MARKET FOCUS: ENVIRONMENTAL PR - Leaks, spills and PR pills. The public has about as much respect for chemical companies as it does for Big Tobacco. James S. Bourne reports on the impact - if any - of their PR efforts

Lou Williams, president of L.C. Williams & Associates, a Chicago PR firm, remembers a survey he did for a large petrochemical concern on employee attitudes about the company. When he presented his findings to corporate brass, oil executives accepted it without reservation. But the chemical division refused to believe that the report was accurate. Something in an industrial culture based on scientific precision and predictability, says Williams, couldn’t grasp the range and diversity of human opinion.

Lou Williams, president of L.C. Williams & Associates, a Chicago PR firm, remembers a survey he did for a large petrochemical concern on employee attitudes about the company. When he presented his findings to corporate brass, oil executives accepted it without reservation. But the chemical division refused to believe that the report was accurate. Something in an industrial culture based on scientific precision and predictability, says Williams, couldn’t grasp the range and diversity of human opinion.

Lou Williams, president of L.C. Williams & Associates, a Chicago PR

firm, remembers a survey he did for a large petrochemical concern on

employee attitudes about the company. When he presented his findings to

corporate brass, oil executives accepted it without reservation. But the

chemical division refused to believe that the report was accurate.

Something in an industrial culture based on scientific precision and

predictability, says Williams, couldn’t grasp the range and diversity of

human opinion.



Williams says of his longtime association with chemical companies: ’It

is easily the hardest group I’ve ever had to deal with when it comes to

public opinion.’



For a long time public opinion wasn’t something the chemical industry

cared much about - and it showed. Polls revealed that only Big Tobacco

was held in lower regard. For every chemical industry misfortune handled

with decency and aplomb, like Johnson & Johnson’s masterful treatment of

the Tylenol poisonings, another showed a company stonily trying to evade

responsibility (think Exxon Valdez). That imposing factory upwind of a

school, those rail cars carrying - what? - rolling silently through town

after town; the chemical industry’s attitude toward the public seemed to

be, What they don’t know can’t hurt them. Except that it could, and

did.





Spill less and smile more



That’s all in the past now, says the national trade association that

represents big chemical companies, which recently changed its name from

the Chemical Manufacturers Association, with its image of belching

smokestacks, to the more wise- and benevolent-sounding American

Chemistry Council.



The US chemical industry has cut spills and emissions while increasing

production, says the ACC, and is funding studies on the safe handling

and environmental impact of its products. A five-year, dollars 50

million ad campaign reversed the decline in public opinion of the

industry, the ACC claims. It says its decade-old safety and community

relations program, Responsible Care, has persuaded companies to drop

their sullen, secretive ways and become better neighbors in their

communities.



’We feel we’re at a point where we can pursue higher levels of public

relations,’ says Dick Doyle, vice president for Responsible Care at

Washington, DC-based ACC.



To that end, the organization has turned to BSMG to put out the word on

the essential but unsung role of chemicals in daily life. In 1999, ACC

hired Fleishman-Hillard to help organize 10-year anniversary

celebrations for Responsible Care in plant communities nationwide.

Baltimore-based Eisner Communications was charged with convincing truck

and rail haulers to abide by Responsible Care’s safety guidelines.





Chemical companies find religion



And the industry’s efforts have paid off - to a point. ’Members of ACC

are among the most safety-conscious companies in the world,’ says Phil

Cogan, director of external relations for the Chemical Safety and Hazard

Investigation Board, a federal agency whose members are appointed by the

US president.



Environmental responsibility and public health are now integral to the

operation of chemical companies, agrees Terry Hemeyer, a Texas crisis

consultant and university communications instructor who spent 16 years

in public affairs at Pennzoil.



But others familiar with the industry say there’s a long way to go, in

terms of both safety and communications.



Laws and regulations have steadily been tightened since Union Carbide’s

Bhopal disaster in 1984 (see sidebar) and now require chemical companies

to have emergency response plans and to report spills and other

mishaps.



Regional EPA offices offer free audits of company operating

procedures.



Responsible Care has become ’religion’ to ACC’s 190 member companies,

according to one risk-management consultant. But you can’t get rid of

accidents like the over-filling of storage and transport tanks, or

truckers pulling away while they’re still attached to pumps, through

legislation.



The Chemical Safety Board says the significance of chemical mishaps in

the US is not their size but their distressing frequency.



’The same old accidents occur time and time again,’ says Safety Board

member Irv Rosenthal, who spent 38 years with chemical manufacturer Rohm

and Haas. ’That’s what’s embarrassing.’



Others see a wide gulf between feel-good industry rhetoric and

reality.



’Companies continue to take positions in state legislatures that

undermine the regulatory process and deny the public’s right to know,’

says Ross Vincent, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality

Strategy Team and a member of the ACC’s Public Advisory Panel, which was

created as part of the Responsible Care initiative.



Carol Forrest, an Illinois consultant who helps chemical companies

assess public concerns in their communities, says ’gentlemen’s

agreements’ exist within the industry, whereby companies that are

improving their safety records hold back so their less vigorous peers

don’t look bad.



