Peter Sandman’s career defies easy definition. For many years he was a leading environmental activist, and used his communications expertise to teach college students and public-interest groups how to deliver their messages. When I was one of his students at Rutgers in the late seventies, he taught me to care about the environment and to write precisely. Decades later, when I looked up my former mentor, I was surprised to find that he is now this country’s preeminent “risk communications” consultant, and that his clients include some of the same big corporations that his other students had hoped to take down, or at least humble a little.
One side of risk communications, according to Sandman, is “increasing outrage,” which is what environmental groups do in order to rally public support. Sandman advises his environmental clients on how to develop and channel outrage. But the other side of risk communications, and the majority of Sandman’s work, is “outrage management” — in other words, calming people down. He helps his corporate clients reduce outrage and direct attention away from issues that they consider unimportant. Many of these issues are environmental hazards.
But if Sandman is a spin doctor, he spins in unusual directions. He tells his clients that it’s in their best interest to communicate honestly and directly about the hazards they are causing. He persuades them to listen more, to tell the truth, to take responsibility for their actions, and to treat critics with respect. They usually need to share control, he says, and sometimes they even have to lose.
Though his fees are negotiable, Sandman commonly commands $650 an hour for his services. Why are the big multinationals willing to pay so handsomely for his help? Because when potential losses are in the multiple millions of dollars, a good consultant is worth whatever he or she charges.
Half of Sandman’s consulting work is for the oil, chemical, waste, biotech, nuclear, and electric-power industries. The names of his clients read like a laundry list of environmental offenders: Monsanto, DuPont, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Arco, BHP Petroleum, Exxon, Shell, and the U.S. Department of Energy have all sought — and presumably benefited from — his advice. At the same time, Sandman has consulted for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SustainAbility, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Defense, and Greenpeace.
The founder of the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers University, Sandman runs a website about his work (www.psandman.com). He has written several trade books, software programs, and widely used texts, including Media: An Introductory Analysis of American Mass Communications (Prentice-Hall) and Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication (published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association).
This interview was conducted in the spring and summer of 2003. In person, Sandman is an engaging speaker. He talks fast and fluidly, interrupting himself as ideas emerge.
Kendall: When you started working for the nuclear-power industry, right after the accident at Three Mile Island, your name was wiped off a list of activist academics. At the time, you said it seemed “churlish” not to help the companies who had previously been your opposition.
Sandman: I had served on a government commission to figure out what the nuclear industry should do to communicate better in the event of an accident. The recommendations I’d helped draft had been converted into Nuclear Regulatory Commission policy. Now all these companies, which were trying to learn from the Three Mile Island accident and were being told to do things differently, went looking for someone to tell them how to do it. I agreed to be that person.
I thought then, and I think now, that it would have been nutty to tell companies what to do and then refuse to help them figure out how to do it. You’re not supposed to want them to mishandle an accident. I was surprised then that my decision had the repercussions it did, but I’ve since learned that this is pretty normal in the activist community.
Before I came to Rutgers, I applied for a job with a University of Michigan program whose purpose was to train activists on environmental issues. I had to appear before a student search committee, and one student asked, “What’s your commitment to the environment?” And I said, “I haven’t got any commitment to the environment.” And this silence fell over the room. I said, “As far as I can tell, there’s already enough commitment to the environment in the student body. You’re not going to school to learn to be committed; you’re going to school to learn skills you can use. My commitment is to teaching you how to persuade the media to help the environment.” On the other hand, I told them, if they offered me the job, within three or four years I’d be an activist, because that’s what happens when you hang around activists: you wind up becoming one too.
Kendall: And that prediction came true?
Sandman: Yes, I became very committed, and remain serious about environmental problems. But it was never my main focus. I’m a communications expert. Communications people live at intersections. My job is to explain B to A and A to B. It almost doesn’t matter which one I work for.
I’ve always liked working at intersections because I have a deficient sense of constituency. Most people have a much deeper commitment to the group than to their own views on particular issues. If they’re on the Left, they think what the Left thinks. If they’re on the Right, they think what the Right thinks. Such people are not good communicators.
When a new issue comes up, like the war in Iraq, I don’t know what to think for quite some time, because I haven’t got a firm ideology or peer group to tell me what to think. It’d be nice if I could say, “Well, Bush is lying; therefore I’m against the war.” But all presidents lie. You can’t be against them for that reason, or you’d be against absolutely everything that anybody in office does.
For what it’s worth, everybody I hear speak on the issue moves me toward the other side. When I hear Bush talk, I’m against the war. When I hear the protestors talk, I’m for the war. By the time I’ve figured out where I stand, I’m good at explaining the different sides of the issue to someone else.
I tend to be more passionate about the process of communication than about the outcome. I’m interested in people listening better and talking more and wanting to understand each other’s point of view. I try to eliminate the things that get in the way of that. And it’s a Sisyphean task, because industry people and activists aren’t really talking to each other; they’re doing theater with each other. Whichever side I am working for, I try to find a way for both sides to listen better.
