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Finding that common ground
The following guide is intended to aid readers in analysing the case T&T Eco-Patriots. When analysing a case, remember that there are many possible approaches and solutions and the goal is to develop your analytical and problem-solving skills rather than figure out the one right answer.
The communications director for Trident Canners had called a press conference to respond to criticisms by an environmental NGO about its practice of releasing waste water from operations into the public drainage system. Despite the company’s claims that the waste water posed no risk to the environment, the NGO (T&T Eco-Patriots) had initiated a campaign via social media to force the company to adopt more environmentally sustainable operations.
A video posted on YouTube by one of the group’s members went viral after it featured disturbing images of children with various skin diseases allegedly caused by exposure to pollutants in the waste water released by Trident Canners.
The board of directors at Trident Canners knew they had to develop an effective response to the mounting public criticism and negative media attention in order to protect the company’s reputation from further damage and were relying on the communications director to develop a plan of action.
Q1. Are the demands being made by T&T Eco-Patriots (TTEP) fair and reasonable?
An analysis of the NGO’s demands should carefully consider the implications for Trident Canners and other stakeholders if the company were to commit to the demands being made.
TTEP required the company to:
1. Publicly admit that they had engaged in environmentally harmful activities.
This position directly contradicts the statements made by the company and may invite legal action by people who believe they have been affected by waste water pollutants. Additionally, it is unrealistic to expect that the company would issue such a statement in the face of its own internal quality checks which suggest the water is safe for release.
2. Immediately commit to purchasing equipment to properly treat all waste water emitted by the plant.
Meeting this demand is likely to be expensive and there is no evidence to suggest that the current equipment being used to treat the waste water is not working. A more reasonable demand would be to undertake an audit of the waste water treatment process and upgrade equipment and procedures where deficient.
3. Develop a plan to reduce its carbon footprint by 25 per cent in the next three years.
This is a worthy target to aim for but the timeline is arbitrary and it may be unrealistic for the company to commit to a specific deadline. The company could however begin investing in green technology and document the progress it is making towards reducing its carbon footprint. The need to go green must be balanced against the cost of doing so.
4.Become an advocate for green business practices and support efforts to protect the environment at the national level.
This is a reasonable demand given the groundswell of public support for green business practices. Trident Canners can convert the negative exposure from the TTEP protests into a leadership position on environmental issues and thereby educate the public about green technology. This would not only benefit the national community but help salvage the company’s image.
Q2. What are the pros and cons of the strategies being used by TTEP?
The actions taken by TTEP have proven to be quite effective in turning a spotlight on the activities of Trident Canners. Not surprisingly, the letter from TTEP requesting scientific evidence on the quality of the waste water being discharged was the most easily ignored since it was done privately and out of the public eye. The NGO must be commended, however, for trying to initiate direct dialogue with the company since this afforded Trident Canners an opportunity to resolve the issue in an amicable manner without threatening the company’s image.
Highlighting the issue by posting the results of tests conducted on the waste water to the group’s Facebook page has the advantage of drawing the public’s attention to the company’s actions. While this serves to galvanise visitors to the site, a limitation is that only a small percentage of local Facebook users may visit the group’s site which limits the impact to only the most ardent TTEP supporters.
The video that was released was the most impactful strategy since it vividly portrays the problem in terms that the public can relate to and makes for good media headlines. The disadvantage to airing this footage is that if the claims in the video are not substantiated by scientific evidence, it can undermine the NGO’s credibility and even invite legal action from the company.
Finally, complaining directly to the Environmental Management Authority about the company’s activities has the benefit of inviting official state intervention which may encourage the company to comply more readily with existing regulations.
A limitation of this approach, however, is that the process of investigation may be protracted and ultimately fall short of the remedy that the NGO is demanding.
Q3. How should Trident Canners respond to the TTEP campaign?
One approach to managing the negative publicity is to do what the company has tried, which is to offer little comment except to deny that the claims being made are true. This approach provides space for the company to provide evidence to convince skeptics that the criticisms are overblown and may encourage the NGO to eventually move on to another target. While it may be desirable to avoid a public war or words with TTEP, the unfortunate side effect of this approach has been to make the company appear as though it had something to hide and put it on the defensive. The fact that the media continues the company in a negative light suggests that this response is no longer viable.
An alternative strategy is to directly confront the issue in the media and identify the steps the company is taking to limit its environmental impact. Clarity should be provided on the internal processes used to ensure that the waste water is safe for discharge and the results of such tests should be shared with the NGO and the public.
The CEO needs to be removed as a spokesperson on the issue and his exposure restricted as far as possible. An analysis of the waste being discharged also needs to be conducted by an independent testing agency agreeable to all parties in order to prove that emissions are actually within tolerable levels.
The company should also actively engage TTEP in discussions in order to find common ground and resolve the matter. Issuing a joint statement regarding the efforts by both parties to find a solution could provide a win-win outcome for both entities while providing space for a workable outcome to be negotiated.
Finally, a holistic plan to encourage other industry players to join the company’s efforts should also be developed so that everyone in the industry is held accountable.
Dr Barney Pacheco is a lecturer in the Department of Management Studies at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
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