3M Too Cautious in Crisis?

“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.

-Benidt

5 thoughts on “3M Too Cautious in Crisis?

  1. Eileen says:

    I agree with Benidt. This is a good case study in crisis management. This news has been bubbling for years — plenty of time to develop a better response. I don’t believe the message of “Our tests shows everything is fine” works with the public today. How about, “We certainly understand our neighbors concerns …. ” Any legal problems starting out with acknowledging people’s need for safe water?

  2. Lurker says:

    On a related note – what about the whole JetBlue crisis in motion? The CEO and comms people at JetBlue stepped up, admitted they had problems, vowed to fix them and credited their customers retroactively! Now THAT’S a memorable and effective proactive strategy to a crisis that could have slammed JB with lawsuits and never-flying-with-you-again customers. They figured it out. Quickly. Full page ads in the NY Times; appearances on the Today Show and Late Night with D. Letterman. That PR shop (or agency) was rockin’ in a no-holds-barred kinda way. I bet they even got to tell their legal folks to shut up once or twice (my personal favorite form of PR nirvana). Here’s a link to JB’s CEO on the Today Show. It’s worth a watch to see how well he stays on message. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17237390/

    As for the 3M situation – I think they could learn a thing or two from how a seven-year-old upstart airline handles its own misfortunes.

  3. jmaustin says:

    Creeping crises are the worst to handle, IMHO, because they are the most susceptible to somebody saying, “Hold on, let’s not overreact; we’re nowhere near needing to do THAT.”

    Generally, you don’t get much of that argument when the plane unexpectedly hits something hard or something unplanned goes “Ka-BOOM” at the plant, but all sorts of crises get deferred and deferred – and deferred – until they reach a tipping point and suddenly somebody – the CEO usually – says, “Holy buckets, we’ve got a crisis on our hands!”

    And, of course, the “Inconvenient Truth” (to borrow the title that was chosen for exactly this reason, I suspect) is that we’ve been in crisis for a while without acting like it. At that point, the crisis may or may not be manageable depending on how soon in the event we tip to it, but it is for sure LESS manageable than it would have been had we been treating it with the respect it deserves all along.

    I don’t know much about 3M – love their tape, miss the Scotch girl (always thought of her as a little bit of a flirt), everything my dentist puts in my mouth that tastes bad and changes state comes from them – but the word “cautious” sums up my impression of how they approach the media and external communications. I love caution – some of my worst mistakes have come from not being cautious enough – but not when it’s a synonym for acting like a problem will go away if we pretend it isn’t there. The situations where that strategy works are fewer and fewer every day.

  4. Lurker says:

    Am I proactive or reactive today? It seems PR professionals have to wake up in dual modes every morning of the week. We proactively work with the media to tell our stories, but when the wrong line on the phone rings, we go into reactive mode. The key in either case is to be, as Benidt suggests, human.

    Take the JetBlue situation of late. Here we have an upstart airline facing its biggest ever crisis – cancelled and delayed flights caused by mother nature and a computer system not capable of keeping up with change requests. What’s the response? Their CEO leads a PR effort worthy of any text book case study. An action plan results in a Customer Bill of Rights promising retroactive fixes to those affected by bad weather. The CEO goes on The Today Show, Late Night with David Letterman and signs a full page ad that runs in the NY Times, among other major publications, promising that his company will fix the issue and, what’s more, his customers will benefit if similar problems ever occur again. Here’s a guy who just gets it.

    In a crisis, or with any issue for that matter, it’s not about making money or trying to save the quarterly earnings results. In fact Neeleman (the JetBlue CEO) said in an interview, “I’m not the CEO for a quarter,” making it clear that this problem and the company’s reaction was about doing what’s right for the customer. Loyal customers in fact – who will likely give the airline a “pass” for goofing so majorly!

    3M is taking from its goodwill bank of doing business in Minnesota and employing Minnesotans for 100-plus years as it handles this pollution problem. They have a good balance to withdraw from – public relationsly speaking. But they also have the financial power to do what’s right and plain old fix the problem. Less isn’t always more in our world of issues management. Unfortunately, telling that to the lawyers and C-level execs doesn’t always impact a PR person’s career … proactively.

  5. Oh, Lurker, what do you think this is, Sunnybrook Farm? “…they also have the financial power to do what’s right and plain old fix the problem.” Oh, sure, Mr. Tooth Fairy. How does doing the right thing fit in with the quarterly analysts’ calls? Which line is that on the 10-K?

    Well, “companies that are effective at managing crisis realize an increase in share price after the event,” reports COPE Solutions Inc., in a 2003 piece called “What every company needs to know about the cost of ineffective crisis management.” And handling crises poorly degrades the bottom line, COPE reports.

    Not a surprise. And you’re dead on, of course. We just need to get those senior execs to believe it.
    Here’s the link to the COPE report

    http://www.copesolutions.com/userdocs/what_every_company_needs.pdf

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