I didn’t go into outrage management because I care deeply about helping companies achieve their goals. They hire me to help them achieve their goals, but I’m only interested in making the process more open and collaborative and accountable.
Kendall: Aren’t you concerned that working with corporate executives will make your perceptions and values more like theirs?
Sandman: It’s true that, when you know people from the inside, you have more sympathy for them. I do understand industry better now than I did before. It’s much more diverse than I had thought. I understand what kinds of sins corporate clients are and are not likely to commit. I’m less critical of corporations than I used to be, but I also have a more vivid sense of how foolish and self-defeating they are, and how consistently they neglect what they claim to be their most cherished value — profitability — in favor of things like comfort and self-esteem.
When I was an activist in the seventies, I thought the main thing wrong with corporate capitalism was its excessive preoccupation with profit. Now I go to companies and say, “Losing this fight would be enormously more profitable for you than winning it.” Yet they continue to fight. Usually it’s corporate executives protecting their ego.
For example, I worked on a case where activists were demanding a company install a $60 million piece of equipment to reduce a one-in-a-million risk by half. They could have saved many more lives spending that kind of money somewhere else, but the law was on the activists’ side. I tried to sell the management on giving the environmental group a different win, one that was just as much of a humiliation to the company, but less expensive and better for the environment. But the executive I was working with didn’t want to lose any fights. At one point I said, “If you keep doing this, you’re going to wind up installing the $60 million piece of equipment.” And he said, “I would rather waste $60 million than hand these sons of bitches victory on a silver platter.”
This sort of thing was surprising to me the first twenty times it happened. Now I find it almost reassuring. The kind of human frailties we come to expect in each other, we ought to expect in CEOs.
I would work for a company that has done awful things and even killed people, but only if they were prepared to say, after the danger was over, “We did awful things and killed people.” I wouldn’t help a company weasel out, but I would certainly help a company stand up.
Kendall: When you made the change from working primarily for environmental organizations to working for the same companies you used to help campaign against, how did you handle that emotionally?
Sandman: The first time I agreed to work on a corporate-funded project was with Michael Greenberg, a Rutgers faculty member in urban planning. I said, “I’ll do it, but if one of these industry people tries to change something in a report to make it more pro-industry, I’m out of here. I’m not going to let these bastards compromise my integrity.” And Greenberg said, “You’re going to learn something, Sandman. They’re going to be delighted to have your uncompromised opinion. It’s not as if anyone outside the company reads these reports anyhow, and they want to know the truth.”
I didn’t believe him, and I went out of my way to find nasty ways of framing the facts in reports, because I was trying to push these corporate funders to show their true colors. I kept waiting for the inevitable battle that would cause me to quit, but years went by, and there I was, still doing it. I don’t know if they ever read the reports, but they certainly never objected to them.
Kendall: What would be an example of compromising your integrity?
Sandman: Hedging what I have to say, or reaching predetermined conclusions that are conducive to my clients’ goals. But it’s not a compromise, to my mind, to work for companies that have done something wrong. My wife is a psychiatrist, and she says you ought not to be a psychiatrist if you don’t like working with crazy people. In a similar way, you ought not to be a communications consultant if you don’t like working with people who have been misbehaving. Companies don’t call on me unless they’ve done something wrong. But it isn’t my notion of integrity to say that you shouldn’t help the bad guys. The bad guys are the ones who need help the most. You just shouldn’t help them get away with it. And above all you should deal straight. I am enormously committed to saying exactly what I think at all times.
Kendall: You’ve defined risk with the equation “Risk = Hazard + Outrage.” It looks as if you’re saying that every risk is partly to the community and partly to a company’s public image. Is that true?
Sandman: Well, no, but you’re not the first to have read it that way. It’s certainly true that outraged people are a risk to the company, but that isn’t what I mean. I mean that, when people say something is a serious risk, they’re expressing some combination of “This is likely to kill me” and “This really pisses me off.” Even if you prove to them that it’s not likely to kill them, they’ll still be upset at being lied to and misled. The second group of concerns — not “Will it hurt me or hurt the ecosystem?” but “Are they honest? Are they unresponsive? Are they immoral?” — are what I collectively call “outrage.”
Kendall: When you’re working with big corporations on strategies to reduce outrage, how often do you suggest eliminating the hazard, and how likely are companies to take your suggestion?
Sandman: I tell clients that, if the hazard is serious, they’ve got to fix the hazard. If the outrage is serious, they’ve got to fix the outrage. If both are serious, they’ve got to fix both. But you don’t fix one in order to remedy the other. You don’t give people an apology and expect it to save their lives. And you don’t build a vapor-recovery system and expect it to calm them down.
You don’t just fix the hazard and then, when people come and yell at you, say, “It’s already been fixed.” You let them yell at you and demand that you fix it, and then you negotiate with them about what you’re going to fix, and how you’re going to fix it, and how they’re going to know it’s been fixed. You’ve got to produce something that is more accountable, more collaborative.
