The Hunt for Risk Management’s Panda

This post first appeared on Risk Management Magazine. Read the original article.

risk management symbolism

You may never have heard of Chi Chi the giant panda, but you would almost certainly recognize her image. In 1961, Sir Peter Scott used sketches of Chi Chi to design the original logo for the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature) and, in so doing, created one of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of international conservation.

Unlike other giant pandas that would become powerful symbols of Sino-Western diplomacy, Chi Chi was not a gift from the Chinese government. A cast off, Chi Chi was initially traded by the Beijing Zoo for assorted African grazing stock. Refused entry to the United States as “communist goods,” Chi Chi was instead peddled around European zoos in a traveling exhibit as a novelty of the East. Finally purchased by the London Zoo in 1958, attempts to breed Chi Chi resulted in repeated and ignominious failure.

Chi Chi’s death in 1972 was grieved across the United Kingdom. As the only panda in the western hemisphere at the time, Chi Chi had become a powerful symbol of the need to protect endangered species everywhere—despite the fact that she personally did not contribute to the preservation of her species.

What, then, is, the relevance of this panda to the advancement of the risk management profession? The short answer: Picking the right symbol provides a powerful way of shaping the public’s perception. For risk management, this can provide a way raise the profile of practitioners and attract the talent necessary to save the profession from its own extinction.

The Need for Risk Management Symbolism

So why does risk management need a symbol? Simply put, risk management has an image problem—namely, it does not really have one.

Symbolism points observers toward a deeper meaning than the physical object depicted. Chi Chi, for example, was both literally a panda and symbolically the representative of all species at risk of extinction or decline. One can argue that using charismatic animals such as pandas to raise funds that protect far less likable animals (such as the hard-to-love but far more endangered Cuban solenondon, a venomous, shrew-like mammal) is something of a bait and switch. The protective umbrella of symbolism seems to work, however, because humans tend to form an attachment to the literal (and likeable) symbol, rather than the wider (and potentially less lovable) population it represents.

So why does risk management need a symbol? Simply put, risk management has an image problem—namely, it does not really have one.

Chris Burand argued in a 2015 Insurance Journal article that, while the public’s perception of the insurance industry “ranges from…being a government conspiracy designed to enrich insurance companies…to it being a necessary but unpleasant expenditure,” risk management as a profession is not well enough understood by the general public for them to form a view. It does not take a particularly sophisticated Google search to determine what many Americans think of the AIG bailout, or the subsequent actions of the Federal Reserve to further regulate the industry. But a Google search on risk management is likely to result in several million hits about risk register templates, heat maps and articles titled “How to Say No in 45 Languages.”

Burand argues that changes to the public’s perception of insurance cannot be addressed at an industry level, with any attempt likely to be as unproductive as the proverbial herding of cats. He says that the profession lacks the genuine desire to examine the root causes of the public’s perception, and this lack of desire is compounded by an industry culture that paints the public as too uninformed to understand the issues.

The risk manager, and the profession itself, therefore needs to distinguish itself from insurance. There are clear opportunities presented by the effective application of symbolism. Need to provide personalized risk management advice? Use a respected symbol of knowledge such as an owl. Need to demonstrate the value of end-to-end supply chain risk management? Use a broken link in a chain to symbolize the damage that comes from uncontrolled risk.

All of these “obvious” answers, however, are unlikely to address the underlying lack of knowledge about the risk management profession among the general public. So in order to begin positively shaping public perception of the value that risk management can bring to business and society, we need to study the pandas.

Charismatic Megafauna

Giant pandas fall into a category of (typically) large mammals that conservationists refer to as “charismatic megafauna.” While there remains broad scientific disagreement about the definition of this grouping, four characteristics are common among animals that are represented by this social (but not ecological) classification:

  • Detectability and distinctiveness
  • Socioeconomic biases
  • Aesthetics
  • Potential to generate satisfaction

To be detectable and distinctive, the animal must be instantly recognizable to a specific audience. For example, elephants are sufficiently visually unique that they are unlikely to be confused with a walrus, despite both animals having tusks. This is arguably one of the most important factors, as it allows for a specific point of differentiation to form in the mind of the observer.

Socioeconomic bias speaks to the perceived “likeability” of the animal by a defined group of people. Likeability is highly variable and often influenced by region. For example, in many western nations, lions are viewed as majestic beasts (think Disney’s The Lion King), while in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, lions are viewed as dangerous menaces more likely to eat your children than to raise their own in the air above the rolling savannah to the applause of massed herds of zebra and giraffes.

We all like to pretend that we are not shallow. The trouble is scientific studies consistently show that humans are genetically pre-disposed to care for and respond positively to things that are “cute” through a mechanism known as pedomorphism. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense for humans to have an inherent protective bias towards their young. It turns out that this evolutionary protection also extends to other animals that share similar youthful characteristics. If you find yourself unable to stop watching videos of kittens, that is pedomorphism at work.

