(Published October 30, 2003)
by Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker*
During mid-October, we attended a conference in Miami sponsored
by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), called "Communicating
in a Volatile World." ACC is the trade association for the 180
largest manufacturers of chemicals in the U.S. Until recently,
ACC was known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association. (See
The ACC conference was a real eye-opener. It revealed the ACC's
genuine fears about the accomplishments of environmental health
activists. In particular, ACC communications staff and
presenters at the conference conceded that the work of
coalitions like the Collaborative on Health and the Environment
(http://www.cheforhealth.org/) and Health Care Without Harm
(http://www.noharm.org/) has effectively raised public
awareness about the health dangers of toxic chemicals in the
environment and in consumer products.
They also concluded that the success of these coalitions is due
to their diversity of members and supporters who include
community groups, environmental justice organizations, health
professionals, and researchers who focus on body burden and
low-dose chemical exposures, shareholder/investment
institutions, and consumers.
Here are the salient details of the various presentations at
I. Communications Strategy - Winning the "Media War"
** Find a "credible and comforting" person to drive the message
of the chemical industry in times of disaster or in response to
environmental/health issues. This person may not be your
company CEO, it may be the fire chief, or the mayor.
** In chemical disasters and facility emergency drills, focus
the message on the response and coordination among the chemical
company, fire department, police department, hospitals, Red
Cross, etc. Do not refer to the chemicals or
facility/transportation failures that caused the disaster.
** Conduct intensive media training with company staff - both
corporate and local facility personnel. Videotape them in mock
television interviews, in which they are grilled by a reporter
asking them "sticky" questions. Replay the videotape and
critique their performance, and repeat as often as necessary.
Through this exercise, determine those who are most effective,
and use them to represent the company before the media.
** Invite local officials, fire departments, and other emergency
responders to media training events that are organized by your
people. The benefits are that you develop camaraderie and trust
with local officials, and they have the same messages as your
company to present to the public in the event of a crisis.
** Turn media strengths into your strengths. The media wants a
quick response, so give them one: "the incident is under
investigation." This means nothing, but satisfies the "media
monster." Another effective statement to use: "We don't know
all the facts, but here's what we're doing to respond...."
This is also very reassuring, without giving away too much
information or showing liability.
** Keep track of a timeline of actions - no action is too small
to be left out - that you can feed to the media to keep them
** Get your "credible and comforting icons/faces" in front of
the media instantly saying, "We are taking action and are
prepared to do the following." Make sure you have invested the
necessary time in coaching the icons; videotape mock news
reporter interviews/press conferences, and give critiques for
** Don't forget that media outreach is not enough, especially if
it's hostile to you. Go door-to-door to get your message out.
Create and distribute your newsletters with at-a-glance
graphics that positively show your response.
** Don't respond publicly in a defensive mode because it angers
people, and shows you to be cold and unfeeling. Even if you
have the potential to be sued over the disaster, you must
remember the court of public opinion, and act in a way that
gives comfort; example: set up a family assistance fund; pay
for people to stay at a local hotel if they have to evacuate
from their homes.
** Remember that the first person in the media who makes the
decision about who is to blame can decide your fate because it
is extremely difficult to get them to change their minds, and
even if they do, it is likely to occur when the public has lost
interest in the news story. Thus, you want to be the first to
proactively go to the media with statements that focus on your
response, not the cause.
** You can't have government officials doing press conferences
without you; you have to drive/craft the message.
Partnership-building long before a crisis takes place is
critical to ensuring your primary role in handling a disaster.
** Take steps to be prepared in advance of bad news:
(1) Wake up every morning telling yourself that a disaster can
occur today. And ask yourself if you are prepared to deal with
it. (2) Keep in mind how the internet can be used by people who
are adversarial. Information circulated on the internet gets
into less reputable media, and then bleeds into mainstream
media. It's a good idea to develop "dark sites" - websites that
are not activated until a disaster/crisis/issue occurs - with
sufficient company information that is already in the public
domain, generic information about response plans, pages for
updates and press releases, contacts for more information, and
blank areas to fill in with information specific to the crisis.
For example, two hours after an employee at a Lockheed Martin
facility in Mississippi shot co-workers, the company had
activated a website informing the public about the shooting,
and announcing a memorial fund.
