Communications alchemy

Sensitive industries need to take extra measures to obtain the public’s trust

Since the late 90s, the chemical industry has been maintaining effective crisis communication systems. These systems are dependent on good relations with production site neighbourhoods and with developing greater trust from the general public. For the latter, industry actors have been applying ‘risk communication theories’ to address poor levels of public trust in chemicals (and the subsequent regulatory pressures policymakers are compelled to impose). A public more aware of the benefits of chemicals, more informed of the science, should trust industry and be partners in progress and innovation. Should crisis situations arise then, this trusting public would not turn against industry. But, as seen in the 2005 Eurobarometer report on risk issues, the public concern over chemicals and the chemical industry remains higher than other risks.  Indeed, in recent EU regulations, regulators continue to identify chemicals as needing further regulation. WWF director Karl Wagner went so far in 2004 as to liken the chemical industry to Big Tobacco. The chemical industry has been perceived as being responsible for a range of health problems, from rising infertility rates to the widespread obesity epidemic, and for a catalogue of environmental disasters.

David Zaruk

David Zaruk is assistant professor at Vesalius College, Brussels, where he lectures on EU lobbying, corporate communications and public relations. Active in public affairs on chemical issues since 1995 at Solvay, Cefic & Burson-Marsteller he helped set up GreenFacts to help communicate scientific info on health and environment issues to non-specialists. He has served as expert adviser on risk policy communicationss to several EU bodies.