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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: How to be one of the "good guys"

February 1, 2008
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How are your company’s field facilities perceived by the native locals on the other side of the fence line? Is this an important question for your company? If so, what are you doing to build an appropriately positive image, and to disseminate that information? If it is not an important question for your company, should it be?

“Why even try?”

In my consulting practice I work with some businesses that are traditionally unpopular with the neighbors. The specific issues may be dust, noise, truck traffic, airborne releases, on-site hazardous materials, vibration, potential groundwater issues, and so on. The general result is the familiar “NIMBY” syndrome. We may all want and need plastics, commodity chemicals, road-building and paving materials, electricity and so on… but “not in my backyard, thank you very much.”

Traditionally, negative-image industries such as chemicals, aggregates, nuclear, heavy manufacturing and waste disposal, among others, have usually maintained a very low profile. The less attention they get, the better, so they stay off radar to the largest extent possible. Workers, and even top managers, accept the “undesirable” label, and at times act in ways that virtually fulfill the prophecy. The attitude, probably largely unconscious, is something like “they don’t want us here no matter what, and nothing we do will change that no matter what, so why even try?”

Is your facility seen as a good neighbor?

Changing perceptions

This is “old school” thinking. One of my clients has taken a very different tack, and I think it represents the future for the “neighbor that nobody wants” industries. This particular company is the nation’s leading producer of construction aggregates (primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel). Several years ago the corporate director charged with community relations wanted to set a new strategic direction, to help ensure that the company did the right things (this was pre-Enron and pre-SOX!), and was accurately and fairly perceived by the public as doing the right things.

The company already was engaged in a number of laudable community-supporting activities, such as adopt-a-school and wildlife habitat, among many others. Their efforts reached beyond the local neighborhood to the state, regional and even national level. But these initiatives were scattered and disparate. There was no consistent overall strategic focus.

It takes a team

The corporate director and I developed a multi-divisional team chartered to work together to hammer out a meaningful, aligned, focused community relations strategy, and then to oversee its implementation throughout the company.

We got our targeted “volunteers” to agree to serve (some arms were gently twisted, but none broken — all saw the potential value of the effort). We met in a series of one or two-day sessions over a period of several months, and identified a small number of critical categories of activities that would qualify as community relations focal points, including strategic partnerships, community education, and environmental stewardship activities.

As a team we also inventoried and evaluated the current status of initiatives in each critical category, at the local, regional and national level. We set long-term goals and objectives in each category. We built a user-friendly audit and internal reporting process for activities and results in each category.

Finally, we drafted a manual describing the entire community relations process, and a short-form “quick start” version of the full manual, to help company folks at all levels quickly understand how to start up efforts, track them appropriately, and in general use the system to promote positive community relations.

Image turnaround

The payoff: This company is now identified as one of the “good guys,” not only in its industry, but also in the general business world. It is perennially recognized as one of America’s “most admired” on the Fortune list, and is usually at the very top of its industry category. The community relations effort has definitely contributed materially to the positive image that the company richly deserves.

The initial community relations team has morphed into a “Community Relations Leaders Team” made up of a core of members from the initial design team, supplemented by some fresh faces. Members include high-impact representatives from the various divisions of the company, as well as some key corporate staff. We meet twice a year to inventory activities, identify successes and continuing challenges, and fine-tune the strategy, as needed.

There are still challenges, some old and continuing, some new. But from my perspective as the external partner, I see a gradual but profound shift in how the company is perceived by the public. Perhaps as critically, I see a similar gradual but profound shift in how folks within the company see themselves. Many of the people I work with on other projects are proud of the community relations effort, actively involved in it themselves, and indeed eager to tell you all about it.

A caring culture

By a frontal, focused effort to be, and be seen as, a good neighbor who actively cares about the safety, health and welfare of its employees and the neighborhoods and communities in which it operates, the company has stepped up in a way unusual in its industry. Instead of staying off radar, it sends out a strong positive message about itself.

Along with messages about its pro-community stance and community-supportive activities, the company also educates neighbors about its compliance with all relevant regulations.

So I ask again, how is your company perceived in the neighborhoods in which you operate?
Are you doing good things to support the safety, health and welfare of your employees and your neighbors, and if so, are these good things widely known?
Are you building a bank of good will and getting the fair credit you should for such initiatives?
Or are you silent, perhaps in effect quietly apologizing for your existence?
Could you and should you do more to have a good story to tell, and to tell that story well?

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