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
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
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
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
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
’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
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
Regional EPA offices offer free audits of company operating
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
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
’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
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
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.
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
’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
FIVE TRAGEDIES: CHEMICAL MISHAPS THAT HAVE CHANGED THE INDUSTRY
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
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
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
Company: Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex)
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
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
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.