Candor Pays Off

August 08, 1994

Black & Decker Inc. seems to have learned an important lesson. After working for years to limit public access to information on its massive cleanup of the Hampstead plant's ground water, the company disclosed all at a meeting last Thursday. Instead of engendering citizen opposition to the cleanup, the new information convinced all but a few hard-core skeptics that the company's plan to decontaminate the ground water would work.

The change in the disclosure policy came about primarily because the power tool company was receiving a public relations battering that was destroying its positive image. By clamming up, Black & Decker's consultants created unfounded suspicions among adjacent property owners and nearby homeowners that the ground water contamination might be much worse than what has been disclosed.

In addition, this secretiveness encouraged rumors that large drums of highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals were buried around the company's plant. As it turns out, these rumors seem to be unfounded.

Residents also assumed that if the company was pumping 432,000 gallons of water a day from the ground, their wells would run dry and large sinkholes might appear in nearby fields. Black & Decker doesn't know for sure how the pumping will affect its neighbors' wells, but a candid discussion by Frank Lynch, the company's water consultant, left people at the meeting more confident that their wells won't run dry.

The presence of toxic chemicals conjures up horrifying images to the average person. People have heard stories of chemical pollution causing strange illnesses, birth defects and even premature deaths. Many of these chemicals have no smell nor taste. Also minute quantities can cause problems. In the case of trichloroethylene, which has been detected in Black & Decker's water, more than 5 parts per billion is potentially unsafe, according to Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards.

Candor is the best policy. People need accurate and timely information to allay their worst fears. Candid assessments of the likelihood of the cleanup's success, risks and benefits are the best public relations tools a company can use. By opening up, Black & Decker made a wise choice.

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