Much was made over the weekend of BP CEO Tony Hayward yachting off the English coast. How ridiculous. Both the yachting, and the fuss. An ABC reporter showed Louisianans photos of Hayward on his boat and inanely asked "Does this look like a guy in charge?" It's not as if Hayward has a wrench in his hand and can personally do anything to shut off the oil gushing from BP's well. It's not as though there weren't cell phones on Hayward's boat by which he could be as in touch with the spill site as if he were at his desk, or even there in person.
And yet, as fair as those arguments made by his staff might be, how oblivious it was for him to try to "get his life back" in such a symbolically stupid way... luxuriating in a classic symbol of affluence, enjoying clear sailing over clean waters. It's a really wonderful example of the biggest problem in risk and crisis communication, and the reason why so many otherwise smart people do and say things that are so dumb. They just don't get "it."
"It" is how people affected by a risk feel. Risk -- the chance that something bad might happen -- is, after all, a subjective thing. We can do all the fact-based risk assessment we want to try to make the most informed decision, but in the end we interpret that factual information through subjective/affective/instinctive filters. Many of the psychological risk perception factors that shape our judgments are well known, and apply here:
- We are more upset by risks that are human-made than threats that are natural. (Ergo the common lust for blame.)
- We are more upset by risks brought upon us by untrusted institutions (sorry, oil industry, but you've earned that one).
- We are more upset by risks that are catastrophic - big singular events - as opposed to chronic risks that do far more damage, but which are spread over space and time, like the much greater harms we're doing to the oceans all over the world (and the Gulf of Mexico) everyday.
- We are more upset by risks when they are personified...when we see the faces or names of actual victims, like the families of the 11 oil rig workers killed, or the working people (as opposed to yacht owners) whose livelihoods have been destroyed, or even the "heart rending" images of dead birds and wildlife.
That's actually what amazes me the most. As a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, it stuns me that the otherwise smart people who run organizations... and politicians, for that matter... can't see that it is in their best interest to sincerely put the feelings of others first. Emphasis on sincerely. When risk is involved, and especially in crisis conditions, the need to establish (or repair) trust goes way up. The best way to help build that trust is to truly take to heart the way people feel, to show sincere respect for their concerns. With that foundation, the risk communication that follows, in actions and messages, can't make the kinds of mistakes Hayward and BP have made. Without it you have insincere PR and, people being fairly astute about who they should trust, they'll detect the insincerity and the risk communication will do more harm than good.
Easy for me to say. Hard for the fourth largest corporation on the planet and its CEO to do, especially given how the yachting race played out this weekend. Mr. Hayward is likely to be in foul spirits. He lost.