The East Palestine train wreck is just the most recent example of our struggles with communication of environmental disasters in our communities. Effective communication requires an intentional (and disciplined) approach, regardless of the event's specific details. This brief article examines why our communication is ineffective when environmental disaster strikes and how we can improve it.
As Yogi Berra is attributed to saying, "In theory, there is no difference in theory and practice. In practice, there is." Let’s make that our theme for discussion.
Why Environmental Decision Making Is Difficult outlines why environmental decision making in difficult and what we can do about it. The article concludes that systems thinking and structured approaches to decision quality and communication are among five ways to improve difficult decisions.
Environmental decision making differs from other types of decision making in several ways.
5. Multiple stakeholders
6. Time horizon
9. Limited resources
The specifics of each of these nine differences are provided in the article. Five ways to improve environmental decision making are also provided in the article. Again, the top two are establishing a decision quality process and using a formal communication framework.
Several practical examples from my recent past come to mind – The East Palestine train wreck in Ohio, the Chemours PFAS incident in North Carolina, and contaminated drinking water in Louisiana. Let’s connect the dots with just these three. I recently used these three examples in a discussion I led at the 29th annual conference of The Community of Human and Organization Learning (CHOLearning).
1. Trying to buy some time
Most of us who are trained in crisis communication understand that we need to move things back to “normal” as quickly as possible. In all environmental disasters, including the ones associated with East Palestine, Chemours, and New Orleans, you will see officials trying to buy time. For example, the Administrator of USEPA, the governor, and a congressman took a drink of tap water to assure everyone that everything was going to be OK. They compromised the long term for buying some time in the short term.
2. We may not know
Complexity and uncertainty are high whenever a major environmental event happens. In most cases, state and federal agencies do not require analytical testing for the contaminates in question. The incidents at East Palestine, Chemours, and New Orleans all demonstrate this.
3. Do not want to criticize a major corporation unfairly
At East Palestine, it was Norfolk Southern, the PFAS issue in North Carolina was Dupont (later Chemours), and in New Orleans, it was the City of New Orleans. Prematurely criticizing a major corporate entity without hard evidence can be bad for business.
4. This is how we do it
The issue in New Orleans certainly demonstrated this case. They had been doing it that way for over 100 years! (at least that is what some people claimed). For Chemours, they had been doing it that way for decades, and no one complained or said they were sick. It was more subtle at East Palestine – but the trains returning to operation within days on tracks re-lain over contaminated soil was proof in the pudding.
6. Lack the courage
I will not cite specifics on these environmental crises or others just like them. When you are in the room, you see the fear in some people’s eyes. Sometimes it is about being blamed, sometimes people are not just wired for conflict, and often it is simply about wanting everything to return to normal.
7. We do not have an approach
Environmental disasters require a long-term approach which is missing. Crisis communication is the dominant approach in the days and weeks following the event. But environmental disasters are not single events; they are cascading events that are often not understood until months or even years later. Officials lack an overlying longer-term approach and the training to incorporate it.
Many ordinary people can do extra-ordinary things, especially when they have the approach and training to do so. In theory and in practice, we understand why effective communication of environmental disasters in our community is difficult. We have approaches to improve it. We simply need to have the structure and discipline to implement them. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
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JD Solomon is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions.