My principal claim to fame as a risk communication expert is my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and the three risk communication paradigms derived from the formula. In my terms, “hazard” is how dangerous a risk is, while “outrage” is how upsetting it is. Thus:
  • When hazard is low and outrage is high, the paradigm is “outrage management”—reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. 
  • When hazard is high and outrage is low, the paradigm is “precaution advocacy”—alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. 
  • When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the paradigm is “crisis communication”—helping appropriately upset people cope with 
  • And when hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot” where risk communication is easy (though still worthwhile)—unhurriedly chatting with interested people about moderate risks. 
What about the lower left-hand corner of my risk communication “map” (see Figure 1), where both hazard and outrage are low?  I have often dismissed this corner with a one-liner: “In a low-hazard, low-outrage situation, there’s simply no need for risk communication. What would you say to people? ‘You’re absolutely right that this risk is trivial. Congratulations on your apathy.’” Not communicating is a fine answer when a situation is permanently low-hazard, low-outrage. But sometimes there’s very little hazard or outrage now, but you anticipate that one or the other (or both) will increase. Isn’t that an opportunity for some kind of risk communication—pre-precaution advocacy or pre-outrage management or pre-crisis communication?
Figure 1.
Three paradigms of risk communication, plus the “sweet spot” where risk communication is easy.
Tap on the graphic to open a larger version in your browser.
The most basic need in the lower left-hand corner of the map is surveillance.  All assessments of hazard and outrage are snapshots, specific to the audiences you’re assessing at the moment you’re assessing them. So, you need to review your assessments periodically. Are any of your stakeholders more endangered or more upset than they were last time you checked? Are there any stakeholders who weren’t in the picture before but now are beginning to appear endangered or upset?  I don’t have much advice to offer on surveilling for hazard, other than not to forget to do it. Hazard surveillance isn’t my field.  Surveilling for outrage has two components. The easier of the two is surveilling for manifest outrage—actual expressions of outrage by your stakeholders. Count angry or frightened letters to the editor, letters to your management, web posts, and tweets. Count attendance at public meetings. Count “likes” of other people’s online expressions of outrage. Count petition signatures. Figure out what it makes sense to count and keep counting. The goal is to not end up counting the rocks being thrown through your office windows, having missed all the earlier signs of manifest outrage. Latent outrage is tougher to surveil for, because your stakeholders haven’t expressed it yet. Among the leading indicators you might track are the following:
  • Google searches of your organization and its issues.
  • Manifest outrage against similar organizations with similar issues.
  • Activists beginning to mobilize on your turf. Activists are highly skilled at surveilling for latent outrage they can work to make manifest. If they think you’re a worthy target for their limited resources, odds are they’re right.
  • Survey data. Asking your stakeholders how outraged they are won’t work; that’s a lagging indicator. But asking about specific outrage components like trust, control, fairness, and responsiveness can tap into the sources of people’s outrage before they’re ready to articulate it.
These specific surveillance recommendations aside, my most important recommendation is simply to ask yourself whether you see any signs that stakeholders are starting to get upset. In my 40-plus years of consulting, it was rare for a client to ask this question and then come up with the wrong answer because of insufficiently sophisticated outrage surveillance. Clients who missed emergent outrage almost invariably weren’t looking for it.  If you stay alert for signs of emerging stakeholder outrage, I don’t think you need sophisticated outrage surveillance tools. But I can’t resist recommending one: my 1998 “OUTRAGE Prediction & Management” software is available as freeware on
my website
.  Okay, your surveillance leads you to think that your stakeholders’ hazard or outrage (or both) may be on the rise. What can you do now to ease your burden later?
