A Suprising Legal/Communications Strategy — a Hint of Honesty

A business group being sued is acknowledging that they are part of the problem over which they’re being sued. It’s amazing.

Ocean-going ships bring invasive species into the Great Lakes in their ballast water. It’s been a problem for years, and results in destructive non-native species like the zebra mussel that harm the ecosystem. The federal government is trying to regulate the problem, but some states, and now a coalition of environmental groups, say the feds are moving too slow (there’s a surprise).

An industry group that represents the shipping companies is taking some responsibility for the problem, while they’re fighting in court what they consider to be too-tough regulations they say would hurt shipping and jobs.

“Shipping companies acknowledge being part of the problem and say they’re working as fast as possible to develop technology that would kill invasive species in ballast tanks,” the Associated Press reported today in a story about the environmentalists’ suit, and Minnesota Public Radio carried that report this morning.

“We fully support dealing with this problem, and we’re the ones pumping millions into research to find the solution,” said John Jamain, president of the Seaway Great Lakes Trade Association. He said a safe way to kill invasives in ballast water could be ready as early as next year.

Now, the Association won’t exactly be mistaken for the Sierra Club. They’re also suing the state of Michigan over a law requiring ships to treat ballast right now, not some time in the future. (A similar bill is pending in Minnesota, the AP said.) A hearing on the suit against Michigan will be held next month in Detroit. The National Wildlife Federation and seven other environmental groups gave notice Thursday that they also will sue the shippers.

But in terms of communication, the trade association is doing a pretty good job. They’re acknowleding there’s a problem (duh, but in similar cases business has refused to do even this — not doing what we call in the crisis business “conceding already-lost ground”), and they’re saying they should be and already are part of finding a solution.

They come off pretty well, and saying they are part of the problem and solution makes it easier for the public to give them a little benefit of the doubt when they fight against proposed solutions they disagree with. And their statements make it high into the journalists’ story, so the reports aren’t just one-sided. The proof of all this will be how well and how quickly the trade association, in concert with regulators, actually do come up with a workable solution. Words not backed up by actions are worse than worthless, in terms of reputation. But right now the trade association is doing a decent job preserving its reputation, seems to me.

OK, they play the violin a little loudly and they sound too pissy when Jamain also says, in the AP story, about the environmentalists, “I think their goal is to shut down shipping, which will harm the steel mills, the companies that send grain to starving nations around the world, and ultimately chase business and jobs from the Great Lakes.” Come on, why demonize environmentalists? Just say you disagree with their position, even credit them with sharing your goals of stopping invasive species, and repeat that you’re working toward a solution. But business just can’t help themselves; they must dump on “enviros,” which is pretty stupid crisis strategy.

Still, the trade group is sounding less defensive than most businesses. Uh, for example, 3M? Cathy Wurzer this morning on MPR called the shippers “foreign” — maybe they don’t get the American habit of stonewalling. Or maybe their lawyers undertand the value of reputation.
— Bruce Benidt