Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Risky Business: Peter Sandman doesn’t blog—more’s the pity—but he does update his website pretty frequently with some of the most brilliant articles on risk management and risk communication you’ll find anywhere.

His latest essay asks the question How Safe is Safe Enough? And it makes some excellent points, starting with the observation that companies should stop making the claim, as they often do, that they are taking “every possible precaution” to protect their customers against everything from anthrax to privacy protection.

For one thing: “All these claims are, of course, lies. Any risk manager who is actually taking every possible precaution is taking far too many precautions, inevitably including many that are prohibitively expensive, disruptive, or ineffective.”

For another: “I think the net result of 51,000 such claims [the results of a Google search] is that we are beginning to have a society that believes every possible precaution should be taken. People are coming to feel they have a legitimate grievance if they can think of a precaution you haven’t taken. Before things go wrong, their grievance takes the form of advocacy on behalf of additional precautions—precautions that may not be cost-effective but are surely possible. After things go wrong, it takes the form of lawsuits pointing to all those possible precautions you didn’t take (and pointing to all your assurances that you were taking every possible precaution).”

And he makes the point that after a crisis occurs, companies and commentators pour scorn on public expectations. “They usually do so in statements that drip with contempt for the employees or neighbors who are expressing the ‘irrational’ view that it makes sense to take every possible precaution—as if the company hadn’t been promising to do exactly that.”

The temptation to reproduce the entire column is almost overwhelming, but I’ll leave you to discover most of the rest yourself. Suffice it to say that Sandman offers, with characteristic clarity, a solution: “How do you break the news to your stakeholders that you can’t take every possible precaution—worse, that you don’t really think it makes sense to try? The key is to share the dilemma, to concede that you are not entirely sure what to do…. Certainly one very powerful way to share a dilemma is to seek advice from your stakeholders.”

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