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The changing face of art: How Canada's arts institutions stay relevant in the digital age – Ottawa Citizen

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At one point during Dan Mangan’s superb performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra a couple of months ago, the popular Vancouver singer-songwriter and father of two revealed that listening to classical music helps him relieve stress and get centred before a show. 

Then he stepped to the side, letting Ottawa’s world-class orchestra demonstrate the calming effect of one of his favourite pieces, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The near-capacity audience, a youthful crowd that looked to be mostly under 45 or so, was rapt. No one ducked out for drinks or yacked during the moving piece, which was the evening’s only departure from Mangan’s repertoire. 


The National Arts Centre.

Wayne Cuddington /

POSTMEDIA

The concert was part of the NAC’s Sessions series, an initiative that matches Canadian singer-songwriters with the orchestra, and provides support in commissioning orchestral arrangements of their songs. It’s a collaboration between two NAC departments — NACO and NAC Presents — and it’s been an unqualified success. Both Mangan and the orchestra received multiple standing ovations that night, with a similar reaction every time NACO backs a popular musician. Other instalments of the series have featured pop-music artists such as Patrick Watson, Stars and Jann Arden.

Part of the objective of the Sessions series is to develop the artistry of Canadian singer-songwriters, but it’s also designed to expose younger audiences to the orchestra. Thanks to Mangan’s genuine warmth and down-to-earth demeanour, in his jeans and untucked shirt, not to mention his obvious respect for the orchestra, it appeared to work like a charm. One example was a friend who brought his rock guitar-playing teenage son to the concert. “How come you’ve never taken me to the orchestra before?” was the young musician’s reaction.


Musician Dan Mangan playing with the NAC Orchestra on Nov. 23, 2018. (Photo: Ming Wu)

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That’s the kind of feedback that delights the NAC’s top brass. Aging audiences have been a concern for the orchestra industry in Europe and North America for decades, especially since the 2008 economic downturn and the subsequent rise of digital technology. People have more entertainment options than ever before, and most of those options are readily available at all times without having to budge from the couch. 

“Greying audiences, this is something that we have been talking about and thinking about in the industry since I joined 19 years ago,” said Arna Einarsdóttir, the NAC’s relatively new managing director of the orchestra, who came from a similar job with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in her homeland. “Times change so fast now and there’s so much competition for people’s time and everything is so accessible on your phone. Of course you have to be adapting to this in different ways.” 

(Japan is one country where it’s a different story, largely because of a strong tradition of music education in schools. There are more than 1,500 amateur and professional orchestras in the country, including no fewer than nine full-time, professional orchestras in Tokyo alone.)

It’s important to note that Canadians still love to consume culture. In a 2016 study on Canadians’ Arts, Culture, and Heritage Participation, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Arts Council, researchers found nearly nine in 10 Canadians (aged 15 and over) attended an art gallery, arts performance, artistic or culture festival or a movie theatre monthly. Even when movie theatre attendance was excluded, 73 per cent of Canadians attended an arts performance or exhibition.


NACO conductor Alexander Shelley. (Photo: Andre Ringuette)

Andre Ringuette /

© Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Ph

The report also found that participation rates in the arts have increased over 25 years. There were strong increases in art gallery and historic site attendance rates between 1992 and 2016, while movie theatres, museums, and other heritage activities also saw increasing attendance rates. 

Still, there’s no question that audiences and their tastes are changing as millennials age and the population diversifies. This is clear in the findings of the first Culture Track report, a 2018 survey of cultural consumers in Canada, that shows allophones, those whose first language is neither English nor French, are more likely to attend a cultural event than anglophones or francophones, and millennials are the demographic most likely to participate monthly in a cultural activity such as visiting a music festival or museum.

In Ottawa, two of the country’s most important cultural institutions — the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Canada — have been responding to shifting demographic tastes by attempting to introduce culturally diverse content that appeals to a broad age range. Both institutions also have dynamic new leadership in place to take them into the next decade.


