How do you put the best face on the worst industrial accident in history?
In a variety of ways, that question was put to Union Carbide Corp. Chairman Warren Anderson last week when he made a dramatic appearance before employes of the company's Institute, W. Va., plant and discussed Carbide's fortunes in the aftermath of the poisonous gas leak at Bhopal, India, last December.
In bold and unequivocal terms, Anderson declared that Carbide had accepted its "moral responsibility" for the estimated 2,000 deaths and 200,000 injuries, and he acknowledged that "our image has been hurt." But he emphasized that Carbide's handling of the problem had been a "textbook example of crisis management."
"When all this is over, I don't think anyone will accuse Union Carbide of stonewalling or running away from the issue," Anderson said.
That is certainly the prevailing view here at the company's sprawling headquarters, but not all experts who have been watching Carbide agree. A recent survey by newsletter publisher Jack O'Dwyer found that most public relations experts interviewed gave Carbide flunking grades for its "management" of Bhopal and that some believed the company's "reputation may be permanently damaged" as a consequence.
Nearly 3 months after the incident, the company has yet to issue its own report on what caused deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) to leak from a plant operated by its Indian subsidiary. As expected, it has sought to transfer some 46 lawsuits that have been filed against it in the United States into the Indian courts while talking somewhat vaguely about offering Bhopal survivors a "just and equitable settlement" that it has yet to outline.
In what could become a harbinger, a British planning agency earlier this month rejected a Carbide subsidiary's application to build a specialty gas plant in Scotland. The agency said it did so because of "serious public concern" over the plant even though it acknowledged there was no evidence the plant would be dangerous.
"Most public relations people generally don't feel a good job is being done," said O'Dwyer, whose newsletter is considered the most influential in the field. "There's no information being given out . . . . There was an initial period of goodwill there at first until the lawyers placed a total clamp on everything."
Such criticism highlights the nearly unprecedented hurdles facing Carbide, a company with $9.5 billion in sales last year, as it seeks to restore its corporate good name in the wake of Bhopal. In the sometimes surreal world of public relations, where image is the ultimate reality, an entire subindustry has been built up in recent years skilled in the art of "crisis management" -- the techniques that corporations and other large institutions should use in situations that threaten to explode in the media and alarm the public.
Corporate interest in crisis management, which is now taught by highly paid consultants in industry seminars and conferences, was spurred by the 1979 Three Mile Island incident when conflicting company statements and exaggerrated news reports sent the nuclear industry reeling. The ability of Johnson & Johnson to recover from the 1982 Tylenol murders often is cited as the obverse of the coin: a classic example of how a company can rehabilitate a tainted product by facing up to its responsibilities and leveling with the public.
"Our entire profession is looking at how Carbide is handling this because it's really of a magnitude that has never happened before," said John Burke, a senior vice president of the public relations firm of Burson Marsteller, which is working with Carbide on the Bhopal case and which coincidentally also advised Johnson & Johnson on Tylenol.
Burke, who called the specialists interviewed by O'Dwyer "hucksters with a shingle," said that, until now, Tylenol was the public relations benchmark against which industry specialists measured themselves.
"But this is really in no way analogous to the Tylenol situation," he said. "That was a case of product tampering . . . . But most people appreciate this is an industrywide problem. There really doesn't seem to be hostility to Carbide as an entity. It's more a societal problem that has to do with the risks of the chemical industry as a whole."
Since the news of the India disaster first hit, Burke and a team of Burson Marsteller officials -- including Al Tortorella, the firm's crisis management specialist -- have been brainstorming with Carbide officials over Bhopal. Burke, among others, was in on meetings with Anderson when he made his fateful decision to fly to India -- a decision that Burke says would be "unfair" to analyze from a public relations perspective because it grew out of Anderson's sincere desire to find out what was going on in a chaotic atmosphere.
In most cases, there are a set of procedures and principles that should guide corporate executives in planning their media and public relations strategies during disasters, crisis management experts say. One, obviously enough, is "full disclosure." The company that adopts a bunkerlike stance and appears to be concealing information will always get the roughest treatment from the media.
Experts say another basic principle of crisis management is to designate a company spokesman who is knowledgeable enough to field all questions from the media. Among other advantages, this helps to control the information flow and minimize inconsistencies that can be blown out of proportion.
"One spokesman is terribly important," said David Ferguson, a senior consultant with the firm of Hill & Knowlton and the president of the Public Relations Society of America. "In Three Mile Island, a lot of the problem was you had people who were not really well prepared making a lot of conflicting statements."
But Ferguson and other public relations experts say that, at bottom, it is essential for the company to be willing to pay the necessary price for alleviating public fears, just as Johnson & Johnson spent $100 million on its massive Tylenol recall.
"There has to be a readiness for top executives to consider policy matters . . . even if they are costly," said John Paluszek, a New York public relations executive and a crisis-management specialist. "There are times you have to do something because it is in the public interest."
By these standards, Paluszek says it is probably too early to judge how Carbide has performed, particularly because the company has yet to offer its settlement to the victims and to the Indian government.
But he and some others say that the most striking aspect of Bhopal is the extent to which the rules of the crisis-management game were thrown out the window by Bhopal. "My feeling is, you can do all the planning you want," he said. "But when Bhopal hit, a lot of us said, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
In fact, Carbide had done such planning. The two top Carbide public affairs officials who were hurled into the Bhopal maelstrom were J. Walter Goetz, a 30-year company veteran who serves as the director of its surprisingly small corporate communications department, and his deputy, Ed W. Van Den Ameele, manager of the four-person press relations team.
Both noted in interviews here last week that Carbide did have a written crisis-management plan to deal with emergencies. But from the minute they both were awakened at home with the news from India early on the morning of Dec. 3, they both knew their advance planning was useless.
"In the chemical industry, if one person gets killed, that's a crisis," said Van Den Ameele. "But we were staggered when we learned about this. Nothing like it had ever happened before . . . . I first learned about it when CBS radio called me at home at 4:30 in the morning and told me they had wire reports that 35 to 50 people had been killed. By the time we got off the phone, they were saying 200 to 300 people had been killed."
In the days that followed, confusion reigned supreme and the besieged Carbide officials in Danbury found their hands tied by factors behond their control. Hundreds of reporters invaded this town and bombarded the company with questions. But getting information out of India proved practically impossible, partly because there were only two open phone lines between Bhopal and Bombay, where Union Carbide Ltd. of India has its headquarters.
Perhaps even more significant, the Indian government arrested the top company officials in Bhopal and has refused to make them available to Carbide executives here, making it difficult for the company to respond to questions about events that caused the accident, according to Goetz and Van Den Ameele.
"We provided a hell of a lot of information to the press," Van Den Ameele said. "But we won't become a kneejerk company. We know that, mediawise, you've got to rebut something within five minutes or you lose the day. But we're not going to give something out until we have complete information. And that can be frustrating."
Thus, he noted, the technical team of Carbide experts that was sent to India has completed its onsite investigation but its report won't be ready for another few weeks. "We still don't know what happened over there and we're not going to speculate," Van Den Ameele said.
All this has created some sympathy for the company's travail. Moreover, Carbide has least one other advantage: Three-fourths of all its sales are to industry and none of its major consumer products -- such as Eveready and Energizer batteries, and GLAD wrap and bags -- are even associated with the Carbide name.
So no matter how much that name may have been tarnished, it has not affected the company's consumer business. "Our sales haven't suffered at all," Goetz said last week. "As a matter of fact, some of our longtime customers have been giving us extra orders."