Tide, Procter & Gamble and the Forbes story on “probable carcinogen”

Earlier today I was asked to comment on the Forbes piece on Tide using a “probably carcinogen” 1,4 dioxane and Procter & Gamble’s response to it.

First of all, I say shame on Forbes for giving this story its prominence. It is one thing for an activist group like “Women’s Voices for the Earth” to make unsubstantiated health claims and deceptive tactics, but it is another for respectable media outlets to cynically use these tactics to get eyes on their screens.

Let’s look at the facts.  The Forbes article puts the deadly claim in its first paragraph: “surprising discoveries including the presence of 1,4 dioxane, a solvent the EPA calls a “probable carcinogen.” That statement, combined with the apparently fair and unbiased headline “Proctor & Gamble Defends…Carcinogens” does all the necessary damage. All those who are so quick to believe that every chemical is carcinogenic and all big companies like P&G somehow live for profits only and are knowingly killing people at every opportunity will take this Forbes story and run with it.

If Amy Westervelt, the author of the Forbes’s piece, or her editor, had taken the two minutes I did to look up the EPA article that is referenced, they would have seen this:

EPA uses mathematical models, based on human and animal studies, to estimate the probability of a person developing cancer from drinking water containing a specified concentration of a chemical. EPA calculated an oral unit risk estimate of 3.1 × 10-7 ( µg/L)-1. EPA estimates that, if an individual were to continuously drink water containing 1,4-dioxane at an average of 3.0 µg/L (3 x 10-3 milligrams per liter (mg/L)) over his or her entire lifetime, that person would theoretically have no more than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer as a direct result of drinking water containing this chemical. Similarly, EPA estimates that drinking water containing 30.0 µg/L (3 x 10-2 mg/L) would result in not greater than a one-in-a-hundred thousand increased chance of developing cancer, and water containing 300.0 µg/L (3 x 10-1 mg/L) would result in not greater than a one-in-ten thousand increased chance of developing cancer. For a detailed discussion of confidence in the potency factors, please see IRIS. (7)

(I haven’t done the conversion from micrograms and milligrams yet, but it looks like I would have to “continuously” drink an awful lot of water with Tide in it to run any sort of risk of getting cancer.)

Like so many scare stories, the “probable carcinogen” story is based on extremely high doses. Water kills too, in too high a dosage. Which means that maybe EPA should label all water bottles “probably lethal.”

The underlying problem is that we have activist groups who are in business too and need success stories like getting their attacks published in major media in order to attract more funding to keep their employees at work. This is a major coup for Women’s Voices. But, of course, media outlets like Forbes need to attract readers, so stories like this play very well. As Microsoft researcher Dana Boyd makes clear, fear is the strongest weapon media have to attract audiences in today’s oversaturated environment. She calls is “the culture of fear and the attention economy.”

Which doesn’t answer the question of what Procter & Gamble does about it. They are between a rock and a hard place—which is just where the activists want them. If they replace it, the activists can say, “See, you knew for years this stuff could kill you but you did nothing about it. Proves you put profits before people.” If they defend it, as they are weakly trying to do, it just proves that they don’t care that their detergent has a carcinogen in it. And people will switch to something “safer.” At least something that hasn’t yet been the target of the activist’s enterprising scare tactics.

Jon Entine, author of “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health” puts some of the blame for this problem on the companies who are so quick to bow to the fears amplified by media and deceptively created by activists. He gives an example of Campbell’s soup removing BP-A from their cans and replacing it with BP-S. BP-A has 50 years of study behind it showing it to be safe (except when injected into lab rats at 500,000 times any exposure that a human might have). BP-S is similarly formulated but is new and so doesn’t have the study. So it may not be as safe and is certainly not proven safe But people have been scared witless about BP-A based on the deceptive (but effective in generating audiences) media reports and activist attacks. So Campbell’s may be doing the right thing to protect their product and sales, but not be doing the right thing to protect health. And certainly not doing the right thing to continue this nonsense of chemphobia.

