What's Your Project’s Stakeholder “Outrage” Potential?

April 19, 2010

Risk communications sage Peter Sandman has produced some thoughtful analysis and theory, but the notion of public “outrage” and what triggers it is one of his most useful concepts.

As Sandman himself acknowledges, in most cases the word “outrage” is an extreme way to describe stakeholders’ feelings. Usually, “concern” or “uncertainty” would be better terminology. Still, when Communica evaluates the potential level of stakeholder acceptance or opposition to a new project, Sandman’s list of “Public Outrage Components” is a useful tool. We have found that a valuable situation analysis can be arrived at by formulating the outrage factors as questions and then generating stakeholders’ most likely answers to them. Weighting and scoring the answers for relative significance provides us even more insight.

For example, answering questions such as “Is the risk coerced or voluntary?” and “Is the risk controlled by others?” flags a key stakeholder worry that can arise when a new industrial development of some kind is being proposed nearby. That worry has to do with a sense of powerlessness and a concern that the voice of a single individual isn’t going to count for much in any project forum. When property value impacts or issues related to noise and traffic seem to be beyond one’s control, it is not difficult to imagine that local stakeholders might start to have a problem with a proposed new project.

Another pair of good questions to ask and answer can be “Is the risk exotic or familiar?” and “Are the potential consequences of the risk dreaded or not dreaded?” In most communities, the prospect of a radioactive waste storage facility coming to the area will be both exotic and greatly dreaded. On the other hand, a new water line project will most likely be seen as a familiar risk with unthreatening consequences: a ruptured water pipeline might cause some damage but no one is likely to die.

When outrage factors like these are looked at together with project magnitude, current land use and the types and numbers of stakeholders affected, a sense of the expected local reaction begins to form. Coupled with concerns about “untrustworthy” information sources (i.e. the project proponent rather than a friend or neighbour) and an unresponsive communications process — two more Sandman outrage factors — it becomes apparent that unless a well-designed and responsive consultation program is put in place from the start, the project is likely to sail into stormy waters in very short order. This kind of analysis creates a convincing forecast for the client, and usually definite agreement about the public consultation program scope.