Sleep with the enemy

Stop fighting environmentalists and embrace them because it’s good for the planet and business. The challenge for the chemical industry is to win support in the court of public opinion before building or expansion plans run into trouble. And the key to that lies in a company’s willingness to understand the complex and sometimes conflicting motives of opposition groups and to communicate effectively to all constituencies.

By Alan Metrick, Alan Metrick Communications

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For example, one of the country’s largest chemical companies was facing community opposition in Michigan over pollution caused by its particular processes. After being approached by NRDC, the company agreed to a pilot program to change how feedstock was handled and stored. The result was less air pollution, a happier community and lowered costs for the company.

Unfortunately, when it came time to expand the program, it seemed that old-school middle managers had no interest in continuing, even though the changes saved money. Old habits die hard.

If forced into a confrontation with a local or regional group, I generally advise taking the counter-intuitive step of getting a large national group involved — especially if the large group doesn’t like what your company is doing. It may sound screwy, but it’s the large group with which you’ll ultimately work things out to everyone’s general satisfaction.

When picking among myriad local and national environmental groups with which you might want to talk, look for groups with executives who have some experience in working out compromises.

Two years ago, a large timber operation in the southeast was embroiled in what seemed to be an endless battle with a small but influential conservation group. NRDC was called in to help broker a reasonable settlement. Because of its organizing muscle, the large group was able to get the company’s top leadership to a bargaining table where a sensible compromise was worked out. After this was done, however, the small local group nearly sabotaged the agreement because it didn’t get 100% of what it wanted.

Through my experience, I’ve come to believe that this local group, like others, wouldn’t have been satisfied even if the company completely capitulated. Small groups often aren’t in business to bring about change. They exist and live for the fight. Their funding depends on it. Winning, for some of these groups, is irrelevant.

In contrast, larger groups focus on real solutions. They’re willing to stop overloading a company’s e-mail and fax systems with thousands of angry letters, as long as everyone is making sincere efforts to reach a compromise. Finding these groups is one of many areas in which outside counsel with a broad perspective can be especially useful.

In addition to NRDC, Environmental Defense is another large national group seeking market-based solutions to ecological problems. Many on its staff have real-world (i.e., private sector) experience and know the difference between desirable and possible, and they’re very skilled at marrying the two ideas.

Build bridges beforehand

Take to heart the homespun wisdom of journalist Jimmy Breslin: “You can’t hate a guy after sitting down and having a beer with him.” To that end, establish good relations with responsible conservation groups before controversies arise. While that’s not always possible, it’s a small gesture that can eventually prove valuable. Also, prepare to listen to good ideas a group might have about your environmental practices. As I said, large groups are more understanding of business needs, including the need to make a profit.

All this boils down to one simple thought: Working with environmentalists isn’t “sleeping with the enemy,” as it’s sometimes thought. It’s far better to think of it as an integral part of doing business — one that can ultimately save time and money.


Alan Metrick is principal of Alan Metrick Communications, New York City. He served for several years as communications director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. E-mail him at alan@alanmetrick.com.

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