Sunday, September 19, 2010

As Concrete as -- the Air


The word suggests heavy, solid, firm, substantive. (Except in St. Louis, where “concrete” means ice cream.)

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


Laura said...

Wow, this hits close to home, Glynn. We call our little valley "chemical valley" and I believe Carbide still produces that same substance that killed all those poor people in Bhopal just up the road from me.

I have to say, Kudos to the CEO in this circumstance. Sometimes it's scary to do the right thing. Transparency. It's pretty rock solid.

Monica Sharman said...

Yes, brilliant indeed! Nothing so effective as light to shine and expose the darkness.

Maureen said...

A cliffhanger. I'll look forward to part 2.

I recently had what might be termed politely a "run in" with our HOA about the application of chemical treatments to our lawns (we have a townhouse) with no notice to us and no warning signs posted thereafter. A baby and two dogs (one, ours, who now has neurological damage) became sick because we had no idea chemicals had been applied. Four times this happened (each time admitted after the fact), even after some of us requested no chemical applications of any kind. I wrote to our county about this problem. The county board assigned a staffer to research and held a meeting/hearing. Unfortunately, the county lacks authority under state law (VA) to enact an ordinance requiring notice and flagging. I've gotten nowhere with the state. I'm thinking only a public campaign might, might, get action.

Concrete. Transparent. We can be poisoned and do nothing about it.

Maureen said...

I do want to add, Glynn, that you have (had?) a truly enlightened CEO.

An interesting parallel, on the financial reporting side, is the Sarbannes-Oxley law, which I covered.