The DAD approach to risk management goes something like this. Product, service development and/or policy decisions are arrived at, and the technical risks (costs) and benefits are weighed up. Decisions to proceed with a product, service or policy are made in isolation from stakeholder opinions and are communicated. These (final) decisions are then defended, oftentimes using whatever means available.
This is the default approach in most organizations that face risk or controversy and forms part of a risk management strategy that has served industry and government well for decades. Signs are, however, that this needs to change. We live in a society preoccupied with risk, which Professor Ulrich Beck coined a Risk Society, where debate on information about the risks we face in everyday life has never been more vigorous. DAD does not work well in open, transparent environments and similarly its disregard of risk perception factors and failure to embrace audience engagement (their feedback on risks in particular) are all contributing towards problems with public acceptance for developers and policymakers that still rely on its methods. Most importantly, the DAD tactics used to defend just about anything have been turned around and used against organizations to great effect. DAD has come to bite back.
PR Fights Regulation
The very idea that any risk decision can de defended, whilst sounding far-fetched, has strong empirical and practical foundations. Look back at tobacco, asbestos, and aniline dyes amongst many examples. In the face of the most compelling evidence that these substances were not only harmful, but deadly, PR and product defence campaigns were able to delay and downgrade regulations in the face of overwhelming evidence. These campaigns led to the deaths of thousands of people following decades of regulatory inaction and failure.
The DAD tactics employed haven’t changed a great deal from the days of ‘big tobacco.’ Form ‘independent’ 3rd party groups to distance developers from the issue, ghost write for friendly scientists and ‘ambassadors’ and publish in pliable, low-impact journals, lobby amenable politicians, re-analyse raw data to get the interpretation that suits. Seize upon any uncertainties, and deny all risks. This is the “defend at all costs” part of the DAD approach.
So whilst the darker side of DAD has served industries for decades, in today’s society underpinned by transparency, accountability and to some degree trust, these methods are well known and hence vulnerable. The very same tactics are being used by consumer groups, NGOs, and activists to create doubt and uncertainty. Products far less hazardous than tobacco, asbestos and aniline dyes are getting the reverse of DAD, small hazards are being amplified through traditional and social media (known as the social amplification of risk) and by “anti-ambassador” third-parties.
DAD is probably more effective at creating outrage than it is at defending hazardous products or ill thought out policies.
This is the critical point about DAD. Such strategies were designed to play down the measureable hazards of dangerous products, to diminish the technical aspect of risk in order to push back on regulation. Big tobacco strategies were developed at a time where information was limited, highly outraged and motivated opponents were not in a position to act. The information revolution, right to know and freedom of information legislation have undermined these strategies.
In addition as we have reported elsewhere, modern risk management requires consideration of a far wider range of risk factors; the personal, social, economic, moral, ethical and political elements that shape public risk perceptions. DAD proponents look past these factors because regulations only pertain to ‘objective’ measurable aspects of risk. However, the risk game is a far bigger playing field than technical hazards alone. Whilst product defence may work to this day using spin, half-truths and deceit, the public are not just interested in technical risk—evidence points to far greater interest in psychological aspects of risk and issues like fairness and inequity of benefits. These concerns are critical in the realms of public acceptance and political will, which are increasingly shaping regulatory stances.
The increased burden of defence makes the decide and announce parts of DAD critical. Decisions need to take into account that technical risks are less likely to be defendable, whatever the controls or benefits. The public is more risk averse than ever, novel technologies will need to provide them with a personal, relevant benefit in order to be accepted.
Novel applications of biotechnology and nanotechnology are struggling for public acceptance because of the DAD philosophy. Denial of all risks and uncertainties even concerning technical hazards is a completely untenable position in today’s risk society. A typical response has been to try to laud the benefits of these technologies in an attempt to move towards public risk acceptance. A very simplistic view is that if the benefits outweigh the risks then the public will accept the product or policy. As a result benefit communications are overused, often ending up sounding less than plausible, frequently irrelevant to consumers and in the sobering light of the low trust society in which we live, sound like one of the worst PR strategies of all, propaganda. As far as risks beyond hazard, the outrage factors so well reported by scholars such as Vincent Covello and Peter Sandman, little has been done to address genuine concerns over trust, fairness and control. As the key risk factors that amplify risk in the public’s minds, failures here mirror on-going regulatory politicization and delays to market for developers.
Developers and policy-makers should look past technical risk and accept that stakeholders can also use the uncertainty, doubt, and third party advocacy tactics that were previously so effective in product/policy defence. This is the rather unfortunate DAD legacy.
It is better that announcements of products and policy initiatives be based around dialogue, engaging stakeholders on the multiple factors of risk at an early stage. Adopting genuinely empathetic engagement phases prior to decision-making could save millions in failed product launches and controversies around policy U-turns and through the Internet has never been so easy to achieve. Such benevolent strategies could go some way to addressing pressing issues of distrust in companies and governments across the world. Without trust, effective communication of risk is almost impossible, and given the current trust outlook, much work needs to be done over a sustained period of time,.