So Procter & Gamble is in the same tight spot. I hope they take advantage of this controversy to say: “We make safe and healthy products. We suggest you do less than 1000 loads of laundry a day and that you do not drink Tide or 1,4 dioxane by the gallon–at least not over your lifetime as the EPA suggests if you do, you have a very, very slim chance of getting cancer from it. If you follow these simple instructions, you will be perfectly safe. In fact, you may very well be safer than when using newer products which use newer formulations that don’t have the benefit of extensive testing.”

I wish they would also say: “Shame on you Forbes for cynically using the deceptive attacks of Women’s Voices for the Earth simply to attract audiences to sell your ads. Tell the truth about the 1,4 dioxane. Help expose the fear tactics that drive the business of activists groups. And help put an end to the chemophobia that may be threatening public health and adding unnecessary burdens on our economy.”

But, they don’t have the mission of righting some serious wrongs in our society. They need to sell Tide, so they will probably get rid of 1,4 dioxane. And the nonsense will continue.

 

 

New study on Twitter and Bin Laden death shows how news is done today

The death of Osama bin Laden is considered the biggest story told on Twitter. Now a new study by Georgia Tech and reported in Homeland Security Newswire provides insight into how news is done today, particularly the interplay of Twitter and mainstream media, in informing the world.

The study confirms the understanding the story broke on Twitter with tweets from Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t know why the study did not include the tweets from the next door neighbor of bin Laden in Abottabad who complained about the helicopters overhead and saying he was going to get out his giant fly swatter. Even though these were undoubtedly the first tweets about the incident, they did not inform of his death.

The interesting thing about this study applies to rumor management–the task that is now the number one priority of crisis communications. The team analyzed 400,000 tweets (using software, of course) and categorized them as “certain” or “uncertain.” That was a way of determining how confident the tweeter was of passing on info that considered to be true. They found that almost immediately 50% of the tweets were certain, meaning the tweeters had high confidence in the accuracy. This was well before there was any TV reports confirming the news.

Why? How could people be so certain of something so important and so subject to rumor? The researcher concluded this:

“We believe Twitter was so quick to trust the rumors because of who sent the first few tweets,” said Hu. “They came from reputable sources. It’s unlikely that a CBS News producer or New York Times reporter would spread rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation. Twitter saw their credentials and quickly believed the news was true.”

So, it comes down to the credibility of the tweeter. Aristotle is still on target (he said of the three proofs in rhetoric, logic, emotion and credibility, the most important was credibility (ethos)).

It’s hard for me to believe, but it is clear that many in crisis communications continue to discount the role of Twitter in this field and in the news world overall. Technology is changing far faster than our minds can adapt to the changes. But this study makes it clear how important Twitter, and for that matter, other social media are in informing the world of important events. Yes, as in my previous post, new ways must be found to verify facts. But despite the technology and sea change, some important things never change and being completely believable is one of those.

 

Journalistic handwringing over Twitter

This article in Poynter asks a very good question: is Twitter ruining journalism, and a related question: are journalists ruining Twitter.

How might either be happening? One, everyone is giving all the information–journalists using Twitter are giving their best stuff away for free, so the concern might be that journalism is weakened or ruined by it.

The second concern is that journalists, like the rest of us, put a lot of junk out on Twitter: “favors the trivial over the substantive … the immediate over the consequential … and events over ideas.”

Yeah, that’s right. But, the San Francisco Guardian responded to the criticism this way:

“… You can’t blame technology or the applications it creates for turning us in the news business into a bunch of attention-starved maniacs who put stuff out there without checking the facts. That’s happened for years.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. There’s a lot wrong with news today. But Twitter isn’t what’s wrong. The operating assumption of most in professional journalism is that the attention span of audiences is that of a hummingbird, and they only thing that matters is what is happening right NOW. Immediacy is everything. In this understanding, I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, and because they die without an audience, why take a chance? On the other hand, the Economist continues to grow at a rate of about 5%. The weekly news magazine specializes in depth, intelligent analysis and topics that matter.

With Twitter and the Economist we have a wide choice–do we want info on what is happening right now, knowing that it is filled with mundane, ridiculous and usually incorrect information? Or do we want depth, analysis, insight? Like us audience, journalists can choose, too. And they are doing so.

 

Walmart bribery crisis–what do you do when you’ve done wrong

The New York Times story revealing Walmart’s alleged bribery of government officials enabling the company to grow very rapidly in Mexico probably has a familiar ring to many in crisis management. The question is: how do you help a client who has done wrong, that is violated the law, ethics, or moral standards and values commonly held by the community or society?

