June 1, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

DemFromCT had a great post up at Daily Kos this past weekend about risk communication. He considers the somewhat unusual circumstances of the Gulf oil spill, noting, “unlike pandemics and hurricanes, this volatile mixture in the water has an equally volatile mix of politics, companies, government and media to sort out policy and communication.” The post also includes insights from risk communication expert Peter Sandman, who (with input from Jody Lanard) gave a detailed response to this question from DemFromCT:

Given the potential for failure of the top kill approach, and the length of time for a second well to be drilled to permanently close down the leak, what should the government now be telling the public about what to expect? And who should be doing the communication?

DemFromCT put together a bullet-point summary of Sandman’s advice:

  • Be willing to make such predictions. The standard PR advice – “don’t speculate” – is usually misused to justify refusal to discuss internal hypotheses . Surgeons, plumbers, and crisis managers must all do better than “we haven’t a clue” or “I’m not going to speculate” when asked what’s likely to happen next.
  • Emphasize endlessly that your predictions/scenarios are tentative – as tentative as you think they actually are.
  • Put a lot of focus on the worst case scenario that isn’t vanishingly unlikely.
  • Put about equal focus on the likeliest scenario.
  • Put less stress on scenarios that are better but less likely than your likeliest scenario – but do mention them.
  • Don’t just make predictions, as if you were an observer. Talk about what you’re doing: both what you’re doing to improve the likelihood of the better scenarios and what you’re doing to prepare for the worse scenarios. It’s important to pair the two. You don’t want to leave the impression that you’re fatalistically awaiting your doom, nor that you’re overoptimistically counting on averting it.
  • Pay special attention to communicating your preparations for the really bad scenarios.
  • Give people things to do.

There are more details in the post, and the whole things is well worth a read. What particularly struck me from Sandman’s response was the reminders that members of the public are creating a mental narrative of what happens in any given crisis, and that narrative influences how they’ll receive messages from different actors. He explains:

As for who should be doing the communicating, my answer is: Everybody with knowledge, a viewpoint, or a potential role to play. It is now well established that the public wants to see top leadership personally involved in crisis management. In a disaster this big, we want to see President Obama flying to the Gulf, not once but often; we want to see him in shirtsleeves talking not just with senior advisors but also with volunteers and victims; we want to see him actually placing a boom or washing a bird. This is even more the case for BP CEO Tony Hayward, who would be wise to give virtually hourly sweat-stained news conferences from various hotspots.

In the back of our minds, we all know that Obama and even Hayward have better things to do, that they have people working for them who are much more qualified than they are to make on-the-spot tactical decisions, that their job is to stand back and see the big picture. Nonetheless, we want to know that they’re willing to immerse themselves in the details as well. For Obama, this is essential evidence that he cares, that he’s not just our wonk-in-chief but also our cheerleader-in-chief and our consoler-in-chief. For Hayward, it’s evidence that he knows he has sinned and is prepared to begin the process of atonement.

But we also want to get to know lesser officials as real personalities, people who become the daily “face” of the crisis response. During the Three Mile Island (TMI) crisis http://www.psandman.com/… of 1979, Harold Denton became the federal government’s point man at the site. President Jimmy Carter made a quick visit, but it was Denton to whom the public looked for support. Rumpled, sleepless, unfailingly calm but never over-reassuring, he was quickly dubbed “Dr. Denton” although he had no doctorate; we gave him all the credentials we could, and we trusted him implicitly.

Metropolitan Edison (TMI’s BP equivalent) had no such figure; the CEO of the utility was virtually invisible, leaving his top engineer, Jack Herbein, to do the best he could. Herbein always wore a freshly laundered suit and always looked well-rested; like everyone else at TMI, he was working incredibly long hours, but he thought it would be unprofessional to let it show. Worse, he always sounded confident, almost uncaring. I asked him why he so consistently ignored the advice of his PR specialist, Blaine Fabian. (Risk communication hadn’t been invented yet.) He told me, “PR isn’t a real field. It’s not like engineering. Anyone can do it.” That attitude, I think, cost MetEd and the nuclear power industry dearly.

Before I read this post, I’d been thinking mostly about the communication of risk messages to cleanup workers and Gulf coast residents, who will be getting the largest exposures to oil, dispersants, and other hazards. But this description of the stories the public creates about risk messengers – the rumpled-but-reliable federal official, the penitent oil-company executive – reminded me that the narrative that takes hold in the mind of the general public is also important.

As a nation, we’ve been stalling on a lot of tough decisions about federal regulation in general and energy sources in particular. This disaster ought to force us to confront the choices we face. One option is to continue with the status quo, where oil is cheap but environmental and human health consequences are expensive (both in terms of disasters like this and the worldwide disaster of climate change). Or, we could adopt a system that makes the price of fossil fuels reflect the costs they impose on our health and environment, and demand that the federal government strictly enforce the rules designed to prevent worker deaths and environmental catastrophes.

The choice we make will depend on the narrative that takes hold in the people’s minds about this disaster. Will it be seen as a freak accident, or a likely outcome of a lax regulatory system coupled with a company that’ll cut corners if they think they can get away with it? Will people believe that BP and the federal government can stop the spill and quickly restore the Gulf to its former state, or will they consider the Gulf Coast economy to have been crippled for decades to come? The stories we tell ourselves will affect the decisions we make about how much we’re willing to do to prevent this kind of disaster in the future.

One thought on “Risk Communication and Our Mental BP Narratives

  1. Why hasn’t OPHS or local public health departments along the coast issued some sort of warning or advice for residents and volunteers who are being exposed? Is it prudent crisis communications and/or a funding/liability issue?

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