We Need a New Playbook for East Palestine and Beyond

It seems inevitable that the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio would quickly become politicized. We don’t have a time machine to reset the clock and start over, but we can understand and learn from the better practices that might’ve been employed, and perhaps use them going forward for East Palestine and all future incidents of this type.

This is all happening during a period of maximum distrust of government at all levels. If so, how do we build the trust necessary to achieve and accept an effective response? The intense social media storm engulfing the event amplifies division and reveals the response as strictly analog while the outrage is digital. Communications and engagement must overcome these gale force headwinds.

 It is said, how you respond in the first few hours of a crisis defines you for the duration. It’s not uncommon for those critical first hours to be controlled by legal counsel. Today, corporate voices demanding to engage the community’s concerns with information and empathy find themselves in internal competition with lawyers wary of digging a deeper hole. While the instinct is to manage the event as an inevitable mass tort case, there are counterintuitive actions that should be undertaken to reduce community outrage, build trust and get on a path to a win-win outcome. 

Having learned this the hard way in my own corporate experience I still keep in my wallet a card carrying the basic tenets of the Harvard/MIT Public Disputes Program Mutual Gains Framework for “Dealing with an Angry Public.” When I pulled it out the other day after the Norfolk Southern train derailed, I could not help but think how relevant it remains. It can be summed up simply as “accepting responsibility, admitting mistakes, and sharing power.” It then goes on to recommend these five steps:

  1. Acknowledge the felt, often emotionally expressed concerns of those harmed.
  2. Encourage those impacted to become partners in joint fact finding and research.
  3. Offer to minimize the short-term impacts and promise to compensate for the unintended effects. 
  4. Act in a trustworthy fashion at all times; and
  5. Focus on building long-term relationships.

There may have been little time to engage the community in a consensus process to eliminate the immediate hazard: reducing the risk of explosion. The controlled burn-off of the chemicals, while perhaps posing the least risk, was the best of a range of all bad choices. This is why accident prevention is the most cost-effective choice. And it IS a choice. In such crises, communication and empathy are essential, but it must occur as a dialogue, rather than seen as a paternalistic government and “guilty” corporation telling the affected community what’s best.

Most of the foregoing is in the category of “what’s done is done.” Going forward, Norfolk Southern (NS) the State/local government and EPA should move quickly to create a community advisory committee. Its membership should not be limited. They should choose their own leaders. NS, EPA or the state should provide a grant to this group so that it can conduct its own testing. It should select from a list of reputable labs proposed by USEPA and OHEPA. Let them test anything they want. Air, water, groundwater, blood…animals, etc. using Best Laboratory Practices and compare those results with the government testing. Joint fact finding is key to creating trust and some sense of control. They should also consider selecting an independent panel of toxicologists, epidemiologists, public health, and environmental experts to review the testing and health monitoring data and make further recommendations.

It was disappointing that the NS CEO was dissuaded from attending the community meeting. This was a huge mistake. Such decisions are often driven by overly cautious lawyers. In 1986 Union Carbide President Bob Kennedy attended a community meeting in Institute WV, following a toxic chemical release that sent people to the hospital and evoked worries about whether a tragedy like what occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984 could happen there.  He listened to the angry residents and made commitments to support landmark Community Right to Know legislation. Conversely, Exxon’s CEO and senior leaders were nowhere to be found in the days following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

The CEO must be seen as engaged, in charge, empathetic, penitent and seeking solutions. And the company must commit itself to leadership in the safety of hazardous materials transportation. Most important, don’t let the prospect of mass tort litigation take over the response. Litigation management can occur in the background but not drive the public response.

It would also help if elected officials at all levels would stop using East Palestine and the victims as a proving ground for their favored political narrative.

About the Author: 

Peter Molinaro is a Senior Advisor at HillStaffer, LLC. From 2004 until his retirement in 2013 he was Vice President of North American Government Affairs for Dow Chemical.

Prior to joining Dow he was Director of Government Affairs at Union Carbide Corporation and served on a multi-disciplinary team managing the company’s response to a chemical contamination problem and its alleged connection to a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, NJ.

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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