Readings — From the August 1991 issue

Wash, Rinse, Spin

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From the “Crisis Management Plan for the Clorox Company,” prepared by Ketchum Communications, a Pittsburgh advertising and public-relations firm under contract to Clorox. The plan lists several “current environmental issues [that] hold potential for presenting a public-relations crisis for the Clorox Company” and recommends measures to diffuse each crisis. Although the plan was never submitted to Clorox’s senior management for approval, several drafts were examined and discussed earlier this year by the company’s public relations staff. A copy of the plan was leaked to Greenpeace in May; after the environmental group made the plan public, Clorox officials announced that the company was “not acting on [the plan’s] recommendations.”

No two crises are the same. While some crises may be anticipated, they are almost never wholly predictable. These “scripts,” which attempt to pinpoint some of the issues that could arise over the next year, are presented only as examples of how the Crisis Management Plan would be applied in a real situation.

crisis scenario #1: “chlorine-free by ’93”

The Issue:

Greenpeace has announced a worldwide effort to rid the world of chlorine by 1993. They call it “Chlorine-Free By ’93.” So far, press attention in the United States has centered more on the antics Greenpeace employs to hype the situation than on the actual concerns Greenpeace has about chlorine. In Europe, however, the message has been hitting home more directly, and public response has begun to show up in decreased use of household chlorine bleach in some areas.

Worst-Case Event:

Greenpeace activists arrive at Clorox corporate headquarters [in Oakland, California] with signs, banners, bullhorns, and several local television crews and proceed to launch a rally. On the side of the building the demonstrators hang a large banner reading CHLORINE-FREE BY ’93—GREENPEACE. They release the results of a new “study” linking chlorine exposure to cancer. Two local network affiliates pick up the piece and go live on their noon news with a remote broadcast. AP Radio and the San Francisco Chronicle interview three unsuspecting Clorox employees, on their way to lunch, who agree that the safety of chlorine may be in question. Clorox Corporate Communications receives several calls from local and national press seeking comments.

Recommended Response:

Make sure this is a one-day media event, with no follow-up stories, that results in only minimal and short-term damage to Clorox’s reputation and market position.

Strategy:

—Crisis Team announces that the company will seek an independent, third-party review of the Greenpeace study and promises to report back to the media. (While this may seem to be counter to the objective, the independent report will gain little media attention if it supports the company’s position; its primary value will be to cause reporters to question Greenpeace’s integrity and scientific capabilities.)

—Names of independent scientists who will talk about chlorine are given to the media. (A list of these scientists should be kept on file.)

—A research firm begins random telephone survey of 500 consumers to assess the impact of the event. Based on the results (available the next morning at 9:00 A.M.), team will decide on further steps.

crisis scenario #2: “back to natural”

The Issue:

The movement back to more “natural” household cleaning products is gaining momentum as consumers eagerly look for ways they can contribute to a cleaner planet. This movement was spawned in 1990 by the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day. Columnists, authors, and activist groups scrambled to develop “Earth-saving” tips for the average American. The resulting herd of books, brochures, and media coverage espoused ridding the home of “hazardous” materials and replacing them with safer natural cleaning products, such as vinegar and borax.

Unfortunately, these authors often make exaggerated, misleading, and inaccurate claims about the efficacy of these “natural” products. They also exaggerate the environmental and health “hazards” of modern cleaning products. But since these authors are seen as “environmental” experts, their claims are largely taken as gospel.

This movement will receive another boost of momentum as America, once again, gears up for its annual [1991] Earth Day observances. As a result, a whole new round of simplistic and misguided ways to “save the Earth” are likely to be espoused by those seeking to profit from the environmental bandwagon. Liquid chlorine bleach could become a target for these “Save the Earth” activists in 1991-92.

Worst-Case Event:

A prominent newspaper columnist targets the environmental hazards of liquid chlorine bleach in an article, which is syndicated to newspapers across the country. The columnist calls for consumers to boycott Clorox products, since “Clorox and consumers who use household liquid chlorine bleach are guilty of widespread contamination of the environment.” Local chapters of Greenpeace take up the cause by spearheading “anti-Clorox” picketing campaigns outside supermarkets in ten major cities across the country. The picketing campaign receives widespread local and national media coverage, resulting in a dramatic drop in sales of Clorox products within several weeks. In response to these concerns, Congress schedules hearings on the environmental safety of liquid chlorine bleach products.

Recommended Response:

This event is every company’s worst nightmare. The company must be prepared to take aggressive, swift action to protect its market. Because Clorox is a consumer product, this event has the potential of turning into the next “Alar.”

Objective: Restore Clorox’s reputation as quickly as possible. This cannot become a debate on the “science,” because the issue is too emotional.

Strategy:

—Wherever possible, use actual rank-and-file employees and their families to act as spokespeople to support the company. (Prior planning by the Crisis Team has made sure that employees have been kept informed about this issue and relieved of their concerns well in advance of this crisis.)

—An independent scientist is sent to meet with the columnist and discuss the issue. Teams of scientists are dispatched to conduct media tours in the ten cities that Greenpeace has targeted.

—Fact sheets and brochures are distributed to all the affected supermarkets, and company representatives visit each of the supermarkets to provide support. The team should also consider the following actions:

—Advertising in major markets, using Clorox employees and their families, who will testify to their faith in the product.

—Industry association advertising campaign—“Stop Environmental Terrorism”—calling on Greenpeace and the columnist to be more responsible and less irrational in their approach. —Enlisting the support of the union, since jobs are at stake.

—Conducting research to determine if and how a slander lawsuit against the columnist and/or Greenpeace could be effective.

—If the situation grows truly desperate, the team agrees to consider pulling the product off the market, pending a special review.

crisis scenario #3: “ntp study”

The Issue:

Although initial results from the study done by the National Toxicology Program [an agency that evaluates potentially hazardous chemicals for the Department of Health and Human Services) assessing the toxicity of chlorinated drinking water were equivocal, researchers have not totally exonerated chlorine as a potential animal carcinogen. Currently, researchers are re-analyzing the NTP testing methodology and animal data, which found tumors in one species of female test animals, to determine whether these tumors are significant. At least one scientist adviser to the chlorine industry has voiced concern that the NTP analysts could conclude that chlorine may possibly be an animal carcinogen. In light of U.S. regulatory policy, a link with cancer-even as a possible animal carcinogen-could trigger public concern and harsh regulatory action against this important chemical.

Worst-Case Event:

The final NTP study analysis concludes that chlorine is, indeed, an animal carcinogen. On the day the study is announced, Greenpeace holds a satellite news conference in Washington, New York, and San Francisco to launch a concerted campaign to eliminate all uses of chlorine in the United States. The news conference receives widespread national media coverage. A number of television reporters use a Clorox bottle to illustrate “dangerous” products produced with chlorine. The Environmental Protection Agency decides to re-evaluate and severely tighten its regulations on the use of chlorine in manufacturing, causing another round of negative media coverage.

Recommended Response:

Objectives: Forestall any legislative action pending further review of the NTP report and subsequent human and animal studies; maintain consumer loyalty.

Strategy:

—Through the Chlorine Institute, third-party scientific experts are brought to Washington to testify and advise both Congress and the EPA. The institute proposes a re-evaluation of the report as well as subsequent studies to provide definitive answers to the questions raised in the report.

—Media briefings with key environmental and consumer reporters and with other interested media are held by industry, company, and independent spokespeople.

—Third-party spokespeople are scheduled for major television and newspaper interviews.

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