Familiarity with What? (Part Two)

Another way of framing the “familiarity with what” question is in terms of familiarity with the overall situation versus familiarity with the risk – that is, with risk-related aspects of the situation: the risky substance, process, event, activity, or whatever.

Familiarity with the overall situation reduces outrage. That’s why plant tours calm neighbors, and why new employees are often anxious. But familiarity with the risk reduces outrage a great deal more than familiarity with the overall situation.

Horror writer Stephen King once told an interviewer that the biggest problem in making horror movies was to sustain the horror after the audience had seen the monster. The unseen monster is terrifying; the sight itself is likely to be a letdown. Unlike King, companies trying to reduce community outrage don’t want to sustain the horror. So they should let people see the monster. That is, they should make people familiar with the bad news, the risks and problems.

On plant tours, for example, it’s important to show anxious neighbors the parts of the plant they’re actually anxious about!

Similarly, it’s important to talk about the controversial claims your critics are making. You have to figure that many of those who decide to tour your plant have already heard what your critics have to say, and most of the rest will hear from your critics sooner or later. Use the tour to familiarize them with your take on the controversy – to acknowledge your critics’ valid points and respond to some you think are invalid.

It’s a different story, of course, if you’re confident that your stakeholders will never see the monster, never think they see the monster, never even worry that there might be a monster. Then, arguably, their ignorance is your bliss (assuming that you are correct that the monster truly isn’t dangerous). But in most risk controversies, the monster is on people’s minds already, and any attempt to avoid talking about it just exacerbates the outrage.

Talking about the monster, on the other hand, usually alleviates the outrage. This is the most crucial truth about familiarity: It’s familiarity with the scary information that really calms people, not familiarity with the neutral or pleasant stuff. If calming people is your goal, try to make frightening information familiar so it loses its capacity to provoke outrage. Think of it as a sort of desensitization therapy.

Faced with periodic concern about electromagnetic fields from power lines, a number of electric utilities have found it useful to offer to send a technician to customers’ homes with a gaussmeter, so they can find out for themselves the extent of the EMF exposure. This offer has had several effects on outrage, all of them in a downward direction. The fact that the utility is willing to tell people about the risk seems to build trust and lessen concern even among the vast majority who do not exercise the option – as if the mere availability of the gaussmeter were reassurance enough. The surprisingly small number who do ask for a visit make the valuable discovery that microwave ovens and electric blankets usually yield higher readings than the transmission line through the back yard. Most interesting from a familiarity perspective is the almost universal decline in concern experienced by homeowners as they collect their EMF readings – even when the readings themselves are comparatively high. Knowing is almost always less scary than wondering.

Or consider a finding by the National Institute for Chemical Studies (NICS) that people who watched a videotape about sheltering-in-place in the event of a chemical plant emergency reduced their estimates of the probability of such an emergency. Unless legally required to do so, most chemical companies have steadfastly refused to say much to their neighbors about emergency preparedness and emergency response, fearing that any discussion of these topics would frighten people unduly. The NICS study (which dates back to the 1990s and is no longer available) suggests that the discussion calmed people down.

Similarly, when hazardous facility managements do finally bite the bullet and discuss worst case scenarios with their neighbors, the typical response isn’t panic. It’s the sound of the other shoe dropping, relief that the topic is at last on the table.

This is all profoundly counterintuitive. The natural inclination when you’re trying to calm people’s fears is to avoid talking about what they’re afraid of and what critics say they should be afraid of … and instead to tell them about all the good stuff. So lots of corporate get-to-know-us events focus excessively on benefits of the facility they’re promoting or defending and say little or nothing about its risks, both real and alleged – which remain as unfamiliar and therefore as frightening on the way out the door as they were on the way in.

Riskcomm-savvy pediatric surgeons, for example, take children scheduled for surgery on tours of the operating room, not just the hospital grounds. They show the kids the mask that will be used to put them to sleep, maybe even let them touch one and hold it up to their faces. Does the tour frighten the child? Absolutely – but not as much as going into surgery without any orientation.

Of course it’s possible to go too far. It’s probably not a good idea to show pre-op kids a scalpel.

But there’s not much danger that organizations on the reassuring side of risk controversies will go too far in promoting familiarity. The danger is that they’ll avoid promoting familiarity altogether. They may keep mum, aiming for the lowest possible profile. They may insist that there’s no risk worth becoming familiar with, or that they have everything under control and there’s no reason for anybody else to try to get up to speed.

