Community Advisory Panels: Corporate cat-herding

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This article was first published as "Community Advisory Panels: Corporate Cat Herding", PR Watch, Volume 6 Number 1, First Quarter 1999. The original article was authored by Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Following the disaster at Union Carbide's Bhopal plant in India, the credibility of the chemical industry in the US was in tatters. Peter Sandman suggested to Ben Woodhouse, then Vice President and Director of Global Issues for Dow Chemical, that the industry needed to create mechanisms to rebuild trust.

In Canada the chemical industry had developed a Responsible Care code in 1985. The CEOs of Dow Chemical and Union Carbide encouraged the adoption in the US of a similar code. A committee of three industry executives, including Woodhouse, was established to develop the Responsible Care code including the expansion of Community Advisory Panels (CAP's) beyond the two in existence in the chemical industry at the time.

Sandman played a critical role in persuading the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) to adopt the code. Responsible Care, he says candidly, "aims to build credibility for the beleaguered chemical industry in part by sharing control with critics and neighbors." A central part of this strategy has been the establishment of some 375 CAPs in the United States.

For Woodhouse, who resigned from Dow in 1997 and is now a PR consultant based in Australia, CAPs are a way of "handing over some control or feeling of power to the community because if you do that the community gives it back to you in spades." More importantly for the company, effective CAPs help protect a company's "license to operate."

Although companies sometimes fear letting outsiders get involved in making decisions that affect their business, Sandman says, "The usual problem with these committees isn't orchestrating the chaos. It is sustaining interest and attendance. Erstwhile troublemakers let onto the panel start learning about the industry's problems and limitations, acquire a sense of responsibility to give good advice, and pretty soon they are sounding a lot like industry apologists. This is not hypocrisy or co-optation: it is outrage reduction."

According to Woodhouse, a critical step in developing a CAP is selecting the "core members for your team." "Find three to four people from the community who want to work with you to make you successful," Woodhouse says. "Use that core of members to draft the terms of agreement and to recruit the members. . . . In every panel we put together we'd select the first three people and we'd let them tell us who the rest of the membership should be and then we said fine, go out and sell your idea and it became their panel, not our panel," he says.

Woodhouse insists that CAPs are not greenwash. "This is nothing about public relations, no greenwash here, you've got to walk the talk. You have to listen, discuss and then act," he told the Minerals Council of Australia's Annual Environmental Workshop.

"How should companies deal with 'tricky' people on the panel?" asked one workshop participant.

"That is why the selection of your core members is so important," Woodhouse said. "You pick three or four people that on a bell shaped curve tend to be right here in the middle. Then you ask them to help you find people that not only fit with the middle of that bell curve but represent both ends. What happens is that that middle part kind of keeps the two end parts from getting too radical on you. About the time they start going off in some direction that seems too weird or unbelievable, you'll find the rest of the panel will bring them back in. It's not quite as bad as trying to herd cats. It's a little bit easier than that," he told the audience.

Stephen Lester, Science Director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (formerly the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste), says experience with the usefulness of CAPs is mixed. CAPs formed to deal with cleanups such as Superfund sites have "sometimes worked out quite well, but other times they are a disaster from the community's perspective," he says. "When they don't work well, there is co-optation, distraction and diffusion of community efforts. From the government/industry perspective, the idea is to bottle up the activists with meetings and issues that are secondary, at best, to the community's interests and objectives."

Often the composition of the panel--the "bell curve" that Woodhouse seeks to establish--is central to its failure to deal with activist concerns. "The problem is that the industry/business/public officials perspective is "balanced" against one or two community people who are overwhelmed, out-voiced and out-voted," Lester says. "When it comes to CAPs covering operating plants, the company really does not want to share the information with the community and is scared of what they will do with information they give them."

"CAP members," Sandman says, "tend to learn more about company perspective's and problems than about critics' views." Participation in CAPs also generates a social pressure on all participants to conform. "The experience of breaking bread with company representatives, chatting with them before and after meetings . . . encourages many CAP members to feel that harsh criticism would be somehow rude. CAP members who don't respond this way are likely to feel some social pressure from their fellow members to conform or quit."

However, participation in Responsible Care has not imposed similar inhibitions on the chemical industry, which continues to sponsor anti-environmental advocacy programs. "Just because we have Responsible Care doesn't mean that we are going to roll over. If we think that there is inappropriate legislation or regulation coming down, we have got an obligation as an industry to tell the policy makers about that," Woodhouse says.

Woodhouse rejects criticisms of the chemical industry's opposition to the Clean Air Act of 1990 as proof the industry "doesn't walk the talk." "Nobody said just because we are trying to do the right thing we have to be stupid," he says.

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