The thing that happens — and I tell my clients it’s going to happen, but they never quite believe me — is that when they open themselves up to public input, they wind up with a different hazard remedy. The people in the community often want something that someone in the company has already thought of, but that was rejected. Then along comes a citizen who says the same thing, and the same executive who told a subordinate, “No, that’s a dumb idea,” tells the community group, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s look at it.” So in point of fact, if you solve the hazard with attention to the outrage, you usually wind up with a different solution.
Kendall: When you have that sort of negotiation, do you diminish the public’s outrage as well?
Sandman: Yes, people feel terrific when they come up with an idea that works. My corporate clients, and government clients even more, are afraid they will look stupid and incompetent for not having thought of the solution themselves. But the public is too delighted to care.
Kendall: In cases where the outrage is justified, should it still be managed?
Sandman: Well, there are two instances in which the outrage is justified, and they call for different responses. One is when the hazard is serious. Then you’ve got to improve your management of the hazard, and also apologize and take responsibility.
The second situation is when the hazard is low, but management has been arrogant, dishonest, and contemptuous. Let’s say people are frightened and angry because they believe that a factory’s emissions are dangerous. In this case, though, the emissions are not dangerous, or they represent only a tiny risk — one which, if the neighbors weren’t already outraged, they would shrug their shoulders at. But when neighbors raise concerns, they get no response, or they’re told, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” Their outrage then is absolutely justified, but not by the hazard; it’s justified by the patronizing way in which the company has treated them. In that situation, outrage management is the primary task.
Kendall: Let’s go back to the first scenario. If the hazard justifies the outrage, after the corporation has diminished the hazard, how do you handle the outrage?
Sandman: Mostly by asking for forgiveness. You start by admitting what you did — which, of course, politicians and corporate executives hate to do. They want to apologize in a hypothetical manner: “Whatever it is I might have done, I’m sorry.” But that doesn’t count; you have to give chapter and verse of what you did.
Next you shut up while they yell at you. As anyone who has ever been married knows, when you’ve misbehaved, you don’t just say, “Here’s what I did, and I’m sorry.” You say, “Here’s what I did,” and then your spouse tells you what a jerk you are. And when she or he is done, then you say you’re sorry. It’s genuinely important, when interacting with outraged people, to give them a chance to vent. Preemptive apology is not effective. And when you say you’re sorry, you have to do three things: regret that it happened, sympathize with the victims, and take responsibility. This last item is the difference between “I’m sorry your lamp got broken” and “I’m sorry I broke your lamp.”
The next step is some kind of compensation, to help make the injured party whole again. After that it’s necessary to improve, to show that you won’t cause the same harm to someone else next week. It’s the equivalent of what Catholics — who are experts on forgiveness — call “a sincere act of repentance.” In Catholicism, you can’t be forgiven unless you intend not to do it again. You don’t have to be perfect, but if you intend to keep sinning, you’re not forgiven. In the secular world, you have to present evidence that you’ve learned from the mistake or the misbehavior, and that you’re making some credible effort not to do it again.
The final step, as all good Catholics know, is the penance — some kind of humiliation that symbolizes that you messed up and you know it. When you’ve gone through all those steps, you’ve usually earned the right to be forgiven.
Kendall: You’re not a scientist. How do you assess a hazard level?
Sandman: Well, clients usually give me truthful information even in situations where they are deceiving themselves. Clients will often say to me, “This is a trivial problem, nothing to worry about. We want you to advise us on how to reduce people’s outrage.” And I’ll say, “Fine, send me the relevant documents.” And after I read them, I’ll call the client back and say, “Maybe it’s not the worst threat ever to come down the pike, but it’s not as trivial as you’re making it sound.”
People are much more capable of self-deception than they are of outright evil. It’s rare, I believe, for a company to know that the problem is serious and intentionally hide that fact. What usually happens is they have the information that shows the problem is serious, but they look at that information and don’t see it. They say, “Ah, it’s not such a big deal, but if people saw it, they’d be scared. Rather than let them mistakenly think there’s a serious problem, we will suppress this information.”
I also read material produced by activists and government agencies. Maybe once a year I have to call an outside expert and say, “Can you give me a two-minute briefing on the risks here? I sense that the client is misleading me, and I want to know what I am getting into.”
Kendall: Let’s look at an example all of us know about. How did President Bush and his administration do at communicating risk with regard to war with Iraq — both the threat coming from Iraq, and the risks of war?
Sandman: What the Bush administration did wrong was sound much too confident — too confident that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; too confident that the war would go well and end quickly. It is always a mistake to sound more confident than you are, or to talk yourself into being more confident than the situation merits. Advocates on both the Right and the Left make this mistake. Consider two entirely different, equally horrific scenarios: Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons, and global warming leading to huge temperature changes and massive death and dislocation throughout the world. Both are high-magnitude, low-probability risks. The case for taking action in each situation is grounded in precaution: it makes sense to take steps to prevent such awful outcomes even if they are unproven or unlikely. Insisting that those outcomes are proven or highly likely, however — when the data show only that they are possible — is not good risk communication.
