Three years ago, Sybron Chemicals was on the verge of being closed down. The company's plant in southern New Jersey had leaked noxious chemicals and prompted a mass evacuation of the local community, and a few months later a flash fire at the same plant severely burned several workers, hospitalizing two of them. The local community wanted the plant shut down and a U.S. Senator was demanding an investigation.
Earlier this year, however, Sybron's innovative environmental communications program was the subject of an independent study conducted by Rutgers University. The report hailed the chemical company as the first to meet the National Research Council's criteria for "exemplary risk communications." Sybron has also been asked by New Jersey Governor Jim Florio to help lead a state environmental initiative.
The turnaround at the $150 million a year specialty chemical company has been swift and dramatic. The company has not only adhered to the standard communications principals of honesty and openness, it has found new and innovative ways to reach out to and involve the community and to establish prompt communication in the event of an emergency.
Moreover, the company that achieved this remarkable turnaround does not employ a single internal public relations or communications professional. The communications program was devised and implemented by a committee of senior managers from several operational disciplines, with the assistance of public relations agency Holt Ross & Yulish.
"In the fall of 1988, the Sybron plant released a noxious chemical into the atmosphere," says agency principal Charles Yulish. "While the chemical was not dangerous, it did smell extremely bad. It's so pungent that five parts per billion can be detected by the human nose. So people in the surrounding neighborhood were waking up at three o'clock in this morning and they could smell this stuff miles away.
"The plant operator realized there had been an emission, and notified the state body, which was all he was required to do by law. In the meantime, however, the police and fire department had been called by neighbors, and since there had clearly been a leak and they did not know any more than that, they evacuated the area.
"The company argued it had done all it was required to do by law. It was not required to inform the emergency services, because the leak was not a threat. This was a crisis brought about because the company was doing the bare minimum of communications."
A month later came the flash fire in one of the plant processing areas, which severely burned a number of workers. The community became convinced that Sybron was a danger; Senator Frank Lautenberg demanded an investigation and urged state officials to shut the plant down if it was found to be unsafe.
Lautenberg wrote in a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection that it was "unacceptable for the citizens of Pemberton Township to have to live with further accidents and chemical releases" and that he wanted investigators to take a close look at operating procedures and equipment.
"As in many cases, it took a crisis to make the company realize it had a serious problem," says Yulish. "The community had been complaining about odors from the plant for some time, and the company had no public information or community relations program in place. But once the crisis prompted management to took a look at the situation, they realized that cultural change as well as an improvement in communication was necessary."
The management team—which included the vice president of manufacturing, managers in the manufacturing division and the vice-president of human resources—defined three operational challenges facing the company. The first was to improve process safety, and upgrades were instigated; the second was to reduce emissions, and a task force was formed to examine ways in which this could be achieved; the third was to modernize the facilities.
It was also acknowledged that the company needed to find ways in which the community could be involved in these process.
One of the first things Sybron did was send researchers out into the surrounding area to find out what its neighbors thought about the plant. Rather than using less expensive telephone interviews, researchers met with householders individually, often spending up to an hour in each home, asking people what they knew about the plant, what they wanted done, even whether they had any specific allergies that could be affected by emissions.
"Face to face meetings were important because they enabled us not only to find out what people thought about the plant, but also to give them information, to explain what the plant was and what it did," says Yulish. "We found that most people did not want to see the plant closed down, they simply wanted to be assured that it would not be a danger to them."
Seeking ways in which the company could keep the community informed about the plant and set up a warning system that would inspire confidence, Yulish came up with a unique idea.
"At the time, I was becoming increasingly irritated by telemarketing calls to my home, using those automated dialing machines," he says. " I started to wonder whether those machines could not be put to more positive use, and whether Sybron could use them as the basis of an emergency notification system"
The company devised a system known as PINS (Prompt Inquiry and Notification System) which allowed neighborhood residents to call in at any time for information—and required each supervisor to update the status of the plant, wind direction, and other pertinent material at the start of each shift—and which would automatically dial residents if there was a problem. A remarkable 93% of local households signed up to participate.
On a more conventional note, the company recognized that its failure to allow public access to the plant in the past had engendered mistrust, and so staged a community "wellness fair" with plant tours and a variety of health-related activities, from free blood pressure tests to first aid lessons. More than 300 people attended, and the company was praised for its actions, but there was a more important consequence.
"All of these activities gave employees and managers a greater pride in what they were doing," says Yulish. "They had already seen the changes going on around them, from repainting to safety improvements, but now we were asking them to participates. The actual workers were asked to guide visitors through their own sections of the plant, and they all wanted their sections to be clean and tidy and efficient."
A Neighborhood Involvement Council was formed to act as an advisory board, a quarterly newsletter was launched—with a mechanism for feedback and all criticisms reported—and an historical schoolhouse in the community was renovated with funds provided by the company.
The final element of the community involvement program was the creation of an "odor patrol" that employed volunteer residents. Participants were trained to spot different odors, and when the company receives a complaint of an odor emission odor patrol members closest to the complaint are asked to identify it and call in. While Sybron had not asked Holt Ross & Yulish to evaluate the success of the program by any objectively measurable criteria—telling Charles Yulish that "they would know if it was working or not "—the investigation did not materialize, and Senator Lautenberg dropped his criticisms. More important, Sybron was cited as a model for other chemical companies by many authoritative sources.
A 90-page study produced by the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers University, headed by noted environmental expert Caron Chess, commended Sybron for providing examples of both substantive actions that had earned it community confidence and effective communication of these actions.
"At Sybron, there were direct links between risk communication and risk management," the report concluded. "A dynamic interaction between risk management and risk communication changed what the company did, not just what it talked about."
The report also analyzed the relationship between Sybron and its PR firm in unusually frank terms, quoting one of the managers on the crisis team: "In the beginning, personally I sort of resented this guy coming in and trying to tell us how and what we should be doing. But the more I thought about what he said the more I concluded he was absolutely right. You must establish a relationship, a dialogue with the community."
Sybron has also been invited by New Jersey Governor Jim Florio and the Department of Environmental Protection to be one of three chemical companies advising open a new pollution prevention initiative.