Categories: Crisis management / Trust and reputations

27 October 2012


Poor communication is not a crime

Italian judge Marco Billi has jailed (pending appeal) six scientists and one public official for six years for manslaughter. They were condemned for downplaying – in their communication – the risks of an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which killed 309 people in 2009. The verdict should send shockwaves through the ranks of public relations professionals, because the precedent it sets could be applied to PR pros just as easily as to our clients and their other advisers.

There is no disputing that the scientists and public official concerned muddled their risk communications. At a press conference, the chance of a large earthquake was described by earth scientist Enzo Boschi,  former head of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, as “unlikely” but not impossible. After the press conference, Department of Civil Protection official Bernardo De Bernardinis went on the record saying there was “no danger”.

It is not hard to imagine how the importantly divergent messages first left the public bewildered and then feeling let down when the devastating earthquake struck.

But what can we learn from this debacle?

The verdict is unsound

The Italian judge’s verdict was apparently premised on his conclusion that the seven defendants didn’t adequately warn the public of the dangers of a large-scale earthquake. This pre-supposes that there was a known truth – or known hazard – to be communicated and that it was withheld either deliberately or by negligence. But as Seth Stein, a professor of Earth sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois, told Scientific American, our ability to predict earthquake hazards is, frankly, lousy, so “criminalizing something would only make sense if we really knew how to do this and someone did it wrong.” Exactly. The problem, however, is that the public knows little about earthquake science. Citizens of L’Aquila most likely thought society’s scientists and officials had rather more to contribute to the situation than saying the equivalent of “we’ve no way of knowing the level of risk we face right now but we can hazard an opinion which is open to fatal misinterpretation”.

The risk of ritualised risk management

The irony of the case is that the scientists were called in to counter a developing sense of panic that had set in L’Aquila (see here). Hence, perhaps, the biggest mistake in L’Aquila was to place too much focus on the urgent opinions of scientists in response to recent tremors and growing public fears. I fathom that this raised expectations of what could be learned from their intervention. The intense interest in the scientists’ nuanced opinions fueled a frenzied and ritualised media circus that sought to feed on public anxiety over increased seismic activity. But the scientists knew from the beginning they were being asked to answer questions they couldn’t usefully answer.

There was nothing worthwhile for scientists to say about the (imminent) probability of a major earthquake and about its implications for decision-making and public safety. Moreover, what was said (including trying to explain the complexities of seismology in press conferences) became a hostage to fortune.

The alternative, long-term approach, would have been to educate the public properly. That calls for the constant restatement of the reasons why they need to remain calm in the face of the unpredictable, but nevertheless predictably small risks (as in small chance of a major convulsion) they face everyday. (It is widely reported that this is the Japanese approach.)

Scientists are not gods

However, the Italian judge, in common with the media and most of the public, seemingly believes that science is about discovering and communicating truths, including those relating to natural hazards. It is not quite that simple. Science is mostly about accumulating evidence in support of hypotheses. There’s a complicated – and ever changing – relationship between what we do know with great certainty about the natural world and the things about which we cannot be certain. Therefore, some scepticism and tolerance is called for on the part of the public and some humility on the part of scientists. As Francis Bacon put it:

Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of Nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men’s efforts than good by their own. (Novum Organum)

Over-egging versus being over-reassuring

The trick for risk communicators, including scientists, public officials and PRs, is to avoid the twin evils of over-claimed reassurance (John Gummer and BSE, and the L’Aquila public officials) and over-claimed catastrophism.

An amusing case study of the danger of over-egging risks was the WHO’s response to the swine flu pandemic in 2009. A recent report in The Lancet lamented the fact that just 2% of Britons said they avoided hugging or kissing family or friends compared with 46% of those questioned in Mexico and 21% in the US. As the BBC commented:

You may be asking why all this matters at all, given that the vast majority who got swine flu experienced a mild illness? It matters because there are plenty of other bugs out there that will happily hitch a ride on our skin and up our nostrils.

