Environmental PR disasters
Environmental PR disasters spread like wildfire, raging furiously through the internet and social media, burning up a company’s profits and reputation and leaving nothing but charred ruins in its wake. It takes some careful Public Relations work to survive a homemade environmental disaster, and even the biggest of companies are capable of making a total hash of it. Hold on to your ice-caps and batten down the rainforest, here’s a selection of some of the biggest environmental PR disasters of recent years.
When it comes to big PR disasters, you don’t get much bigger than Deepwater Horizon. Eleven people were killed in the initial explosion and it’s estimated between 17 and 39 million tonnes of crude oil has been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion in 2010, causing catastrophic damage to eco-systems and economies along 16,000 miles of coastline.
Understandably the Deepwater Horizon disaster threw into question BP’s claims to green credentials, but the series of terrible PR decisions that followed could have been avoided, these included BP’s CEO Tony Hayward playing down the incident as ‘relatively tiny’ and then clearing off on holiday while a “Boycott BP” campaign gathered more than 700,000 supporters on Facebook.
In 2009 an email server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was hacked and the contents of thousands of confidential emails were leaked across the internet and into global media. For climate change sceptics, the emails apparently proved global warming was a scientific conspiracy, and all this just weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change was due to take place.
The UEA’s response to the leak was a classic PR disaster scenario of doing and saying nothing. UEA were notified of the leak on 17 November 2009, but still had no statement prepared by the time the news appeared in the press on 20 November. Not a great way to start repairing a hole in your public relations.
Russ Rusinki did nothing for Entergy’s public relations when he was interviewed on camera in 2010 defending the safety of the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant on the banks of the Connecticut River. Rusinki, the Vermont Yankee manager, said ‘The river is my home. I like to fish on it. I like to eat fish out of it. I like watching my daughter follow in my footsteps on this river. I have absolutely no concerns about my family living near Vermont Yankee. It’s a healthy environment. It’s a safe environment.’
While Rusinki was putting his money (and fish) where his mouth was, there was no detracting from the news that children born in the locality of the plant where registering the effects of high radiation levels. As one Vermont resident said, ‘Let’s see him eating the fish on a regular basis. Then we can talk.’
When it comes to environment disasters, the correct public relations response is never going to be any of the following: (1) Run off until it all blows over, (2) Ignore it, or (3) Lie. PR professionals must handle disasters with sensitivity, tact and intelligence or find they’re scouring the PR vacancies in the jobs pages.
Tom Walker is a Freelance Copywriter specialising in Public Relations for PR Week.