Guests during a sneak peek and tour of the National Arts Centre’s new public and catering spaces.

Wayne Cuddington /

Postmedia

Of course, the National Arts Centre is uniquely positioned in the arts world to deal with these challenges — the resident orchestra under the direction of maestro Alexander Shelley, 40, is only the start of its offerings. There are departments devoted to dance, English theatre, French theatre, variety and popular music, plus the newest branch, Indigenous theatre, which launched last year and was touted as the world’s first national Indigenous theatre program. What’s more, under its roof are four stages of different sizes, along with attractive public spaces gained in the recent renovation of the building. 

“Where else can you go where you can go to a single hall in a small city and see the finest dance in the world, have a really first-class orchestra, theatre in two languages, a great meal and a popular music series, which includes the youngest of artists all the way to the heavy hitters on the main stage? And it’s all at a relatively modest ticket price. It’s a very remarkable institution,” said Sarah Jennings, a former arts journalist and author of Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre. A second edition of the 2009 book came out last year.

Artistic directors and staff in each department are continually working to adapt to audience demographics while maintaining the quality of the shows. The orchestra has a multi-generational approach that includes the core classical programming and the Sessions series, as well as Casual Fridays, with pre- and post-concert hobnobbing for young professionals, the Family Adventures series for parents and children, and the ever-popular Pops series, featuring the orchestra performing a program ranging from movie scores to 80s music to the Beatles, to name a few themes. Also important are the community outreach and education programs that bring orchestra musicians to schools, often taking the place of music classes. 

“Music education in school systems is getting less and less, and Canada is no different from other western countries in cutting down on creative subjects,” said Einarsdóttir. “I actually feel we’re robbing our children of such a key and fundamental thing in being human. So while our communities are not realizing this, we are taking on the role and doing community engagement all over the country.”


Music Monday taking place at the NAC in Ottawa Monday May 6, 2019. Thousands of students, musicians, parents and community members across Canada will sing together creating the world’s largest single event dedicated to raising awareness for music education.

Tony Caldwell /

Postmedia

Meanwhile, the English theatre department under Jillian Keiley has long been committed to diversifying the voices on its stages, including plays that feature actors with disabilities, those written by women and works by culturally diverse playwrights such as Jeff Ho and Jivesh Parasram. As for the dance programming, curated by Cathy Levy, it’s considered among the best in the country, with a thoughtful balance between classic ballet performances and innovative modern-dance works. 

The NAC Presents concert series, which features mostly Canadian singer-songwriters, is the most radical programming change in the institution’s history, a significant departure from the centre’s previous focus on the so-called high arts of theatre, orchestra and dance. (Opera faded away with the demise of Ottawa’s Opera Lyra in 2011.)

Launched in 2011, the same year opera died, NAC Presents was an immediate success and has grown to include a whopping 150 concerts in the 2019-20 season, featuring a wide range of emerging and established artists, from Jann Arden to Zaki Ibrahim. 

The sub-series, Fridays at the Fourth, has also proved popular, presenting lesser known artists in the 150-person capacity Fourth Stage with a $15 ticket ($10 for students) available at the door. 

“The idea that only a certain kind of people come to the NAC is immediately debunked in my department,” says Heather Gibson, who’s executive producer of NAC Presents and in charge of popular music and variety programming. “It took two years but now we’re at a point that Fridays at the Fourth are almost always sold out, and we know from asking the audience that 50 per cent don’t know what they’ve come to see, they’re just coming to see live music. It’s a discovery series.” 

Adding to the sense of discovery is the fact that Fridays at the Fourth concerts are now livestreamed on the NAC Presents Facebook page. Online viewership has been growing slowly since the endeavour started last year, but the Silent Winters concert in December saw a big spike in traffic. According to Gibson, more than 900 people around the world watched the Ottawa folk duo perform their Christmas show. 

