Precautionary Principle a Hazard to Risk Communications?
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Precautionary Principle a Hazard to Risk Communications?

The City of San Francisco last week became the first city in the nation to adopt what is known as the Precautionary Principle—a “safety first” approach to environmental issues that could pose serious communications challenges for corporations.

Paul Holmes

SAN FRANCISCO—The City of San Francisco last week became the first city in the nation to adopt what is known as the Precautionary Principle—a “safety first” approach to environmental, health and safety issues that could pose serious communications challenges for corporations that hope to do business with or in the city.

The Precautionary Principle shifts the burden of proof from opponents of new technological and scientific developments to manufacturers and proponents. In areas where scientific uncertainty exists—from global warming to the safety of genetically engineered crops—it will demand evidence that products and processes are safe before allowing them to go to market.

According to Jared Blumenfeld, who heads San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, “The world cannot be ‘risk-free,’ but there are safer alternatives to the many toxic, carcinogenic and environmentally destructive practices and products in use today,” he says. Instead of asking “how much air pollution from fossil fuels should we tolerate in the Bay Area before we’re absolutely certain it causes respiratory illnesses,” the Precautionary Principle directs compels the city to look for cleaner sources of sustainable energy.

The San Francisco measure starts with the assertion that “every San Franciscan has an equal right to a healthy and safe environment,” and goes on to say, “Historically, environmentally harmful activities have only been stopped after they have manifested extreme environmental degradation or exposed people to harm. In the case of DDT, lead, and asbestos, for instance, regulatory action took place only after disaster had struck. The delay between first knowledge of harm and appropriate action to deal with it can be measured in human lives cut short.”

As a result, a new environmental code is necessary, and the Precautionary Principle will form the foundation of that code.

“A central element of the precautionary approach is the careful assessment of available alternatives using the best available science. An alternatives assessment examines a broad range of options in order to present the public with different effects of different options considering short-term versus long-term effects or costs, and evaluating and comparing the adverse or potentially adverse effects of each option, noting options with fewer potential hazards….

“The alternatives assessment is also a public process because, locally or internationally, the public bears the ecological and health consequences of environmental decisions. A government’s course of action is necessarily enriched by broadly based public participation when a full range of alternatives is considered based on input from diverse individuals and groups. The public should be able to determine the range of alternatives examined and suggest specific reasonable alternatives, as well as their short- and long-term benefits and drawbacks.”

Meanwhile, Bush administration officials and chemical companies are fighting a proposed European Union law based on the Precautionary Principle. Under the new law, chemicals companies would have to seek approvals for 30,000 chemicals already in use.

Wilfried Schneider, a spokesman for the Washington delegation of the European Commission, has defended the proposed law. “It’s a principle of common sense, to Europeans anyway,” says Schneider. “I think it’s a cultural difference. If there is a scientific uncertainty as to the nature of a risk, we say to those in public office charged with protecting public health that they have a duty to respond and not wait until their fears are realized, until the worst is happening.

“I think Americans are more daring. As long as there’s no known risk, they go ahead.”

But the reaction from business to San Francisco’s adoption of the Precautionary Principle has been muted, although at least one risk communications expert believes it could have profound implications for corporate public relations. Says Ross Irvine, president of ePublicRelations of Canada a fierce critic of environmental and other activist groups, “Regardless of the business you’re in—biotechnology, banking, transportation, chemical, nuclear, mining or agriculture—you will feel its influence. It will stifle innovation, creativity and progress in your company or organization. And, it will change the way you do PR on a day-to-day basis.”

In addition to forcing corporations to prove their products are safe, Irvine says, San Francisco’s new policy will force “a high degree of public participation with which most corporate and organizational PR folks are unfamiliar…. [It] opens the doors to international activists in addition to the homegrown variety to become in San Francisco’s public participation process. Uninformed, malevolent and self-serving activists individuals and groups now have a role in setting the range of alternatives to be considered in the San Francisco decision-making process.”

Larry Kamer, president of Kamer Consulting Group, is less hyperbolic but nevertheless concerned.

“The precautionary principle is presented as an alternative to the risk assessment model,” he says. “Proponents of the principle falsely claim that companies utilizing risk assessment as a basis for decision-making believe ‘it’s okay to use a potentially harmful product until physical evidence of its harmful effects is established and deemed too costly from an environmental or public health perspective’ [a claim taken from the City of San Francisco’s website].

“That’s a gross mischaracterization of the process most responsible or lawsuit-fearing companies utilize before bringing a product to market.”

Corporate communications, says Kamer, now “ have the challenge of explaining how defensible choices get made in a world full of risk, how organizations and leaders must take responsibility for those choices, and what happens when their best judgments fail. They have to continue to spur their companies to put forward contingency and crisis plans and to make sure they work.”

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