Or they may tell people that it’s all too complicated for them to understand anyway. This is a hard message to convey without sounding patronizing. “Don't worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart” is the classic of the genre. So instead of explicitly telling people they’ll never understand the intricacies of a risk controversy, a shrewd company may choose instead to invite them to master all those intricacies … figuring they’ll quickly decide for themselves that it’s too complicated, and opt out of the issue altogether. I believe this is the secret purpose of those tiny-type textbook-like advertisements you sometimes see in prestige newspapers and magazines, complete with graphs and footnotes. (Herb Schmertz of Mobil pioneered this strategy back in the 1980s.) The ads purport to urge readers to join the advertiser’s side on whatever controversy is under discussion. But the real goal, I suspect, is to talk the reader out of having any opinion on the issue at all. “You don’t understand this techy stuff,” the underlying message suggests. “You’re not even going to read the fine print in this ad, are you? So butt out.”

The benefit of this strategy is to reduce people’s interest in the controversy, leaving it to the lobbyists and other insiders – a very creative way to use advertising. The drawback is that stakeholders end up unfamiliar with the situation, and convinced they cannot improve their familiarity even if they want to. This ups their outrage. For a while they may butt out as you wanted them to. But if they do eventually get involved, they’ll be on the other side, they’ll be hostile, and they’ll be inclined to insist that the facts don’t matter. On balance, then, intentionally overcomplicated communications are a very sophisticated way to do yourself in.

If you’re on the reassuring side of a risk controversy, trying to reduce people’s outrage, increasing their familiarity with the risk should be your goal.

Sometimes it’s enough to aim for increased familiarity, whether you actually achieve it or not.

Consider two stakeholders, both of them pretty ignorant about the risk. One figures if she ever wants to know more, she’ll just read your brochure, go to a few meetings, ask questions, and quickly get up to speed. The other feels he’ll never understand what you’re up to, because the issues are too complicated and you can talk rings around him. In both cases, familiarity is low. But the unfamiliarity is a lot likelier to lead to outrage for the second stakeholder than for the first.

This is the main value of many outreach programs. The number of people who actually participate in an open house, go on a tour, visit an information center, attend a meeting, or read a brochure is usually a small percentage of the target audience. In fact, the people you actually reach are often an entirely predictable cohort of supporters and critics – the ones whose familiarity with the situation is already abnormally high. An important question, then, is how many people know about the open house, tour, information center, meeting, or brochure, and believe that if they availed themselves of these resources their questions would be answered and their unfamiliarity reduced. If you can get them to actually use your outreach program, that’s even better … but don’t dismiss the value of just showing them it’s available.

Even people who have been clamoring to know more may not avail themselves of your familiarity efforts. Now they know the information is there for the asking; they know they can start climbing the learning curve whenever they decide to do so. Sometimes that’s enough.

A mining company client was planning the demolition of a contaminated former smelter site. A neighborhood meeting would be useful, the site manager decided, to hear people’s suggestions or concerns and make sure they were familiar with what was going to happen. Many hours went into planning the meeting and notifying the neighbors. Those nearest the site received personal telephone calls inviting them to come. And virtually nobody came. A failure? A waste of time? Neither, I think. As a result of the company’s effort, most neighbors were aware of the meeting. They were reminded that the demolition was about to start. They were shown that the company was determined to be open rather than secretive. And they knew what number to call if they wanted to know more. The fact that they didn’t especially want to know more was a compliment, not a problem.

Given that familiarity with the risk-related aspects of the situation reduces outrage, the question is how much outrage – and therefore how much familiarity – you ought to want. This is an easy question to answer if you’re on the reassuring side of a risk controversy: You want as little outrage and as much familiarity as possible.

But it’s a tough question for safety professionals to answer. From a safety perspective, too unfamiliar and too familiar are both problematic. The relationship between accident likelihood and years on the job, for example, is a -shaped curve. New employees have more accidents than those who have been on the job for awhile because they don’t know what they’re doing; everything is new and unfamiliar. But precisely because everything is new and unfamiliar, at least new employees are careful. Veterans have more accidents than those who have been on the job for awhile because they’re no longer so careful. Excessive familiarity has worn down their outrage – that is, their concern and therefore their caution.

Absolutely everybody in the workforce of every organization in the world has worked his or her entire career without ever once getting killed on the job. This may sound like a silly point to make, but it matters. The lesson of experience – of familiarity – is invariably that this job doesn’t kill. In most workplaces, very few employees have ever seen anyone die on the job. That’s a good thing, of course, but once again the lesson of familiarity is that caution isn’t required.

