Authorities in Flint, Michigan say the water will soon be “safe enough” to drink after lead contamination. Meanwhile, “maybe safe” is how DC’s Metro Chief Jack Evans described his 117 mile rail network after electrical problems arose in the country’s second busiest subway system.

In these and countless other settings, the word “safe” is undergoing a transformation – at least from my perspective as someone who has conducted media and crisis and communications trainings for more than two decades. “Safe” used to be a word to use with great care; but it’s now shifted from exacting standard to everyday approximation.

Jack Evans’s “maybe safe” – in particular – prompted a rush of associations from my earliest days training people how to talk about risk. Flash back to early 1996, for instance, when I’m advising Elizabeth Dole and other leaders of the American Red Cross not to say “the blood supply is safe” as the ARC emerged from a consent decree imposed by David Kessler’s FDA in 1993 after a string of lapses.

Kessler himself was on hand for a ceremony near the White House – a carnival atmosphere with podiums, PA systems and science exhibits – to celebrate the ARC’s compliance with the decree.  But it all came down to whether we could say the blood supply was “safe.”  Some top brass wanted to say so, but I and other advisers urged otherwise. We argued that just one case of contamination by HIV or hepatitis – the things we’d gotten in trouble for to begin with – could tank our overall trust and credibility. So, we honored the nuances and instead said the supply was “safer than it’s ever been,” “safer than any other system in the world,” and so on.

I dispensed similar guidance to those who tested the Hart Senate Office Buidling for anthrax exposure on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC after the 2001 letter attacks. The building was closed and underwent a lengthy decontamination process with chlorine gas and other measures. Upon reopening, some folks wanted to say there was “no anthrax” left.  But knowing how insidious weaponized anthrax can be – where bad actors do things like adjusting the static charge to keep lethal, microscopic anthrax spores floating indefinitely – I advised we say “found no evidence” of anthrax.

Today, “safe” has morphed into “safe enough,” and conventional wisdom seems to be OK with that. In fact, I’ve been pressed on this issue during the last few crisis trainings I’ve done. “Why can’t we just say ‘safe?’” they say. “Everyone knows what we mean by that.”  I still hold out for compromise language, so long as it doesn’t veer into the dodgy and dissembling. Today, however, we need to accept that “safe” increasingly means something close to absolute safety, but not absolute.  And I’m “maybe ok” with that.

-Richard Sheehe Click Here to subscribe to the PIO360 blog

Richard Sheehe is an expert on strategic communications and crisis management. A former NBC national broadcast news anchor/correspondent and university/non-profit PR executive, he is now a public relations consultant and a Senior Research Fellow in communications at George Mason University. He founded PIO360.com as an evidence-based PR training and strategy initiative, blending practitioner insights with deeper research understandings into how people interpret and respond to communications outreach and messaging. 

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