Earlier this year I was asked to deliver a talk about how the public perceives the chemical industry in general and the pesticide business in particular.
The audience met inside the Glendale Civic Center near Phoenix, Ariz., and was composed of workers involved in the horticultural and ornamental side of the industry, along with a large group of pest control advisors.
In my position as communications director of WPHA, I mainly deal with the ag production segment of the industry, handling issues such as accidental spray drifts and chemical spills, national security and transportation concerns, water and air pollution matters, along with unfavorable or blatantly erroneous media reports.
Unfortunately, the urban and retail sectors of the agchem business - which includes the horticulture, ornament and pest application sides - are often tainted by the same broad brush of the media and public opinion that impacts the larger chemical companies, by the very nature of the products they sell and apply.
To understand the public's perception of the agchem industry in a contemporary context, all of us realize the negative impact that was generated from author Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, a treatise widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement with its concerns about pesticides and environmental pollution. While Carson made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of “helpful pesticides,” nonetheless many of today's more vociferous green groups have adopted eradication as their battle cry. This despite the fact that the U.S. EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation monitors and enforces some of the strongest pesticide regulations and safeguards in the world.
Add the Hollywood film industry to the mix and the public's perceptions about the chemical industry are constantly being shaped and enlarged by sensational movie scripts that often highlight, fabricate or twist the truth about chemicals. Here's a few samples: the fictional film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney, who legally represents a large agrichemical company accused of killing people with its products; the real-life drama portrayed by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, who uncovered the facts hidden by PG&E regarding toxic contamination of the drinking water in the small California town of Hinckley; and Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, the real-life Oklahoma nuclear plant worker who blew the whistle on dangerous practices at the Kerr-McGee plant and who died under mysterious circumstances while on her way to meet a news reporter. (Even though the film portrays the corruption inside the nuclear energy industry, it conveys the broader message that big corporations will do anything to survive - even commit murder.)
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done by industry to counter the bad publicity generated by the media on such a massive scale. In reality, there is no mechanism in place - organizationally or financially - within the agricultural and chemical sectors on the national level to conduct a serious PR program that would significantly impact the attitudes of hundreds of millions of Americans.
That said, the good news is that while the great majority of consumers look upon the pesticide industry with suspicion, individually homeowners consider pest control companies as “heroes” who ride to their rescue when the ants have become so brazen that they now carry the bread away in loaves. In other words, the general public may hold a negative impression about the pesticide industry in general, but when singled out - when it is their home infested with termites or rodents - they largely sang a different tune.
There's an old saying in communications research: “People tend to hear what they believe,” not the other way around. Put another way, it is extremely difficult to alter attitudes and beliefs that have, for most people, developed over a number of years from many different sources of information. Attempts at changing the public's attitudes about pesticides on a statewide or national level would be a slow process indeed, spread over generations. So I want to emphasize the importance of realizing that public relations and education begins in one's own backyard. Here are some ways we can combat public and media falsehoods and distortions:
Good integrated pest management (IPM) practices need to be followed. It must be explained to customers and the general public that the practices are a very effective way that our industry self-regulates to assure pesticides are being applied in a safe manner and that the environment is being protected.
Establish good community outreach stewardship projects, such as school garden programs, student dinners for recruiting purposes, or fundraising activities for charities to generate goodwill with residents and community leaders.
When false media reports appear on local TV news broadcasts or newspaper articles, take the time to set the record straight by contacting the editors or by submitting a letter to the editor to get out industry's side of the story.
Lastly, but most importantly, it is key that we as professionals set good examples that will translate into positive public acceptance. You can do little things like safely driving company vehicles, presenting yourself to the public in a clean and professional manner, taking the time to explain to customers the safety and application guidelines of the products you are using, being courteous, and even something as simple as replacing a sprinkler head that you have broken. These all contribute to clearing up poor stereotypes that might be held by the public.