Sunday, September 19, 2010
As Concrete as -- the Air
One of the characteristics of “stickiness” described by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” is concreteness: the idea has to be about something substantive and memorable. Then the Heaths say this: “Concreteness makes targets transparent. Even experts need transparency.”
That’s a true statement if ever there was one.
In December, 1984, a leak of a toxic chemical at a Union Carbide (now part of Dow) at Bhopal, India, killed more than 10,000 people. The worldwide chemical industry went into a kind of collective shock. There were all kinds of responses, some enlightened and some dumb. Three years later, finally agreeing on a regulatory response, the U.S. Congress passed a law with a long name but referred to simply as “Title III.”
The law was simple in concept: all manufacturers would have to report emissions of toxic chemicals to the air, water and later, and report it every year. That’s all they had to do – report it. No other action as required.
In terms of creating change, the law was brilliant. Because the information wouldn’t be stored somewhere; no, the U.S. EPA would be required to publish the data. The public would get access to it. All of it.
It wasn’t only chemical companies which be reporting. Any company in any industry that used the chemicals on the list would have to report. Chemical companies would have the biggest totals, of course. But a lot of companies no one had ever dreamed used toxic chemicals would have to report, too.
Like your local newspaper.
I was working for a chemical company at the time, and it fell to my team to deal with the communications relating to the new law and its implementation. We had about eight months to prepare. And while this is a very long and involved story, we knew from the beginning that we had to convince the company that two things would be required.
First, we would disclose our data to the public as soon as we filed it with the EPA, and not wait almost a year for EPA to report. In other words, we would have to take responsibility for our emissions by disclosing the numbers ourselves, even if everything was legal and under permit.
Second, we would have to make a public commitment to reduce those emissions.
The first requirement had unassailable logic behind it: if we didn’t, the government and everyone who hated chemical companies surely would.
The second drew blank, sometimes hostile stares. More than one executive said that “we will not reduce emissions for the sake of reducing emissions. That’s ridiculous.” The same response in presentation after presentation. Along with a few side comments about the PR department having lost its mind.
We made it all the way to the CEO. He looked at the estimated numbers. He looked at what he knew was likely to happen with public perception. And he said, “We will start with air emissions. We will pledge to reduce our toxic air emissions by 90 percent in four years.”
Shocked silence. And then he said, “And then we going to work on all the other emissions, too. Get busy.”
The CEO had lost his mind along with the PR department.
Ninety percent in four years. A concrete target whose progress could be tracked simply by reading the reports filed with the EPA.
Next week, the subject of Made to Stick is credibility. I’ll finish this story by explaining how a chemical company could make a commitment like this credible.
Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has started a discussion on Made to Stick. You can find last week’s discussion, on the concept of “unexpected,” here.
Previous blog posts in this series:
On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral
On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class