When you manage communications for a major chemical plant, you get used to a media environment that creates a skewed playing field. If everything goes well, people don’t know or even care too much about your company, your leadership, or your day to day operations. However, one headline-making accident, and the whole country is suddenly wondering who you are and just what you’re all about. This kind of feast or famine media attention can be tough to balance, but you still need to be ready with a message should the worst happen, and the media comes calling. As an example of this, let’s look at the recent headlines introducing Americans to Arkema North America, a chemical company that experienced fallout from a series of terrible weather and bad decisions that led to some even worse consequences…
When a hurricane caused an Arkema plant in Texas to lose power, its organic peroxides began to grow too hot, decomposing in the warming atmosphere inside the chemical plant. Eventually, these products, which many consumers have never heard of but are commonly used in paints and plastics, burst into flame or exploded, blasting toxic smoke into the air. Residents who live around the plant, as well as first responders that arrived to fight the blaze and offer medical care, both reported developing sudden illnesses after the explosion.
Now, two senior staff members have been indicted in relation to the explosion of the Texas-based plant, and the company most American consumers had ever heard of before now is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The charges in question are tailor made for media consumption, both fairly vague and scary-sounding: “recklessly releasing chemicals into the air…”
What does that mean, exactly? Most people would not really know, but it’s definitely easy to conjure up a mental image of some Keystone Kops or Three Stooges type worker pulling the wrong lever and accidentally spewing toxins into the sky. Of course, that’s not what happened, but stories about the incident are relating more about the sicknesses and the indictments than, precisely, what led to the fires and explosions. For that part, consumers are left to their imaginations.
Arkema says it plans to fight the legal charges, but now the company also faces an onslaught of public relations issues relating to the story. Not only are the indictments the kind of headlines that immediately grab attention, but the specter of firemen, sick from toxic chemicals inhaled during lifesaving work, is an aspect of the story that will certainly not be ignored, either by the media or the consumer public.
As the legal battle begins, the PR fight is just heating up. At present, Arkema hasn’t offered much in the way of explanation that might blunt some of the force of any potential negative PR. Eventually, though, that will have to change.