INSIGHT: Industry must work on public opinion

29 October 2007 16:09  [Source: ICIS news]

By John Waggoner


HOUSTON (ICIS news)--Rising scrutiny of the global chemical industry is forcing producers to face one of their greatest challenges - public opinion.


If the general public seems to care little about the convenience and economy that chemistry provides, the slightest hint of industrial emissions, health claims, industrial accidents or other hazards are sure to raise the public ire.


In short, the chemical industry is an easy target.


The answer to this conundrum too often has been silence. The problem is that even with nothing to hide, the chemical industry gives the impression that it is secretive and furtive by avoiding the public eye.


It is becoming more apparent to many in the industry that the tightly-scripted, once-per-year media appearances once rote for the industry can turn into a greater hazard than the very issues that companies seek to hide from.


Just as media professionals are becoming increasingly specialised and sophisticated in their areas in their areas of expertise, chemical industry leaders today must have as much knowledge of public relations as they do finance and engineering -- or at least have advisors who do.


Without a dedicated effort by the industry -- including trade associations as well as individual companies -- to reach out to the consumer with scientific fact, public opinion can only deteriorate in the years ahead.


If this week’s record $60m criminal penalty in the US against BP for its 2005 Texas City refinery blast is any example, regulatory officials are determined to respond to public sentiment with harsher penalties, including even potential jail terms for violators.


“It is not that the industry is not doing the right thing, it is that they need to better communicate what they are doing right,” said Bronwyn Wallace, vice president at Hill & Knowlton, a global public relations firm.


Wallace said paid advertising can be helpful to change public opinion, but media and public relations are much more effective.


When it comes to the factors that drive public opinion “perception is reality and reality is superfluous,” Wallace said.


One classic case of runaway public sentiment is the phase-out of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in the US.


US methanol manufacturers and their major trade groups were backed by scientific fact but slow to win over the public. As a result, they lost out to an exceptionally well-organised environmental lobby that got the better of the chemical industry through popular appeal.


“The industry believed that fact would prevail, and it didn’t,” Wallace said.


Even the simplest of details such as a company’s website can be overlooked despite massive investments in environmental and safety improvements.


“When a crisis hits, whatever is out there is what people have access to,” Wallace said.


The chemical industry has since become better prepared to confront the issue, and this week the American Chemistry Council (ACC) announced it planned to continue the successful Essential2 campaign aimed at public education.


The ACC will maintain its campaign budget at around $20m (€14.2m) in 2007 and beyond, said CEO Jack Gerard.


The $20m figure includes spending on the Internet, public relations and advertising, noted Stephen Gardner, managing director, communications. Advertising accounts for $14m of the budget.


The campaign’s television ads have emphasised the critical role of chemicals in everyday life, showing medical care equipment and common household items disappearing if chemicals are withdrawn from the country’s commerce.


The Essential2 campaign takes its cue from a 10-year public profiling campaign for plastics that was very successful in the US during the 1990s.


Using largely radio slots, the campaign used paid advertising to show, among other things, the connection between plastics and life-saving medical treatment. As a result, that campaign showed a dramatic increase in the public’s perception about the value of the plastics industry to quality of life.


“Companies need to think -- if something happened tomorrow, based on what’s out there, how well would you fare,” Wallace said.


Reaching out to media through public relations is only part of the solution.


Global chemical producer BASF for example, reaches out to the local communities where its facilities are located.


“We try to reach the public by being open and transparent,” said Ingrid Nienaber, senior manager of corporate media relations for BASF. “We believe in having good relations with our neighbours.”


Apart from the BASF advertising campaign called “Helping make products better”, which shows how the company’s products are used in everyday life, the company opened a visitors’ centre at the Ludwigshafen site this year which received an overwhelming 20,000 visitors in the first four months.


The company has also taken part in multicultural exchanges and is a sponsor of popular events such as the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Ludwigshafen, its own-four concert series in the Rhine-Neckar region.


These kinds of projects are effective in attracting a younger audience in the whole region and positive attention from the media.


Hill & Knowlton's Wallace said that reaching younger audiences can be essential to influencing public opinion in the long term. She suggested speaking engagements and museum projects as possible inroads.


“The company has to be personified, so that the public knows who is behind it. If you know and like the person leading the company, you know and feel better about the company as a whole,” Wallace said.

By: John Waggoner
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