I learned early on in my corporate career that success is a court of law does not always translate to a win in the court of public opinion. That fact has obviously been lost on the management at Smyrna-based Sterigenics, lumbering along in the court of law while being held in increasing contempt by the court of public opinion.
Georgia Health News and WebMD revealed last year that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had identified three census tracts in Georgia as having higher cancer risks because of a toxic gas called ethylene oxide, used by Sterigenics to sterilize medical equipment. That included the area in and around Smyrna. The report stated the EPA had added ethylene oxide to a list of chemicals that “definitely cause cancer.” That was in 2016.
The bureaucrats and Sterigenics just didn’t see the need make that news public. It took an investigative article to let us the rest of us in on the secret regarding the air we breathe.
Since then there has been a previously undisclosed report of the leak of toxic gas that Sterigenics maintains it was not required to make public because it was under the amount required to notify regulators. (Here we go again with the law. Forget an alarmed public wondering whether they are going to get cancer.) Also unreported, an explosion that severely injured a worker at the Sterigenics plant in 2018.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Kemp said, “We’re concerned the company has a lot of work to do to restore public confidence. These types of developments don’t help. It’s a scary story for families in this area.”
As a result of public backlash, Sterigenics suspended operations last summer to install new pollution controls. Cobb County later ordered the plant stay closed, saying it was not in compliance with county fire codes.
County Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency declaration this past March to allow the company to resume sterilization on a limited basis to help deal with the shortage of medical equipment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ever sensitive to honing their image as a bunch of clueless ingrates, Sterigenics then filed a lawsuit against the county saying that Cobb County didn’t have the authority to close the plant in the first place.
A consent order signed in April allows the company to continue its operations while the lawsuit moves through the courts.
I asked state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Vinings, who represents much of the affected area about Sterigenics’ actions. He said, “I was just as shocked as anyone to see Sterigenics take legal action against the county. I am not sure how suing the county, the one entity that can approve or revoke your certificate of occupancy, is a good move.”
In the meantime, the Cobb County Board of Tax Assessors approved a 10% reduction on residential property valuations within a 2-mile radius of the plant. The reduction affects more than 5,000 homes. Now, Sterigenics is suing them, too. A statement from the company says, “Their unfounded action was taken without supporting data and despite Georgia EPD’s confirmation that the facility is in full compliance with all state and federal air regulations. The fact is that the Sterigenics facility is safe and not causing anyone harm.” Translation? Cry me a river.
I underwrite a crisis communications program in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia. Dr. Bryan Reber is currently the Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communications Leadership. He says, “Sterigenics doesn’t seem to understand a very basic lesson in managing public opinion. When you are perceived as committing wrongdoing, as far as public opinion is concerned, you did commit the offense. Perception is reality. It is remarkably ham-handed to now sue the Cobb Board of Tax Assessors.”
Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics-Georgia, and other residents who live within the 2-mile radius of the plant are equally critical of the company’s lawsuit and at least one law firm has clients who are considering filing a lawsuit against Sterigenics due to the potential devaluation of their homes. I suspect there will be many more.
Sterigenics was chartered for a worthy endeavor — sterilizing medical devices for future use. Because they have the public sensitivity of a gopher, they are in jeopardy of impairing their ability to do so. As a matter of fact, the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, ceased operations last fall because of public and political opposition.
Arthur Page, the first-ever vice president of public relations at AT&T and considered the father of corporate public relations said some 70 years ago, said, “In a democratic society, business begins with public permission and exists by public approval.” That is as true today as when he first said it. And you don’t get public approval in a court of law. You get it in the court of public opinion. Otherwise, you may cease to exist. Somebody needs to tell that to the poohbahs at Sterigenics.