In the May 4th New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called, “The Engineer’s Lament: Two ways of thinking about automotive safety.” To the engineer, Gladwell writes, a car’s safety lies on a continuum of extremes ranging from totally unsafe to completely safe. In contrast, the public’s view, and, usually, the view of non-technically trained public officials as well, is binary – the car is either safe or not safe.

And therein lies a communicator’s dilemma. How is it possible to reconcile the conflicting views of non-technical audiences with the views of trained experts tasked with interpreting and presenting complex data on automotive safety? The same dilemma applies equally to most other issues of public safety – whether it’s contaminated food, exposure to toxic chemicals or radiation, pharmaceuticals, oil transport by rail, and so on.

The issue common to all these situations is risk, usually expressed by experts in terms of numbers, statistics and probabilities. Often companies find themselves in crises because public perceptions of a given risk are out of proportion to the actual statistical danger. Conversely, it’s often the case that when risks are statistically high, perceptions of the amount of risk are low.

As Gladwell shows in his article, driver error, which includes drunk driving and speeding, is far more likely to kill or maim drivers and passengers than would a car’s mechanical problems. Yet public attention, skepticism, fear and outrage, fed in large part by media coverage, focuses on mechanical problems.

The field of risk communication, led by risk communication experts such as Peter Sandman and Vincent Covello among others, offers some research-based principles for experts and communicators to use that help to overcome the divide:

  • Be a real person. Acknowledge your audience’s emotions and empathize with victims whether real or perceived. Before giving statistics, experts have to first establish their personal humanity, and the humanity of their organization, while recognizing the humanity of their audiences. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” goes the wise saying. So you must project your humanity and your organization’s humanity by first recognizing that your audience may be experiencing some very powerful emotions, such as anxiety, anger or fear. Listen to your audience and make clear that you acknowledge their fears. Empathize, not only with actual victims and their families, but also with those who erroneously believe they have suffered harm.
  • Train and rehearse. Media and presentation training is a must before any sensitive public meeting. Just saying that you acknowledge people’s emotions and that you empathize may not be persuasive. You have to mean it and be able to project that sincerity. Training and rehearsal are necessary. Only by successfully establishing yourself first and foremost as a competent human being who’s truly concerned about your audiences’ safety will your complex numerical messages have a chance of being heard.


Related: 6 Rules for Social Media Use Before and During a Crisis


  • Express empathy correctly. Showing authentic empathy requires walking a middle path between being oblivious to your stakeholders’ feelings and intruding on your stakeholders’ feelings. Assuming too much knowledge, as in “I know how you must feel,” is patronizing. Far more effective would be to say, “It’s hard for me to imagine how you must feel.”
  • After you’ve established your humanity, your math-based messages have to be few and simple. Over simplifying complex numerical data into a few simple bullet points can in fact lead to some distortion and is therefore usually considered anathema to the expert. Nevertheless, the data must be simplified while still maintaining accuracy. Here are some examples of how to present data in ways that research shows are more understandable to a lay public:
    • Quantity and Concentration comparisons usually work best where people can visualize. For example:
      • The amount of oil spilled was equivalent to the amount of water in twenty  Olympic-size swimming pools.
      • The amount of land contaminated was equal to ten football fields.
    • Use whole numbers and simple fractions whenever possible, such as 6 parts per billion instead of 0.006 parts per million.
    • Use simple graphs, charts, and other visual aids to help present and clarify the numbers.
  • Avoid negatives. Research shows that even professionals trained in statistics react differently to the same statement when posed as positive or negative.
  • Cite third-party experts when presenting scientific, engineering or medical data. As much as possible, invoke the work of independent, credible experts who confirm your messages and can provide trusted information that educates your audiences. Even if your organization has hired outside experts, most people understand (although extremists won’t) that outside experts are paid for their time and would be extremely unlikely to harm their reputations by creating fraudulent data.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty. Often it’s the case that the data you have to present is suggestive but not conclusive. As difficult as that situation might be, it’s far better to publicly state and characterize the degree of uncertainty.
  • Nurture two-way communication. Even if it’s the CEO doing the talking, unless he or she is gifted in connecting to individuals’ on a very human level, one-way communication only reinforces people’s feelings that they’re being spoken at, not with. They’re not being heard. Communicators have to provide ways for the target audience to participate in a two-way communication. Social media conversations, public meetings with Q&As, public exhibits, an 800 # hotline with trained responders, forming community advisory panels are some of the ways organizations can establish constructive two-way communications with an aggrieved public.
  • Acknowledge errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors if your organization is responsible for them. Apologize when warranted. But, defend vigorously if you’re in the right.


  1. Need to Develop a Crisis Plan? Introduction to Crisis Communications Plans
  2. How Do I Test the Crisis Plan and Team? Introduction to Crisis Simulation Exercises
  3. Learn and Share: Tabletop Exercise LinkedIn Group


David Kalson

David Kalson

David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)