Name: Liam Gash

Field: Communications manager, University of Tasmania

Date: December 3, 2012


Location: Australia


Your risk communications methodology makes absolute sense to me.

I have read quite a lot about “moral panic” in sociology and there seems a direct connection to outrage. The moral panic literature asserts that social movements deliberately aim to stir up “moral panic” around certain issues, but the effort won’t be successful unless there is an underlying social anxiety that means that a large percentage of the community are receptive to “that button being pushed.”

Perhaps people could be outraged about a particular risk, but not react in a group in a way to foster a “moral panic.”

You say in your book that “exaggeration is the natural tool of the ‘alarming’ side of the debate.” Exaggeration is a classic aspect of moral panic – that the sky will fall in unless something is done about their issue.

I’m very interested in your “gradient” of susceptibility. I’m wondering whether you could apply a 10-point scale to each of your top 20 criteria (voluntary vs. coerced, natural vs. industrial, etc.) in order to apply it as a survey. You could give people a one-paragraph scenario and then a 20-point questionnaire. I think this could be a useful way to measure the potential “outrageousness” of a situation. What do you think?

Also, I think it could be useful to have an ongoing dialogue between moral panic sociologists and risk communications people like yourself.

Peter responds:

I mentioned a possible “gradient” of outrage susceptibility in an earlier email to you. Here’s how I put it then:

Level 1: People are already upset. They’re outraged, and they know it – but they’re relatively inactive because they feel alone and impotent. The organizing task is an easy one: to make them aware of each other and each other’s outrage, and thus to empower their outrage.

Level 2: People aren’t actively upset, and may not even know they’re upset at all – but all the ingredients are there. The situation has lots of the “outrage components” (coercion, unfamiliarity, low trust, etc.) already; the ingredients for active outrage are in the pot, and just need to be stirred and perhaps heated. This is a controversy waiting to happen. Activists are skilled at recognizing this state of affairs, since it is low-hanging fruit (to mix my metaphor). They can easily swoop in and start converting the latent outrage into manifest outrage.

Level 3: The situation has characteristics that make it possible to arouse outrage, but people aren’t aware of those characteristics. The company/industry/technology is still vulnerable, but the activist side has more work to do than in Level 2. I used to talk about this in terms of “salience manipulation.”

Example: The community is already strongly opposed to pollution, but ignorant, apathetic, or even weakly positive about fluoridation. An anti-fluoridation activist can make some headway by reframing fluoridation as “fluoride pollution,” pointing out that if some industry were dumping that crap into the water, it would be illegal! (This is a real example from early in my career.) The anti-pollution value is already there to be used as a way of arousing outrage; it doesn’t need to be inculcated – but it isn’t yet salient in people’s assessment of fluoridation.

Level 4: The situation has few of the characteristics that are conducive to outrage. That could change over time, due to strenuous activist efforts or serious company missteps – but for now the prospects for a widespread controversy are poor. A smart company would be building alliances and monitoring the situation for possible changes, but not actively engaging in outrage management. A smart activist group would be deploying its assets elsewhere.

I call this a gradient of “susceptibility” to outrage because there isn’t already a widespread public controversy – just a possible future one. For a more complete scale you could add a “Level 0” where stakeholders are actively complaining and organizing already, and perhaps a “Level 00” where all hell is breaking loose.

The level that preoccupies me most is Level 2. That’s the “cusp” where latent outrage either does or doesn’t turn into manifest outrage, depending largely on what activists do to exacerbate the situation and on what the responsible company or government agency does to ameliorate it.

I hasten to add that “ameliorating” the situation doesn’t just mean reducing the outrage and thus calming people down. It also means reducing the hazard – doing something meaningful about the problems or abuses that underlie, motivate, and justify the outrage.

But it is a fundamental principle of outrage management that once people are outraged they tend to stay outraged even if the objective situation improves, unless things are done to address the outrage itself. As I endlessly tell clients: If the hazard is serious, fix the hazard. If the outrage is serious, fix the outrage. If they’re both serious, fix them both. Don’t expect emissions reduction (good hazard management) to make people less upset any more than you’d expect an apology (good outrage management) to make people less endangered.

So my outrage assessment or outrage due diligence tools (my “OUTRAGE Prediction & Management” software, for example) are devoted to identifying conditions that are ripe for outrage exacerbation and thus desperately in need of outrage management (depending on which side you’re on).

Measuring outrage

This gradient of outrage susceptibility is a bit different from simply asking people how outraged they are. Instead, it tries to get at how outrage-prone the situation itself is.

You suggest a 10-point scale for each of the 20 outrage components I discussed in my “Responding to Community Outrage” book – twelve principal ones I talk about all the time and a second list of eight also-rans covered in the book. Other scholars have sometimes used five-point or seven-point Likert-type scales to measure the outrage factors.