Dealing with an Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes
By Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field
Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field, Dealing with an Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes, (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
Susskind and Field warn that an angry, suspicious public will undermine American competitiveness in the global marketplace, and will undermine confidence in basic social institutions. Yet given the history of public relations, the public has a right to be angry, and to be suspicious of what public officials and business leaders have to say. Public relations all too often consists of stonewalling the public, of whitewashes and smokescreens, of false pretenses and blame-shifting, and of vicious attacks on critics. Instead of these tactics, the authors develop a mutual-gains approach to dealing with the public. This approach views public relations as a kind of multiparty, multi-issue negotiation, and so follows the basic principles for effective negotiations.
The Mutual Gains Approach
The mutual gains approach to dealing with an angry public has six basic principles. The first principle is to try to see matters from the perspective of others, and to understand and acknowledge their concerns. Second, encourage joint fact-finding in order to generate information that will be credible to both sides. Third, "offer contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they do occur; and promise to compensate unintended but knowable effects."[p. 39] Fourth, accept responsibility for mistakes and share power with the public. Fifth, act in a trustworthy manner in order to allay suspicion and build trust with the public. Finally, focus on building long-term relationships with the public. Having described these basic principles, the authors then offer an initial illustration of the mutual gains approach using a composite case study.
The basic sources of public anger include harm, fear of harm, and threatened values. Anger from any of these sources may be amplified by relative weakness, or by unfair or deceitful treatment. The authors further explore and develop the mutual gains approach through case studies illustrating each of these types of anger. Chapter IV focuses on dealing with accidental harms, and discusses the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Chapter V focuses on cases where there is a risk of harm, reviewing Dow Corning's handling of the debate over the safety of their silicone breast implants. Chapter VI explores value conflicts through the cases of Hydro-Quebec and the Cree, and animal rights activism.
Anger from Accidental Harm
When accidents happen, organizations' credibility and reputations are at stake. The Three Mile accident case was filled with attempts to conceal information from the public, broken promises, and miscommunication. From the Three Mile island case the authors draw a number of specific prescriptions. In addition to the six basic principles the authors recommend sharing information, both favorable and unfavorable, with the public. Attempts to conceal information are usually discovered, and always undermine the concealing organization's credibility. Organization should follow the aphorism, "say what you mean, and mean what you say." Avoid evasive language. The organization should have an informed spokesperson who can present information clearly, patiently, and without condescension. Being impatient, patronizing, or using overly technical language will further anger the public. Organizations should seek outside support in times of crisis. For instance, private companies may seek governmental support of their statements and positions. For the government's part, they should foster cooperative relationships with other organizations in order to foster voluntary compliance with governmental regulations.
The Exxon Valdez case brings up the matter of compensation for accidental harms. Exxon publicly accepted responsibility for the Alaskan oil spill. The company paid out millions for compensation and cleanup. Yet, poor planning in the distribution of funds left many angry. The lesson to be learned in this case is that "its not how much you spend, its how you spend it." Susskind and Field identify four basic mistakes that Exxon made in the aftermath of the spill. First, although Exxon initially took full responsibility for the spill, company representatives later began to shift the blame onto others. This seeming evasion of responsibility angered many. Second, Exxon did not establish clear lines of communication with affected parties and the larger public, and consequently did not share decision-making power with the public. Thus Exxon's compensation agreements often seemed arbitrary, autocratic or paternalistic. Third, Exxon began to make compensation payment before they had acted to mitigate the damages, and so before the actual degree of harm was known. The authors explain that "When the party that has caused the harm tries to decide on its own what the appropriate response should be, the wronged parties are likely to balk. Only when compensation is seen as appropriate and fair in the eyes of those who feel harmed will the need for further bloodletting subside."[p. 103] Finally the company did not create a public problem-solving forum. Creation of such a forum would have alleviated the previous mistakes.
Anger from Risks
Professional risk assessment is difficult, complicated and filled with uncertainties. The public often takes further factors into account, and so their perception of a risk may differ from that of the professionals. To further complicate matters, risk communication is also very difficult, as professionals and the public tend to have different perspectives and concerns and so tend to talk past one another. The issue of silicone breast implants illustrates a many of these difficulties. Susskind and Field draw a number of lessons from Dow Corning's handling of their risky product. First, companies should set clear and realistic product performance standards. Dow decided to guarantee their implants against rupture for five years after implantation. Given that Dow also argued that the implants would remain intact for up to thirty years, this low standard raised more concerns than it resolved. Next, companies should focus on minimizing the risk their products pose, not on minimizing or dismissing others' concerns. Recall the first principle of the mutual-gains approach: understand and acknowledge others' concerns. The Dow case also shows the importance of keeping promises. Dow failed to keep its commitment to share information with the FDA. A related lesson is that companies should not hide from new information, but should actively seek new and better information regarding the safety of their product. Perhaps the key lesson to be learned from the Dow case is that when there is no scientific consensus, the stakeholders should make the risky decision through consensus- building forums. Such forums can take the form of a conference hosted by a respected neutral party, of a policy dialog where stakeholder representatives work out joint policy proposals, or of regulatory negotiations. Finally, the third basic principle of the mutual gains approach is particularly important in cases of risk: offer contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they do occur; and promise to compensate unintended but knowable effects.
