Five Insane but True Things About Outrage Fatigue: “Meh” Metrics on the BP Gulf Oil Spill

Mashable had an intriguing post about the social media activity surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill today; chiefly that activity is on the decline. The title asks “Are We Losing Interest in the Oil Spill? [STATS]” The answer, obviously, is yes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the public relations world, this new era seems to hint that no matter how bad an organization or individual misbehaves, eventually we’ll talk ourselves out of interest in seeing consequences meted out for that misbehavior.

Where’s the outrage over the mismanagement and systemic problems in the financial industry back when it was Enron, Tyco and Worldcom?  How about more recently over Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Washington Mutual?  Isn’t it likely that the outrage over the next impending financial scandal is already waning?

  1. Our Access to Information has Reduced our Attention Span
    There are many studies on attention span that have measured its decline over the past few decades.  It stands to reason that with more accessible information, we have more incentive to move on from one bit to another.  Guided by our reptilian impulses, we move on when something no longer stimulates us.  Tired of depressing photos of pelicans covered in oil? – Just see what
  2. We Can’t Process Long Term Costs
    As the frog in the boiling pot aphorism goes – gradual change goes unnoticed.  Even though there are direct costs borne by all of society by industry-wide malfeasance, if they’re paid slowly over time – they go virtually unnoticed.  Pick virtually any large problem; the imperial ambitions of most developed nations, global climate change, the health consequences of our high-fructose diet – and we’ll always opt for short-term gain over long-term benefit.
  3. We Only Want to Dwell on the Pleasurable
    As our access to information has sped up, it appears to have dramatically reduced the amount of time we’re willing to tolerate unhappy news.  In fact, that’s frequently the complaint of the news media: that they focus too much on the negative.  “Where are the happy stories?” people demand – so they crowbar in irrelevant stories about the latest American Idol contestant or the latest viral video of an animal doing something unlikely and adorable.
  4. The News Media is Less Capable of Keeping Crises on the Radar
    The budget for most news outlets has not kept pace with the demand to do investigative journalism.  Why bother with a months-long investigation that may or may not prove a local politician was involved in real-estate speculation when you can send a camera crew out to interview the early adopters in line for the next iPhone or publish a poll on how the US public feels about gays in the military?
  5. This Has Happened Before
    The public relations case studies for crisis mismanagement often don’t stand up to scrutiny.  Just look at the Exxon Valdez disaster; though the company was guilty of extraordinary negligence – it’s still a viable brand two decades later and the massive $5 billion judgment against the company was whittled down to $507.5 million after years in the courts.  Or take Firestone; that company was guilty of deadly negligence not once but twice and yet it survives today.

I really, really hope I’m wrong about this.

[Thanks again to the Linkbait Generator for the title of the post]

One thought on “Five Insane but True Things About Outrage Fatigue: “Meh” Metrics on the BP Gulf Oil Spill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s