Walmart’s problem here goes far beyond bribery. This is a classic of what of the coverup story. As juicy as the story about foreign bribery is, what makes it so much more interesting to the NYT, and presumably its readers, is the alleged coverup. These events happened in 2005. NYT has hundreds of emails involving top executives and company lawyers fretting over it. But the NYT reports:

In December, after learning of The Times’s reporting in Mexico, Wal-Mart informed the Justice Department that it had begun an internal investigation into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act…

In other words, according to the NYT the company knew about the violations, had intense discussions about what to do, but did not report to the Justice Department, nor come clean with the public or media about the dirty dealings until forced to by the NYT investigation.

The allegations are that company real estate officials bribed Mexican government officials to get approvals to place Walmart stores over Mexico. Walmart is huge in Mexico, employing over 200,000 people and is the country’s largest private employer.

The company’s response is measured, focused and on the one hand, strong. They noted (complained) that the story reports on events that happened over 6 years ago. They say they took independent action to investigate. They state their commitment to fully comply with FCPA. They provide some specific details on how they are insuring future compliance. And they commit to deal appropriately with anyone determined to have violated.

In others, they admitted to no wrong doing and stated commitments and actions. But, given what is at issue here, it is a very weak response. What about the implied cover-up? Why not an explanation for the delay? Why complain about the NYT dredging up old accusations when it is news because it has not been reported before, and why mention this in the context of an implied coverup?

It seems some rules about crisis communication have evolved quite clearly in the past few years. One main one is, if you’ve done wrong, fess up. Don’t obfuscate, duck and weave. If senior leaders knew about the very serious potential problems in Mexico way back in 2005, then I believe Mr. Tovar should have said “we would have met our own standard for honesty, integrity and legality if we had fully and independently investigated when these allegations first appeared and if warranted, turn them over to the government for investigation.”

When facing a client who has done wrong, I tell them that whatever they have done wrong to accept responsibility, show they are remorseful, and demonstrate that by taking action that rectifies the harm done. If they haven’t done wrong, then clearly explain why the accusers are wrong in their suggestions or allegations. If, as is often the case, there is a mix of wrong doing and over-wrought accusations, then the explanation of where the accusations are wrong must done with humility and contriteness given that at least some are accurate.

If the NYT article is wrong, if the accusations of bribery and worse, of cover-up are overwrought, Walmart has done little to convince they are being treated unfairly. If the accusations are valid (which we must consider that given the lack of rebuttal), then Walmart has to come much further in accepting responsibility and admitting they violated our trust.

 

Food safety–what food producers have in common with tobacco and big oil

Yesterday I was interviewed by Capital Press, the West Coast newspaper for agri-business (I’m a subscriber and use it to keep up on issues facing farmers and food producers).  The question was food safety and crises facing farmers and food manufacturers, ala “pink slime.” I won’t repeat my comments about pink slime and the sliminess of that controversy, but the interview with a reporter asking a lot of very good questions got me thinking about this very important issue.

I’d like to summarize some of what we discussed and share some of my thoughts about what is happening related to food safety.

1. Farmers and the food industry are in a much bigger crisis than they realize.

The ground has shifted underneath their feet. Some know it and are trying to change. Many know it and think it is stupid and refuse to change. Probably most don’t know it. The shifting ground is public opinion and society’s values. There can be no question that the trend in our society is against agri-chemicals and high volume production methods and toward small, organic, minimal impact and minimal use of man-made chemicals or things like genetic engineering. We’ll go into reasons for this in a bit. But that is where we are going and in many ways where we are already, and that means a lot of people who are benefiting from the inexpensive food they eat every day will join any bandwagon to stop the practices they consider unhealthy or unsustainable.

