PR’s role in the aftermath of Chernobyl was not to cover up the facts,
but to make the public aware of them, says Roger Hayes
There can be no place in PR for those who want to disguise tragedies,
cover up reality or misrepresent the truth. But what about those of us
who have to communicate the realities behind a disaster such as
Chernobyl? What should guide the ethics and approach that an industry
such as the nuclear industry should adopt to communicating the reality
behind one of the world’s worst man-made disasters?
The problem I was faced with was that public perceptions were a long way
from the reality of the situation. A vested interest, such as the
nuclear industry, was in a difficult position to tackle this problem.
The role of nuclear communicators had to be to act as conduits for the
independent, credible third-party bodies whose integrity was beyond
The first step we took was to create an International Chernobyl Task
Force, which could coordinate the nuclear industry’s response to
Chernobyl across frontiers. As the chairman of that body I helped ensure
that the tenth anniversary was used as an opportunity to pool together
the international implications of the tragedy and for the industry to
agree a common response.
It was the view of the Task Force that the role of nuclear communicators
was to explain what had been learnt as a consequence of Chernobyl. And
we as an industry have learned a lot from it. Chernobyl established
safety at the top of the agenda in the former Soviet Union and opened up
their plants to our expert scrutiny. The formation, after the accident,
of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) shared best safety
practice across the globe and raised standards in every country.
It was by a strange irony that the main organisation which was to put
into perspective the health impact of the disaster was the United
Nation’s World Health Organisation. This was the very same body which
rightly brought to the attention of the world the massive increase in
thyroid cancer in Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia. WHO has relentlessly
condemned those that have exaggerated the health impact of Chernobyl: it
claimed that the death toll is currently 41 with the worst still to come
and that there had been no increase in either deformities or leukaemias
in the Chernobyl region.
In order to ensure that there was as rational and informed a debate on
Chernobyl as possible, the British Nuclear Industry Forum made great
efforts to familiarise journalists with the facts.
Fact sheets were produced, press trips to Ukraine and Chernobyl were
organised for major national newspapers and the broadcast media. The
industry explained the safety improvements made at Chernobyl since the
accident, but never became apologists for the plant.
The tenth anniversary of Chernobyl was very much a trust building
exercise for the international nuclear industry. Building up our
credibility with journalists, challenging some myths, clarifying the
lessons of the accident, we believe, has had a significant impact on how
the quality press and broadcast media reported the accident.
Public relations must never become an apology for a disaster. It must,
however, encourage rational debate so that public perception can come
as close to reality as is humanly possible. That was the challenge. The
argument could never be won, but our role was to even up the odds, so
that the issue was seen in proper perspective.
Roger Hayes is director-general, British Nuclear Industry Forum