Few would argue that the environmental standards of only a few decades ago pale in comparison to the laws, regulations and restrictions governing how chemical substances are manufactured, transported, used and disposed of today. Detection technology has also improved to the point that more chemicals – at trace amounts – are being found in more places, creating the perception of widespread “contamination.” Couple these policy and technology developments with a public and media environment where the mere presence of a chemical is assumed to pose a health risk, and the result is organizations today are facing tremendous liabilities for legacy contamination issues previously unknown or unidentified as a health concern.
The importance of proactive and transparent public communication around legacy contamination – and what a company is doing to address it – is measurable. In some cases public outreach may even be a regulatory requirement, but whether it’s mandatory or not, early and effective public outreach offers practical legal and corporate reputation benefits.
The Stakes for Good Communications Are High
Communities want answers about the health and safety of their homes and families. Regulators need to show resolve and results. Elected officials need to hold someone accountable, and the media wants a story. These factors all work together to increase a company’s overall risks. Consider all the areas critical to a company’s bottom line that can be impacted by how it communicates on environmental contamination issues: litigation, employee morale, customer relationships, media attention, corporate reputation, shareholder value, regulatory action, licenses to operate, and public trust, among others. Bear in mind that the risk is heightened in all these areas whether or not there is any actual injury to an individual, a population or the environment.
Benefit #1: Build Public Trust Early and Help Prevent Litigation
The first benefit of proactive communication – reaching out as soon as the facts surrounding a contamination issue are understood and a corporate commitment to responsible action can be clearly articulated— is building public trust early, which may even help prevent litigation. A public commitment to finding a solution to a problem, and working with the community on this solution, is not the same as admitting liability. Taking the initiative to frame the public discussion around the issue can help garner more balanced media coverage, alleviate pubic fear and distrust, and can support a legal strategy if litigation does arise.