President Bush should have said the war would be a difficult, prolonged, expensive effort with no guarantee of success. He should have said that it had very substantial downsides, including increased hatred of the U.S., the awful precedent set by a preemptive war, and the inevitable charges of U.S. imperialism. He should have said that people who thought this was too high a price to pay for a long shot at creating a Muslim democracy in the Middle East weren’t foolish or unpatriotic. And finally he should have said that he believed it was a chance worth taking, especially since there were other benefits, such as ridding the world of an evil tyrant — though, granted, one among many.
Kendall: What are environmental groups such as Greenpeace doing right or wrong in terms of risk communication?
Sandman: Historically, the environmental movement has been very good at instilling in people a sense that the environment matters. And it’s been good at creating a cadre of serious, committed environmentalists. Where it has had trouble is in bridging the gap between those two. Many people think of themselves as environmentally concerned. They recycle and maybe join Environmental Defense. They contribute money to environmental groups, but they don’t worry too much about what their own lifestyle is doing to the environment. The environmental movement has produced a large number of such people, who care a little bit, and a small number of people who care deeply, but it hasn’t produced many people who are somewhere in the middle.
Part of the reason for the gap is that the activists are contemptuous of the moderate contributors, whom they see as sellouts or hypocrites, unworthy of the movement’s mantle. They’re perfectly happy to take the contributors’ money, but they don’t see themselves as working for those people, or representing those people. It’s not a scam, in that Greenpeace stands for what it says it stands for. But what it’s really selling is a chance to pretend you are the kind of person who would spend two years on the Rainbow Warrior, when you know perfectly well that you’re not.
Kendall: So if you were Greenpeace, what would you do?
Sandman: For one thing, I would work toward developing cadres of moderate activists: people who are not Rainbow Warrior material, but who want to do something more than give money. They’re willing to get involved in some local action that’s compatible with a normal life.
By the way, I’m not picking on Greenpeace. I’m using it as a symbol for the environmental movement in general.
For all its failures, though, the environmental movement has made environmental risks a greater concern than virtually any other kind of risk. Contrast the environment with workplace safety, for example. A factory that makes plastic medical supplies exploded in the Southeast yesterday; three people died, and many more were hurt. That kind of thing happens fairly often, but it doesn’t generate outrage, partly because there is no workplace-safety movement. You can list environmental organizations till you run out of fingers and toes, but try to list one safety group. The unions usually trade safety for money. The only one that comes to mind is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That’s as if the Environmental Protection Agency were as far as the environmental movement went.
I do understand that there’s more than human lives at stake with environmental issues, but, in terms of lives saved per dollar spent, there are many more cost-effective issues, such as workplace safety, or infectious diseases in the Third World. If we wanted to save as many lives as we could for our buck, we’d vaccinate Third World children. If you’re a company, though, it makes more sense for you to spend $10 million to reduce environmental mortality by one-hundredth of a person than it does to spend $1 million to reduce workplace mortality by three or four people, because the environment produces more outrage. In effect, the world is telling you, “It’s OK to knock somebody off a ladder, but don’t pollute them.”
I think that for a lot of environmental activists, people are the villains, and other creatures are the victims, or the ecosystem as a whole is the victim. So they get more outraged about the environment than about health and safety issues. One of my students at Rutgers was a stream walker, and she found pollution that she thought was endangering groundhogs. I said to her, “You know, there are also people who live along that creek,” and she said, “I don’t care; let the people take care of themselves — the groundhogs have only me.”
Kendall: What do you see as the positive result of reducing public outrage?
Sandman: It reduces the pressure on corporations to address lesser hazards before more serious ones. Hazards are dealt with not in proportion to how serious they are, but rather in proportion to how much outrage they engender, because the outrage increases the cost to the company.
Kendall: Isn’t there a danger that outrage reduction could reduce the pressure to address a hazard below the point where it should be?
Sandman: I think there’s a short-term risk of that, but only short-term. If you’re pissed off about one problem in particular, then you want to generate as much outrage about it as possible. Any reduction of that outrage will put the pressure below the level where you want it to be. But it won’t be reduced below the level of other deadly hazards that nobody’s pissed off about.
There is a law of conservation of outrage. People’s capacity for outrage doesn’t diminish. When outrage on one issue gets reduced, it gets reallocated elsewhere. If you calm people down about a small hazard, you free up energy that can be directed toward a bigger hazard. And that’s good for the world.
Companies choosing a factory site understand this. The last thing they want to do is put a facility in a place where a community organization has just had a significant victory, because those people are looking around and thinking, Now what am I going to do with my evenings?
Kendall: What about when the outrage is justified? Do you reduce it then?
Sandman: No, if it’s outrage about a high hazard, you ought not to diminish it. What you do then is called “crisis communication.”
There are four kinds of risk communication, and the strategy for each is different. If hazard is high and outrage is low, then you do public education: “Please get your hepatitis B shot.” This is what Greenpeace does: it tries to get people riled up about something it considers a significant hazard.
