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Let's talk about -- cough, cough -- swine flu

May 6, 2009

About 100 years ago, I wrote a profile of Peter Sandman, a risk communications consultant. Back then, who could guess what sort of work that entailed? Insurance underwriting? Financial management?

But along came the Exxon Valdez spill, and soon everyone was talking about arrogant corporations with their bumbling public relations, clumsy damage control efforts and heavy-handed image manipulation.

Peter Sandman advises companies on how best to present disasters and potential hazards to the public, and he's not into covering your tracks and manipulating public opinion. In fact, he advocates honesty and vulnerability... not two words you generally see in the same sentence when it comes to corporate America.

Mr. Sandman preaches a simple equation: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. Simply put, the equation defines risk not only on the basis of cold technical data but also by human standards such as trust, morality, accountability, openness, and compassion (the outrage component). Outrage, he says, is a predictable response when people feel they aren't being dealt with squarely. It doesnít matter how big or small the actual risk is, or whether people are overreacting. In Mr. Sandmanís way of thinking, outrage is just a much a part of risk as the hazard. So, companies need to address not just the actual hazard, but the public's perception of a hazard.

I see that Mr. Sandman's business is thriving these days. Take a look at his musings on the swine flu outbreak and the best way to address this slow-moving threat here or follow the link to my profile of him ("Outrage-ous") in the right column.