How Bad Is It, and Can I Really Believe You

The bad news keeps coming for Northern Japan. On Monday, the nuclear response group in Tokyo issued a statement revising information that had been previously released regarding the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. CNN puts it simply:

Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced full meltdowns at three reactors in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March, the country’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters said Monday.

Now, I understand that in the aftermath of one of the five most devastating earthquakes recorded, there may be some confusion about how bad one particular site is. And I understand that it’s not exactly easy to tell if a nuclear reactor is leaking, melting down, or just plumb gone. But given that there were calls for more transparency in the immediate aftermath of the incident, both by foreign and Japanese media (Like here. And here.), well, it just goes to show that maybe when there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Okay, sure, nobody will believe TEPCO ever again, but I argue that the damage is worse than that. The Japanese Prime Minister stood there and re-iterated the false statements (not that his approval ratings were anything to write home about beforehand). But, the US government and all of the public health departments across the country said not to worry because there’s been no meltdown, and according to these figures released, we’re in no danger. Ha, ha, ha, silly little lady; don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.


If I remember correctly, the NRC issued A SINGLE press release initially. Wipe hands and kick back ‘cause it’s Miller Time.

Then everybody freaked out cause the Surgeon General said, yeah, it’s scary, and you should be prepared for any consequence, and that didn’t follow the script.

Looking at this issue from a higher perspective takes me to my main point. In all of these trainings we’re told to aim high in our initial damage assessments, so we can walk it back later. TEPCO failed miserably at this and every day was like a drumbeat of worsening news. The US government, after not making virtually any statement for days downplayed the situation as well, instead of using it as a teachable moment. Their goal? To not cause panic. Because that would drive people to stockpile and ultimately take KI (which they did, so yeah, goal not attained).

So, my question to you, fellow PIOs, is this. At what point is it, “aiming high in damage,” and at what point is it, “inciting panic?” And are those two mutually exclusive?

I’m totally sold on the “walking it back” goal, and I’m a big believer in the “people don’t panic” mindset, and I think that, by and large, we could do a better job teaching our public about dangers and what we’re doing about them, and what those dangers mean for them. So, I tend to err on the bigger disaster, but here’s what’s really going on side of things. (See my previous post on Dr. Benjamin.) Our federal partners seemed to have erred on the Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! side of things, maybe improperly. Where do you stand?

6 thoughts on “How Bad Is It, and Can I Really Believe You”

  1. Another great post Jim. Truth is that in the age of social convergence (SM and mobile tech), there is NO point in trying to minimize anything or trying to obfuscate. Social networks will be rampant with wild rumours and all sorts of explanations.The only sensible thing organizations can do is put out all the information they have available so people can make informed choices. To do so, and be in a position to help “guide” the discussions, you need to first have a strong presence on those networks.Become a trusted source, be open and transparent, don’t hold back info … and then, maybe, you can drive the messaging train …

  2. Thanks, as always, for stopping by Patrice.I wonder how much of the disconnect from what /should be/ and what /is/ is a result of all of the trainings being taken by junior level folks and communicators, while the people who direct the response and elected officials are still going with what they’ve always done and feel in their gut — obfuscate, deny, minimize.It just amazes me, and the Rep Weiner thing just reinforces it, that these mistakes are still being made. Someone somewhere is not getting the message.