If you’ve got a moderate hazard and moderate outrage, then you’ve got stakeholder relations. Stakeholders are people who are interested and involved, because they see themselves as having a stake in the outcome, but they’re not your enemy — yet. They’re willing to talk and listen to you. It’s the ideal kind of risk communication: two rational, concerned parties trying to make sense of what’s going on.
If there’s low or moderate hazard and the outrage is high, then we have outrage management. It becomes enormously important to listen. When you do talk, you’re going to acknowledge what you did wrong, apologize, give away credit, stake out the middle — all the things that can reduce the outrage, and thereby help prevent people from overestimating the hazard.
The fourth situation — high hazard, high outrage — calls for an apology, too, but only after the hazard is eliminated. Until then, you have crisis communication. People are upset, it’s likely that some of them may get sick or die, and you’re not trying to calm them down, because calming them down is not appropriate.
I advise the New York City government on how to communicate about terrorism. You don’t want to tell the people of New York not to worry about terrorism. They ought to worry about terrorism. Your goal is to have them bear their fear, and not have it escalate into terror or panic, or flip into denial.
In crisis communication, you want to acknowledge uncertainty, share dilemmas, give people things to do so that they can feel part of the solution. Having something to do makes it easier to bear fear and misery. But don’t overreassure people or tell them they shouldn’t be afraid.
Kendall: After 9/11, the president told people to go shopping.
Sandman: That didn’t seem satisfactory. Giving people things to do isn’t easy, but the government wasn’t asking enough of us — not nearly as much as we were willing to do. Ideally, you want to offer people a range of things to do.
Kendall: Are there some situations — for instance, when corporate negligence leads to innocent deaths — in which you would not feel comfortable trying to reduce public outrage?
Sandman: Yes. I would work for a company that has done awful things and even killed people, but only if they were prepared to say, after the danger was over, “We did awful things and killed people.” I wouldn’t help a company weasel out, but I would certainly help a company stand up.
I am interested in the process of repentance and forgiveness — but the company doesn’t get to decide it’s forgiven; the rest of us decide that. I would have loved to work for Enron. It would have been exciting — and, in my judgment, appropriate — to help a company that had seriously misbehaved talk to its stakeholders about whether it ought to be allowed to continue to exist. Forcing Enron to die might be satisfying, but that tactic also has innocent victims. The question is, “Can we punish the people responsible without punishing innocents?” I expect that would have been possible in Enron’s case, if the company had been prepared to repent and compensate and be appropriately humiliated.
In the seventies we got so upset at the asbestos industry for having lied to us about the risks of asbestos that we brought down the industry. But in doing so, we did not do well by the victims, because the industry could have reimbursed them. We were so preoccupied with punishing the evildoers that we did away with the benign uses of asbestos, too. It can’t be used now even in situations where it’s safe. We outlawed the product in part to satisfy our need for vengeance. That’s the asbestos industry’s fault for not having come up with some other way for us to punish them that would have been better for everyone. If we had better ways of punishing the individuals who have mishandled a situation, we wouldn’t have to destroy the companies.
Kendall: In a company, there can be individual evil or wrongdoing, but there can also be systemic evil, or individual evil that is compelled by the system.
Sandman: Yes, it’s often true that a problem is not just caused by some maverick who is misbehaving, but by the system itself. Sometimes the incentives are all wrong. If evil systems can’t be reformed, they need to be extirpated. But it’s still not automatically true that you need to destroy the organization and start from scratch.
At one company I worked with, the managers of a particular plant had lied about illegal emissions. When corporate management found out, it got rid of the people who had lied and told the regulators and the public what had happened. But there was also a systemic problem. The company needed to revamp its surveillance program so that it wasn’t trusting local environmental managers, who had too much incentive to hide problems and too little incentive to come forward with them. It also needed to establish a system by which employees at a wide range of levels in the company would be regularly asked questions like “Is there anything you think might be a problem, but isn’t being taken seriously by local managers?”
Kendall: In cases where the company’s structure and incentives promote wrongdoing, are the shareholders culpable?
Sandman: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I certainly think that shareholders are accountable for the behavior of the companies they own. They do own the company, after all. At the very least, they are supposed to notice when management does something wrong, and if they can’t change it, sell their stock.
But shareholders, too, are self-deceptive. Enron is a wonderful example of shareholders probably knowing that it was too good to be true, but putting that out of their minds. They may not have known that what the company was doing was illegal or immoral, but they probably knew that it was a game of musical chairs, and eventually the music was going to stop, and they needed not to own the stock when it did. The ones who got left holding the bag were furious, of course. It’s human nature that the more you deceived yourself, the angrier you are when the inevitable occurs. All those feelings of “I should have known” get converted into “Let’s string the bastards up!”
I decide whom to help by what they want me to do and whether I think it’s honorable. So if the anti-tobacco people wanted me to do something I thought was dishonorable, I would say no. And if the pro-tobacco people wanted me to do something honorable — which is hard to imagine, but if it happened — I would probably say yes.
Kendall: Would it ever be justified to shut down a company as punishment for corporate wrongdoing?