(3) Prepare a checklist of all actions that need to take place;
the American Chemistry Council will have a media/crisis
checklist available on its website by mid-November; carry all
important phone numbers with you at all times, from facility
managers to I.T. [information technology] persons.
(4) Select a space that will be available to you anytime you
need to hold press conferences to discuss a crisis; make sure
that the space is comfortable to the media with lots of phones,
computer connections, food, and doesn't block cellular
(5) Recruit a team of people who are "go to" people in time of
crisis; make sure they can reach each other at any time, not
just in the office.
(6) Remember that the quickest one wins. Your goal should be to
have your statement to the media before anyone else does. If
you don't, or you wait to start putting together a statement
with clearance from company attorneys, etc., you will lose. Be
prepared to be the first to contact the media in the event of a
crisis, even if you don't have all the information.
(7) Make sure that company lawyers don't create barriers to
public statements. Even if the statements only provide basic
information about your company and simply state that you are
coordinating an emergency response with officials, recognize
that such statements go a long way to comfort the public and
let them know that you care and are prepared for the crisis.
Don't speculate on the crisis, especially its cause. Instead,
focus your statements on the company's employment numbers,
positive economic impacts, and plans to coordinate with local
officials to deal with the problem.
(8) Endurance is important. There really is no such thing as a
media deadline anymore because of 24-hour news cycles. So keep
the media continuously updated even if it is to repeat your
(9) Know your plant managers and have a positive relationship
with them. Remember that some of them are "good ol' boys" and
need intensive media training to be viewed positively by the
II. What the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Fears
** Some time in November, 2003 news coverage by 60 Minutes, CNN,
the New York Times, and a reporter in Pennsylvania named Prine
(who easily broke through security systems at a local chemical
facility on more than one occasion) will characterize chemical
facilities as unsafe and a danger to the public.
** The American Chemistry Council's (ACC's) lack of preparation
to respond effectively to this upcoming news coverage, which
ACC's communication staffers blame on disagreements among ACC
members regarding financial support for a PR campaign. Also,
the resources and tools for members and non-members to respond
to this upcoming negative news will not be ready on the ACC
website until mid-November.
** Information drawing the connection between toxic chemicals
and human health; in particular, emerging reports on body
burden and low-dose chemical exposure and chemical trespass
This topic is such a hot issue for the ACC that they canceled a
presentation at the conference because they didn't want us to
hear the information. This presentation focused on what
environmental groups and their funders are up to in promoting
body burden testing and chemical phase-outs, as well as
negative public reaction to toxic exposures and what the ACC
can do about it. However, the power point presentation for this
topic was part of the hand-outs everyone was given, and it
reveals a lot.
** The use of the internet by many diverse activists to spread
awareness about the health impacts of chemicals in products. A
case study involving the issue of chemicals leaching out into
food when plastic containers are microwaved was the focus of
one presentation titled, "Integrated Issues Management on the
** The use of "value-based" messaging by activists. Example:
"A chemical-free world for the future of our children."
** The hydra-headed impact of activists organized into networks
or coalitions in which members target several aspects of one
issue with the support of the full network. For example,
community activism around local chemical facilities, health
studies that focus on mothers and children, shareholder
activism, and outreach to major customers of chemical products.
** The Precautionary Principle
** The likelihood that members of the ACC will not support the
multi-million dollar PR campaign called "essential2."
** The impact of a disaster, like Bhopal, occurring at a
chemical facility that is not prepared to handle the bad PR,
and will be used to bring down the entire industry.
** Targeting industrial chemical processes and storage as part
of chemical plant safety investigations, policies, and media
** Resistance by chemical companies to engage in thorough media
training and preparation because they fear news reporters, and
routinely listen to their lawyers, who typically advise them to
shut down communication so as not to incur liability.
III. Allies or Potential Allies Who Can Help the ACC Craft
Credible & Comforting Messages for the Public
** "For Hire" media/public relations experts on damage control
The individuals listed below participated in a "Blue Ribbon Panel on
Crisis" at the conference. They have extensive experience in
damage control PR involving 9-11, plane crashes, the Duke
University blood transfusion disaster that killed a young girl,
communities devastated by natural disasters, and disasters
involving chemical plants or the transport of chemicals. They
also have either held (or are still holding) key positions in
federal government, or have worked in print or broadcast media.
