Do you have a difficult message?

Big Emotions – Small Danger: Have you ever noticed how people can very easily get worked up into a frenzy when there is a threat that is dramatic but remote? For example; ten people a year are killed by sharks while 475,000 are killed by other people and 725,000 people are killed by mosquitos.

Yet when a shark attack happens, it’s on the news, people talk about it a BBQ’s and people even stop going to the beach! Yet nowhere in our popular culture is there a story about a rampaging mosquito that has developed a taste for human flesh and haunts a well-known swimming hole on a holiday long weekend.

Big Danger – Small Emotions: The same dynamic also happens in reverse. Sometimes the chance of danger is eminent and people continue to live their lives. There are many stories of the populations of cities that were bombed in World War II where people continued to go to work, shop and generally live their lives despite the threat of the bombers.

Another example is climate change. There is little doubt that the climate is changing amongst the thinking scientific community and yet we continue to live our lives in a manner that will only speed up the process.

RC = D + O: Peter Sandman is an expert in Risk Communication and Outrage Management. (2) He tells us that when we are dealing with a message and an audience response, there is a basic equation to keep in mind:

Risk Communication (RC) is a function of the level of danger (D) x the level of outrage (O)

High danger + low outrage: When there is a high danger and a low emotional engagement from the group of people in danger Sandman calls this ‘the activist’s problem.’ The question here is how do I get people engaged and angry? How do I increase outrage?

The skills required here are the skills of influence, persuasion and motivation. A word of warning, however, peoples outrage is in limited supply. Constantly calling on people to get angry can lead to people disengaging and then it is just you and the zealots … that is another problem again. (3)

Low danger + high outrage

When there is little change of danger but a high degree of outrage the question becomes ‘How do I calm people down?’ Sandman offers some sage advice here. First and foremost … listen! Telling people to calm down and look at this logically is counter productive. Being honest is also invaluable. Saying “Yes our company did dump 5 tonnes of Dyatholberocca into the river yesterday” stops rumours and gossip. Saying it often reduces the outrage. (4)

High danger + high outrage

When people are aware of the danger and are outraged, the question becomes ‘how do we guide people through this?’ In this situation Sandman’s approach fits into one of my favourite principles – pace first then lead.

Sandman suggests that we should first err on the side of alarm, avoid the temptation to over re-assure and acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation. As you move through and people start to identify potential courses of action the skill becomes to find the fine line between over planning and zero fear. (5)

Using risk communication

When things are going well a monkey could run your organisation. Perhaps good leadership is less about making things perfect and more about moving people through the times when things are less than perfect.

Danger and outrage might best be seen as an opportunity to lead, an opportunity to put your leadership skills to the test, to further develop your skills, to earn some battle scars and to earn respect.

Understanding the variables of danger and outrage will help you select the appropriate tool for the job and increase the likelihood that you handle the situation as well as possible.


(1) The numbers of deaths caused by sharks and mosquitos are available in many places. My figures come from an article in the Daily Mail By Sarah Grifiths “Forget sharks – mosquitoes and SNAILS are the world’s deadliest animals” 

Published: 21:58 AEST, 29 April 2014 | Updated: 01:14 AEST, 30 April 2014

(2) For more on Peter Sandman visit his extensive website 

(3) For more information on matters of high danger and low outrage visit 

(4) For more information on matters of low danger and high outrage visit 

(5) For more information on matters of high danger and high outrage visit

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