I see as paramount “in the digital age.” So it’s worth noting that nothing in my answer relates to anything digital. Maybe because I’m 72 and pretty much retired, I don’t see much that’s different because of social media and related digital developments. Yes, social media are the venue where most risk communication happens now, whether it’s precaution advocacy or outrage management or crisis communication. And there’s no longer much of a periodic news cycle; deadlines are immediate and everything is 24–7. And there’s rarely a mass audience reachable in a single place; when you need to reach a mass audience (you don’t always), you need to reach that audience in small, self-segregated pockets.

But none of this affects what sort of messaging is optimal. Though obviously there is social media risk communication research worth doing, the risk communication research needs that look most pressing to me have little or nothing to do with social media.

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