Vincent says that, ACC claims notwithstanding, public opinion of the

chemical industry hasn’t changed much.



’If I were an executive looking at the numbers, I’d be depressed,’ he

says. ’They’ve improved, but not a lot.’



One reason might be that communications remains a hard sell. Federal law

requires a chemical manufacturer to inform townspeople of what it is

making and storing in their midst. (You can check up on companies and

their products online at www.chemicalguide.com.) But many companies,

says Williams, view ongoing public affairs as revenue-draining overhead.

If they do commit to communications, they are often inexperienced at

selecting the right people. Forrest recalls one company spokeswoman who

claimed she didn’t really need to understand environmental regulations

and wouldn’t discuss accident prevention measures because that would

confirm that accidents might occur - an attitude Forrest terms ’beyond

stupid.’



The consultant adds that a lot of chemical industry’s public affairs

efforts are at the community level, which isn’t high-profile enough to

attract large numbers of practitioners. Those who get involved, she

notes, often fall back on standard PR campaigns that are too removed

from the grass-roots, when they should be wading into the local

discussion. Some companies have Community Advisory Panels, or CAPs,

which were created to bring together plant managers and townspeople,

including emergency personnel, and city and school officials.

Professional facilitators, who organize and help run CAPs, say that some

of the panels have broken down barriers and led to true cooperation and

understanding between chemical companies and their neighbors.



Other CAPs, though, have evolved into little more than a PR arm for the

company.’The job of CAPs is not to make nice but to fix problems,’ says

Vincent. He says it’s essential that CAPs include a company’s toughest

critics.



If such critics are left out of the loop, he warns, they will undermine

the CAP by going straight to the media if an accident occurs.





Help wanted



But the biggest factor impeding chemical industry communications might

be the lack of qualified communicators. Technical understanding of the

issues and the ability to translate them for the layperson ’is a

combination that’s hard to find,’ says Pat Esposito, president of

Environmental Technologies & Communications, a Cincinnati consulting

firm that works with the chemical industry.



An Ohio organization she helped create to educate the public about

chemical risks, the Alliance for Chemical Safety, has attracted little

media interest despite inviting the press to its meetings. For chairman

Duane Day, an environmental manager at Bayer, that points to a serious

information gap about the chemical industry.



’The public says that environmental matters and hazardous material

matters are a big issue,’ he says, ’but the media doesn’t bring that

information back to them.’



Traditionally, that’s the place where professional communicators step

in.



’The PR industry needs to catch up,’ says Forrest. ’PR people who’ve got

a technical interest should jump in. There’s more than enough work to go

around.’





FIVE TRAGEDIES: CHEMICAL MISHAPS THAT HAVE CHANGED THE INDUSTRY



Company: Hoffman-LaRoche



Year: 1976



Place: Seveso, Italy



An explosion at a Swiss-owned factory in Seveso, Italy in 1976 released

a cloud of dioxin that killed pets and farm animals and poisoned nearby

land. Although no people died, subsequent tests revealed the highest

levels of dioxin ever found in humans, according to the US Chemical

Safety Board.



Scientists disagree on the lethality of dioxin, a by-product of the

manufacture of defoliants. After the accident, European nations created

the Seveso Directive, guidelines for managing, transporting and

informing the public about toxic materials.





Company: Hooker Chemical and Plastics



Years: 1978-80



Place: Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, NY



Almost 1,000 families were evacuated from Love Canal in 1980 after it

was discovered that their homes were built on a decades-old dumping

ground for 20,000 tons of industrial waste. The case led to new EPA

regulations governing the production, handling and disposal of toxic

waste, and was a significant influence on the creation of Superfund,

which bankrolls toxic waste cleanup through excise taxes on

petrochemicals.





Company: Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex)



Year: 1984



Place: San Juan Ixhuatepec, Mexico



On a November morning, multiple explosions tore through a storage

facility of Mexico’s state-owned gas company. The resulting inferno

leveled 20 blocks of a Mexico City suburb and killed at least 500

people. The country’s worst industrial accident, it contributed to the

continuing debate over the mingling of industrial sites and residential

neighborhoods around the Mexican capital. Mexico has one of the highest

chemical accident rates in the world.





Company: Union Carbide



Year: 1984



Place: Bhopal, India



The most infamous accident involving a US chemical company, the December

1984 leak of a highly toxic compound used to make pesticides killed at

least 3,000 people and made about 75,000 sick. Union Carbide blames

sabotage for the leak; systems that would’ve detected it were not

operating, the company claimed. The Bhopal accident was a major factor

in the development in the United States of emergency response plans for

chemical facilities and community right-to-know laws.





Company: Phillips Petroleum



Year: 1989



Place: Pasadena, TX



Leaking gases at a refinery ignited in a series of explosions, killing

23 people and injuring more than 120. An investigation revealed no

backup system to protect against leaks. The Occupational Safety and

Health Administration (OSHA) later announced new safety guidelines for

petrochemical plants, including informing employees about workplace

hazards and training them to deal with emergencies. A Phillips employee

said at the time that only continued pressure and scrutiny would make

chemical companies take safety seriously.



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