The core task in precaution advocacy is to warn apathetic people about a significant risk. The core barrier is their apathy. Virtually everything I’ve written about precaution advocacy focuses on how to pierce people’s apathy, arouse outrage, and thereby motivate precaution taking. That’s challenging enough when the hazard is ongoing, imminent, or at least on the horizon. When the hazard isn’t yet in evidence, piercing people’s apathy is arguably too challenging to be worth the effort.  Some precautions (pre-cautions) have to be taken before the hazard makes its appearance. You can’t buy insurance after you’ve got a claim. You can’t decide to install a backup generator after you lose power. But if you can afford to wait, wait. Arousing the outrage of apathetic people is a bit easier if you can at least point to the hazard. There’s one important exception: when something happens in the external world that briefly pierces the apathy for you. Suppose your company is building a new unit. You plan to give your work force safety training geared to the new unit once it’s built. Now suppose a similar unit elsewhere has a newsworthy accident. The unit’s potential safety issues are suddenly, unexpectedly, and briefly on your people’s minds. It’s a teachable moment—a golden opportunity for pre-precaution advocacy.
Maybe you see that an issue you’re vulnerable to has recently gotten hot in other communities. Maybe you learn that an activist group is planning to send  campaigners to your community. Or maybe your organization is quietly making plans for a new facility that you know will arouse some outrage once it’s announced. One way or another, you anticipate high outrage about something you consider low hazard. 
Keeping people calm is much cheaper and easier than calming them down after they’re upset. 
There are three ways to prepare for likely future outrage.  The first option is support mobilization. Reach out to potential future allies. Build closer and better relations with them. Help them with some of their issues so they’re likelier to return the favor when you need help. Warn them about the controversy you anticipate and why they should be on your side when the time comes.  The second option is public relations. Reach out to neutrals, people you expect will be bystanders in the controversy to come. Give them a little background now on the issue as you see it, so when it gets hot later they’re likelier to see it your way. Maybe even tell them beforehand what your critics are likely to say and why you think the criticisms are misguided.  The third option—and the one I consider most promising—is real pre-outrage management. Reach out to the people you think are likeliest to become outraged, and take steps now to address what you see as their probable future grievances. Nearly all the things I have urged clients to do to respond to stakeholder outrage can also be done to prevent stakeholder outrage. Among them are the following:
  • Acknowledge your prior misbehaviors and say you’re sorry.
  • Acknowledge your current problems and explain how you propose to cope with them.
  • Seek guidance on how best to address your current problems, act on some of the guidance, and give your stakeholders credit for prompting you to act.
  • Share power with stakeholders and create mechanisms for them to hold you accountable.
  • Stake out the middle by admitting that the risks your activities pose are middling instead of claiming they’re tiny. (Critics will say they’re huge.)
  • Look for ways to address trust, control, fairness, responsiveness, voluntariness, dread, familiarity, and all the other components of outrage.
  • Don’t just change what you say. Change what you do (or plan to do) so you provoke less outrage.
In short: Instead of waiting for the outrage to emerge and then taking action to reduce it, act now to reduce how much outrage you’re likely to face later. In the previous section I said that pre-precaution advocacy is woefully inefficient. Pre-outrage management, on the other hand, is more efficient than outrage management. Keeping people calm is much cheaper and easier than calming them down after they’re upset.  But convincing your organization to conduct pre-outrage management is a tough sell. The recommendations on my bullet list are counterintuitive and uncomfortable. They fly in the face of organizational egos and your organization’s own outrage at its critics.  Convincing yourself and your bosses to implement these recommendations is challenging enough when outraged stakeholders are already threatening your reputation and your bottom line. It’s tougher still to convince yourself and your bosses to do those things when it’s not yet clear that they’re needed. 
