What would you do if a Web site or e-mail posting claimed that your workplace is dangerous?

If online postings claimed major environmental, health or safety violations exist at your facility?

What if a disgruntled current or former employee, union, or environmental or consumer group started flaming you, your program, or your employer?

EHS programs have always been prime targets for complaints, both from within and outside the plant gates. Now the Internet makes it easier than ever to air grievances.

Keep in mind, there are now more Internet connections in U.S. homes than newspaper deliveries. Every day about 55 million Americans go online. Disparaging or slanderous comments about a person, business, or issue on the Internet can quickly and easily reach a huge number of people across the world. And you might be surprised to learn how many Web sites are devoted to tracking corporate activity — including EHS actions (see sidebar).

What should you do?

Managing EHS programs today must take into account the power of the Internet. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the perfect “rumor mill”:

  • Don’t ignore it. When you become aware of criticism posted on the Internet, don’t just expect it to go away. Examine content at the site and any links to find out what message is being conveyed.

  • Keep management informed of any criticisms, regardless of how minor the criticism appears.

  • Check if your company has established procedures for addressing criticism. If no procedures are set, suggest to your supervisor that they should be developed.

  • Determine if the message will have any significant impact upon you or your EHS programs. Don’t forget to consider how the message may be viewed or acted upon by employees, customers, regulators, shareholders, the media, and so on. If the criticism is slight and seems to have limited exposure, it might be safe just to ignore it. But monitor the criticism to ensure that it remains innocuous.

  • If possible, determine who has posted the information. Does the information come from a disgruntled current or former employee, union, or environmental or consumer group?

  • Contact your company’s lawyer if the criticism contains any confidential or proprietary information, copyright or trademark infringements, or clearly slanderous statements, and direct them to review the information.

  • If you must respond to the criticism, target your audience and consider a different medium. The quicker you respond, the better. If a Web site or e-mail posting claims your workplace is dangerous, communicate with employees either in meetings, newsletters, or bulletin board announcements to present facts and address any concerns. Letters explaining and addressing EHS criticism may be sent to key customers.

  • Advise regulators if a Web site or e-mail postings claim there are major environmental, health or safety violations. Keeping the appropriate regulators informed shows good faith. Explain that you have examined the claim and consider the hazard information to be either untrue, distorted, or corrected. Regulators are not required to respond to informal complaints posted on Web sites or in e-mail postings, but it’s best to bring agencies to your side whenever practical.

  • If you must respond to an e-mail post, only do it once. This is necessary to avoid “flame wars” where points and counterpoints can seemingly go on forever. Briefly state that the information is not true, and that it will not be debated further in an Internet forum. Direct people sincerely interested in the truth to contact you by phone or letter for an explanation of the facts.

  • Be cautious about contacting the Web site operator. Web sites developed exclusively to criticize a person, business, or issue may be difficult to deal with. Any comments you send the person may end up posted on the site. Unless the site is doing something unlawful, there are few actions that can be taken to shut it down.

    Some companies and organizations have taken to creating their own Web sites to dispel falsehoods and rumors. This seems a bit extreme, but it may be necessary in rare cases.

  • Remember the First Amendment. Americans have the right of free speech, however critical or crude, as long as it is presented lawfully.

  • Look on the positive side. Any criticism is an opportunity to examine what others may think of your EHS program. This allows you to target areas for improvement.

  • Surf the Net for sites that could have criticism of your EHS program. You might not even know it’s out there. Also, to avoid hurting your “feelings,” people may be reluctant to give you critical feedback about your EHS program. You may need to find out for yourself if criticism exists online.

  • Post good news about your EHS program on the Internet when appropriate.

  • Be part of the solution, not the problem. Sociologists report that people are ruder today than anytime in modern history. Few people understand what “Net-Etiquette” means, let alone practice it. The manners of people who communicate online are “appalling,” according to a recent survey conducted by Yahoo!. There may be times when we want to fire off some online criticisms ourselves, especially when we want to be critical of people flaming our EHS efforts. As professionals, though, we should be careful and respectful about voicing our own critical views on the Net.

Sidebar: Who's watching you?

There are dozens (maybe hundreds!) of activist and other groups that have Web sites and host Internet forums about a business’s EHS performance. Here are a few examples:

  • www.corpwatch.org. Corporate Watch tracks corporate activity around the globe and talks with people who are directly affected by “corporate abuses” as well as with others fighting for corporate accountability, human rights, social and environmental justice, according to its Web site.

  • www.cleanairtrust.org. Each month this site identifies a “Clean Air Villain of the Month” — a company, association or individual to be singled out “for opprobrium for its anti-clean air activities.” The site offers this invitation: “If you have candidates for this dishonorable distinction, please contact us.”

  • www.scorecard.org/bboard/. This is a forum set up to discuss polluting facilities. The site invites visitors to “find out what people are saying about a company, or meet others working on environmental problems in your community.”

  • www.actionnetwork.org/. This site is set up to notify and mobilize members of activist organizations. Many of the organizations listed address EHS concerns.

As mentioned, some businesses and organizations are trying to stop the spread of EHS rumors on the Internet. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has a Web page on “Current Health Related Hoaxes and Rumors” at http://www.cdc.gov/hoax_rumors.htm.