Dealing with an Angry Public:
The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes
by Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field
New York: The Free Press, 1996
Patrick Field on Dealing With An Angry Public (from CBI Reports, Fall 1996, vol. 1, issue 2)
There are many reasons for the public to be angry.
Business and governmental leaders have consistently
covered up mistakes, concealed evidence of potential
risks, made misleading statements, and out and out lied.
Our leaders have fueled a rising tide of public distrust
of both business and government by behaving in these
ways. But beneath these wrong-headed actions is bad
advice. Whether by public relations experts or
attorneys, decision-makers are often told to commit to
nothing and admit nothing, to obscure and conceal rather
than to clarify and reveal. The public is treated like an
angry mob. Their concerns are brushed aside in order to
maintain a good organizational image, regardless of the
substance beneath the veneer.
Fortunately, over the last several years, the Consensus
Building Institute has had the opportunity to offer better
advice to decision makers. In the last 3 years, CBI has
reached over 1,500 corporate executives, non-profit
managers, and government officials through a training
program entitled "Dealing with an Angry Public." This
training is held twice annually in Cambridge and also
brought to many corporate clients and public agencies.
Earlier this year, the training course culminated in the
publication of Dealing with an Angry Public. President
Lawrence Susskind and Senior Associate Patrick Field,
who both have direct experience in numerous consensus
building and conflict resolution efforts, spent most of
1995 gathering case study materials, reflecting on past
trainings, and honing arguments to complete the book.
The book is constructed around six key elements of the
"mutual gains approach" to dealing with the public:
- Acknowledge the concerns of the other side.
- Encourage joint fact-finding.
- Offer contingent commitments to minimize
impacts if they do occur, and promise to
compensate unintended (but knowable)
- Accept responsibility, admit mistakes, and
- Act in a trustworthy fashion at all times.
- Focus on building long-term relationships.
It focuses in detail on five particular cases to
emphasize both the conventional responses to an angry
public and an alternative the authors call the mutual
gains approach. Events at Three Mile Island and the
Exxon Valdez oil spill are used to highlight points about
dealing with public outcry in the aftermath of serious
accidents. The Dow Corning silicone breast implant
controversy is fertile ground for exploring corporate
response to potential human health risks. Finally, the
James Bay hydroelectric development project and the
animal rights controversy provide means to discuss how
best to deal with the public when fundamental values
are at stake.
While deceptively simple in print, the six principles
are not easy to put in practice. The complexities of each
situation, the lack of full information, the rapidity of
unfolding events and the immediate decisions required
to respond, as well as the numerous opinions offered by
advisors, all make implementing these valuable ideas
challenging. However, as one reviewer in Planning
remarked: "Susskind and Field don't claim that this
approach is easy or that it will always work. They do
claim that it beats the alternatives." The book is
available at most local bookstores in the business
section, or can be ordered with the form on the back of
this issue of CBI Reports.