Choosing the Right Response
Some years ago, a small but reputable canned food producer introduced a new product. Unfortunately, the risk of food poisoning was found to be higher than normal though still slight. The situation received media attention. Several times representatives of both the producer and the government inspectors attempted to allay public fears by quoting statistics to show that the risk to an individual was actually very low. This had little effect on sagging sales, and the product had to be abandoned.
What the official representatives failed to recognize was that the issue was the sanctity of food and trust in those that deliver it. It was an issue of unexpected risk suddenly being imposed without warning in a system and context assumed by the public to be a very low risk. The feeling was one of surprise and loss of control.
Compare that with the response of Warren Anderson, chair of Union Carbide, when he stepped to the microphone for the first time after the terrible Bhopal accident in India. He did not talk about facts, nor statistics, but about how he and the people at Union Carbide felt. What the cameras showed the world that night was a corporate executive sickened and saddened by tragedy. It was an honest response, spoken from the heart. More than anything, this gave him considerable credibility in the weeks that followed.
Research shows that the perception of risk is more emotional than rational, and that project risk assessment must begin by recognizing the legitimacy of public emotions.