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Among the many crises that were part of the larger crisis called Hurricane Harvey was the flooding of a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, near Houston. The plant is owned by France-based Arkema Group, whose communications concerning the situation left something to be desired, which even it admitted. In particular, it held a press conference that only highlighted the need for crisis communicators to come supplied with information and empathy.
Richard Rennard, president of Arkema’s Acrylic Monomers business, seemed ill prepared during the Thursday, Aug. 31 press conference (he comes on at about the 11:20 mark). He lacked information, was overly scientific and impersonal, and seemed unable to express genuine concern for what his company was putting people through.
The factory makes organic peroxides, which need to be kept cool. The flooding knocked out its power and backup systems. The company stored the chemicals in nine refrigerated containers, but the lack of electricity could cause the product to become unstable and catch fire. Authorities evacuated homeowners in a 1.5 mile radius. The first container had caught fire early in the morning of the presser.
“We fully expect that the other eight containers will do the same thing,” Rennard clinically reported.
As for his performance otherwise, Rennard seemed to lack knowledge about things. A reporter said two experts told him standard procedure was to have a compound to neutralize the organic peroxides, which Arkema didn’t have. “I can’t comment on that,” he said. “I don’t know the chemistry that you’re describing.”
He didn’t know how often Arkema tested a nitrogen backup system. He announced that an information hotline had been set up, but he didn’t know the number.
His responses were antiseptic. His most emotional appeal was to apologize “for the impact that this is having on the local community” and to drone a talking point about the company’s primary objective being safety.
Asked about health risks, Rennard responded: “This isn’t a chemical release. What we have is a fire. And when you have a fire, where hydrocarbons, these chemicals, are burning, sometimes you have incomplete combustion and you have smoke. And any smoke is going to be an irritant to your eyes or your lungs or potentially your skin.”
The press conference probably went on for too long and only got worse. One reporter shouted out in frustration: “People want to know how in danger they are.” Rennard simply said they were out of harm’s way due to the evacuation zone.
His lack of knowledge and empathy was so obvious that a reporter asked, “Is there anything you want to say to reassure this community? Because it sounds like there’s a lot you don’t know in terms of toxicity, chemicals, timing. What do you want these people to know?”
His answer: “We want them to respect the one-and-a-half-mile radius. We think that that is providing the safe area for the residents to stay.”
‘People Are Worried’
Still frustrated, the reporter asked, “Do you understand that people are worried?”
“Of course we understand that,” Rennard replied. “And that’s why we want people to make sure they respect this one-and-a-half-mile radius. We don’t want people returning back to their homes thinking it’s over. It’s not over. This is a very serious issue. And we know that.”
The next day, Arkema North America CEO Richard Rowe held a conference call with reporters in which he apologized and said the company could have released more information sooner.
By Sunday, three containers had caught fire. That day, authorities conducted a controlled burn on the remaining six.
— Thom Weidlich
Photo Credit: Arkema
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