  3. Jim,Having had to field calls from a few panicked folks on this issue myself, there is definitely a balancing act between “not enough” and “too much.” The hazard in “too much” is the crying wolf syndrome, where people don’t take you seriously the next time around. In the long-term, that can have just as many or even more consequences as not encouraging enough caution or issuing a strong enough warning in the short-term.The root of the issue isn’t in being more or less conservative in our assessments of “how bad is it”, as much as it is acknowledging that often (or perhaps especially) in the early stages of an incident – we simply don’t know. It is anathema to most government agencies, particular those who are supposed to be experts on a given subject, to admit that sometimes they don’t have all the answers immediately available. That’s when a well-trained PIO says, “At this time we don’t know the answer to that question, but we’re working diligently to find out.” And of course the Anderson Coopers and countless other talking heads in the media landscape will speculate ad nauseum about “what they’re not telling us,” “worst case,” etc. But that’s okay. We build trust as Patrice says by being open and transparent about: what we know (because we have the science/evidence to prove it); what we think we know (because the evidence strongly suggests it and so far we can’t disprove it); what we don’t know but are working to discover; and lastly, those things that we may or are likely to never know. We of course hope that people make rational decisions based on this information, but have to acknowledge there will always be a segment of the population that won’t.In regards to the Fukashima Dai-ichi reactor and subsequent reassuring statements by U.S. officials, I perceive that as more of diplomatic/political transparency issue (heavily influenced by cultural context) than a warning failure for the U.S. public. If there genuinely existed a significant threat to the U.S., I know my trusted sources would have had the alarms and sirens going strong. Having said that, as the Dr. Benjamin interview illustrates, disaster response messaging rarely has a script to follow. I think the best we can strive for are well-trained PIOs to advise and consult their bosses on the principles and importance of pro-active communication, transparency, and “being a real person” with the same concerns as their neighbors, friends, etc.Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  4. Wow, Marcus, thanks for the extremely thoughtful comment.I absolutely agree with where you’re going here. One of most important things your PIO can say is, “We’re trying to figure that out, and this is how we’re doing that.” Process, process, process.Now, I’ll admit, my example of a radiological incident is difficult because its not like an oil tanker spill, or a confined disease outbreak—there is no defined denominator. There’s no reason, though, not say, “Things may get worse, and this is what that would look like, and this is what we’re doing to prefer that.” Teach, teach, teach.I may be young and naive here, but I think that this is different than the proverbial cry wolf scenario, “everyone will die if you don’t take this vaccine.” In fact, I think that the CDC spokeswoman and Dr. Besser avoided that scenario perfectly during H1N1: “We expect this will get worse, people are going to die from this, and that’s terrible, but this is what we’re doing to minimize the spread.” And then, like you said, left people to make their own decisions given the full, broad, informative description and education on pandemics and H1N1.As for the diplomatic bit, I agree that there’s something to that, but I figure it’s my job to advocate full-throatedly for proper risk communication and leave the politics to the politicians. I really appreciate your deep thoughts on this and agree that it’s not black and white at all. Our work is much more of a high-stakes art form (trapeze artist?) than science.Jim

  5. Jim,A very interesting post. I totally agree with you on the TEPCO/Japanese side of the equation–the messages released consistently underplayed the situation (you could take what they said and assume it was worse), and the poor communication continues to this day.Yet I’m confused by your characterization of the U.S. response. I’ve followed this story very closely from the beginning. Perhaps because I’m pulling information and not waiting for it to be actively pushed, I’ve felt a number of agencies across the federal goverment have been as informative as they possibly could be given the situation. The NRC, DOE, CDC, and EPA all quickly set up webpages devoted to the topic. And they all delivered the correct message–that there was never any risk to U.S. citizens living on U.S. soil.There is no technical definition for “meltdown,” so using the phrase even if officials suspected some portion of the cores had melted through the first containment layers would have been simply fear mongering without adding any real information. In addition, even if the worst case had come to pass–several spent fuel pool fires–the radiation released still would not have been a danger even on the West Coast because of the distances and dilution involved. So there was no worst case scenario which would involved people taking any particular actions that could have been walked back from–hence the messages to not buy KI.What I think the government was unprepared for was the strength of this borderline irrational fear of radiation. I’m not sure what messages would have prevented or ameliorated this reaction.

  6. Mr. Bogis: It's a real honor to have you stop by and comment. I appreciate it more than you realize. Perhaps our different views of the USG messaging comes from the different pressures we experienced in the midst of the event. As a communicator for a local public health department, I was acutely aware of the demands being placed on locals by the media. And surprisingly, most of the media was looking for, "could this happen here." Given that most communicators had stopped believed the Japanese reports and the only official USG statement was the NRC press release, AND the vast majority of locals don't have health physicists to help us interpret a rapidly changing situation, we looked to the Feds for guidance and found it lacking. I imagine that the media questions on the West Coast were different, and maybe better answered. Additionally, and you touch on this, I think that the discontent between our goals, saying there is no danger, and the public's expectations, is something we should learn very specifically from. If we say there is no danger from airborne radiation, and then have to report that there is radiation aloft the very next day, what does that do for our credibility? Admittedly, good messaging would've said that from the beginning, "we expect to see some low levels of radioactive fallout, but the levels are far below what we expect would cause any danger." And all of this is complicated by what happened in Philly as a result of increased testing. PA DEP released findings that drinking water in Philly had measurable levels of radiation. NOW what should our messaging say?    In retrospect, it looks like all of the "i's" were dotted, but in realtime, there was a frustrating pressure brought about by a lack of clear guidance. Live and learn. =)

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