Risk Communication Formula: Avoid Half-Truths, Manage the Outrage

“Risk communication” is a term that means many things to many PR professionals. Most, says risk consultant Dr. Peter Sandman, apply the term to “whatever crisis communications they may be doing at the time.” PR pros that might be set in old ways, continues Sandman, may think risk communication is simply telling people that everything is OK— which Sandman refers to as “half-truth PR.”

But risk communication has the potential to be much more than telling half-truths in a crisis, and Sandman has built a successful crisis career on imparting risk strategies and tactics that have resonated with clients, although they have never taken full flight within PR.

The basic risk formula, says Sandman:

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

More specifically, says Sandman, risk communication is grounded by the extremely low correlation between a risk’s “hazard” (how much harm it’s likely to do) and its “outrage” (how upset it’s likely to make people). “It comes out to about a .2 correlation,” he says. “So if you know a risk is dangerous, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s upsetting; if you know it’s upsetting, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s dangerous.”

Based on this hazard/outrage connection, Sandman sets risk communication into four tasks, with the message needed for each:

• When hazard is high and outrage is low, the task is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!”

• When hazard is low and outrage is high, the task is “outrage management”—reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.”

• When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the task is “crisis communication”—helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We’ll get through this together.”

• When hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot”—dialoguing with interested people about a significant but not urgent risk. “And what do you think?”


David Kalson, executive managing director at RF Binder Partners, sometimes floats these four risk strategies up with clients. “I tell them that they come from a body of well-researched, well-referenced work from name academic institutions,” says Kalson. “But then clients are hesitant to take them to the next step.” Kalson contends certain sectors are more aware of the concepts—like nuclear power and energy companies, for example.

Risk strategies are important in crisis situations because risk communication addresses real vs. perceived risk. “Often crises occur because of perceptions of high risk that are out of proportion to the actual danger,” says Kalson. “These, too, can lead to crises.”

Sandman’s concepts takes the real the perceived into consideration. “The risks that kill people and the risks that scare people are two entirely different things,” says Sandman.

“Cars kill 40,000 people a year in this country; nuclear plants have never killed anyone in this country, yet people fear nuclear power more than they do cars,” he says.


It’s that kind of human emotion that often trips up crisis communicators, says Sarah Tyre, senior VP and group manager of issues and crisis management at Ketchum.

“We often advise clients to be careful not to underestimate the role emotions like fear play into an audience’s perception of risk—there’s no quicker way to lose the battle,” says Tyree. And companies’ communications strategies need to take that into consideration. “A coldly rational, fact-laden analysis does little to quell the fears of a mother trying to determine whether or not to give a product to her child,” says Tyree. “Obviously, risk communication need to be based on fact, but tone and messenger play a significant role.”

Sandman agrees with Tyre’s emphasis on emotion. It’s often senior management of companies that fail to understand the emotion—and outrage—involved in a crisis.

Some executives still view that they have enough problems with government regulators—and that neighbors and activists should have no standing, says Sandman. So they have two objectives: A) Make people understand; or B) Make them go away.


In today’s world, where massive amounts of outrage can be arranged in minutes around the globe, those are not realistic objectives, says Sandman. “You used to talk to apathetic publics—telling half-truths,” he says. Transparency is now what’s critical. Thus, Sandman recommends making a list of the ways in which your critics are right, and integrating them into your communications. It’s time to face the outrage head on and deal with it (see Sandman’s “outrage management” strategies in the sidebar).

Tyre believes communicators should take the time to explore risk concepts, simply because risk and crisis are so intertwined. Here are some truisms from Tyre when considering risk:

• It may take only one major story or event to crystallize perceptions of risk and forever tag your company or product with that risk.

• Risk can’t be managed as a one-time event —it’s an ongoing process, and if a company waits until the public or media start asking about it, it’s often too late.

• No company is immune from risk. All major businesses involve risks that could affect stakeholder perceptions.

Eliot Hoff, senior VP at APCO Worldwide, says clients are thinking more about risk communication and are taking more thoughtful tacks around crises. He also says while APCO doesn’t take Sandman’s exact risk formula to heart, “the overall premise is important.”

Bottom line: Many organizations think of risk in terms of a statistical, probabilistic hazard. They usually ignore the outrage. As a communicator, ignoring it would be, well, outrageous. PRN


Dr. Peter Sandman, peter@psandman.com; David Kalson, david.kalson@rfbinder.com; Sarah Tyre, sarah.tyre@ketchum.com; Eliot Hoff, ehoff@apcoworldwide.com.