During a crisis—an actual emergency—people are rightly upset. They’re endangered and they know it. But before a crisis, they’re not endangered yet. Maybe they’re upset already. Or maybe they’re not upset—that is, until you start talking to them about the crisis.  Pre-crisis communication is easier and therefore more worthwhile than pre-precaution advocacy. Instead of desperately trying to gin up some outrage about a boring hazard that isn’t even present, you’re warning people about an awful possibility that’s all too easy to imagine, or that they may already be imagining. The crisis is guaranteed to arouse plenty of outrage when it arrives. The essence of pre-crisis communication is to arouse some of that outrage in advance, and harness it to motivate preparedness. I wrote an entire article about pre-crisis communication for the September 2013 issue of The Synergist. I made four main points in that article that I want to summarize here:
1. Why you do pre-crisis communication. 
The most obvious rationale for pre-crisis communication is so people know what to do—what to do now to get ready and what to do later if the crisis actually happens. But it’s also important to help people prepare emotionally.  If they’re blissfully unaware of what might be about to happen, pre-crisis communication gives them a much-needed heads-up. And if they’re already worried, they may find your warnings paradoxically calming. Knowing that the authorities are worried too helps people face their worry and actually start preparing.
2. Adjustment reactions.
One common effect of pre-crisis communication is a temporary overreaction called an adjustment reaction. The possible future risk you’re warning people about upsets them—sometimes to the point where they imagine the crisis has already arrived and start taking premature precautions. Even so, adjustment reactions are better experienced pre-crisis than mid-crisis. People who have gone through an adjustment reaction before a crisis begins are likelier to respond proportionately once the crisis arrives.  The key lesson for pre-crisis communicators: when your messaging provokes an adjustment reaction, don’t overreact to the overreaction. Don’t think you shouldn’t have frightened people, and don’t try to take it all back. Instead, guide people through their adjustment reaction so they’ll be ready to face the crisis calmly.
3. The fizzle scenario: magnitude versus probability.
Warnings can backfire if nothing bad happens. You can lose trust and become the target of a lot of outrage. To minimize these risks, it is helpful to “warn” people that the crisis may fizzle.  Similarly, it’s important to focus on the high magnitude of the possible crisis without sounding like you’re claiming super-high probability. This is how insurance people sell insurance year after year. It’s how you sell preparedness without too much boomerang effect if the crisis turns out to be minor or fizzles altogether.
4. How to speculate.
Speculation about a possible future event is the very core of pre-crisis communication. It’s all about what-ifs. So go ahead and speculate—but do it responsibly. Anchor your speculation in two scenarios: the likeliest scenario and the worst-case scenario that’s not too unlikely to be worth considering. The best-case scenario (the fizzle scenario) doesn’t deserve equal time, but don’t leave it out.  Above all, make sure your speculation sounds speculative. Pre-crisis communication isn’t predicting a crisis. It’s warning about a possible crisis.  Officials are often ambivalent about pre-crisis communication. They want the public to take individual precautions and support societal precautions. But they don’t want anybody to go through an adjustment reaction (which they tend to misinterpret as panic). And if the crisis fizzles, they don’t want anybody to blame them for all those unnecessary precautions.  These are unrealistic expectations. You can minimize the downside of pre-crisis communication, but you can’t make it disappear. The downside of not doing pre-crisis communication is far worse: a public that confronts the crisis logistically and emotionally unprepared. 
Here are the basics about risk communication when both hazard and outrage are low: 
  • Pre-precaution advocacy is too inefficient to bother with if you can afford to wait till the hazard materializes. But sometimes you can’t wait, and sometimes you shouldn’t wait because an external event has aroused much-needed interest.
  • Pre-outrage management is actually more efficient than outrage management—keeping people calm instead of trying to calm them down once they’re upset. But it’s a very tough sell internally.
  • Pre-crisis communication—getting people ready for a possible future crisis—is both doable and worth doing. But it has two mitigable but unavoidable downsides: premature precautions caused by adjustment reactions and outrage at you if the crisis fizzles.
  • None of this is possible unless you’re surveilling for hazard and outrage, so you can see what’s coming and decide how best to prepare.
is a risk communication consultant and speaker. Much of his work on risk communication can be found on his website, Comments on this and future columns can be emailed to
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and The Synergist
 Why Do Risk Communication When Nobody’s Endangered and Nobody’s Upset (Yet)?
Fending Off Outrage