One of the best thinkers on how to best handle “risk communications” is Dr. Peter Sandman. Crucially, what he has done is provided a richer way of thinking about “risk” by proposing this simple but powerful axiom:
Risk = Hazard + Outrage
Hazard is the objective, technical aspect of the risk — the probability and extent of something harming you. Conversely, Outrage is the amount of fear, concern or anger you feel about a hazard, regardless of whether the objective level of hazard is large or small.
The side of risk communication that built my reputation and sent my children to college was outrage management: what to do when people are excessively frightened or angry about a small hazard and you want to calm them down. Telling people to “Calm down!” is obviously not how this goal is best accomplished. The strategies that actually work turn out to be profoundly counterintuitive: apologizing for your mistakes, giving others credit for your improvements, acknowledging their grievances and concerns, etc.
In the mid-1980s I coined the formula “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” to reflect a growing body of research indicating that people assess risks according to metrics other than their technical seriousness: that factors such as trust, control, voluntariness, dread, and familiarity (now widely called “the outrage factors”) are as important as mortality or morbidity in what we mean by risk. My clients tended to imagine that their neighbors, employees, or customers were upset mostly because of media sensationalism or activist distortions or their own ignorance; helping them understand the dynamics of stakeholder outrage was a prerequisite to helping them figure out how to reduce the outrage – mostly how to stop doing the things they were doing that provoked the outrage.
Of course reducing outrage is a socially valuable thing to do only if the outrage is misplaced – that is, if the hazard, the technical risk, is genuinely small. (Similarly, increasing people’s outrage, as activists do, is socially valuable only if the hazard is genuinely big.) A recurring theme in my writing, and in others’ writing about me, is the ethical issues raised by outrage management, especially when deployed on behalf of huge multinational corporations.
(From Peter Sandman website: http://psandman.com/index-OM.htm#key)
A simple two by two matrix summarizes the key distinctions between three relevant situations.