2. Societal value shifts mean big trouble for those who do not respond.

OK, let’s talk about tobacco. My wife loves old movies so we watch a lot of black and white movies. You know, the kind where everyone cool smokes. It wasn’t long ago that smoking was glamorous and hip. Now, if you light up anywhere in public you are going to get a serious stink eye if not be actually accosted by the enforcers around you. Please, don’t get me wrong–creating cheap potatoes and beans is not like growing tobacco because we now know a lot better what tobacco does to us (even though evidence around second hand smoke is mostly bogus). But, societal values changed, smoking became uncool and the government has stepped in to all but ban it. Perhaps the food industry is more like big oil. We all enjoy the products they make while at the same time thinking that those who make them are nothing but scumbags and destroyers of the environment.

3. Activism married with junk science married with media in desperate search of audiences are major contributors.

Many will say that my analogy between tobacco and high production food is appropriate because both are very bad for you. I strongly disagree as we’ll see below. But the process underway against production food is very similar to what happened with tobacco and to some degree big oil. Those who brought the dangers of smoking to light had a receptive audience with journalists who, as former journalist Jon Entine says, have an activist mentality themselves. Besides, what headline will get desperately needed audiences: “this stuff will kill you”? or “Scientific evidence uncertain about dangers”? Now, as it turns out, we should be grateful to those activists, scientists and journalists because it is well established that smoking and tobacco are major causes of cancer. What worries me, however, is that the same process is underway in food safety without the scientific consensus. There are many who have a dog in the hunt for toxic foods and will use whatever flimsy evidence there may be to raise funds for their NGO and scare audiences into watching their newscasts or their website. The truth, too often lost, is that the good food under attack is not bad for you like tobacco was and we have plenty of evidence to prove it. (Take for example the fact that in 1950 there were 2500 people living over 100 years of age, while in 2050 that number is expected to be 600,000–amazing considering all the poison these people are putting in their bodies thinking it is healthy.)

The media looks in every story for the white hats and black hats. The NGOs are more than willing to accept the white hat and put the black hat on anyone doing their best to make a living out of coaxing food from the land–on any scale other than what can be sold at a farmer’s market.

3. It’s the politicians who really scare me.

I happen to believe looking at all the laws, regulations and ways that government intercedes on our life that we already have a “nanny state,” and it is getting worse all the time. I heard one activist in the food area say that people are too stupid to make intelligent choices about the food they eat and so the government must control it for them. Seriously. We see it already. Banning transfats. Banning BPA, even though the scientific consensus is firmly behind its safety, and as “Chemophobia” author Jon Entine states, it is being replaced with likely less safe replacements so that companies like Nalgene and Campbells can say: “BPA Free!” We’ve got legislation pending that tells farmers how many chickens they can have in a cage–the animal rights issues are a second and related element to this food producer crisis. The election-eager politicians always want to jump in and save the hapless public from the blackhats that the media have conveniently created. We’ve only seen the beginning and it will not be long before food will be subject to legislation like “calories per pound” or some equivalent to the miles per gallon requirements on the automotive industry.

4. The industry needs to accept the new rules of transparency.

While I strongly oppose efforts to legislate things like what we eat, I also recognize that people need to be educated about food, what is good for them and what not so good. One look at any city street filled with people and you know we have a big problem with eating–we eat too much and too much bad stuff. But what I favor over legislation is education and transparency. A lot of farmers have a hard time with this. They don’t want people to know what every process is and what every ingredient is. But that is what is expected today and the hyper-connected world makes keeping secrets impossible and impossibly dangerous.

My message to farmers is: if what you are doing can’t stand the light of day, change it now before you become the next pink slime victim. If what you are doing can be justified in terms of human benefit, including providing very healthy food at remarkably low costs, then for goodness sake, come out with it, state it proudly and defend yourself.

5.  The debate is on–time to join the discussion.

I happen to believe that it would be a travesty for high production food to go away and be replaced by nothing but micro-farmers using nothing but old leaves or grass clippings to grow our food. I’m all for those people who can afford to buy artisan food and I absolutely love to see this trend develop. I’ve got family members growing some of the best food around commercially–on a small scale. But just because it is better, tastes better, and may even in some cases be marginally better for you does not mean that the world will be a better place if all farmers raised our food on two acre plots. In fact, millions would starve. The fact is that while we in this rich country benefit from not having to use a big part of our paychecks to pay for food (unless we choose to), others in the world will go hungry and even starve to death with even minor changes in food costs. Remember the ethanol subsidies which were intended to help corn growers use their corn for fuel. Here’s what wikipedia says:

A July 2008 World Bank report[147] found that from June 2002 to June 2008 “biofuels and the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans” accounted for 70–75% of total price rises.

