It hasn’t been a great month in the lands of the legacy DuPont companies.The well-trodden story regarding the historic contaminations of areas in North Carolina, West Virginia, New Jersey and more surrounding the production and disposal of poly and per-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), called most frequently “forever chemicals” because of their near resistance to degradation, has been in the news cycle again.
[caption id="attachment_203722" align="alignright" width="279"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
It started on Oct. 2, when TV journalist-comedian John Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight” dedicated a lengthy segment to the PFAS issues and the saga of the legacy DuPont’s split into its current incarnation and Chemours. At the end of the nearly 20-minute segment, Oliver enlisted actor Danny DeVito to mock an early ‘90s advertisement for DuPont about its “innovative Teflon products” and called for stricter regulation of the chemical class as a whole.The “Last Week Tonight” piece was followed by an Oct. 21 front-page story in the New York Times titled “Chemical Giant Escaped Paying for Its Pollution,” which further detailed the DuPont-Chemours spinoff for a national audience.The PFAS story isn’t a new one in large part; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions against DuPont regarding PFAS date back to 2004 and lawsuits have been filed ever since. It blew up into the national consciousness primarily through a 2016 New York Times Magazine story titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” which detailed the work of crusading lawyer Rob Bilott, who took on the West Virginia and Ohio cases. The story was the basis for a 2019 Hollywood movie “Dark Waters” that continued to promote the story.Bilott’s case led to the convening of a three-member independent science panel, known as the so-called C8 Science Panel, that concluded there were probable links between PFAS exposure and the development of certain cancers. That conclusion spurred thousands of personal injury lawsuits in states near longtime PFAS manufacturing sites against the likes of DuPont, Chemours and 3M.The former DuPont settled a West Virginia case for $671 million in 2017 and the new DuPont and Chemours duo settled an Ohio case for $83 million this year. The companies also pre-emptively settled environmental concerns with Delaware this year for $50 million.While the PFAS-linked illnesses are clearly concerning and something that should be addressed, I find the public relations strategy of DuPont and Chemours tied to the issue to also be a bit puzzling.As Oliver noted in his segment, each company often attempts to obfuscate the situation by claiming the contamination occurred before they even existed. While technically true on a paper standpoint as both companies came into being in 2019 following the three-way split of the short-lived DowDuPont, it’s hard for the public to render that as tacitly true. For one, a company is still publicly named DuPont, even if its incorporated name has changed.The need for Chemours and DuPont to better address the PFAS issue and their efforts in the years since is only clearer since the EPA announced Oct. 18 that it will soon require chemical manufacturers to test and publicly report the amount of PFAS in household items. President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper – both longtime benefactors of DuPont company support – have voiced their support for stricter regulations on PFAS, proving that a sympathetic ear in the White House and on Capitol Hill will be hard to find.I recently spoke with Gemma Puglisi, a communications professor at American University who focuses on crisis public relations, and she told me that she too was struck by the silence. She highlighted a similar corporate crisis as one to learn from: BP’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.After a disastrous initial response to the crisis, BP launched a goodwill campaign that highlighted the work it was doing to remedy the disaster, and future ones, and invested in local tourism efforts, helping turn public opinion back in its favor.“BP is still around. It changed their image and their perspective,” she noted.Following the release of “Dark Waters,” then-DuPont CEO Marc Doyle told investors that “it just doesn’t do you much good to fight it out in the public eye.” It seems that continues to be the stance as we hear more and more about PFAS.As Puglisi told me, accountability and action are among the most important parts of a PR response in a crisis. Both Chemours and DuPont have taken action, if not accountability, including phasing out more harmful chemicals, installing better protections against leaks and emissions, and pledging more aggressive changes to future products. DuPont has even donated $4 million over the past two years to independent National Science Foundation studies on how to remediate PFAS in the environment.Most don’t know about those efforts, though they likely are learning more about the companies’ predecessor’s actions from decades ago. For the health of their future, I think they need to do more to tell their story today.