Naturally, the goal is still to get actual bums in seats, and those numbers are encouraging. Officials say overall NAC attendance is back on track, with close to one million visitors last year, after a dip during the $225.4-million architectural renewal project that was unveiled on July 1, 2017. The building remained open during construction, although programming was limited. 


After 30 years, the NAC changed the uniforms of its ushers. This is in sync with the redesign of the building. Usher Geneviève Laforce in the new uniform alongside the uniform that was worn for the past 30 years. September 19, 2018.

Errol McGihon /

Postmedia

Much of the new energy at the NAC can be attributed to former CEO Peter Herrndorf, who took over leadership of the institution in 1999 at a time when the organization was in “complete disarray,” writes Jennings in her book. 

During his 19 years at the helm, Herrndorf championed the pursuit of private donations, re-emphasized the institution’s national mandate through education and outreach programs and pushed for the building’s renovation as part of his overall vision for greater accessibility to the arts. The reno included the Kipnes Lantern, the dramatic glass tower of video projections that serves as a beacon at the Elgin Street entrance. It’s a large improvement to the street facade of the formerly bunker-like building. 

The newly created public spaces allow for free programming such as a weekly powwow workout class, meditation group, Toddler Tuesday activities for pre-schoolers, and even occasional concerts, also free. With a coffee shop, funky chairs and a free Wi-Fi network, what used to be a dead zone during the day is now a well-equipped spot to hang out. There was even a new position created, a director of visitor experience, to oversee all of the details of an NAC visit, whether or not you’re buying a ticket. 


Christopher Deacon, President and CEO, National Arts Centre NAC in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo: Serge Gouin)

SERGE GOUIN /

Serge Gouin, segophoto.ca

Not long after Herrndorf retired in June 2018, Christopher Deacon, the former managing director of the orchestra, assumed the top job, the first CEO to be appointed from within the organization. He has a strong belief in the intrinsic value of the performing arts, but has seen big shifts in ticket-buying habits and audience engagement throughout the arts industry. 

In an interview in his canal-side office, Deacon said today’s audiences are less inclined to buy a subscription package to an entire season of plays, orchestra concerts or dance performances, but more likely to buy single tickets. He estimates the ratio has shifted from a 65 per cent subscription rate, with 35 per cent singles, to about 40 per cent subscriptions and the rest singles. 

“The model the performing arts have been using for years is the subscription model,” Deacon said. “It was something that people found suited the tempo of life 20 years ago, and some people still find it convenient, but the majority now are single tickets.”

While this means a less predictable revenue stream for the presenter, social media makes it possible to connect with a wider audience in a shorter time frame. “We have a new set of challenges with respect to marketing and attendance because of that shift towards single tickets, but there are also upsides because single-ticket buyers tend to be younger and more diverse,” Deacon said.

In Jennings’ opinion, getting the word out is now the institution’s biggest challenge. “The arts centre has a lot to do in terms of reaching its public but it’s got a really good talent amongst its artistic leadership. It’s for the corporate structure to become more nimble and flexible in adapting to this new world. They’ve got the product, they now have to make sure the public is aware of what they’ve got,” she said.


REDress Project, an installation of red dresses at the NAC representing the loss of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Ottawa, March 07, 2019.

Jean Levac /

Postmedia News

Another factor working in favour of the NAC is a robust fundraising arm, the National Arts Centre Foundation, which received a landmark $10-million donation last year from philanthropists Earle and Janice O’Born. Funds raised by the foundation support artistic endeavours, new creations and educational programs at the NAC.

“Not only did the O’Borns make a donation, but they did it in a way that wasn’t necessarily targeted. They’ve gotten to know people in the company and they’re excited by what the artistic directors are doing. It’s an expression of confidence in the leadership team,” said Deacon. 

“For me, as a relatively new fundraiser, I’m taking a lesson from that. People give to people. This is hopefully a growing crescendo in philanthropic circles in Canada that the arts are a really good investment.” 

