Right to Know Creates Communication Challenges (1992)
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Holmes Report

Right to Know Creates Communication Challenges (1992)

While regulation is forcing companies to adopt envi­ronmentally sound busi­ness practices that may go beyond consumer demands, it is also creat­ing a more educated public, by mak­ing more information available to consumers and local communities.

Paul Holmes


While regulation is forcing companies to adopt envi­ronmentally sound busi­ness practices that may go beyond consumer demands, it is also creat­ing a more educated public, by mak­ing more information available to consumers and local communities. The Superfund legislation, known as SARA Title III, forces companies to release information about their emis­sions to the government, and thus to the media, local communities and the public.

"What the SARA Title III filings have done is create a real glut of numbers out there with very little context," says David Meeker, head of environmental practice for Ohio PR agency Edward Howard & Co. "Companies tell the gov­ernment how much waste they are emit­ting and gov­ernment releases the raw data to the media, which compiles long lists of the worst polluters that can be very misleading."

Meeker points out that a compa­ny that tops a local "dirty dozen" list, apparently creating 500,000 lbs. of waste over the past twelve months, could have pumped 500,000 lbs. of gases into the atmosphere or it could simply have 500,000 lbs. of solid waste such such as glass, which is moved off-site and stored in a land­fill. Similarly, the gases emitted could be highly toxic or relatively harmless.

Of course, environmentalists argue that 100,000 lbs. of waste is 100,000 lbs. of waste, whether pumped into the air or buried in a landfill, but for local communities seeing nothing but the bare figures, the distinction can make the differ­ence between panic and relief.

"Without putting these figures in context, neighbors will take one look at them and assume the companies involved are threatening their lives," Meeker says. "The other issue, of course, is that this is all relative. 10,000 lbs. of gas sounds like a lot, and it is, but given the size of the site and the atmospheric conditions around the site, it may be 10,000 lbs. of gas out of hundreds of millions of pounds of air."

However, no-one expects the fed­eral government, with its limited resources, to take the time and trouble to interpret the SARA Title III infor­mation it receives—though this might be one instance when corpora­tions wish the regulators had asked for more detailed information—and so the onus of communication falls on the companies involved.

"Too many companies are still operating the way they did when they did not have to report any­thing," says Meeker. "They were opposed to releasing this kind of information, because they thought it would simply frighten people unnec­essarily. They don't believe the infor­mation should be public at all, so they release the bare minimum of information and their fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"The answer is that companies have to communicate well beyond the provisions of the law. Regardless of the statistical information they release to the government, they have to sit down with their local commu­nities and the local media and explain in detail what their operations involve, what toxic materials they use, what the risks are, what they are doing to protect the communities in which they operate."

In California, public notification laws such as AB25-28 and Proposi­tion 65 go further than they do in most states, demanding a higher level of notification and some assessment of the level of risk. Cerrell Associ­ates' John King says business was initially concerned about the conse­quences of discussing dangers, but has come around.

"It's very difficult to convey the risk level of any activity in terms that do not promote hysteria or underplay the problem, but it's not impossible," he says. "We have a refinery client that has undertaken to meet with any­one at any time. They will sit down with a family in its own home or rent a hall to talk to a hundred people. The plant managers will sit and let people fire questions at them."

Hill & Knowlton's John Mul­lane, who deals with environmental regulations in all 50 states, says many companies actually prefer the risk communication provisions of Cali­fornia statutes, because they at least put risk in proportion. "In most states, the most dangerous, toxic pol­luters may not even be on the `dirty dozen' lists, because those lists mea­sure volume, not hazard, while com­panies that pose no real risk may look like the worst offenders. In Califor­nia, at least there is an attempt to assess relative risk."

Meeker says he tells clients that they should send their numbers to local opinion leaders, including the media, at the same time they send them to the government, but that they must make some effort to put the numbers in context. That way, he says, when the media gets the govern­ment information the story is not such a sensation.

He also warns that companies without a tradition of open relation­ships with their local communities will have a credibility problem to over­come, and prescribes intensive face­to-face communications.

"Most communities will give plants the benefit of the doubt if they are seen to be taking the trouble to communicate and if some progress is being made," he says.

In some instances, local communi­ty involvement has helped companies find a solution to regulatory problems. John King recalls work his firm, Cer­rell Associates, did with five compa­nies operating a Superfund site in Orange County.

"The Environmental Protection Agency and the companies themselves had suggested ways of tackling the problem, and all their solutions had been rejected. It was only when we brought the community into the pro­cess that an acceptable compromise was reached," he says.

In another instance, Cerrell is helping a client to work not only with the community but also with the Sier­ra Club, an activist organization many California companies have traditional regarded as an adversary. "They are a part of the puzzle," says King. "And they can get things done."

The media, of course, cannot be ignored. While some media coverage is sensationalistic, Meeker says it is getting better, although he warns companies that most local newspaper reporters are not experts in either environmental issues or science, and that technical information should be explained in depth in lay terms.

"Good science is absolutely the key to all this," he insists. "The public has to be given the scientific infor­mation, and its validity has to be con­firmed by outside analysis. There used to be a feeling that the compa­ny's experts knew what was best, and that all they had to do was ask the public to trust them. That won't wash any more."

Cerrell's John King agrees that people are not prepared to be told everything is fine and to simply go on with their lives. He says many plant neighbors are taking the time to learn about the issues and have a much higher level of sophistication than was the case in the past.

"When all these laws were intro­duced, some companies took solace in the fact that the public couldn't possi­bly understand all the information they were putting out," says John Mullane. "What those companies found was that there were plenty of people out there in the environmental organizations and in the media who would interpret the data and put their own spin on it."

One result of this, Meeker says, is that more and more companies are training science personnel and envi­ronmental engineers as spokespeople, harnessing their credibility and help­ing them master the basics of good communication.

Hameroff Milenthal Spence, another midwestern PR firm with a significant media training capability, has an environmental public affairs division that is flourishing. Executive vp Bill Patterson says about 60% of his media training business is now related to environmental issues, and that he recommends using the highest ranking officer in the company as the spokesperson.

"All the studies I have done indi­cate that PR people just don't have the credibility to be the public spokespeo­ple on an issue as important as this one," Patterson says. "Scientists are not always great communicators, and the media is not always technically sophisticated enough to get into the science, so we recommend using the president or ceo."

Patterson says he is also trying to persuade clients in the chemical industry and related sectors to be more proactive, educating their com­munities before a crisis of confidence occurs. Too many companies are still reacting to crises rather than heading them off, he says.

Another problem, says Meeker, is that while companies, and particularly plant man­agers, tend to look at opera­tions in terms of efficiency and the way the site is run, while the public is con­cerned about its health. These two different perspectives have to be rec­onciled. "We have to get our clients to look at their operations the way the community looks at them," he says.

Meanwhile, industry is gearing up for the next round of regulation, and particularly the Clean Air Act provi­sions that call on companies to inform legislative bodies of any environmen­tal problems that find while auditing their environmental operations.

There are some fears that the Clean Air Act may make companies less willing to engage in detailed envi­ronmental self-examination, but Bruce Harrison believes that the answer is not to stop quality improve­ments but to make sure that informa­tion is communicated efficiently and thoroughly.

"I don't believe regula­tors are going to use this information irresponsibly to create scapegoats," Harrison says. "Companies need to take charge of their problems and show they are taking charge."

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