I’m going to violate our Orange Slices policy of not commenting on how companies handle public relations and media relations. In reading this morning’s Wall Street Journal, I was stunned to read the comments [subscription required] by Bayer CropScience CEO Bill Buckner regarding a tragic explosion at one of its chemical plants in 2008. Buckner is quoted as acknowledging that his company’s response efforts created “confusion and concern” because the company had tried to keep details of the explosion confidential out of a desire to “limit negative publicity.”
Note: If you cannot get to the WSJ article through the link above, you may be able to access it by searching for “bayer wall street journal” and then clicking on the first link, which apparently bypasses the newspaper’s pay wall.
I thought we had moved past the time when corporate CEOs think that they can hide or obscure information simply because they want it that way. That is difficult to do in the best of circumstances. It is virtually impossible to do when your building explodes, fireballs shoot hundreds of feet in the air, two employees are killed and rescue workers are injured. And it did not go unnoted that the chemical the plant produced was the same chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in India that killed 4,000 people in 1984.
However, for our profession, the real issue is not the misguided desire to “limit negative publicity.” It is the continued misunderstanding and misperception that public relations is about good or negative publicity. Public relations is about managing communications with stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization’s mission by what they think, believe, say and do. It is an interactive process and it is an open process that builds trust, understanding and credibility. When the CEO of a major company talks about limiting information and obscuring details so that it could better shape the “public debate,” then we know our profession still has a long way to go in making our voice heard at the management table.