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

ALSO: Shifting audience tastes are dictating the future of art in Ottawa

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Students explore art themes in Re/LAUNCH/ing, vol. 1 – St. Albert TODAY

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Now that school is back in session, a new collaborative art project has been launched.

Re/LAUNCH/ing is aimed at hitting the same high notes that its predecessor with.draw.all did, but with the added emphasis on the intrinsic value of art to the artist.

At noon on the last Thursday of each month, StAlbertTODAY.ca will be displaying an online gallery of art created by high school students. This month’s rendition features 12 creations from students at Paul Kane, Bellrose and St. Albert Catholic High.

Artist: Ava Currie
Art 10
Pencil
Artist Statement: €œ”The comforts of the countryside landscape study. Memories of lazy summers at my grandparents’€™ house.”
Camille BuenviajeArtist: Camille Buenviaje
Grade 12
Mixed Media
Title: Always You
Artist Statement: “My psychological self portrait is a three-year-old version of myself in which to reminisce on my childhood. The chaotic organization and missing pieces represents the forgotten memories.”
Dax Ziesel 2020 BCHSArtist: Dax Ziesel
Art 31
Pencils, ranging from 2H, HB, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B.
Title: “€œLacertil”
Artist Statement: “€œI am truly satisfied with the outcome of this drawing. Inspiration for my work derived from my interest in animals, namely large lizards like the iguana. My greatest struggle with this piece, which was steadily resolved, was knowing where to begin with the essential details. There are various ways to demonstrate the elements of shading, texture, and value with one pencil alone in a drawing, so I sat cluelessly pondering after the rough sketch. However, in the end, the project was a success and has exceeded my own expectations.”
Halle CrottyArtist: Halle Crotty
Grade 10
Pencil Crayon
Title: Paint Blob
Artist Statement: “I created this realistic drawing of a blob of paint using pencil crayon techniques.”
Hannah ChinnArtist: Hannah Chinn
Grade 11
Ink
Title: Chains and Gears
Artist Statement: “A still life close up of bike gears drawn in ballpoint pen.”
JuliannaManansalaArt10Artist: Julianna Manansala
Art 10
Pigment Pen
Title: A miniature piece
Artist Statement: “A miniature drawing, focused on precision and details.”
Justine La Riviere 2020 BCHSArtist: Justine La Riviere
Art 10
Pencil
Artist Statement: “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then we will realize we cannot eat money.”
Kaitlyn CabralArtist: Kaitlyn Cabral
Grade 11
Ink
Title: Obstruction Ahead
Artist Statement: “Resilience, strength and fear. Inspired by the psychological study of the trolly problem. When faced with fear or a difficult decision, are we strong enough to follow our intuition and take action or will we tense up under the pressure and fright? Whichever decision is made, we must rise above and keep moving forward.”
Lauryn TaylorArtist: Lauryn Taylor
Grade 10
Graphite
Title: Keys of Comfort
Artist Statement: “Piano has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. When I did not know how to play, I would listen and sing along to my mom and sister. Sitting at the bench of my family’s piano has a certain familiarity that is comforting and relaxing. My hands know where the keys are before I know myself.”
Lily MalthouseArtist: Lily Malthouse
Grade 10
Ink
Title: Still Life
Artist Statement: “In my art piece, I used an arrangement of fruits as my reference to create a still life composition. I completed this with a simple art tool, a ballpoint pen, which made it possible to create both soft and intense shadows. For this piece, I focused most on value study and recreating a deeper contrast image.”
RJ SmithArtist: RJ Smith
Grade 12
Acrylic on canvas
Title: Deep-Sea Dream
Artist Statement: “This piece is inspired by my dreams. I am always daydreaming. Sometimes even if you are talking right to me, my mind will be off in a fantasy making up stories and exploring different worlds. Some of the art I have created is inspired by my dreams. This particular piece comes from my knowledge that I might never experience the depths of the sea, I can dream up what it might feel and look like, but I will most likely never experience it first hand. Painting this dream was the best way to bring my vision to life. With guidance in class, I was able to improve my skills in painting perspectives, highlights and lowlights.”
Shaelyn Emond 2020 BCHSArtist: Shaelyn Emond
Art 10
Pencils I used are 8B, 6B, 4B, 2B, HB, 2H and my Papermate mechanical pencil.
Title: “€œRoscoe, An Unforgettable Counterpart”
Artist Statement: “€œI told my friend, Elora about our nature-themed pencil project and she suggested I draw a car deep in a forest. I thought it would be too out of place for a vehicle in perfect condition to be out in the middle of nowhere. So considering the nature theme, I made it into an overgrown jeep. The reason I chose a jeep is because my favourite character from a show that has now ended drove this jeep, which had many issues with it, all throughout the show. He probably valued it so much because it was from his mother who passed away. The jeep was more than just a ride to get you places. It saved himself as well as his friends and family many times and was like a child to him.”