That point is vital to grasp because the seven Italians have been jailed because they did the opposite. As the BBC puts it, they were found guilty of portraying an “inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being [with the benefit of hindsight] misleadingly reassuring about the dangers that faced their city.” The problem is that, as the public’s relaxed response to swine flu suggests, if we cry wolf too often (just in case the worst does happen) that risks demolishing the credibility and trust the public puts in official advice in genuine emergency situations. Equally, after L’Aquila the voice of authoritative reassurance has taken a credibility blow in the public arena.

The blame game is unavoidable

Whenever there is an accident and property is damaged, the environment polluted or people killed as a result of nature’s force or man’s activities, or from a combination of both, somebody is likely to be held legally liable. It is as if there is no such thing as an accidental accident any more. Well, actually, there’s some truth to that belief.

Most accidents are down to human failure. For example, modern buildings, including nuclear power stations, can be built so as to survive earthquakes and tsunamis. So one wonders whether L’Aquila’s town planners had been vigilant enough and how much criticism should be laid at their door. Then again, making mistakes should be something we learn from rather than routinely and brutally criminalise when things go wrong. I hope you see what I’m getting at; getting the balance right is tricky.

There’s no magic formula for crisis communication

I’m afraid that none of what I’ve said amounts to a blueprint for managing risk communication challenges. I rather like to think that blueprints (overdone planning and prejudicial pre-suppositions) are unhelpful because it risks ritualising communication; at L’Aquila that manifested itself in calling in the experts and over-egging their significance. Instead, we need to learn from experience and apply knack, wisdom and judgement to each specific case of risk management. We also need to acknowledge maturely that shit happens.

12 responses to “Poor communication is not a crime”

  1. Toni muzi falconi says:

    Paul, you say very savvy things and, for once, I agree. However that Italian judicial system does not require judges to explain their decisions if not after weeks and sometimes months. The decision you cite is therefore not accurate but only the opinions of others. It will take time and we will know when the motivation of the sentence will be released. To me this looks very much like the ‘sex it up’ case of alistair campbell related to the weapons of mass distruction case. The scientists were only ignorant of being tools used by guido bertolaso, then head of the civil protection system of the then berlusconi govt and now head of berlusconi’s new venture into creating children hospitals around the world.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Toni, yes, thanks for the clarification regarding the Italian justice system (note: I’ve now added the word “apparently” before concluded). The verdict has been announced, but we await the detailed explanation explaining the full motivation for it; as we did in the Amanda Knox case after she was declared innocent (even though she was home with her parents before it was published). That said, the judges in both cases did give some good clues as to the court’s reasoning for the decisions they reached. And I for one will wait with interest to see how the judge justifies this latest verdict (jailing seven people for six years) in a detailed account!

  3. Mario Santamaria says:

    Jail? In Italy you go to jail if you are a normal citizen. If you belong to the upper-level beurocratic entourage you – at the most – get a smack on the cheek and sart lobbying for a new office. Trust me, they won’t go anywhere. Let alone jail.

    The point Toni is bringing out is the one to be stressed. There’s no witchhunt in today’s Italy. Which everybody seems sadly tying to make it look like. They were (I give myself the benefit of the doubt since the real verdict motivation is not out yet) indicted and sentenced because they flanked a “dirty operation”. And in my opinion some of them flanked it consciously.

    In fact, do we really think it’s possible that bureaucrats in those positions were being tricked into doing something the didn’t want to? And even if they were, why coming out only when found guilty of something and not the very day after the press conference?

