Over the past decade, no industry has done more to transform its image than the chemical industry. Not only has it changed the way people—particularly people in the communities where chemical plants operate—think about the industry, it has done so through a program that is in many respects the very model of sound public relations. The American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association) has engaged in a minimum of spin, a minimum of hyperbole; instead it has opened its doors wide to neighbors and critics, engaged in dialog, and made giant strides to clean up those aspects of its act that created its image problem in the first place.

So it’s a little odd that a program like Trade Secrets, produced by Bill Moyers and Sherry Jones and scheduled to air on PBS tonight, should come along at this time in the industry’s history. I haven’t seen Trade Secrets, and nor has anyone from the chemical industry, but there’s enough in the PBS press release to raise concerns about the show’s objectivity. PBS promises to “uncover how our health and safety have been put at risk and why powerful forces don’t want the truth to be known” and says the report is based on “a massive archive of secret industry documents as shocking as the ‘tobacco papers.’”

That release, distributed on January 15, was enough to raise concern at the American Chemistry Council, which had been unaware of the Moyers investigation.

One reason for concern, not surprisingly, was the reference to the tobacco industry. Says ACC vice president of strategic communications Terry Yosie, “I thought the comparison to the tobacco industry was unfair. I don’t believe the tobacco industry has brought the same kind of benefits to society as the chemistry industry. If you look at our products, you can see that we have made the world a much better place over the past 50 years. And I don’t think the tobacco industry has the same history of working with environmental groups, of trying to partner with people who want to see changes made.”

                The tobacco reference raised a red flag, but even more troubling to Yosie was the fact that neither Moyers nor anyone from his team had contacted the ACC. The organization quickly polled its 190-plus members and found that none of them had received requests for information. Yosie found that particularly odd in light of the accusatory tone of the press release.   

                “What concerned me most was that Bill Moyers at no time contacted anyone from the chemical industry about this program,” says Yosie. “He has been unwilling to include information from the industry in the program. It just seems ironic to me that he is portraying the chemical industry as a secretive industry, but when we try to present him with information he isn’t interested. I find it puzzling if not downright objectionable.”

Yosie wrote to Moyers a couple of weeks after the initial press release was distributed, asking for more information about the content of the show (excerpts from the correspondence between Yosie and Moyers accompany this article) and raising some serious concerns. In particular, Yosie wanted to know more about the format of the show; why neither Moyers nor his producer, Sherry Jones, had contacted the chemical industry for its side of the story; and whether the industry might have the opportunity to include information about recent health and safety initiatives.

The correspondence did elicit some information about the format of the show, which will consist of a one-and-a-half-hour documentary followed by a half-hour panel discussion. Moyers promised to invite a representative of the chemical industry to participate in the half-hour discussion—along with someone from the public health community and an environmental activist. Understandably, that invitation only made Yosie more nervous about the program. With no advance information about the show’s content, the panel discussion was beginning to look like an ambush.

Says Yosie, “This approach is both inappropriate—our share of the panel discussion time hardly provides an adequate opportunity both to address errors and omissions in the preceding 90 minutes and discuss the chemical industry’s current programs and initiatives—and inadequate: a one-sided story is not the way to set the stage for a balanced and thoughtful panel discussion.”

As of noon on Friday, chemical industry representatives still had not seen the documentary, and Yosie had still not decided whether the Council wanted to participate in the half-hour discussion.

One thing that makes him particularly nervous is the concerted campaign by industry critics to drum up viewers for the program. One organization, calling itself Coming Clean, has set up a rudimentary website (http://www.comeclean.org/) that is working with community-based groups to maximize the impact of the Moyers documentary. The website offers flyers designed to recruit people to watch the show, a “viewing event” planner, and a mechanism through which people can tell their community’s story.

Yosie claims several sites announced their plans for viewing events within an hour of the first PBS posting about the program, suggesting that they knew in advance of the content.

“One of the things that disturbs me is that there are some trial attorneys out there who claim either to have seen the show of to know what the content of the show is going to be,” says Yosie, who cites a speech by plaintiffs’ attorney Billy Baggett in which he claimed the program would focus on the vinyl industry. “I don’t know if there has been any cooperation between the producers and plaintiffs’ attorneys, but I would be very disturbed if there had been any kind of selective disclosure to activists.”

Having said that, he wants to be clear about one thing: the American Chemistry Council has made no attempt to censor the broadcast. “Our strategy is not to try to prevent this program from being aired,” says Yosie. “But we would like to be part of it, and we would like to be part of it and we would like to be sure that the information in it is as complete as possible.”

That means the content should reflect the giant strides the industry has made in recent years, most notably through its Responsible Care initiative—a sustained industry-wide commitment to greater openness and community engagement.

“I think everyone in this country—certainly everyone in the chemical industry—knows that the industry didn’t act the same way 40 years ago that it acts today,” Yosie says. “If you’re going to talk about mistakes that were made in the past, you also need to talk about some of the recent changes in the way things are done, like our partnership with Environmental Defense [formerly the Environmental Defense Fund]. If this is all about ancient history, I don’t see where the news value is.”

The Responsible Care initiative made its debut in 1988, and involves a series of commitments to health and safety and environmental performance. Companies that sign on to the Responsible Care initiative pledge to incorporate public input into their operations; to work with others to solve problems; to ensure that chemicals can be manufactured, transported, used and disposed of safely; to support research into the health and environmental consequences of chemical products; and to provide information and health and environmental risks to employees and communities.