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James Baker and the art of power – The Economist

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The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III. By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.Doubleday; 720 pages; $35.

DURING THE confusion that followed the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, proclaimed at the White House podium: “I am in control.” Breathless and sweating, Haig reassured no one. While he floundered, someone else took command. James Baker, the chief of staff, monitored Reagan’s condition, kept the government running and crisply briefed colleagues. Throughout the tense day Mr Baker proved unflappable, say Susan Glasser and Peter Baker (no relation to their subject) in a new biography.

Widely regarded as the most effective chief of staff ever, Mr Baker ran the White House for both Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was also Reagan’s treasury secretary and Bush’s secretary of state, and led five presidential campaigns. Pragmatism and competence were his hallmarks. “There was little idealism involved and a fair degree of opportunism,” write the authors of “The Man Who Ran Washington”. By their account, Mr Baker “was not above political hardball to advance his team’s chances at the ballot box. He never lost sight of what was good for Jim Baker.” But he got things done.

Ms Glasser (of the New Yorker) and her co-author and husband (of the New York Times) are well-placed to chronicle Mr Baker’s life. They interviewed 170 people, including three former presidents and Mr Baker himself. Now 90, and a careful steward of his own reputation, he may have mixed feelings about the result. Yet it is a masterclass in political biography. The authors portray the man in full, managing to be both brisk and comprehensive.

They lay out his flaws, including his temper, cynicism, tendency to blame underlings and allegations of skulduggery. They decry his lack of vision in the last years of the cold war: he and Bush merely reacted to the Soviet Union’s demise, they argue, rather than devising a bold approach of their own. Yet the book also depicts a manager capable of handling almost any situation, from the Gulf war to the presidential recount in 2000, which Mr Baker confidently oversaw for the Republicans. He closed deals by focusing on the signature line rather than the fine print.

He was Jim to presidents and cabinet secretaries but “Mr Baker” to everyone else. Despite his patrician manner he could swear like a Texas roughneck; “ratfuck” was a favourite term for Washington backstabbing. He grew up among the Houston aristocracy, where the oilfield meets the tennis club. Bush, a fellow blue-blood, became his doubles partner, and the book explores their lifelong friendship. When Mr Baker learned from a doctor that his first wife’s cancer was terminal, he told Bush but not the patient herself. One key to his success, the authors write, is that he was adept at leveraging their connection. “Everyone knew that he was Bush’s good friend and that when Baker spoke, he was speaking with the authority of the president.”

