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Column: 'Don't Panic' often has the opposite effect - openness may be the better policy for organizations to follow

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 1/5/2018 2:30:00 PM

Those writing New Year’s resolutions for business and government might be well advised to include a resolution to stop use of the phrase “Don’t Panic” when an environmental incident occurs. “Don’t Panic,” or some similar sentiment, has become the go-to phrase for far too many communication professionals, company officials, and politicians at all levels of government, even when they have no idea whether people close to the incident ought to panic. 

The concept of providing uninformed reassurance appears to have come from legal advice not to admit any kind of responsibility for an incident. The approach, however, serves to weaken public trust in both the organization on whose behalf the statement is made, and in business and government generally. The phrase is often used when the public has not even thought of panicking, but may well start doing so when they hear a situation is so serious that officials are telling the public not to panic. 

Although business communication professionals, often described as ‘spokespersons’, are probably the most frequent users of the phrase, it has recently been picked up by politicians who wish to cast themselves in the role of soother of public worries. There are two things wrong with this. 

First, a significant percentage of the public, and quite often a majority, do not trust the politician who is making the statement, regardless of who he or she is. Politicians today are almost always close to the bottom of the public trustworthiness scale. Second, the public knows it is virtually certain that the politician or spokesperson knows almost nothing about the subject on which they are offering the advice. 

It is clearly important for both business and government to get ahead of an incident by using both social and conventional media to talk to residents and others who may be directly affected. But, instead of putting forward a non-technical communicator, an organization should use a recognized expert who can explain the situation and answer the public’s questions fully and clearly. One of the most impressive examples of this occurred in the U.S. in August 2017 when Arkema, a company that manufactures organic peroxides, was inundated by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. The company issued a statement which said: 

The most likely outcome is that, anytime between now and the next few days, the low-temperature peroxide in unrefrigerated trailers will degrade and catch fire. 

There is a small possibility that the organic peroxide will release into the flood waters but will not ignite and burn. In that situation, we would expect the materials to break down rapidly into hydrocarbons and alcohols. The flood waters could carry the hydrocarbons and alcohols off-site. While it is possible that you may see an oil sheen or smell a slight odor, we anticipate the break down products would dissipate in the water or evaporate. 

In the alternate, there could be a combination event involving fire and environmental release. 

Any fire will probably resemble a large gasoline fire. The fire will be explosive and intense. Smoke will be released into the atmosphere and dissipate. People should remain clear of the area. 

The fires from the burning organic peroxides will emit thick black smoke. The smoke might be irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs. There are other flammable raw materials on site that could also catch fire, and Arkema and governmental authorities are monitoring the plant. We will continue to provide health information as developments occur. If you feel that you have been affected by any smoke from this incident, please contact your doctor or otherwise seek medical attention. 

With respect to potential impacts on nearby property, that depends upon what happens at the site, which we can’t predict right now. As we get more information, we will provide it.

Admitting that they cannot predict what is going to happen as an incident unfolds, and not shying away from presenting the possibility of a serious risk scenario, should be part of every communications plan and executive’s communications training. The media should be given access to experts, not just spin doctors. 

As far back as 2001, a publication of the World Health Organization advised: 

The days when it was possible to take a ‘we know best’ approach, simply informing the public that a risk has been identified, telling people not to worry, and stating what was intended to do about it, have in most cases long gone (Coles 1999). The public today no longer automatically acquiesce to authority and now demand a greater role in decision-making (McKechnie and Davies 1999). This, while opening up a route for better decision-making and stakeholder involvement, is no small undertaking and involves some major challenges (McCallum and Anderson 1991), including:

  • Provision of information when science is uncertain.
  • Explanation of the risk assessment process.
  • Incorporation of the differing ways that various groups interpret the science into risk communication strategies.
  • Accounting for differing concepts of an ‘acceptable’ level of risk.
  • Provision of information that assists in personal decisions and informs opinions on policy.
  • In terms of incident management, maximising appropriate public responses and minimising inappropriate public responses.

Given Murphy’s law that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong,” and given that just about every type of industry or organization presents some environmental risk situations, maybe 2018 could be the year when spokespersons stop telling people not to worry, and instead start providing factual, balanced information about the risks and mitigation strategies that are in place.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He has been involved in undertaking and reviewing a number of LCA studies. He can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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