It was the days before PowerPoint. Holding our overhead transparencies, three of us sat waiting to be called into the management meeting. We were three public relations people, three poets, working for a chemical company. And it was our job to explain to the people running the company why we had to tell people how much pollution the company was responsible for, and, more to the point, what we thought the company should do about it.
If you know anything about working for corporations, you know that this would not be a moment to inspire self-confidence. In fact, we expected to be shredded.
A new federal law had been implemented. Companies large and small had to publish, annually, how much toxic emissions were emitted each year from operations. Our chemical company would be reporting big numbers. So would automobile and tire manufacturers, and steel makers. So would newspapers (toxic emissions are associated with printing presses). All manufacturers were affected, but especially chemical companies.
The numbers would be big. The reports would beg questions like, is this stuff safe? What are we breathing and drinking? And don’t tell me it’s OK because it’s all under permit by government.
We’d been working for eight months on this project. We had learned some things. We had studied a new discipline called risk communication, which explained why the “we’re the experts; trust us” strategy wouldn’t work. We had also learned that emissions had always been calculated as what came out the smokestacks. That was what was under permit. No one had ever measured what the new law required: emissions from smokestacks and pipes, yes, but also from pipe fittings, seals, valves, connecting devices. One of our plants had found additional emissions of more than a million pounds – for one substance alone. The plant used far more than one toxic material.
Using what we had learned from risk communication, our PR team of three would be proposing two things. First, the company should publish its own emission numbers and not wait for the government to do it – an exercise in complete transparency. And second, the company needed a proposal to voluntarily reduce the numbers – and figure out a way for people to measure progress other than what the company said.
We had already made the presentation several times. Our PR colleagues in other divisions nearly scalped us; weren’t we creating a self-made PR disaster? Environmental experts thought they would be held responsible. Business managers saw unnecessary costs and reduced income and profit. Our divisional vice president had simply smiled and shook his head, saying “No.” The reactions had been blistering.
We had only two things going for us: the looming deadline for the law, and the reality that no one else had a better plan. Actually, no one else had a plan at all. We were also helped by a piece of the company’s culture – a history of voluntarily disclosing information that went back to the 1930s.
Still, we were sitting and waiting, and doing not a little sweating.
We were called in and we made our presentation to the CEO and top management. It was like presenting to the stone statues of Easter Island; I was expecting one or more to topple over at any time and crush us.
The CEO listened. He asked questions. He grasped what the likely public reaction would be if we his under a rock and hoped it would all go away. And then he said, “We’ll start with air emissions. We’re going to reduce them by 90 percent over four years. We’ll start work on the other emissions. And we’ll publish our own data and take responsibility for it.”
It turned out that the company had a poet in the CEO. And what happened not only changed the company, it changed the entire chemical industry.
From Poetry at Work: “Writing a poem is not a frightening thing; publishing a poem for people to read is another matter. I took major gulps of air before I first published a poem on my blog. Poetry seems to require a certain vulnerability from the poet—putting yourself out there without much defense. What is it about writing a poem that exposes personal vulnerability in a way not required by fiction and non-fiction?”