Thought Leadership


Why you should never give up on working with fanatics

February 5, 2014
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Originally posted at the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Website www.psandman.com

In the section 2014 Guestbook Comments and Responses

Http://www.psandman.com/gst2014.htm#fanatics

Guestbook entry: Lauren

field:

State government

date:

January 9, 2014

location:

Australia

Comment:

I’m currently working with an outrage management issue and would to ask you what you would do.

The majority of people in a local community I am working with would like us to do a fuel reduction burn to reduce the fuel hazards surrounding their township.

There are a small group of “fanatics” that are quite passionate about stopping the burning in this space. It is clear that they are not interested in talking out their “issues” with the burn, which we have offered on numerous occasions. (They seem to have a larger agenda which isn’t really about the burn in question but looks more like a policy issue without admitting to it.) All they seem to want to do is to have us write letters in response to their anger – which only seems to increase the outrage on both sides.

I remember when I heard you speak after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, you were talking about some fanaticswho will always say black when you say white. I believe we are in this space.

How do you work with these sorts of groups? Is there a point when you say, “Right, we are doing everything reasonable to try and work with you on this issue. If you would like to join in please do so. If not, we have to end further communications”?

I’m trying to find the balance between what is right and what the majority of the community would like, and also find a way to lift staff morale.

Peter responds:

A few months ago I wrote a long Guestbook entry about prescribed burns (or “fuel reduction burns”), addressing both the problem of how to arouse sufficient outrage (concern) about wildfire/bushfire risks and how to ameliorate excessive outrage about prescribed burns. I won’t go back over that ground here.

You’re raising a different question – two questions, really: How can you work with fanatics who seem determined to polarize the controversy rather than seeking any sort of path forward? And when if ever is it okay to give up on working with them? Both questions, obviously, apply to nearly every controversy, not just controversies over fire management.

Here’s the answer to both questions in a nutshell: You should keep trying to find common ground with fanatics, essentially forever – long after you are convinced that your efforts to do so will prove fruitless. That’s the best way (the only way, really) to help everyone else see the fanatics as fanatics, and thus to minimize their ability to derail your project or policy. It’s also the best way to make sure your project or policy actually improves by taking onboard the fanatics’ concerns … even though their intransigence may make you feel like stonewalling them instead.

The term “fanatic” sometimes misleads my clients into thinking that fanatics are nothing but troublemakers. My clients are often inclined to think that anyway, but my use of the term “fanatic” may give them the impression that I think so too. To the contrary, fanatics play an essential role in the ecosystem of a controversy:

  • Sometimes compromise really isn’t the right path forward; sometimes a project or policy really needs to be defeated and “fanatic” opposition is the only moral option. Pause for a second and ask yourself if there’s anything you would fight against (or for) uncompromisingly. I’ll bet there is. On that issue, you’re a fanatic too, and proud of it.
  • Sometimes the best way for opponents to achieve a compromise they can live with is to insist for a while that they will never compromise. Polarization as a tactic can win them more supporters, build their supporters’ fervor, garner publicity, and in countless other ways help push the compromise to come in the direction they favor. The tactic may backfire: Tactical fanatics or their supporters may turn into real fanatics who can’t stomach any compromise at all. But it’s not rare for erstwhile fanatics to cut a deal in the end.
  • Even if fanatics mean it when they say they’ll never compromise, they may still cut a deal in the end … if you manage the controversy in such a way that cutting a deal is their only alternative to being marginalized entirely. I’ll get back to this in a minute.

Finally, fanatics who remain true to their fanaticism and never cut a deal may nonetheless contribute to the deal that eventually gets cut without them. Corporate and government officials work more responsively with their moderate critics when there are extreme critics lurking (or demonstrating) outside the meeting room. Critics who think compromise is the right path forward thus owe a debt of gratitude to critics who don’t.

So however you decide to respond to your fanatic opponents – and however frustrated you may be by their fanaticism – try not to forget their legitimacy. A world in which no one ever took uncompromising principled positions would not be a better world.

Most successful movements in history have had both a radical wing and a moderate wing. The moderates ended up with holidays, schools, and streets named after them. But it’s the extremists who gave the moderates much of their power and kept them from settling for too little.

Local activist causes, too, have radical and moderate wings. Usually a group’s most committed volunteers are its radicals, while those who contribute mostly money rather than time tend to be more moderate. The radicals, of course, want the group to stay pure; the moderates want it to accomplish something, to bring home half a loaf. Aware of these competing demands, the group’s leaders zig and zag as needed: One month they need a half-a-loaf semi-victory for their contributors; the next month they’ll need a gesture of purity for their volunteers. If they follow the moderates too much, they risk being/looking coopted. If they follow the radicals too much, they risk being/looking marginalized.