Sandman: It’s morally justified, and it’s certainly emotionally satisfying. It’s just that the collateral damage is so huge.
Take this political analogy: When a country misbehaves, there are lots of people who want to “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” But the people you bomb aren’t the ones who are misbehaving. They just happen to live there. I think the same is true of companies. I certainly wouldn’t argue that companies have a right to exist, but it’s terribly inefficient and unkind to destroy one if you can find a way to punish the people who misbehaved and still keep the rest of the company intact. Of course, if punishing individuals won’t stop the company from misbehaving, or if the company has no value and is intrinsically destructive, then you have to destroy it.
Kendall: Your website mentions that your fees are based partly on how good for society you think the work would be. Have you or would you refuse a job on the grounds that it would be bad for society?
Sandman: I have and would, yes.
Kendall: Can you give us some examples?
Sandman: No, because if people in good faith ask me to work for them, and I say no, it’s not fair to announce that I turned them down because I think they are bad people.
Kendall: In an issue of PR Watch devoted to you and your work, Bob Burton quoted you as saying that you would not work for the tobacco industry in a way that would increase sales.
Sandman: That’s right. I am not going to affirm or deny that I’ve been asked. [Laughs.] I did some work for the anti-tobacco side and I quit, because they were asking me to do things I felt weren’t honest.
Activists are sort of like smoke alarms: we calibrate them to give us false positives. We don’t worry about Greenpeace giving us an exaggerated warning. We do worry about Dow giving us an exaggerated reassurance. As a result, I’ve encountered activists who fudge data much more frequently than I have seen companies fudge data. Activists fudge data because they know the problem is serious, and the data should have shown that. When you lie based on ideology, you don’t feel like you’re really lying. When you lie based on money, you know you’re lying. And people are less likely to lie when they know they’re doing it purely out of self-interest.
When I was on a state board of the American Cancer Society back in the seventies, we tried to persuade companies to fund smoking-cessation clinics for their employees. We commissioned a study to prove that it was in a company’s economic best interest to help its employees quit smoking, because it would reduce insurance costs. But it turned out that, according to the study, employee pensions are a greater cost to a company than insurance. What really saves a company money is for people to die relatively soon after they retire. Yes, they’ll have to pay for plenty of cancer treatments, but if people die at sixty-five instead of eighty-five, that’s twenty years of pension they don’t have to pay. And that will cover a lot of cancer treatments.
This fact is now well established, but back in the seventies it wasn’t. So the board decided to hide the study. It was a proprietary study, so there was nothing illegal about hiding it. But we also continued to tell companies it was in their economic best interest to help employees stop smoking. We knew it wasn’t true, but lying in order to save lives seemed all right.
Kendall: What do you think about that now?
Sandman: I think I wouldn’t do it. I raised hell about it then within the organization, but I didn’t blow the whistle. I still don’t know if I’d whistle-blow on something like that, but I wouldn’t participate.
Kendall: You make it clear that corporations, when they’re guilty, should take the blame. But isn’t it true that they can’t admit fault because doing so would open them up to lawsuits?
Sandman: Reputation affects corporate prospects at least as much as lawsuits do, so if you protect yourself from a lawsuit, but your reputation goes down, then your stock goes down, and you’re dead meat anyway. The other consideration is that lawsuits are linked to outrage. Most plaintiffs don’t sue to get rich; they sue to get even. And apologies reduce outrage. There’s evidence, for example, that when doctors say they’re sorry after a medical procedure has gone awry, patients are far less likely to sue. It’s also true that, if they do sue, it’s harder to defend against.
There are situations in which you can and should apologize without admitting liability. The classic example I give is when you’re in a crowded elevator, and someone jostles you, and you step on the toe of the person behind you. Even lawyers know you don’t turn to the person behind you and say, “It’s not my fault.” You say, “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t mean it was your fault, though. It means it was your foot on top of someone else’s foot.
I would add one more thing: In the U.S. punitive damages are the big money, and punitive damages are explicitly about outrage. So if you say you’re sorry, you might lose the case, but you’re likely to pay a lot less in damages.
Kendall: Do you think that your clients are basically good people who just make mistakes and need help in reforming?
Sandman: I’d say about 75 percent are. There are certainly occasions when it seems that my clients are doing more than making mistakes, but only half a dozen times have I had a client who it seemed to me was knowingly, intentionally doing something evil. More often, it’s self-deception. They’re doing something evil, but they can’t see it, and I try to help them see it. Sometimes all I have to do is phrase what they’re doing less delicately, and they’ll say, “You’re right.” And it’ll change.
The client I’m working with now is an example of the type of mistakes corporations usually make. For years this company’s facility was emitting pollutants without a permit. The environmental manager and the plant manager had lied about the plant’s emissions, not just to the government, but also to corporate management. I got a call two days after the company’s vice-president for health, safety, and the environment discovered the problem. He had already fired the plant manager and the environmental manager, called a lawyer, and informed the EPA.