His own name appeared on just one ballot: in the race to be attorney-general of Texas in 1978. He lost. Over the years he harboured presidential ambitions and, in 1996, came close to running. If he stayed out he could be remembered as the most important secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, a diplomat tested by great events and equal to them. If he ran and failed, he would be one more might-have-been. He weighed the options and made his choice. As so often, he was probably right.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “All the presidents’ man”

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The Art of Communicating Risk – Harvard Business Review

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Executive Summary

Sometimes during a crisis we don’t know how bad the situation really is. Consider the following scenario involving a data privacy violations: A company discovers that sensitive data about a user is exposed in an unencrypted database for 24 hours. Has anyone accessed it? If so, what, if anything, can they glean from it? Firms facing the question of whether and how to communicate risk often err too far in either direction. When organizations alert their customers to every potential risk, they create notification fatigue.  When firms wait too long to communicate in an effort to shield users from unnecessary worry customers interpret time lags as incompetence, or worse, as obfuscation.  The answer is to trust that customers can process uncertainty, as long as it’s framed in the right way. Using techniques from behavioral science, the authors suggest better ways to communicate uncertain risks in way that will protect customers and foster trust.

jayk7/Getty Images

Most organizations can cope with straightforward bad news, and so can most people. We absorb the shock, and move on. But what happens when we don’t know how bad the news actually is?

When it comes to crises, the news companies must deliver is often potential bad news. How should a technology company react when it learns that it might have suffered a breach of your data, or a supermarket discovers it might have sold you contaminated lettuce, or a medical device maker learns that patients may have a defective hip replacement? Communicating about uncertainty — what people call ‘risk communications’ in practice — has become one of the most important challenges faced by anyone who needs to convey or consume information.

Risk communications are more important than ever during the current pandemic. Scientists, policy-makers, and companies alike are uncertain of many basic facts about Covid-19 with crucial implications for personal and societal decisions. How infectious is this new virus? How likely is it to kill people? What will be its long-term economic, social, and cultural consequences?

Even before Covid-19 hit, communications were increasingly becoming an important part of corporate and organizational management. Consider the following scenario involving a data privacy violations: A company discovers that sensitive data about a user is exposed in an unencrypted database for 24 hours. Has anyone accessed it? If so, what can they do with it right now? What will they be able to do with it five years from now, with machine learning techniques that will be available at that time? The answers are typically, we don’t really know. That is not an assessment that most organizations or individuals know how to deliver in an effective way. This has major consequences for individual firms and for firms collectively. The tech sector, in particular, has suffered a large and growing trust deficit with users, customers, and regulators, in part because tech companies struggle to communicate what they do and do not know about the side effects of their products in ways that are transparent and meaningful.

When we talked to experts across eight industry sectors, we uncovered a common dilemma: firms facing the question of whether and how to communicate risk often err too far in either direction. When organizations alert their customers to every potential risk, they create notification fatigue. Customers tend to tune out after a short while, and firms lose an opportunity to strengthen a trust relationship with the subset of customers who really might have been at most risk.

When firms do the opposite — for example by waiting too long to communicate in an effort to shield users from unnecessary worry — there is also a price. Customers interpret time lags as incompetence, or worse, as obfuscation and protection of corporate reputations at the expense of protecting customers. The more mis-steps firms make in either direction, the greater the trust deficit becomes, and the harder it is to thread the needle and get the communications right.

To make matters worse, individual firms have a collective effect when they communicate about uncertainty with customers and other stakeholders. The average citizen and customer is the target of many such communications coming from a variety of sources – with a cumulative impact on notification fatigue and ultimately the level of ambient trust between firms and the public. It’s an ugly bundle of negative externalities that compound an already difficult problem.

We believe it doesn’t have to continue this way. Decision science and cognitive psychology have produced some reliable insights about how people on both sides of an uncertainty communication can do better.

The inherent challenge for risk communicators is people’s natural desire for certainty and closure. An experimental Russian roulette game illustrates this most poignantly: forced to play Russian roulette with a 6-chamber revolver containing either 1 bullet or 4 bullets, most people would pay a lot more to remove the single bullet in the first instance than to remove a single bullet in the second instance (even though the risk reduction is the same). Kahneman and Tversky called this “the certainty effect,” and it explains why zero-deductible insurance policies are over-priced and yet people still buy them.

