THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION
Everyone has problems, but some have more than others. So what does a company do when everyone thinks that the industry it operates in stinks - literally?
Waste management does not exactly conjure up pleasant images but Cleanaway, one of the industry's biggest three companies, is prepared to tackle head on unfavourable public opinion.
"As an industry, people do tend to think it is poor and that it needs a lot more controls," admits Cleanaway corporate communications manager Kathleen Dow. Taking an industry stance apparently affects the manner in which the company is viewed by its corporate audiences.
Dow's PR programme takes pains to point out that waste comes from people, not the firm. A visitors' programme provides open days for politicians, consultants and the public. Local authorities and industry are reached via trade exhibitions, while contact with the community is maintained through small local exhibitions, showing alongside the likes of The Bodyshop and the Nature Conservancy Council. Dow ran 30 school lectures last year, and the company has contributed to a GCSE book on waste management.
"We're not obliged to tell anyone anything," says Dow. "But as a company we feel it is the only way to communicate - to talk about the issues and how they are being tackled. We've found that unless you talk to people, you cannot sort problems out."
Everyone has an opinion on waste and its disposal. "The NIMBY ("not in my backyard") syndrome is a totally irrational view-point, based on aesthetics not science," says Dow, who lives near Pitsea, one of the largest landfill sites in the country. "Action groups start on well-run sites as well as badly managed ones because people don't want them there. But they simply are not the health hazards that people perceive them to be."
Corporate PR people face their biggest challenge from pressure groups. At their worst, activists galvanise an uninformed public into obstructive activists, allied with a deadline-chasing, uncritical, furore-creating media.
"Pressure groups terrify me," says Peter Walker, chairman of Pielle Public Relations. "They pose the greatest operational challenge to corporate communications because they set very narrow agendas and have a quite disproportionate impact on organisations."
He adds: "If I did it as a representative of industry in my area, I wouldn't get anything like the attention. Pressure groups campaigning against something are more attractive to the media than industry working for something."
So far, crisis plans and issues management initiatives haven't really worked against pressure groups, but that could well change. In France, industry has diffused the power of pressure groups by meeting them in joint conferences: Government, industrialists, trades unions, pressure groups and scientists. "In the UK, we'll just have to get used to doing things in a different way," says Walker.
But pressure groups at least draw attention to an issue. Pity the firm whose main problem is apathy. This is what confronts Michael James, senior manager at CMB Foodcan, a division of the metals and packaging multinational CMB Group.
Says James: "The can has been around for 200 years and is perceived as old fashioned. It is associated with lacklustre, soggy and stodgy contents. Historically the labelling has been dull. Other packaging methods are sexier in terms of display."
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