We give much too little consideration to potential for conflict of interest in risk reporting.
Take for instance weather risk reporting.
"Sneeuwschuiver". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Many of the people who report on Weather Risk have a financial interest in bad weather. Not that they own snow plowing services or something. But take TV stations for example. Local TV station revenue is largely proportional to their number of viewers. Local news and weather are often the sole part of their schedule that they produce themselves and therefore get all or almost all of the revenue. And viewership for local news programs may double with an impending snowstorm. So they have a financial interest in predicting more snow. The Weather Channel has the same dynamic, but a wider area from which to draw to find extreme weather situations. But if there is any hint of a possible extreme weather situation in a major metropolitan area with millions of possible viewers, they have a strong incentive to report the worst case possibility.
This past January, there were some terrible snow forecasts for New York and Philadelphia:
For the Big Apple, the great Blizzard of 2015 was forecast to rival the paralyzing 1888 storm, dubbed the White Hurricane. Up to three feet of snow was predicted. Reality: About 10 inches fell.
The forecast in Philadelphia wasn’t any better – and arguably worse. Up to 14 inches of snow were forecast. The City of Brotherly Love tallied roughly 2 inches, about the same as Washington, D.C.
Washington Post, January 27, 2015
In other cases, we go to the experts to get information about possible disasters from diseases. But their funding depends very much on how important their specialty is seen to be to the politicians who approve their funding.
In 2005, the Bird Flu was the scare topic of the year.
“I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on numbers, but I just want to stress, that, let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from 5 to 150 million.”
David Nabarro, Senior United Nations system coordinator for avian and human influenza
Needless to say, the funding for health systems can be strongly impacted by the fear of such a pandemic. At them time that statement was made, worldwide Bird Flu deaths were slightly over 100. Not 100 thousand, 100 – the number right after 99.
But the purpose of this post is not writing this to disparage weather reporters or epidemiologists. It is to caution risk managers.
Sometimes risk managers get the idea that they are better off if everyone had more concern for risk. They take on the roll of Dr. Doom, pointing out the worst case potential in every situation.
This course of action is usually not successful. Instead of building respect for risk, the result is more often to create a steady distrust of statements from the risk manager. The Chicken Little effect results.
Instead, the risk manager needs to focus on being painstakingly realistic in reporting about risk. Risk is about the future, so it is impossible to get it right all of the time. That is not the goal. The goal should be to make reports on risk that consistently use all of the information available at the time the report is made.
And finally, a suggestion on communicating risk. That is that risk managers need to develop a consistent language to talk about the likelihood and severity of a risk. RISKVIEWS suggests that risk managers use three levels of likelihood:
- Normal Volatility (as in within). Each risk should have a range of favorable and unfavorable outcomes within the range of normal volatility. This could mean within one standard deviation, or with a 1 in 10 likelihood. So normal volatility for the road that you drive to work might be for there to be one accident per month.
- Realistic Disaster Scenario. This might be the worst situation for the risk that has happened in recent memory, or it might be a believable bad scenario that hasn’t happened for risks where recent experience has been fairly benign. For that road, two accidents in a week might be a realistic disaster. It actually happened 5 years ago. For the similar road that your spouse takes to work, there haven’t been any two accident weeks, but the volume of traffic is similar, so the realistic disaster scenario for that road is also two accidents in a week.
- Worst case scenario. This is usually not a particularly realistic scenario. It does not mean worst case, like the sun blowing up and the end of the solar system. It does mean something significantly worse than what you expect can happen. For the risk of car accidents on your morning commute, the worst case might be a month with 8 accidents.
So the 150 million number above for flu deaths is a worst case scenario. As were the Great Blizzard predictions. What actually happened was in line with normal volatility for a winter storm in those two cities.
If you, the risk manager, learn to always use language like the above, first of all, it will slow you down and make you think about what you are saying. Eventually, your audience will get to learn what your terminology means and will be able to form their own opinion about your reliability.
And you will find that credibility for your risk reporting has very favorable impact on your longevity and compensation as a risk manager.