That was two years ago, and I’ve been working with the company ever since. It paid a multi-million-dollar fine. The company, the government, and a community group all did studies and found that the hazard was very small. The company, on my advice, took the position that this didn’t change anything. If the emissions had been dangerous, they wouldn’t have known it. They were just lucky, and the huge fine was absolutely justified, because the failure of management had been atrocious. They used words like that, and now the outrage is pretty much over. And I think that’s good work! [Laughs.]
The company really did screw up. In hindsight, they had warnings. I think they were genuinely shocked, but they shouldn’t have been. There were lots of clues that they missed, enough that they have revamped their corporate-surveillance program. So, was there any evil there? Yes, on the part of the local managers, there was evil. On the part of my client, I’d say no. But there was something more than making mistakes.
Kendall: It sounds as if your client may have deliberately avoided seeing what was going on. Isn’t that morally objectionable?
Sandman: If you close your eyes on purpose to an evil, you are fully complicit in that evil. But there are many gradations between intentionally closing your eyes and subconsciously deceiving yourself into thinking that there is nothing to see. In this case, it was fairly clear to me that corporate leadership thought it enormously important to have an environmentally sound operation. They did not want to be in violation of environmental law, and they didn’t want to endanger anybody’s health. They imagined that the people working for them were honest, and so they neglected to respond appropriately to early signals that something might be wrong. They’re accountable for that, but it isn’t evil. It’s error.
Kendall: Some environmentalists feel betrayed because they see you as having gone over to the other side. Do you see any value in taking sides?
Sandman: Well, I notice that the distinctions are there, but I’m not on any side. I’m for hire. And I charge activist groups much less than I do corporations, partly because they don’t have the money, and partly because it does me good to continue to work for both sides. I don’t decide whom to help by looking at what side they’re on. I decide whom to help by what they want me to do and whether I think it’s honorable. So if the anti-tobacco people wanted me to do something I thought was dishonorable, I would say no. And if the pro-tobacco people wanted me to do something honorable — which is hard to imagine, but if it happened — I would probably say yes.
As I said earlier, I have a weak sense of constituency and a strong sense of autonomy. Most people wouldn’t sleep well if they didn’t clearly know what side they were on. I think it’s inevitable that activists and businesspeople both see themselves as groups, and allegiance to the group matters more to them than their position on a specific issue.
Why is it that one group of people thinks that killing fetuses is fine, but killing animals is awful, and another group thinks that killing animals is fine, but killing fetuses is awful — as if they weren’t similar issues? That’s constituency. The Left adopted animals, and the Right adopted fetuses.
I’m not against that. That’s just the way people are. I am less that way, which makes me sometimes lonely and sometimes useful.
Kendall: I want to ask a question that I hadn’t planned, which is: Deep down, in your heart of hearts, aren’t you committed to the environment? Aren’t you really on our side?
Sandman: [Laughs.] Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I am committed to the environment, but I am not committed to the environmental movement. I decide my positions on global warming and SUVs and overpopulation independently of one another, and to me that feels like a commitment to the environment, but it doesn’t look that way to most environmentalists, because it’s not a commitment to the agenda.
There’s research going on at Princeton right now to find a technological solution to climate change. The idea is, in a nutshell, to put something into the air that would neutralize greenhouse gases and prevent climate change. This research is being funded by huge corporations, for obvious reasons: they could have their internal-combustion engine and eat it too! The environmental movement considers it evil, because the movement believes, as a matter of ideology, that technological fixes are dangerous, and if you find something to put into the air, it will wind up having negative effects down the road. They also predict that there isn’t going to be anything you can put in the air to stop climate change — which is very likely true. But the interesting question to me is: if there were such a thing, would you be for it or against it? I’d think that if you’re not trying to side with either corporate America or activist America, but are only trying to solve climate change, you would hope that the research succeeds.
But we all have to decide for ourselves what “being committed to the environment” means. The people running major corporations today are in their fifties, so they’re all children of Earth Day. They’re not lying when they say they care about the environment. But they think the environmental movement is pushing for a bunch of changes that would do more to hurt corporations than they would to help the environment. The fact that they think this doesn’t make them right, but they do honestly believe it.
Kendall: Even if the CEOs aren’t lying when they say they care about the environment, what difference does it make if their actions say otherwise?
Sandman: It’s true, there are people who claim to care about the environment, but when you look at their behavior, there is a clear pattern of environmental irresponsibility. They might be lying, or they might be deceiving themselves, but their claim that they care about the environment certainly isn’t valid.
That’s different from people who do care but have a different vision of what’s good for the environment than you do. You might argue about which one of you is right, but that argument needs to be grounded in respect for each other’s sincerity.
Another possibility is someone who cares about the environment but doesn’t want to sacrifice everything for it. I care about safety, but I still occasionally drive fast, because in addition to caring about safety, I also care about getting where I’m going. In much the same way, people can have genuine environmental concern, but they balance it against other concerns. The fact that you’re willing to do a certain amount of environmental harm in return for doing good somewhere else doesn’t make you a liar, or even self-deceptive.
