“3M peed in the pool and they have to fix it,” a resident of Oakdale, a St. Paul suburb, told Star Tribune reporters Dick Meryhew and Mary Lynn Smith.
Is there a health problem with drinking water in St. Paul’s suburbs? Perhaps. But 3M certainly has a reputation problem that’s spreading like their chemical plume in the groundwater. How are they doing at handling it? Is it getting away from them? What do you think? What should 3M be doing and saying?
It seems to me that 3M is playing it too safe – not a surprise for a cautious company. 3M, from what I can read, is sticking to a “the chemicals aren’t harmful” basic message. An important point – but will it be accurate over time? And isn’t there more to say?
The background: Chemicals called perfluorochemicals (PFCs) that 3M used in manufacturing for 50 years have shown up in the groundwater, soil and wells in the eastern metro area. PFCs are normally in people’s blood, in minute amounts. Large amounts, some health officials say, can cause cancer in lab animals. There’s no evidence yet of harm to people, but there are no studies of long-term effects. People in the eastern metro are worried, and many are drinking bottled water. 3M – a revered corporate citizen for decades – is being sued and is showing up in media stories about polluted wells and unhappy residents. This is tough stuff.
3M has a lot of credit in the goodwill bank here. Lots of jobs. Lots of taxes. Lots of support to arts and philanthropy. A good home-grown global company. But this spreading crisis could break the bank.
In media stories, this is 3M’s position on the PFC pollution: “In over 30 years of monitoring the health of our production employees, we have not seen any adverse health effects to our employees or to anyone from these materials,” spokesperson Bill Nelson told Minnesota Public Radio.
They could sound a little more human, a little more concerned. What if they said, “Clean water is a precious Minnesota resource, and as a century-old Minnesota company, we are of course concerned with preserving clean water. We are carefully investigating the source and effects of the PFCs and we’re working with health and environment officials to find out what should be done to protect the water we all depend on.”
3M lawyers are, probably, telling the communication people not to say much — certainly nothing about guilt or being sorry. Most lawyers want their companies to say too little, while most communications people want their companies to say too much. Both the current and future reputation and legal position of the company need to be protected. Legal and communication counsel must determine together what can be said that is straight and doesn’t give the shop away to plaintiff’s attorneys.
But wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear something like this: “Look, this stuff was approved for use, we believed we disposed of it safely, and there’s nothing showing it’s harmful now. But it’s leaking into our water and we’re going to find out what’s going on and fix anything we should fix.”
What do you think?
Austin’s buying a round – tell us your advice.