James Lee Witt, former Director of the U.S. Federal Emergency
Management Administration ("FEMA"), who now runs his own
Peter Goelz, former Managing Director of the U.S. National
Transportation Safety Board, who is now Senior Vice President
and Director of worldwide crisis communication at APCO
Chet Lunner, Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security's Office of Maritime and Land Security,
Transportation Security Administration. Chet's work focuses on
chemical disasters occurring on cargo ships, trains, and
Richard Mintz, former Director of Public Affairs at the U.S.
Department of Transportation, who now directs crisis
communications and issue management capabilities for the firm
Burston-Marsteller; also previously worked for CBS News and
Kent Jarrell, Senior Vice Pres. for litigation communication
and crisis management at APCO Worldwide. We overheard him say
in a side conversation that he told the Chlorine Institute that
"dark days are ahead." Kent is working with the Chlorine
Institute. He has intervened in emergency drills involving
chlorine compounds. He described a drill that took place in Los
Angeles based on a disaster scenario of chlorine gas escaping
from a canister located inside a shopping mall. The companies
he represents found out about the drill after it was planned,
and got involved in the implementation to share their
"expertise," which involved media work to congratulate the
local emergency responders for their capabilities to protect
the public. The media work was geared to take the focus off the
fact that the drill involved the dangerous effects of chlorine
gas. He noted that news coverage did not even mention the word
"chlorine." Kent said that he is involved in a similar drill
involving a Georgia Gulf vinyl chloride plant in Louisiana.
Morrie Goodman, ACC Vice-President for Communications, who
formerly headed media relations for the Federal Emergency
Management Administration ("FEMA") during Witt's appointment,
organized this conference, and hoped to get the consultation
and partnership of these experts for ACC. Also, Morrie
congratulated himself for his work in coaching ACC President
Greg Lebedev for the 60 Minutes interview. Greg did not attend
this meeting. Immediately following the ACC conference, Morrie
Jerry Hauer, Asst. Secretary at the U.S. Dept. of Health and
Human Services, Office of Public Health and Emergency
Preparedness. Jerry was invited to speak on the "Blue Ribbon
Panel on Crisis," but did not show up.
** Federal agencies and officials, especially those involved in
"Based on our relationship with the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), we were able to share with them our
research showing the safety of microwaveable plastics and get
them to publish a favorable statement.... Since the FDA has
a liaison department in a university in every state, those
departments are also publishing newsletter articles and fact
sheets that spread our message." -- Kathleen McBride, ACC,
"Integrated Issues Management on the Web" panel presentation.
Also, as referenced above, Chet Lunner from the Department of
Homeland Security presented information on what chemical
companies can expect from his office: new regulations covering
all modes of transportation of chemical substances;
determination of transportation links in the nation that have
the greatest vulnerability; and federal aid given to address
areas of vulnerability.
** Universities and academic institutions
It was recommended repeatedly throughout the conference that
risk communicators should be identifying third parties from
universities and academic institutes who can be recruited into
delivering to the public a positive message for the chemical
industry. Conducting joint research projects with universities
was also encouraged.
** Local officials and emergency responders
Research prepared for the ACC shows that the public has a
negative view of the chemical industry largely because of
facility leaks, fires, and explosions. The researcher noted
that such events can be covered for weeks in the news. Risk
communicators were advised to "buddy up" and "partner" with
local officials in setting up community programs that involve
emergency response, chemical safety, and the media. Most all
panelists encouraged risk communicators to do media trainings
with local officials, police, and fire departments, public
health officials, and any other emergency responder to ensure
that their message will be the same as the chemical company's
PR. Another oft-repeated recommendation was for chemical
company PR people to meet regularly with local officials to
build a relationship so that the officials can take on "faith"
that chemical plants are secure.
* Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker, two attorneys in New
Orleans, Louisiana, are the co-directors of Advocates for
Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm that
provides a full range of legal advocacy services to support
communities in achieving their fundamental human right to a
clean and healthy environment. They have represented
communities in the South to achieve important environmental
justice victories, and have impacted national environmental
policies. Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, 1050 South
Jefferson Davis Parkway, Suite 333, New Orleans, LA 70124;
phone: 504-304-2275; fax: 504-304-2276. E-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com