Learning from the Turkey

November 15, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Thanksgiving dinner reminds me of a very useful analogy for helping corporate executives better appreciate the health and safety concerns of their fence line neighbors.

I was introduced to the analogy about 20 years ago by risk communication expert Peter Sandman, who spoke to several hundred employees and wholesalers of Texaco's marketing business who had gathered in Atlanta.

Picture this:  the Thanksgiving turkey is pulled from the oven and placed on the dining room table for carving.  It's a big bird so you ask one of your guests, a neighbor living across from your oil refinery, to help steady the turkey by placing her hand on top of it.  You then, as the refinery manager, pull out a long, razor-sharp carving knife to begin work, with the neighbor's fingers nearly touching the blade. As the neighbor looks at you with obvious concern, you seek to reassure her by saying "Trust me.  I'm a very good engineer and I've been doing this a long time."

The point Dr. Sandman illustrated is that the fence line neighbor was incurring substantial risk while you, the operator holding the knife, exerted all the control.  And when the neighbor expressed anxiety, she was met with what she perceived to be patronizing indifference.

The days have long since passed when plant managers could ignore concerns of those living just outside the plant gate. In fact, with community-right-to-know laws adopted in the 1990s and instant information available today from the worldwide web and social media, community expectations have advanced rapidly in just two decades, from the "trust me" paradigm represented by the turkey analogy, to today's "engage me" model of industry-neighbor relations.

Community advisory panels and citizen involvement in improved procedures for emergency notifications are but two of the common manifestations of today's more engaged stakeholder.

For anyone thinking that heightened public scrutiny is only heavy industry's cross to bear, think again.  As someone who sought neighborhood support for five new light rail lines to be placed within the urban core of Houston, I can tell you that the increasingly active role of stakeholders cuts across private-public boundaries and across industrial and non-industrial sectors alike.  Even Mickey Mouse ran into trouble with historians and environmentalists when the Walt Disney Company sought to build a historical theme park in northern Virginia, an area known for its Civil War battle sites.

You can down play public activism as merely the NIMBY response if you wish (i.e. "not in my backyard"), but community stakeholders have real or perceived reasons for thinking and acting as they do.

It is therefore necessary for business leaders to understand those reasons as a first step in the process of building trust.  (See my recent Guest Commentary "The Role of Trust in Securing Our Energy Future" in the Houston Business Journal.)

Particularly in the energy sector the public often perceives an assortment of risks, from the process of extracting raw materials to the way they're transported and processed to the end use air emissions.

Companies that ignore these stakeholder concerns elevate their own risk to maintaining a license to operate and the sanctity of the brands through which they market their products.

In other words, it no longer works to expect the public to trust you. Businesses now operate in a world where neighbors, customers and others expect more visible accountability and to be involved in decisions that affect them.  Successful companies will be those that can navigate in this environment, in part by yielding complete control of the carving knife.

Tags: communication stakeholder energy
Category: Articles