And don’t forget the sign at the plant gate reading “X many months since a lost time accident.” Signs of this sort are meant to underline the importance of safety and to instill pride in the facility’s safety record. But such signs can backfire – not just because people hesitate to ruin the record by reporting an accident, but also because the sign is easily interpreted as meaning that LTAs are highly unlikely and caution is therefore unnecessary.

So how do you “renew” people’s sense of unfamiliarity in the workplace, and the caution it produces? Of course you can rotate people into new jobs – but that means creating genuine unfamiliarity, a mixed blessing: They’ll be more careful, but also less experienced. A better strategy is to change some aspect of the job that will make it feel less familiar without making it actually less familiar. That is, you want to make the job periodically less fluent, so that employees will become – if only temporarily – more careful.

A good example is the phenomenon of “familiarity sign blindness.”

Every day of someone’s working life they may well be pushing through the same double doors in the corridor that clearly states on both sides of both doors “Fire door keep shut”. However, because they are so familiar with the sign … on a hot summer ‘s day they may well attempt to wedge open these same doors to allow fresh air around the building. This familiarity sign blindness is not easily combated…. [T]he building’s responsible person … may also consider refreshing the sign, perhaps by installing a new, different style of sign relaying the same message.

This suggestion comes from a sign company with an obvious interest in selling more signs. I don’t know if it has been tested empirically. But it makes good theoretical sense.

Another suggestion I see from time to time is to instruct people about how familiarity with a risk tends to make them careless, dulling their awareness and their concern (their outrage). A 2005 presentation by ExxonMobil safety expert Joseph M. Deeb, for example, has a page entitled “Altering Risk Perception.” One of its main thrusts is that it’s possible to train employees on the ways in which their risk perceptions are likely to be distorted – and that such training helps reduce accidents. Among Deeb’s recommendations: “Train employees on how familiarity breeds lower risk perception.”

I haven’t seen any evidence that teaching people about the effects of familiarity reduces those effects.

I accept that it’s possible for people to discipline themselves to overcome the various biases and “heuristics” that influence and sometimes distort our perception of risk – including the outrage factors such as familiarity. When journalists ask me what ordinary people should do about the distinction between hazard and outrage, I typically advise a kind of double-entry bookkeeping. “Give yourself permission to get outraged even about small hazards,” I say. “But try to remember that your outrage isn’t a good measure of how serious the hazard is. And try to take serious hazards seriously even if nothing is happening to provoke your outrage.”

But even as I give this advice, I realize that it’s very difficult advice to take. Rather than training the public to realize that a low-hazard risk is low-hazard even when it’s high-outrage, I focus on counseling communicators on ways to reduce outrage about low-hazard risks. Rather than training the public to realize that a high-hazard risk is high-hazard even when it’s low-outrage, I focus on counseling communicators on ways to increase outrage about high-hazard risks.

I think it’s very hard to train people to decide how serious a risk is without being influenced by how familiar it feels. It’s a lot more feasible – though still not easy – to work on making low-hazard risks feel more familiar and high-hazard risks feel less familiar.

In precaution advocacy, teaching people that familiarity with a risk may inappropriately reduce their outrage probably doesn’t help much to sustain their outrage.

But in outrage management, when the goal is to reduce people’s outrage, it can help a lot to acknowledge that unfamiliarity with the risk may be contributing to their concern.

Even a simple acknowledgment of the unfamiliarity itself can have a calming effect. “Here comes a six-syllable chemical mouthful” is a pretty good way to introduce a contaminant that nobody is likely to have heard of before. “Some people tell me this reminds them of science fiction” is a pretty good way to introduce a video on your proposed waste disposal site. “The concept of statistical significance bewilders everyone until they get used to it” is a pretty good way to introduce your epidemiology results.

What determines whether these acknowledgements are effective or not? Mostly the extent to which they come across as patronizing. That, in turn, is largely a matter of where you seem to be putting the blame for the unfamiliarity problem. “Our company has done a rotten job of making this point clear” earns full credit. So does “Please stop me if I get so caught up in jargon and details that I confuse everybody about the important stuff.” “This part is really hard to understand” earns half credit. No credit for “You weren't listening” or “You should have come to our last meeting if you wanted to know that” or “You lack the educational background to follow my point.”