Anger from Value Conflicts
Value conflicts are another source of public anger. Susskind and Fields consider the case of Hydro-Quebec. Quebec was developing a massive hydro-electric project in northern Quebec. The project was economically important, and was to many a symbol of Quebecois pride, ability and independence. However, the first phase of that project had already brought devastating changes to the native communities living in that region. Environmental damage had resulted in dangerously increased mercury levels in the native Cree peoples. The influx of mainstream culture had also brought increased violence, obesity, alcoholism, and suicide to the Cree. The Hydro-Quebec project resulted in a clash between the values of native cultures, environmental values, and the value of Quebecois sovereignty.
From the Hydro-Quebec case the authors draw four prescriptions for dealing with value conflicts. First, focus on shared values or overarching principles as a basis for continued discussions. For example, Hydro-Quebec might have emphasized the Quebecois and Cree common pursuit of autonomy and recognition. Second, be open to the possibility that you might be in the wrong. Hydro-Quebec needed to consider the possibility that projected power demands were unrealistic. Third, the authors advise organizations to "seek to achieve real gains and substantial improvements, as seen through the critics' eyes, rather than offering appropriate' compensation to offset significant losses."[p. 176] Hydro-Quebec assumed that cash compensation could offset cultural losses. Instead they should have worked with the affected parties to find mutually beneficial solutions. Fourth, the typical public relations tactics of stonewalling, smokescreens, false pretenses and vicious counter-attacks are particularly likely to intensify public anger in cases where basic values are involved.
By examining animal rights disputes the authors identify a number of additional suggestions for dealing with value conflicts. One way to better understand critics' present positions is to understand the history of the issue or of their movement. Value conflicts usually have a strong emotional component. However charging that critics are merely being emotional and irrational will simply increase their anger and polarize the debate. Strong emotions should be acknowledged, but discussion should appeal to the reasons which support those values. Usually the "sides" in a value conflict are not utterly single-minded, but have a diverse set of views. Exploring these diverse and complex views helps prevent destructive polarization, and may help he "sides" find common ground. Another suggestion is to be aware of the drawbacks of casting issues in terms of rights. The authors note that "rights talk, with its absolutes, shuts out the subtlety and leaves only winners and losers."[p. 187] In general parties should avoid discussion forums which are adversarial, and facilitate attacks or unilateral decision-making. Instead parties in values conflicts should seek discussion formats which are cooperative, dialogic, exploratory, and which facilitate joint problem solving.
Dealing with the Media
Many public relations professionals remain fixed on a mistaken set of ideas about how to deal with the media. First, they view the media as adversaries. They are wary of the media's influence and power, and often try to sidestep the media or diminish its influence. Second, they view the media merely as a tool to be used to distribute propaganda. Third, they believe that the media can be controlled, and they attempt to force the media to cover or ignore issues with threats of libel suits or boycotts. Taken together these ideas support a public relations strategy which says that the best defense is a good offense. Never admit mistakes, refuse access to damaging information, attack your critic and put them on the defensive.
The mutual-gains approach starts with a different set of principles. First, recognize that the media have their own interests and their own job to do. They are there to find information and to produce a good story. Treating the media like adversaries tend to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Cooperate with the media and they are more likely to produce accurate, objective and cooperative coverage. The second principle is to tell the press what you do and do not know. Withholding information simply fuels the media's commitment to uncovering the facts. Admitting uncertainty and negative information improves your credibility with the media and the larger public. Third, the public and the media want to hear the story from leaders and people with authority, rather than from low-level spokespersons. Organizations should choose spokespersons who are "knowledgeable, nondefensive, and have the authority to make commitments."[p. 210] Fourth, emphasize to the media their educational role in order to minimize media sensationalism. A fifth principle is to use a neutral party to present the results of consensus-building efforts between contending groups. Stakeholders should abide by certain ground rules in their individual dealings with the press, so as not to undermine the consensus- building process. For instance, each side should refrain from attributing views or statements to the other stakeholders.
Principled leadership is the final key to dealing with an angry public. Creating and sustaining positive changes in the way organizations deal with an angry public requires the presence of principled leadership. Principled leaders are honest and accountable. They value their reputation and integrity. Principled leaders seek, first and foremost, to do the right thing. They seek both to inspire trust and to be trustworthy by following a strategy of reciprocity in their relations with others. Effective leadership requires sharing information with others, and listening to and learning from others. The adoption of principled leadership also requires changes in the institutional structure and culture. Organizations must become less hierarchical, and their members more empowered. Total Quality Management theories are a step in this direction.