Kendall: You said, “We all have to decide . . . what ‘being committed to the environment’ means.” How do you avoid falling into moral or ethical relativism in this position?
Sandman: You don’t avoid it. If you’re looking at each situation as it comes along, you’re a relativist. If you’re ignoring the particulars and treating all similar situations the same, you’re an absolutist.
Absolutism or relativism alone is inadequate. If you’re always a relativist, you’ve lost your anchor. If you’re always an absolutist, you’re so weighed down by your anchor that you’re not going to get anywhere. People face dilemmas all the time in which their fundamental values pull them in one direction and the particulars of the situation pull them in another. If they don’t notice both sides of that and cope with the ambivalence, they fall into either perpetual relativism or perpetual absolutism.
It’s handy to have absolutists in the world, by the way. People who stand rigidly on narrow principles cast a clear light. But you don’t want them in charge of things.
Kendall: You’ve said that people routinely seek out belief systems that support their actions, rather than finding actions to support their beliefs. In your own case, could it be that you’ve built a moral and ethical framework to support your work for companies that are misbehaving?
Sandman: Yes, it’s possible — absolutely. In the beginning, there were years in which I was moving in the other direction, trying to come up with a rationale for getting out of this compromising activity and going back to my comfortable position as an academic, giving aid to the good guys and stereotyping the bad guys. One thing that keeps me honest is that I continue to work with activists. I think it would be much more dangerous for me if I were working only on one side of the street.
Another thing that protects me from becoming too facile a servant of my clients is my fierce independence. I get outraged easily. That’s how I became interested in the dynamics of outrage — how to create it, reduce it, and manage it. I use my own outrage as an indicator of how my clients deal with the public. It’s not infallible — sometimes I’m just in a bad mood or having a bad day — but it’s useful. How clients treat me is likely how they behave in the world. If a client is less than straight with me or doesn’t seem to respect my side in our business arrangements, then I’m inclined to believe that client is deceptive in its dealings with stakeholders too.
Kendall: Bob Burton at PR Watch apparently thinks you have sold out. What would you say about that?
Sandman: Well, the case that I’ve sold out is clearly that I’m making a pile of money. There’s no question about that.
I started out in life believing that you don’t get to be well-off and do good at the same time; you have to choose. But I think that I’ve found a niche — I didn’t know it when I crawled into it — between the two. The Quakers talk about “speaking truth to power.” I’ve found a niche where speaking truth to power pays. The remarkable thing is that I’m very often saying the same thing that activists are saying, only I’m saying it in a way that my clients can hear, and I’m getting paid to do it. It’s got to be infuriating for someone who’s marching outside company headquarters, cold and wet and certainly not getting paid, to see this guy in a Brooks Brothers suit on the inside getting $650 an hour to say, “You know, you really should listen to them.”
The bottom line is, no, I don’t think I’ve sold out. I continue to be prickly. I fire clients often. Clients often fire me because I’m too much of a pain in the neck for them. And some of my prickliness, frankly, is probably my effort to prove to myself that I am not selling out. My wife will sometimes point out that I have picked a fight with a client in a situation that I could have handled some other way. But I picked a fight anyway, just so I could go home and say, “Lost that client!” and feel like I am still me.
In his article about me in PR Watch, Burton had a hard time accusing me of doing something wrong, given that I was telling my clients to pay more attention to him and his allies. He had to say something like “Paying attention to us is a tactic for not giving us what we want.” Whether or not that’s true depends on what outcome they want to see.
Herbert Marcuse was a radical philosophy professor in San Diego during the antiwar movement in the sixties. He argued that reform and reformers are the enemy of revolution — which is certainly true. When a rigid, right-wing president of San Francisco State University was fired and replaced by a much more moderate president, Marcuse and other radicals saw it as a step in the wrong direction; with a rigid, right-wing president, they could foment rebellion, but with an accommodationist, liberal president, it was harder. If you want a revolution, you don’t want a bunch of reformers hanging out and telling people that they should listen better and be more responsive. I don’t want a revolution. I want reform. So revolutionaries should disapprove of me.
It’s got to be infuriating for someone who’s marching outside company headquarters, cold and wet and certainly not getting paid, to see this guy in a Brooks Brothers suit on the inside getting $650 an hour to say, “You know, you really should listen to them.”
Kendall: Is change best achieved through compromise rather than revolution?
Sandman: I think so. Revolution has a terrible record. It tends to produce what the word implies: the circle turns, and the other side is on top.
But I will say that reformists get their power from the existence of revolutionaries. It’s clear that Martin Luther King Jr. had the impact he did in part because Stokely Carmichael was there accusing King of selling out. The AFL-CIO was successful because the Wobblies were there. The National Organization of Women became what it is because the radical feminist groups were around. In the ecosystem of social change, somebody’s got to be out there, very pure, very unreasonable, very unwilling to compromise. And somebody’s got to be inside cutting a deal. And the insider gets to cut a deal only because there are revolutionaries in the yard. There is no social change without revolutionaries, but the social change you get, if you’re lucky, is incremental, progressive reform — under the threat of revolution.