  4. Alan Brighty says:

    Good article, Paul. Imagine the precedent if this judgemnt is universally accepted. The Chairman who announces good prospects at the beginning of the year and a loss at the end. Into clink with him. The bankers who told you that a hedge fund was absolutely solid before it collapsed. Jail time should take care of them. And as for the expert politicians who repeatedly tell us the collapse of the Euro zone is impossible; well we had better reserve some cells for when the time comes.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Mario, both you and Toni see a complicated conspiracy theory rather than an old-fashioned vengeful witch-hunt backed by bad justice: law and process (in a situation in which scientific evidence had been promoted as being the major factor for deciding public policy; a trend that is hardly unique to Italy). We have a very good idea of the basis of the prosecution case and what the judge made of it (except perhaps why he sentenced the seven to a longer prison term than even the prosecution demanded). On your wider points: many people saw Amanda Knox’s acquittal as a political one (a backroom deal between foreign ministers or some such) others saw her original conviction through similar eyes (a criticism of American imperialism rather than a consequence of the evidence being placed out of true by the prosecution in battle with the defence)… with such a conspiratorial imagination as this (yours), however, we end up not seeing the wood for the trees.

  6. Paul Seaman says:

    Alan, and what should we do with former prime minister Gordon Brown who told the world that boom and bust were no more thanks to his policies? Off with his head? On a serious note: my guess is that a higher court will quash the L’Aquila court’s conviction of the scientists. But I had predicted they’d be found innocent (not given longer sentences than the prosecution demanded) first time around based on the evidence….so let’s wait and see.

  7. toni muzi falconi says:

    paul, no complicated conspiracy theory in any way, but a substantial amount of now public transcripts of phone and wire tapping conversations…
    also, you are correct to remember that the amanda knox acquittal also came as a result of pressures from the state department. but this was only a (minor) part of a three year long global public relations effort conducted by a seattle based pr agency that required a minimum of 4 ml dollars retrieved by the agency from the local business community. if youare interested there are many references and studies to this fascinating case of litigation pr….

  8. Paul Seaman says:

    Thanks Toni. I have to admit I found your original remarks on “sexing up” and the scientists as “tools”, weird. Mario seemed to imply a conspiracy and I’m always reluctant to buy into such stuff. While I’m interested to read the inside story (transcripts etc.) I retain my doubts as to whether there’s much more to this affair in L’Aquila than we see on the surface: the scientists were asked to calm things down, not sex things up etc…and they had no way of knowing a big quake was imminent…they might have served a politician’s ends who wanted to be seen to be doing something (whether for personal positioning or genuine concerns; but regardless that’s not criminal behaviour) in the public interest, but that’s about it as far as I can determine.

    As to Amanda Knox, I thought and still think she was released based on a sound reassessment of the evidence following some new forensic findings, which rendered the original verdict unsound. In other words, I never bought into the idea that politics (the US State Department) or even the Knox’s family’s highly creative PR campaign (which focused on the evidence and misinformation in the court of public opinion) determined the final verdict/outcome in the law court.

    If there is a similarity between the two cases it appears to be that emotion trumped reason in the first verdicts (that’s not a peculiarly Italian issue and that’s why court decisions are subject to appeal everywhere). I remain optimistic that the verdict in L’Aquila will be overturned. But if it is left to stand; it is unlikely to be for any other reasons than we already know and have assessed critically.

  9. Harry Rag says:

    Hi Paul, the evidence against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito is overwhelming. They gave completely different accounts of where they were, who they were with and what they were doing on the night of the murder. Neither Knox nor Sollecito have credible alibis despite three attempts each. All the other people who were questioned had one credible alibi that could be verified. Innocent people don’t give multiple conflicting alibis and lie repeatedly to the police.

    The DNA didn’t miraculously deposit itself in the most incriminating of places.

    An abundant amount of Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA was found on Meredith’s bra clasp. His DNA was identified by two separate DNA tests. Of the 17 loci tested in the sample, Sollecito’s profile matched 17 out of 17. Professor Novelli pointed out there’s more likelihood of meteorite striking the courtroom in Perguia than there is of the bra clasp being contaminated by dust.

    According to Sollecito’s forensic expert, Professor Vinci, Knox’s DNA was also on Meredith’s bra.

    Amanda Knox’s DNA was found on the handle of the double DNA knife and a number of independent forensic experts – Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni, Dr. Renato Biondo, Professor Giuesppe Novelli, Professor Francesca Torricelli and Luciano Garofano – categorically stated that Meredith’s DNA was on the blade. Sollecito knew that Meredith’s DNA was on the blade which is why he lied about accidentally pricking her hand whilst cooking.

