I recently watched Dark Waters, which depicts the toxic chemical spills scandal that ultimately led to U.S. chemicals giant DuPont paying $671 million to settle more than 3,500 lawsuits in 2017. I had never heard of the scandal before watching the film, and learning more about it has consumed my free time since then. I highly recommend starting with this New York Times article for more details.
For background, DuPont’s plant in Parkersburg, W. Va., contaminated the local water supply with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C-8, which manufacturers use in products such as Teflon. The contamination had a “probable link with six illnesses” among the local population, including kidney and testicular cancer. However, products manufactured with C-8 were an essential part of DuPont’s business, worth $1 billion in annual profit.
DuPont, which had used C-8 since the 1950s, knew since the early ‘80s that the chemical was toxic to humans but only agreed in 2006 to phase out its use. Though the company continued to deny wrongdoing, it’s become one of the classic cases in which business leaders pursued a strategy that could cause human harm long after the risks had come to their attention.
Another article in The Intercept outlines DuPont’s media relations strategy through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
According to the article, DuPont prepared and rehearsed the media strategy if word of the contamination reached the public. In 1984, a DuPont PR team drafted the first of several “standby press releases” and its guide for dealing with the potential press interest offered assurances that only “small quantities of C-8” are discharged to the Ohio River and that these “extremely low” levels would have no adverse effects. They wrote, “When a hypothetical reporter, who presumably learned that DuPont was choosing not to invest in a system to reduce emissions, asks whether the company’s decision was based on money, the document advises answering ‘No.’”
In 1989, DuPont purchased local fields with contaminated water wells and listed its decision because it was in “the interests of protecting our plant site from public liability.” But if the hypothetical reporter were to ask whether DuPont purchased the land because of the water contamination, the suggested answer listed in the standby release was to deny it and to state instead that “it made good business sense to do so.”
In 1990, scientists discovered how C-8 might cause at least one form of cancer in humans. In 1991, it became clear not just that C-8-exposed rats had elevated chances of developing testicular tumors but that the mechanism by which they developed the tumors could apply to humans. That same year DuPont also discovered that C-8 was present in a landfill near the plant, which it estimated could expel waste containing 100 times its internal maximum safety level. All these events once again spurred DuPont to draft contingency press releases and rehearse its media strategy. In this case, one of the draft releases from 1991 stated that DuPont studies showed that “C-8 has no known toxic or ill health effects in humans at the concentrations detected.”
None of these press materials saw the light of day. According to The Intercept, it was almost two decades until the public understood how toxic C-8 was and how widely it had spread.
The unfortunate situation with DuPont is an excellent reminder to us about the importance of ethics in public relations.
Since protecting the reputation and valuation of a company is foundational to PR, an unfortunate belief is that the term “public relations ethics” is an oxymoron: either an unreal possibility or the practice of deception. However, PR pros know ethics and trust are at the center of what we do.
PRSA outlines its code of ethics and professional values on its website. Included in its list of professional values are advocacy and honesty. They define advocacy as serving “the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.” PRSA defines honesty as adhering to “the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”
The PR Council, of which Communique PR is a member, also has a code of ethics. See here for more information. They also provide some excellent guides, for instance, Handling Ethical Concerns: A Guide for Managers, Social Media Do’s and Don’ts, and Ethics as Culture Discussion Leader Workbook.
If company spokespeople and PR reps lie or omit the truth, it may mean the company will survive the day or temporarily escape the consequences. But ultimately, taking this path means an organization trades a precious resource – credibility. Unethical PR practices do not work in the long run. Instead, we must choose honesty and integrity.