Those price rises led to many deaths by starvation, riots in Egypt and a major disruption in lives. While we Americans benefit from incredibly healthy food, we live in a global marketplace where a decrease in high production food is going to hurt a lot of people.

Take pink slime. Jamie Oliver (who didn’t coin the term but certainly got the furor going on his TV show) has not only cost many good people their jobs, he and Jim Avila of ABC News are responsible for a rather sharp rise in the cost of beef. While they may think they have saved many school children from eating unhealthy hamburgers in school, the fact is that lean, finely textured beef (what it was called before pink slime took off) is 100% beef and 100% safe. But, it makes ground beef less expensive, and now with school budgets being what they are it is likely that less burgers will be served in schools. The increased price of ground beef at the supermarket may just make it a rarer treat for those who could benefit from the protein and enjoy the great taste. I don’t think Oliver and Avila did us any favors.

Well meaning people who advocate for growing all food the Jamie Oliver way will hurt a lot of people if they win the argument. And they are winning, because so far it is a one-sided debate.

Farmers and food producers are not inclined to get in this public debate about food safety. They hope it goes away. They are confident people will keep buying. In that way they remind me of the oil industry about 25 years ago. The ground was shifting, and some in the industry wanted to speak out, to talk about the realities of global energy needs, to inform the public about the benefits of cheap energy, but some said (including some with the biggest numbers) that they will buy our products whether they like us or not, so what does it matter? True, but it does matter. Oil permits are a hot political issue, where to explore is deeply political. Build a pipeline to access more crude? Deeply divisive. All because of this shifting ground and the unwise decision to let the activists and headline-hunting media have the field. We’re paying a lot for fuel right now–in part because industry leaders 25 years ago stuck their heads in the sand regarding public sentiment. (By the way, if they engaged the public they likely would have realized a lot earlier that doing things to protect the environment was a high public value and would have done more without government regulations.)  This is a plea to the production food industry to not make the same mistake–for all our sakes.

This qualifies as a rant, no doubt. I know many don’t agree with me on many of the points I raised here. But if my plea to the food industry is to get into the debate, my plea to those who disagree is to ask–if you knew your preference for smaller, healthier, “better” food would result in those who desperately need any food to go hungry, would you still campaign so loudly for your preferences? I’ve been accused of wanting to protect the “big, corporate farmers.” Sure, I do. Because I want to protect everyone’s ability to have healthy, inexpensive foods, and the last time I checked, we still needed those big farmers and producers to do that.

What does it say about our world? Hilary texting

I know I’m getting old but things get stranger and stranger. Today we have Secretary of State Hilary Clinton becoming the latest Internet meme with this Tumblr site showing her texting various folks.

It may not be so strange to have something presumably poking fun of well known figures go viral. But, first, this is the very distinguished Secretary of State of the world’s most powerful nation. Second, it is Mrs. Clinton, not exactly known for her sparkling personality or fun and games. And third, this was not some practical joke but a site personally approved by her.

What’s up with this. I smell a political campaign behind all this. Some personality repositioning maybe? Somehow, the rules of politics, perception building, image making have changed.

George Zimmerman launches website to support defense

I haven’t commented on the Trayvon Martin tragedy for a variety of reasons. It clearly is a sociopolitical mine field which means you can’t say much without enraging almost everyone. But when George Zimmerman, the defendant in this court of public opinion and now law, launched his website recently, it is a sign of how things have changed in our world related to events of major public interest. His site, the realgeorgezimmerman.com, promises to enable him to respond to all his supporters personally. But it seems quite obvious that the primary intention is to raise funds for his defense and his family. Here’s what he says:

It has come to my attention that some persons and/or entities have been collecting funds, thinly veiled as my “Defense Fund” or “Legal Fund”. I cannot attest to the validity of these other websites as I have not received any funds collected, intended to support my family and I through this trying, tragic time.