An animal’s ability to generate satisfaction is tied to the level of intellectual stimulation that humans gain from learning about or interacting with that animal. Leveraging the fascination people have for all things panda, all four U.S. zoos with giant panda populations have live camera feeds that allow remote, somewhat voyeuristic access into the lives of their furry residents. While this might seem like a service that would only be of interest to people with nothing better to do, over a three-day period in mid-August 2016, the National Zoo’s panda cam had 868,000 visitors watch the arrival of zoo’s two new baby pandas. To put that in perspective (and ignoring repeat visitors), that is the equivalent of one in every 373 Americans watching the video feed at some point over those three days. Look around your office or train—one in 400 of those people are panda voyeurs.

The Need for Risk Management Symbolism

In the same way effective branding drives consumer preferences, the risk management profession should try to choose a symbol that stirs public curiosity.

In order for the risk management profession to identify appropriate symbols that positively inform and shape public perceptions, one approach may be to apply the same factors that make charismatic megafauna so powerful in the conservation movement. To be clear, this does not mean simply appropriating some marginally relevant animal surrogate. Rather, it requires the identification of a relevant symbol that distinctively and unambiguously represents the purpose of the risk management profession. This symbol may be an animal, it may be a human, or it may be something else altogether, but it must be representative of the profession’s higher purpose if it is to be memorable.

It must be noted that symbols differ from branding. While the Coca Cola’s contoured bottle is instantly recognizable around the world, according to the company, its distinctive shape does not really symbolize anything greater than a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize it by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” A distinctive symbol serves to deliver a message to the recipient beyond the literal or the visual, and infers a greater level of meaning about the larger concept it represents.

Beyond the need for distinctiveness, the profession will also need to consider the impact of social biases that could impact the effectiveness of the message its symbol conveys. The simple beauty of the panda as a symbol is that it is unlikely to provoke strong negative reactions anywhere in the world—after all, its perceived likeability is high almost everywhere. This level of likeability is a key consideration, particularly if the symbol will be used to inform and shape perceptions. Likeability is intimately tied to engagement—you are far more likely to stop, listen to and recall information from a spokesperson with whom you feel a warm personal connection. The key here is perhaps the degree of perceived likeability—after all, the panda is quite capable of injuring or killing humans (it is still a bear), and most zoos have strict processes to separate the keepers and public clear of the animals’ strong jaws and teeth. But those one in 373 people watching the pandas are likely not watching in the hopes of seeing a keeper being turned into a panda’s lunch—they are captivated by the panda’s likeability.

While beauty may only be skin-deep, it has a definitive impact on the appeal of a symbol. For example, peruse a list of the worst Olympic mascots and you are sure to stumble across Millie, the anthropomorphic echidna that represented the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Anyone who has ever interacted with the pointy end of an echidna would likely question the symbolism associated with this choice. Although, Millie would have been appropriate if the message being sent was “Welcome to Australia, where everything will try and kill you in some unnecessarily violent way.”

Just as effective branding drives consumer preferences, the risk management profession should try to choose a symbol that stirs public curiosity. Selecting symbols that not only appeal to people but also stimulate a desire to find out more about risk management could help address two pressing concerns: public awareness of the function of and need for effective, professional risk management, and recruitment of new blood into a rapidly aging (and retiring) profession.

Identifying the Risk Management Panda

By working cooperatively, we can develop a truly global consensus on what it means to be a professional risk manager, and what value the profession can deliver through the application of global standards of discipline and practice.

Selecting a symbol using these four criteria may seem like a relatively straightforward task—apply the criteria, rule out the echidnas, and start labelling everything you do with that symbol.

However, some members of the profession have seemed reluctant to engage in the underlying conversation that needs to come first: What are we trying to collectively represent as a profession? What would our metaphoric panda represent? How can we show the world why they need us?

In approaching this conversation, all industry sectors under the risk management umbrella would need to engage in a genuine conversation about the value they bring. Even reaching this point, however, requires agreement about who should be included in any practical definition of the risk management profession. While there have been positive moves to widen the risk management tent over the past decade, there remains a stubbornly persistent portion of the profession that refuses to acknowledge the value other sub-disciplines can bring to the discussion. Although this is becoming an increasingly fringe position in most professional circles, it remains a challenge in achieving consensus on the purpose of risk management.

By leveraging the global and regional reach of the profession’s various associations and societies, risk managers everywhere can contribute to this meaningful and critical discussion about the purpose of risk management in modern society. By working cooperatively, we can develop a truly global consensus on what it means to be a professional risk manager, and what value the profession can deliver through the application of global standards of discipline and practice.

Like Chi Chi, the symbols chosen by the risk management profession should represent something greater than its day-to-day existence. After all, if a cast-off immigrant panda can come to be the most powerful symbol of wildlife protection in the world, imagine what risk management could achieve with just a little thought and attention to its underlying purpose. Without it, the most appropriate symbol for risk management may end up being the grim reaper, coming to harvest the remains of a once-proud, but ultimately misunderstood, profession.

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