But while they don’t like it, people can process uncertainty, especially if they are armed with some standard tools for decision making. Consider the “Drug Facts Box,” developed by researchers at Dartmouth.

As far back as the late 1970s, behavioral scientists criticized the patient package inserts that were included with prescription drugs as absurdly dense and full of jargon. The drug facts box (developed in the 1990s) reversed the script. It built on a familiar template from people’s common experience (the nutrition fact box that appears on food packaging) and was designed to focus attention on the information that would directly inform decision-making under uncertainty. It uses numbers, rather than adjectives like ‘rare,’ ‘common,’ or ‘positive results.’ It addresses risks and benefits, and in many cases compares a particular drug to known alternatives. Importantly, it also indicates the quality of the evidence to-date. It’s not perfect, but research suggests that it works pretty well, both in extensive testing with potential users through randomized trials and in practice where it has been shown to improve decision making by patients.

So why aren’t basic principles from the science of risk communications being applied more widely in technology, finance, transportation, and other sectors? Imagine an “Equifax data breach fact box” created to situate the 2017 data-breach incident and the risks for customers. The fact box could indicate whether the Equifax breach was among the 10 largest breaches of the last 5 years. It would provide a quantitative assessment of the consequences that follow from such breaches, helping people assess what to expect in this case. For example: “In the last five data breaches of over 100 million records, on average 3% of people whose records were stolen reported identity theft within a year.”

Or, imagine a “Deepwater Horizon fact box,” that listed for the public the most important potential side effects of oil spills on marine and land ecosystems, and a range for estimating their severity. We’ve come to the view that these two examples and countless others didn’t happen that way, largely because most people working in communications functions don’t believe that users and customers can deal reasonably with uncertainty and risk.

Of course, the Equifax breach and Deepwater Horizon oil spills are extreme examples of crisis-level incidents, and in the Equifax case, disclosure was legally mandated. But firms make decisions everyday about whether and how to communicate about less severe incidents, many of which do not have mandated disclosure requirements. In the moment, it’s easy for companies to default to a narrow response of damage control, instead of understanding risk communications as a collective problem, which, when done well, can enhance trust with stakeholders.

To start to repair the trust deficit will require a significant retrofit of existing communications practices. Here are three places to start.

Stop improvising. Firms will never be able to reduce uncertainty to zero, but they can commit to engaging with customers around uncertainty in systematic, predictable ways. A standard framework would provide an empirically proven, field-tested playbook for the next incident or crisis. Over time, it would set reasonable expectations among users and customers for what meaningful and transparent communication looks like under uncertainty, help increase the public’s risk fluency, and limit the damage inflicted by nefarious actors who prey on the public’s anxieties about risk. Ideally, this standard would be created by a consortium of firms across different sectors. Widespread adoption by organizations would level the playing field for all firms, and raise the bar for smaller firms that lack the required competencies in-house.

Change the metric for success, and measure results. Avoiding negative press should not be the primary objective for firms that are faced with communicating uncertainty. In the short term, the primary goal should be to equip customers with the information they need to interpret uncertainty and act to manage their risk. In the long term, the goal should be to increase levels of ambient trust and to reduce risks where possible. Communicators need to demonstrate that what they are doing is working, by creating yardsticks that rigorously measure the effectiveness of communications against both these short and long term goals.

Design for risk communications from the beginning. Consider what it would mean if every product were built from the start with the need to communicate uncertainty about how it will perform when released into the wild — that is, “risk communication by design.” If risk communications were pushed down through organizations into product development, we’d see innovation in user experience and user interface design for communicating about uncertainty with customers. We’d see cognitive psychology and decision science skills integrated into product teams. And we’d see feedback loops built directly into products as part of the design process, telling firms whether they are meaningfully improving customers’ ability to make informed choices.

People are naturally inclined to prefer certainty and closure, but in a world where both are in short supply, trust deficits aren’t an inevitable fact of nature. We’re optimistic that organizations can do better collectively by making disciplined use of the existing science.

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