    According to the prosecution’s experts, there were five instances of Knox’s DNA or blood with Meredith’s blood in three different locations in the cottage. Even Amanda Knox’s lawyers conceded that her blood had mingled with Meredith’s blood. In other words, Meredith and Amanda Knox were both bleeding at the same time.

    Knox tracked Meredith’s blood into the bathroom, the hallway, her room and Filomena’s room, where the break-in was staged. Knox’s DNA and Meredith’s blood was found mixed together in Filomena’s room, in a bare bloody footprint in the hallway and in three places in the bathroom.

    Rudy Guede’s bloody footprints led straight out of Meredith’s room and out of the house. This means that he didn’t stage the break-in in Filomena’s room or go into the blood-spattered bathroom after Meredith had been stabbed.

    Sollecito left a visible bloody footprint on the blue bathmat in the bathroom. Knox’s and Sollecito’s bare bloody footprints were revealed by luminol in the hallway.

    It’s not a coincidence that the three people – Knox, Sollecito and Guede – who kept telling the police a pack of lies are all implicated by the DNA and forensic evidence.

    Amanda Knox voluntarily admitted that she was involved in Meredith’s murder in her handwritten note to the police on 6 November 2007.

    Knox accused an innocent man, Diya Lumumba, of murdering Meredith despite the fact she knew he was completely innocent. She didn’t recant her false and malicious allegation against Lumumba the whole time he was in prison. She admitted that it was her fault that Lumumba was in prison in an intercepted conversation with her mother on 10 November 2007.

    The case isn’t over. It will be heard by the Italian Supreme Court in March. I recommend reading the prosecution’s appeal which can be downloaded from Perugia Murder File:

    I’m interested to hear what you think about the appeal.

  10. Paul Seaman says:

    Harry, thanks for the comment. I don’t have much more to add. Except to repeat Amanda Knox was cleared on appeal; and I don’t think that had anything to do with international politics or with conspiracies. I’m sure the defence will be mounting an equally robust counterpunch to the prosecution’s continued claims regarding her supposed guilt. Meanwhile, perhaps somebody who knows more than me about the case might want to add a comment here in Amanda’s defence. That is if they think it would be worthwhile.

  11. Paul,

    Have you read the Hellmann decision? If you have and if you are familiar with the circumstances sounding the trial you would not be so quick dismiss the conspiracy scenario. There is plenty of evidence that Hellmann court was not an honest court. Hellmann is no longer a judge having suddenly and unexpectedly retired and the Supreme Court had annulled his decision it what was a very uncharacteristically harsh criticism that fell just short saying Hellmann was bribed. The Supreme Court’s decision is available in Italian as well as English should you be interested in reading it. A new appeal is not happening and it is expected that Knox and Sollecito will be convicted by the end of the year.

    With respect to the scientists and the earthquake, I thank you for being more accurate than the majority of people who write on this subject. I am sick of reading that they were charged for not correctly predicting the earthquake which is wrong and very sloppy reporting. I believe the scientists should go to prison. The intercepted phone conversation makes it clear that this was not them engaging in science and just being sloppy in the language they used to describe the risk but rather that they were instructed to play down the risk by superiors. I strongly believe that in a situation like that a scientist must resign rather than allow his or her scientific assessment to be compromised by political interference. The tragedy here is not that the scientists were charged but that the politicians were not.

  12. Paul Seaman says:

    Edward, I’ve got nothing more to say than I’ve said already about Knox and Sollecito. The court will decide whatever it deems right. Meanwhile, I’m in no position to argue with the possible outcome one way or the other.

    As to the scientists, I agree that their mistake was to get involved in this messy affair in the first place. They should not have let themselves become tools for weak politicians. The scientists had nothing useful to say. But that said, I don’t think they should be sent to prison or even prosecuted.