Dow, Bhopal, and corporate social responsibility

Shel Holtz, Internet Finance, December 7, 2006
Dow’s view of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) is pretty easy to find on the companys website, only two clicks from the home page.
There, the company covers charitable giving, education, community involvement, and worldwide social investments. On the social responsibility landing page, the company points with justifiable pride to its foundation, which contributes more than $18 million each year to education and charitable institutions in the communities where the company does business.
A search of the entire Dow site for the term “Bhopal,” however, produces only a single result, the 2003 Global Public Report, available in PDF.
That’s pertinent because in 2001, Dow bought Union Carbide, the company whose Bhopal chemical plant leak resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people in 1984. In addition to Union Carbide’s assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities, which include a city where the drinking water is reportedly still contaminated as a result of the disaster.
Dow recently undertook a public relations campaign, “The Human Element,” that is costing the company a reported $30 million. The campaign (according to a news release from the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire) focuses on the company’s “engagement and accountability for public health and clean water around the world”:
“Yet in Bhopal, arguably Down’s worst legacy issue, the company still refuses to release the makeup of chemical compounds that poisoned people 22 years ago and has not addressed water contamination issues associated with the factory site.”
That campaign evidently motivated a group of Dow shareholders to file a resolution asking it to address the Bhopal issues. And this is no minority activist group. Representing more than $275 million worth of stock, the group is led by the New York City Pension Funds and the New York State Common Retirement Fund, along with Amnesty International USA. The resolution was filed by Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., on behalf of the retirement funds for New York City employees, teachers, firemen and police.
The resolution was filed Dec. 1; the 22nd anniversary of the disaster was commemorated on Dec. 3.
The stature of the New York pension organizaton (which boasts assets of more than $140 billion) should make organizations touting their CSR efforts sit up and take notice. Shining the light on donations is great, but Dow should have known that Bhopal hung over the company like a noxious chemical cloud. Sweeping the issue under the rug won’t cut it in an era when traditional investors like NYPERS look to do business with companies that behave in an ethical and transparent manner. And launching a high-profile PR campaign focusing on water quality while declining to answer questions about water issues in Bhopal just exacerbates the situation.
Dow could have avoided the negative publicity in any number of ways: Deal with the Bhopal water issues, hold off on a water-focused PR campaign, reach out to NGOs like Amnesty International, which produced a damning report on the legacy Dow inherited, or all of the above.
Instead, Dow is now looking at more than 1,000 blog posts, according to Technorati, that shift focus away from the company’s noble efforts in other locales and shine it on Bhopal and the human suffering that continues there today.
There’s a lesson here for PR pros. The news release concludes, “The company needs to match the sentiment of the ‘Human Element’ campaign with real action in Bhopal, or the potential liability it faces is likely to increase.” Before launching any campaign, make sure there are no skeletons in your or your client’s closet that could turn a positive message into an issues management exercise.

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