Hill & Knowlton/Defusing 'sensitive' issues

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This article was first published as Risky Business: The World According to Hill & Knowlton"in PR Watch, Volume 4, No. 1, First Quarter 1997. The original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Defusing 'sensitive' issues

"For the last 30 years you and your corporations have been depicted as criminals," complained Hill & Knowlton Chairman and General Manager Thomas Buckmaster. His talk, titled "Defusing Sensitive Issues Through 'Risk Communication,' " was one of the most revealing and well-attended presentations at Key West.

Buckmaster cited a study of prime-time TV programming, which he claimed showed that "businessmen are three times more likely to be depicted as criminals than other people . . . three times as likely to be depicted as too powerful. Sixty percent of the time businessmen are perceived as corrupt. ... We have to work under the cover of darkness because of the bad image of business."

The problem, he said, is that the public has developed an irrational desire "for a risk-free society which is debilitating." Corporations, of course, have risen above this particular disability, but when they attempt to communicate sensibly with the rest of us, they mistakenly tend to dismiss our fears as "dumb or irrational." According to Buckmaster, corporate efforts at risk communication often fail because they underestimate this emotional aspect of "risk perception."

"Do you have difficulty explaining your organization's position on controversial issues to your grassroots members?" he asked. "Do you ever wonder why an illogical, emotionally-driven argument ... can overwhelm a scientifically-sound argument from your organization? If so, this session will show you how to win public support for your issues and how to overcome the fear and anxiety of your grassroots members, stakeholders, and the public at large."

The root of the problem, Buckmaster said, is that "we talk to people wrong." Corporate risk communications is not about winning an argument through science or logic, but about "engaging people, communicating with them."

Risk analysts traditionally define the risk associated with a public health hazard as a function of "magnitude times probability," but Buckmaster argued that public relations professionals should use a different formula. "The hazard plus the outrage equals the risk," he said. The "irrational" factor of outrage "drives crisis situations . . . closes down [the public's] eyes and ears ... and makes it impossible to teach anyone anything--when they are afraid. ... Once people are outraged, they don't listen to hazard statistics, ... don't use numerical risk comparisons."

In fact, Buckmaster said, "managing the outrage is more important than managing the hazard," He cited the example of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska where he claimed that public outrage outweighed the actual hazard, which "was unpleasant but manageable."

Buckmaster handed out a card offering H&K's "Axioms of Disaster Survival," which included the following wisdom:

"Keeping the issues and focus tight and small will help us. Colorful and memorable language creates headlines which are impossible to live down. Twenty-five percent of our resources and 50% of our energy go towards fixing yesterday's mistake. Positive, aggressive assertive communication does the following: limits follow-up questions; focuses on the most important aspects of the problem; and moves the public process forward to resolution. There is no question we can be asked about our situation that should surprise us. The same holds for anger. No question asked of us should make us angry. Preparation, rehearsal time, and a certain amount of luck will keep us going and help us win."

In order to defuse an outraged public, Buckmaster advised the audience to "(1) Acknowledge the concerns of the other side; (2) Encourage joint fact-finding commissions; (3) Offer alternatives to minimize impacts; (4) Accept responsibilities, admit mistakes, and share power; (5) Focus on building long-term relationships; and (6) Act in what will be perceived as a trustworthy fashion."

Soothe Me, Scare Me

"Risk communication is about two things," Buckmaster said, "scaring people into action and trying to reassure them into inaction." Although corporate crisis management focuses on "reassuring into inaction," he noted noted that PR firms are sometimes hired to inflame rather than downplay fears.

Sometimes, he said, flacks "have to help people get outraged" about pressing public issues. "Sometimes you have to scare people into action."

These comments precipitated a momentary crisis in Buckmaster's own presentation, when a woman in the audience raised her hand and asked about Hill & Knowlton's role in "scaring people into action" during the months leading up to the Persian Gulf war.

H&K's wartime propaganda on behalf of the Kuwaiti government-in-exile remains notorious, even within the PR trade. Buckmaster's firm engineered the infamous fraudulent testimony in which Iraqi soldiers were falsely accused of ripping Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators and leaving them on the floor to die.

As Buckmaster's audience well knew, this "atrocity" never happened, but H&K nonetheless used the manufactured "baby incubator" incident to whip up war hysteria among the American public and politicians.

The woman's question prompted a buzz of anticipation, but Buckmaster managed to dodge the question like a true PR pro. "The Pentagon is the best risk-management group in the business," he mumbled, and quickly changed the subject.

Other SourceWatch resources