In an excerpt from “The Lowdown: Dodging the Bullet – Effective Risk Communications”, Dr. Andrew Powell and Dr. Andrew Roberts give an example of how real or perceived concerns can have consequences when not dealt with effectively.
“One health controversy is infamous as an illustration of how concerns, real or perceived, can have very real consequences — a catastrophic high profile communications failure that brought a corporate giant to its knees.
Dow Corning had been making silicone implants for breast augmentation since the early 1960s without major incident. In 1990, concerns of a link between silicone gel implants and various illnesses were brought to national attention. In 1992, the FDA banned silicone gel breast implants for cosmetic purposes. Then came the lawsuits. With over 400,000 women in a class action suit, Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy in 1995.
During the height of the controversy, two key situations came together: high concern with emotions running sky high, and low trust in corporations.
CEO of Dow Corning at the time, Richard Hazleton, had the difficult job of steering his company through the lawsuit tsunami. In 1996, producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show approached Hazleton to appear, to bring the implant controversy centre stage again. Hazleton thought appearing on the show would raise the profile of breast cancer victims, whom he thought had been ignored. However, the decision to appear on the show was controversial — and the episode would certainly be one to remember, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
A woman in the audience spoke movingly of the suffering she has endured due to, she believed, having had implants. Hazleton lounged in his chair, his expression impassive, arrogant even. His legs were crossed; he appeared less than interested, and certainly very defensive. He questioned a statistic: the alleged number of deaths that had arisen through breast implants. Hazelton was corrected on the number of deaths from the audience — it is 92, not 72 they exclaimed. “92, 72, whatever,” retorted Hazelton. The audience gasped in horror and there was uproar!
Here is a classic example of industry spokespeople, operating from a position of low trust, facing a controversy, showing little or no empathy with the concerns of key stakeholders — distressed sufferers looking for a cure. Whether these concerns were real or not was irrelevant. In trying to defend themselves by coldly referring to what they viewed to be the pertinent facts, they failed to deliver their message, failed to enter into a constructive dialogue, failed to convince people to look at things from their perspective. Whatever they said, it simply was not heard. Not only did they come into the debate with low trust and credibility, they did nothing to gain any by their performance.
They broke nearly all the rules of high stakes communications. Had they handled the situation without trivialising the number of deaths on such a massive stage, and had they opened the door to engage the sufferers in a dialogue towards finding a solution, they may have delayed many of the lawsuits. This delay may have been enough so that more credible and trustworthy supporters, such as the New England Journal of Medicine that later published several studies supporting Dow Corning’s position, could have made their point earlier.
Had Hazleton communicated better on national TV, he may have garnered more support and accelerated the process of getting support from the scientific community, not just to save his company, but also to help find a solution to what was a real problem.” – Dr. Andrew Powell, Dr. Andrew Roberts