NACD Reputation for Trust, Credibility Essential for Business Operations
Nov 1, 1999 12:00 PM
As concern for safety and the environment increases, companies must develop and maintain a public reputation for trust and credibility, said David Hastings, communication services manager for ABS Group Inc, Houston, Texas.
"A bad reputation with the public negatively impacts business," he said. "Regardless of the facts, the public perception is the reality. If you have no public communication, it is defined as bad public communication."
Hastings discussed risk communication at the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) Operations Seminar September 15-17 in Kansas City, Missouri. His presentation was sponsored by the Chemical Education Foundation, a division of NACD, which recently has published the Risk Communication Guide.
For some companies, there is no choice for developing a program to interact with the public. Under new regulations, certain businesses must hold a public meeting by February 1, 2000, to discuss company risk management plans (RMP). Not only do companies have to certify the meeting has been conducted and submit a meeting certification to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), they face legal action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if they fail to comply.
Although certain businesses currently do not have to conduct the public meetings, the definition is still not finalized, according to a spokesman at the NACD.
"The writing is on the wall and you can't go back to the way it used to be," said Hastings. A business is defined by the EPA as small if it is owned or operated by a person that employs 100 or fewer individuals; is a small business concern as defined in the Small Business Act; is not a major stationary source; does not emit 50 tons or more per year of any regulated pollutant; and emits less than 75 tons per year of all regulated pollutants. More information can be obtained from the EPA web site at www.epa.gov/ceppo.
However, he pointed out that proactive risk communication in general helps improve media relations, addresses potential problems before they become crises, and decreases liability. At the same time, establishing credibility and trust requires a long-term commitment. "It's good business," he said. "Many industry suppliers, customers, and competitors are doing it, and the public is beginning to expect it. Ultimately, to stay in business, you have to provide the information."
The new law mandates that RMP-covered facilities hold a public meeting. It requires reasonable public notice before the meeting, a description and discussion of local implications of the facility's risk management plan, and a summary of the offsite consequence analysis portion of the plan. Among subjects to be included are a worst-case scenario, alternative release scenarios, and a five-year history of the company's accident record.
"You need to customize all of this and find out what the public expects," Hastings said. "Know who your audience will be."
Among the audience may be customers, suppliers, near and not-so-near neighbors, contractors, emergency responders and planners, business and community leaders, educators, students, community activists, print and broadcast media, religious leaders, hospital employees, and city, county, and federal officials.
If knowing the audience is important, so is the selection of company representatives who will participate. Supervisors and hourly workers should be included with managers in the planning and at the meeting. "The public realizes managers have the power, but they believe the others have more credibility," said Hastings.
Sincerity, Empathy At the same time, company employees must develop sincerity and empathy for the public and its concerns. The public should be accepted and involved as a legitimate partner. "You can't talk your way out of a dilemma caused by your performance," he said.
Hastings suggested that companies located in the same area combine efforts. Meetings can be conducted at the company site or in public facilities, such as malls or civic centers. "Expect questions from the audience to vary on all sorts of subjects, he added. "Answer all of the questions. Speak clearly and with compassion. The EPA hopes that this information will lead to community dialogue, which will result in risk reduction."
NACD's Chemical Education Foundation notes that the public can understand technical information if it is presented properly, by a credible source, and in a high-trust situation.
Several resources are available for companies that must conduct public meetings, or for those that wish to expand their public communications. The guide published by the Chemical Education Foundation is available for $65 for Foundation sponsors and $80 for others. The guide includes 10 free pamphlets that are recommended for sharing with customers. Additional pamphlets can be ordered at a price of $1 each for the first 50 and 50 cents each thereafter for a minimum order of 10.
The Foundation also offers a variety of educational materials and videos on the safe handling of chemicals geared for the chemical industry and the public.
More information can be obtained from the Foundation, NACD, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). Contact Jennifer Aleknavage at the Foundation, (703) 527-6223, or visit the association's web site at www.chemed.org. Web sites for NACD and CMA are www.nacd.com and www.cmahq.com, respectively.
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