In my 2003 column on “Stakeholders,” I distinguish fanatics from three other groups as follows:

“Fanatics”

You know their telephone numbers by heart, and they know yours. They want input into everything you decide. Your issue is their main preoccupation in life, second only to job and family (and sometimes not that).

“Attentives”

They monitor the media coverage of your issue carefully. Sometimes they go to a meeting, answer a survey, check out a web site, subscribe to a newsletter, contribute to a campaign. Your issue isn’t distorting their lives the way it is for the fanatics, but it’s in their Top 20.

“Browsers”

They check you out in the media from time to time, but they don’t want to be bothered providing input. Your issue is on their “worry list,” but nowhere near the top.

“Inatttentives”

They don’t know and they don’t want to know.

In a typical controversy, corporate or government officials interact with the fanatics while the attentives watch; the browsers follow the dialogue casually in the media, and the inattentives don’t know it’s happening.

For the officials, there are two possible paths to success: Satisfy the fanatics or bore the attentives. If you can reach an accommodation with the fanatics that satisfies them, obviously the controversy is over. Sometimes you can do that.

But fanatics are hard to satisfy. The likelier path to success is to keep trying unsuccessfully to satisfy the fanatics … while the attentives watch. You’re making concession after concession, taking onboard as much of what the fanatics are telling you as you can. The fanatics hardly seem to notice; instead of compromising in return, they keep coming up with demands that are more and more extreme and more and more peripheral. But the attentives notice. Even though your concessions don’t satisfy the fanatics, they satisfy the attentives, and the attentives start to wonder whether the fanatics are simply unsatisfiable. As the attentives lose interest in the controversy, the fanatics face a difficult choice: Cut a deal or fight on alone, without a constituency of supportive attentives. Your goal is to force the fanatics to that choice point.

The best path to success for the fanatics, on the other hand, is to make sure you don’t keep trying to satisfy them. The last thing they want is for you to make concessions that might look good to the attentives. So they look for ways to con you into not making concessions at all. They try to come up with demands that will look sensible to the attentives but that you will find unacceptable – better yet, offensive. If they can get you to cut off communications, then they can interpret your refusal to deal with them however they wish. You were afraid they’d win. Or you were arrogant in your power. You were coldly calculating or unbearably hotheaded. Fanatics demand to be let in, in ways calculated to maximize the odds that you’ll exclude them instead. They’d far rather complain about being excluded than have to deal. (This isn’t a onetime thing. If you let them in, they’ll look for an excuse to walk in a way they can blame on you.)

What’s going on here is a competition between you and the fanatics over who will look reasonable to the attentives. If the fanatics look reasonable and you look intransigent, the controversy grows. If you look reasonable and the fanatics look intransigent, the controversy ebbs.

So it’s theater. The fanatics are trying to show the attentives how unacceptable your position is, how compromise with you would be immoral; and simultaneously also show the attentives how intransigent you are, how unwilling to compromise. You’re trying to show the attentives how much you respect the fanatics’ concerns, how badly you want to find a path forward both sides can live with, how frustrated you are that they don’t seem willing to compromise, how committed you are to keep trying anyway. The media are watching the play as well, and so are the browsers via the media. But unless the controversy turns into an election issue, the media and the browsers are secondary. The core audience is the attentives.

As you point out in your comment, there’s a morale issue here. Engaging with fanatics is never fun. It’s certainly not fun to keep on listening, offering compromises, and making concessions to fanatics who are doing everything in their power to give offense and get you to stop. And it doesn’t help that so much of this work takes place at rancorous public meetings that run late into the night, with community relations staffers expected to keep their tempers and stay positive, then go home and try to sleep so they can do their day jobs the next morning – often without even comp time, much less hazardous duty pay.

I don’t have a good solution to the morale issue. It helps if your community relations people understand the dynamic that’s at work – understand that it’s theater and they have a role to play. It helps even more if they know that top management understands the dynamic, and understands that their role is difficult and unpleasant and too often thankless. And see what HR has to say about comp time and hazardous duty pay.

When can you stop trying to work with the fanatics? When there are no more attentives, perhaps – when you have already taken onboard much of what the fanatics were demanding, when nobody sees much value in their remaining demands, when they’re totally discredited. Odds are that will never happen. Even if it does, I would still hesitate to stop; stopping might bring the fanatics back to life. Long after the attentives (and the media) have lost interest, smart companies and government agencies continue engaging with the fanatics, just in case anyone is still watching.

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