Leading in the age of outrage
Public outrage is a natural response to situations that evoke fear, anger, or uncertainty within a community. Local councillors often find themselves in situations where they need to address these emotions and effectively manage public perception about a council decision or project. With the 24/7 nature of social media, this can sometimes feel like a full-time job.
On top of that, what the public may be outraged about may not necessarily match the likely impact or harm to the community. This can catch councillors off-guard and unprepared to effectively respond to outrage when it strikes. And we know that the longer that an issue persists, then the outrage is likely to increase. If it is completely ignored, then it can tip the council into a dysfunctional relationship with its community.
In our recent webinar with our resident planning & engagement expert, Cinnamon Dunsford, we unpacked this topic and what strategies you can use as an elected representative to manage outrage when it strikes.
First, it’s helpful to reflect on the insightful work of Dr. Peter Sandman who is an expert is risk communication. He has identified 12 "outrage factors". These factors determine how upset people are likely to be about a situation and help us understand why they feel that way. Knowing how these factors impact outrage, can help councillors develop the right approach and response.
Not dreaded v dreaded
This one's straightforward—people fear what they dread. Take, for instance, people are worried about the impact of a recent algae outbreak in a local lake. They think it’s because of toxic contamination due to farming practices. Councillors can address the dread by empathising with people's concerns. You are unlikely to reduce fear or outrage by telling people their concerns are not real.
Familiar v exotic
The less familiar something is for a community then the more likely it is to cause outrage. For example, where a council is proposing to change planning controls to enable higher density development in a traditionally low-density village, then the level of outrage is likely to be higher. To help ease the outrage, councillors can find ways to increase the familiarity of the idea. This could be by sharing stories from other places where this type of development has been successful.
Individual control v controlled by others
Feeling powerless ignites outrage. On the flipside, where the community or an individual has some autonomy or control over the situation, this can reduce the outrage. For example, if a decision about a new development is seen as imposed, councillors can share control by inviting community input and addressing concerns early in the planning process. This might not always be possible, so if you can't share control, then be honest about that too.
Voluntary v coerced
When people feel forced into a situation, outrage brews. Try to find ways to make the risk more voluntary, even if you can't make it completely voluntary. For example, if your council is proposing a mandatory waste management change such as removal of a bulky goods service, councillors can provide ample information to help residents understand the necessity and benefits to them
Trustworthy v untrustworthy sources
Trust is vital. If the community perceives council or individual councillors as being untrustworthy, it can increase the level of outrage. For example, council has decided to go ahead with a new infrastructure project which is not supported by some in the community. Councillors can maintain trust by sharing transparent information in a timely manner and ensuring the benefits are well-explained. Word of warning - "facts do not diminish outrage" - so use these with absolute caution.
Natural v industrial
The level of outrage that a community feel is related to whether the risk arises from natural causes or is human made. Never compare human-caused risks to natural ones
Chronic v catastrophic
An extreme event triggers more intense outrage compared to a chronic but persistent risk. For example, a sudden and unexpected death due to an accident on a local road is likely to cause more outrage about fixing the road where it happened. Show empathy and take time to discuss what you are doing to reduce the magnitude of the risk, not just probability of it happening. Make sure your worst-case scenario is really the worst.
Knowable v unknowable
The degree of uncertainty can influence the level of outrage. Where there is a high degree of uncertainty and a lot of unknowns, then its best to acknowledge this but don't exaggerate it. People will smell a rat. Take, for instance, an infrastructure project affecting a beloved local park where residents are worried about the loss of open space. and impacts on parking. Tell your community what you know, what you don't know and what you are doing to find out more – keep the communication lines open and share information as soon as it becomes available.
Fair v unfair
The perception of whether a decision is fair will impact the level of outrage felt in the community. Where it is seen unfair, then the outrage is likely to be higher. For example, a perception that certain parts of the local government area always get more funds allocated in the annual budget.
Morally irrelevant v relevant
In simple terms, people become outraged about issues that they care about and which they feel conflict with their underlying morals, values and beliefs. Of course, this differs wildly from person from person, so it is likely people will be outraged by different things. Common flashpoints can include proposals for brothels near schools and telecommunications towers near homes. Acknowledge people's concerns and again, go easy on the facts.
Responsive v unresponsive process
Process is often the source of outrage. It’s simple - people remember how you treat them and if they felt like their concerns have been heard. On the flipside, not responding to concerns and hoping that the problem will go away, is likely to fuel outrage and will cause further suspicion that you are keeping secrets. Sharing information, even if it seems benign, can reduce the outrage. As can personal interactions rather than hiding behind bureaucracy.
Not memorable v memorable
The more memorable something is for someone, the higher the outrage is likely to be. As a first step, understand what makes things memorable. This could be a personal experience, news coverage, or something that they've read about. For example, someone who has been bitten by a dog as a young child, may have particularly strong opinions about council's approach to managing dogs in public spaces. Take time to understand this personal perspective with compassion and empathy.
Summing up, navigating public outrage might feel overwhelming at times, but understanding Dr. Sandman's 12 factors arms you with a compass. As local councillors, adopting these strategies to address these factors fosters collaboration, trust, and harmony within your communities.
Remember, by valuing the concerns of your constituents and involving them in the decision-making process, you're steering your region toward a brighter future—one built on understanding, empathy, and shared progress.
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