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Environmental crisis? What environmental crisis?

PR Agency, Alder Media, outline what stakeholder considerations could be made by a company in the grip of an environmental crisis. 

Crises arising from environmental issues bite deep, and spread fastest.

If you are asked to imagine an environmental crisis, it is generally easy to do: things like industrial accidents and natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and flooding might spring to mind.

A crisis is defined by stakeholders: if they believe an organisation is in the grip of crisis, then a crisis exists.

Stakeholders who believe a company is in crisis, or more to the point is to blame for a crisis, will treat it accordingly and the reputational damage done can long outlive the problem that caused it. As in all matters to do with reputation, fairness isn't necessarily taken into account.

So if your organisation finds its reputation threatened by an environmental crisis – whether it is looming or has already arrived – don’t think it will blow over.

An attitude of corporate denial will cause reactive paralysis, leaving the organisation exposed.

If your operations touch in any way on the environment, you should consider two tiers of stakeholders. The first consists of primary contacts – clients, suppliers and agencies whom which you routinely engage. The second is a much more nebulous constituency that you wouldn’t necessarily have gone looking for, a hotch-potch of charities, single-issue pressure groups and political campaigns.

The ‘environment’ is as emotive as it is expansive in scope and excites the sort of public passion that can turn to currency in the media. It is a key reason for the steady growth of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Pragmatic leaders assume they will be hit by a crisis sooner or later. But a crisis can be anticipated and thorough preparation undertaken. Once strategies, protocols, and procedures have been formulated, it is vital to test and refine them as a matter of routine.

Half a decade on from the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil leak, reverberations are still being felt.

It led not only to appalling environmental damage that can be vividly recalled in the public consciousness, but also to enormous expense, and criminal proceedings that dragged on until this year.

The assumption that a global corporation with such a wide range of safety-critical activities was prepared for every eventuality was shattered in full view of a global audience.

Catastrophes like Deepwater Horizon illustrate the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility and embedding ethics into the business model and corporate culture.

Although it is often criticised for being too idealistic, CSR particularly in relation to environmental issues nevertheless helps to focus boardroom minds, and offers leaders a framework they can use to demonstrate that they have self-regulatory mechanisms, and that their organisations comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

Businesses that deal in environmental areas have to be clear on their attitude to a broad range of questions and that these stated attitudes are carried through in practice.

Companies where CSR is a foundation of the culture are arguably in a better position to limit risk in the first place. They are also on the front foot in public relations terms, well placed to persuade their customers, the public, government and regulators that they can be trusted to take health and safety and the environment seriously.

In an increasingly ‘green’ public arena, failure to do so will increasingly leave businesses not only exposed to the regulatory interventions set out elsewhere in this month’s edition of Crisis Response Insights (July 2015), but fierce and adverse public reaction.

If you have any questions about this article, or would like more advice about crisis management please contact one of the DWF specialists below.

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This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Steffan Groch

Partner and Head of Regulatory - Head of Sectors

I head up DWF's national Regulatory team as well as leading the firm’s ‘go to market’ sector expertise. I am also Chair of the UK Health and Safety Lawyers Association.

Paul Matthews

Partner - Head of Regulatory (Yorkshire and North East)

I am a Partner in the Regulatory team and a corporate defence specialist who provides up-front regulatory compliance advice and representation to businesses and senior managers in relation to investigations and prosecutions by regulatory bodies.

David Egan

Partner - Joint Head of Environment

I am a Partner at DWF, providing clear, expert advice on matters relating to crisis management, environmental incidents and fatal accidents.