What a sign of the times in many respects:

- disgusting people would try and take advantage of a situation like this to bilk people out of money by launching phony defense fund website

- I’ve long advised that clients in a crisis use a website for various reasons–direct engagement with those interested, circumvent malicious media coverage, provide trustworthy information, and so on. Clearly Mr. Zimmerman is in a crisis of the highest magnitude for him and his family. So it is reasonable to respond with a website, but does this mean that every accused murderer, rapist, arsonist or child molester will take to a personal website to try and defend themselves? What a strange thought, but not unreasonable given the highly selective media coverage of crimes.

- The highly selective media coverage of crimes. Ever since (at least in my memory) the dramatic helicopter chase of OJ Simpson’s white Blazer, the media seems to select certain crime cases for unending exposure. It’s infotainment in one of its most disgusting forms to me, but I’m also certain it is because this is what at least some in the public want. There are lots and lots of murders and horrible crimes every day. You never know which are going to be “graced” with the likes of Nancy or other cable channels that decide they are going to ride this one to the bitter end. When they do land on a particular one, the legal situation changes completely as now the focus shifts to the court of public opinion–hence defendant websites.

- the coverage of this crime event in particular shows the deep divide in our nation, but also shows the inclination of media outlets. The reaction to the shooting is quite sharply divided along both racial and political lines, but the amount of time spent on covering the story clearly demonstrates the political orientation of the channel’s producers. MSNBC for example has spent an inordinate amount of time on the shooting while FOX has largely ignored it.

The upshot: the court of public opinion has risen in prominence in this new era of instant and continuous information sharing. But, on this issue, like many others, the jury is split. The media, far from being the cool, uninvolved “judges” in this court, there to observe and report, have become active participants serving as prosecutor or defense attorney. And that may be the real lesson for those in crisis communication. If you find yourself in this court and expect the media to serve as a just judge, but instead find them an aggressive prosecutor with you as the defendant, how does this change things for you?

Scary thought for consultants: are crises overblown?

There’s quite a group of people like me who make a living, or try to, by telling CEO-types that “they better prepare” because “now is too late.” The underlying and compelling reason is that a major crisis is a big deal, maybe even life or death for the corporation. But, this Wall Street Journal article poses an interesting and potentially disturbing question: are these new kind of social media-driven crises not really such a big deal? Do they really have any lasting impact on the share price, bottom-line an organization future?

The article traces the story of three recent reputation crises which would fit in the category of serious. But, it shows that the impact of these events was very short-lived and with little to no apparent damage to brand value, share price or profits. One of the organizations highlighted is Goldman Sachs which has become a favorite whipping boy of the media in the last while with little apparent impact on the company’s future or performance.

The writer of the article also asks a number of PR professionals what they think of these short-lived events. “Puzzled by such sanguine attitudes, I asked PR experts for an explanation. Their answers can be grouped in three categories: “the shiny object,” “the loyalty issue” and “the lack of choice.”"

Personally, I have felt for some time that the recent changes mean several things:

- much increased vulnerability because of how the digital lynch mob can operate (thanks Geoff for that descriptive term)
- much faster response required because of the light speed of the hyper-networked
- much faster cycle from germination, to full bloom, to the leaves dropping harmlessly
- potentially lower impact because of the sheer volume of these (see increased vulnerability) and the weariness and loss of attention span caused by the volume and frequency.

There are other important factors highlighted by the PR pros. One is loyalty, the other is the growing realization that the digital lynch mob is not the whole world (see my post on Komen Foundation where I think most PR analysts completely missed this point). But the biggest difference to me is engagement. Pre-engagement with key stakeholders. This is becoming my new mantra but I think it is critical. If you talk to the people who matter, and a lot of them at that, on an on-going basis, then when it hits the fan, you can just keep talking. You either say: we screwed up and we’re sorry and we’re fixing it, or the lynch mob has it wrong and here’s why, or the media’s not telling the truth and here’s why.

This ability to just step up and on-going conversation is one big reason why I think a lot of the flutter than happens on the Internet and media with these kinds of issues just won’t be such a big deal. But, if your only way of talking to the people who really matter is through the media by pushing out a press release or two, hang on for a longer and much bumpier ride.

A Post Script re Pink Slime.

The pink slime crisis sort of gives lie to the above issue of crises not having such a great impact. BPI certainly wouldn’t say that as it fights for its life. Another producer of the beef product, just filed for bankruptcy.