James Hoggan: The Secret to Successful Risk Communications

FACTS DON'T CHANGE MINDS

BC BUSINESS | FEBUARY 2016 | BY JAMES HOGGAN 

When it comes to public opinion, there’s a common belief among companies and their communication teams that providing facts is the best way to sell your side of the story. The more information, the more likely the public will be on side, right? Wrong.

Look at high-profile examples across B.C. such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project or Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. Despite an overwhelming amount of information provided by these companies and their armies of PR people, these proposed developments have become textbook examples of how not to try to achieve social licence to operate.

Despite these companies’ assurances their projects will create jobs, are safe and respect the environment, the public continues to see the benefits as small and the risks unacceptably high. In fact, the B.C. government recently said it couldn’t support Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion project because the company isn’t offering enough details around how it would respond to a potential spill.

It’s not that information doesn’t matter. Society is structured around the use of information to back arguments and make decisions. However, a growing body of research on how people develop perceptions of risk shows that information alone does not change people’s fears and concerns about what is risky. Emotions play a huge part.

According to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who has studied the various social and cultural factors that lead to disputes and disagreements about risk, the problem lies in the diverse views between how “experts” and the public view risk.

Experts look at risk as a calculation of probability and consequence. It’s about numbers. The public takes a more personal approach; their perceptions are around personal control, voluntariness, children and future generations, trust, equity, benefits and consequences.

Slovic says the mistake the experts (and the companies they represent) make is viewing themselves as objective and the public as subjective. They perceive the public as being too emotional and having irrational fear. The public’s attitude is then dismissed as laypeople that get the fact wrong and don’t understand the evidence.

“Laypeople sometimes lack certain information about hazards,” Slovic says. “However their basic conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.”

This is where a company’s decision to “educate” the public to take its point of view can really backfire. People aren’t sitting around waiting to be told what to think. In fact, few of us like being told what to think.

Risk communicators need to be sensitive to this broader concept of risk. Facts aren’t just facts. They aren’t as objective as we assume they are. Facts and risk are subjective for both experts and the public. They are a blend of values, biases and ideology. The hypodermic needle theory of communication, where we administer the facts to cure people of their misunderstanding, doesn’t work.

James Hoggan is a public relations consultant. His latest book, I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, will be published in May

You can click here to follow James Hoggan on Twitter.

http://www.bcbusiness.ca/marketing-media/why-facts-dont-change-minds

Hoggan PR Tip #26: Use the Language of Accountability

In a climate of mistrust, generalities are more likely to alienate than reassure your audience.

If you’re talking about something that people cannot measure or confirm, you’re probably saying something that they won’t believe. This is particularly the case for companies trying to communicate about sustainability.

To be credible, claims must be specific and measurable.

Generalities will only expose you to charges of hypocrisy, especially if it can be argued that another part of your operation is not currently run on a sustainable basis.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

Hoggan PR Tip #24: Credibility Rests in Good Actions, Not Good PR

Mistrust is often the obstacle to successful corporate communications.

In an age of skepticism – it not outright cynicism – the public in inclined to dismiss corporate messaging as self-serving and therefore suspect.

Communicating in such an environment is 80 percent about what you do and 20 percent about what you say.

If, for example, you are trying to distinguish yours as a sustainable company, emphasize action and avoid inadvertantly overstating your sustainable commitments.

Focus your communications on specific business practices that others can measure and judge. Credibility will build slowly, but on a solid foundation.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

Hoggan PR Tip #23: Keep Step with Time


When releasing news, it’s important to think about timing – to make sure that information and spokespeople are available when reporters need them, well before deadline.

This becomes complicated on national stories when you’re dealing with media in different time zones.

For example, while it’s tempting to give local reporters priority access for interviews, that could cost you coverage if you let West Coast media go first – causing Eastern reporters to blow their deadlines.

So, make a national plan, and if you have to, give priority to those whose timelines are tightest.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

Hoggan PR Tip #22: Choose Hope, Not Hype

Good leaders inspire hope, not panic.

If you try to motivate your audience by fear or by threat, that audience will turn off.

This applies in all business settings, but it’s especially applicable when urging action on the environment. Bleak future scenarios engender paralysis. It’s also bad strategy to shame people – to embarrass them with their own contradictions.

If you point out that what people do doesn’t align with what they say, they are more likely to change their attitude than their actions.

People want and need encouragement.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

PR Tip #21: Be Brief and Well-Rehearsed

Everyone appreciates brevity; no one ever complains if you take less time than you are given. Audiences also like a bit of polish – the clarify and familiarity you can only achieve if you are well prepared.

Practice.

Run through your presentation alone and, then again, with someone whose feedback you trust.

See if you can make your points in less time.

Some people find it helps to write out their whole presentation, even if they ultimately use a bullet-point reminder sheet. A prepared text helps you organize your thoughts and will prevent you rambling on unnecessarily.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

PR Tip #20: Perception as Reality

In crisis, there is often a gap between public perception and operational reality. But if the public thinks you have a crisis, you have a crisis- no matter what your engineers say. And the larger the gap between what you know and what the public believes, the bigger the threat to your credibility.

Here is what you must do:

  • Identify why communication gaps exist (normal media skepticism, industry reputation, rumors).
  • Distribute information that addresses those gaps.
  • Recruit credible experts to confirm your facts.

Close the gap or the reputational crisis will long outlast the operational crisis.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

PR Tip #19: Keep Employees in the Loop

One of a company’s most critical communication “targets” are its own employees.

By communicating openly and honestly with your employees, you ensure that these essential stakeholders understand the corporate mission.  By listening to their feedback, you make them feel they are part of the team. This level of communications is too important to be left to chance.

Standardize internal communications,  ensuring there is a regular cadence to it.  That will help make employees feel included and secure-  going a long way toward boosting morale and engendering employee support.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

Hoggan PR Tip #18: Don’t Dignify Petty Criticisms


It’s tempting, when you are criticized in the media, to rise vigorously in your own defense.

But it’s often the wrong thing to do: You may unwittingly call attention to criticism that no one noticed, and you give your critic credibility by responding.

If someone says something that is damaging to your business or reputation, by all means respond. But if someone says something crticial, hurtful, or even untruthful, assess the damage.

If there isn’t any, seriously consider letting it pass.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

Hoggan PR Tip #17: Speak Up: Secrecy Breeds Suspicion

When speaking to the media, “No comment” sounds like you’ve got something to hide.

Reporters love a good mystery- so do their readers.

“No comment” invites suspicion and mistrust; it suggests you are trying to hide something – even if you are not.  Although legal or business considerations may limit your response, a general willingness to respond openly to media inquires is usually the best policy.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.