Managing issues is hard enough – yet scientific uncertainty about the facts makes it even more difficult. And the intervention of celebrity activists can make it virtually impossible.
A new paper published this month* re-examines a notorious issue controversy where scientific uncertainty was exploited by determined campaigners, aided by complicit news media and the involvement of a Hollywood film star. Actors, sports stars and other celebrities have a long tradition of involvement in social issues. But when celebrities go beyond social concerns and enter the field of risk issues potentially involving the health of thousands of citizens, the challenge for issue and crisis managers becomes very different.
One of the first superstar interventions in a high profile risk issue was the notorious ALAR controversy of 1989 which saw a public health panic sparked by a TV broadcast which claimed ALAR, a growth regulator used on apples, put children at an increased risk of cancer. The ensuing pandemonium saw apples stripped off American supermarket shelves and sales plummeted, causing apple growers reported losses of $100 million. Two weeks later US regulators finally announced that ALAR “does not pose a health risk to the American public.”
Meanwhile European regulators had already declared it was not a particular problem and the claims gained very little traction on that side of the Atlantic.
While complicity between activists and the news media to spread public panic was not new, the ALAR case raised major concern about the role of journalists in sustaining unfounded risk allegations. The case also introduced the idea of using celebrities, not to discuss social issues in which they might legitimately have a personal opinion, but to directly challenge scientists and experts.
The same problem continues today, further exaggerated by the emergence of the internet and online activism. One of the most bitterly fought current risk controversies is the populist campaign against childhood vaccination, which claims that vaccination is linked to autism. While the allegation has been soundly rejected by scientists around the world, who fronts the American campaign to promote this fear? Hollywood actor Jim Carrey and former wife, ex Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, representing what she calls “warrior moms.” My 20 year review of the ALAR case has some important lessons for the management of risk issues today. And one of the most worrying of those lessons – then and now – is that celebrity trumps science every time.
*Citation: Jaques, T. (2011) Managing Issues in the Face of Risk Uncertainty: Lessons 20 years after the Alar Controversy. Journal of Communication Management, 15(1), pp 41-54. Copyright prevents posting the published article on an open website. It can be purchased from the publisher, or an unofficial “as submitted” text can be seen at my website.