No single plastics processing operation has received as much bad press in recent years as Landis Plastics Inc. But in its bad fortune may lie some lessons for other industry companies on crisis management and public relations.
Like most processors, the privately held, Chicago Ridge, Ill.-based injection molder enjoyed a long history free from public scrutiny. That was until 1996, when a string of problems at its Solvay, N.Y., plant spawned damning articles in the local press and nationally, via the New York Times and other media.
Even USA Today reported that rock superstar Bruce Springsteen took up the cause — urging fans at one of his Syracuse, N.Y., concerts to speak out for workplace justice and devoting half the profits from T-shirt sales at that concert to the Central New York Labor-Religion Council on behalf of the Landis workers.
Everyone hates bad press. When you're embarrassed, it's natural to want to hide under a rock or get defensive. Crisis management expert Levy Rabinowitz says the natural reaction is the wrong reaction. A company in crisis should exploit the media to solve the problem constructively, says the president of 911 Crisis Issues Media Management in Baltimore.
Could Landis have avoided, or at least blunted, the bad publicity? Possibly, suggests Rabinowitz, if it had worked more positively with the media.
Company President Greg Landis said in a recent telephone interview that his firm wanted to tell its side of the story, but Landis' lawyers advised officials to talk as little as possible to the media.
The company's opponent in this issue, the United Steelworkers of America, was all too eager to fill the information void. The USW not only involved state and federal legislators, but also seized the moral high ground by teaming up with local church officials. It then exploited the media's hunger for information — any information — and used it to help paint the Landis plant in Solvay as irresponsible and indifferent.
Solvay is the site of a former Allied Chemical Co. plant where workers were represented by the USW, suggesting general support for the USW in the area. The USW relied on this potential goodwill to launch a unionization drive at the Landis plant in 1996, about two years after it opened.
USW's strategy from the start was to characterize the operation as unsafe. The plant did have a higher-than-average injury rate, so USW argued it needed a union to protect workers. The plant injection molds containers such as yogurt cups and prints them. By far, the most-serious worker injuries — including four within a 15-month span that involved finger amputations — occurred in the printing department.
USW got the New York Times on its side. The newspaper ran a lengthy article in the fall of 1996 criticizing the plant's high injury rate. Subsequent articles reported alleged poor safety documentation, sexual discrimination and harassment of union supporters.
While Landis weathered the bad press, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation of the facility in Solvay that led, in early 1997, to OSHA proposing fines of $720,700 for safety violations. At about the same time, the New York Workers' Compensation Board fined Landis $48,000 for failing to file Solvay injury reports on time.
Senior management at Landis headquarters tried to explain their safety position to the media, but their comments often appeared to be defensive.
The company vigorously contested the fines and even publicly brushed aside most violations as being equivalent to ``old parking tickets.''
Although Landis worked hard behind the scenes to improve safety at Solvay — it said it spent $1.5 million on related programs — it came across to the public as being insensitive and in denial.
In Rabinowitz's opinion, a company in crisis needs to communicate how it is remedying the problem. It should reach out through the media to clients, employees and the public to restore credibility and confidence, he said in an interview.
``Management is trained with a bunker mentality,'' Rabinowitz said. ``They look at a crisis as an operational event [such as a production or quality problem] and want to be left alone to solve it.''
A crisis, however, is a human event that can't be ``fixed.'' It calls for communication to work through it, he added.
Plastics News reported extensively on the issues at the Solvay plant. An Oct. 14, 1996, editorial that suggested that Landis' problems could taint the plastics industry as a whole elicited strong support from many longtime industry friends of the 54-year-old firm. Canada's Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., a supplier of injection presses to Landis, and other companies wrote letters to the editor saying Landis appeared to be a safe company and decried PN's treatment of the firm as unfair.
Landis and OSHA eventually negotiated the fine to $425,000. Landis responded positively by hiring a corporate safety director, agreeing to set up a program along OSHA guidelines, correcting record-keeping problems, providing more training for operators and implementing an ergonomics program.
Landis, however, chose not to announce these measures when it issued a terse press release about the renegotiated fine. Instead of using the opportunity to underscore its commitment to safety, Landis relied on OSHA to reveal Landis' safety measures in the federal agency's own press release.
The company, meanwhile, had other problems. While it was fighting the OSHA fine, a judge ruled in early 1998 that Landis rehire two female employees, both USW activists, whom Landis had fired for alleged sexual discrimination.
Later in the year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating alleged sexual discrimination at the Solvay facility.
Ironically, USW still hasn't unionized the Solvay plant. Although USW publicly embarrassed Landis, it has not convinced a majority of workers to vote yes to USW.
Louis Thomas, USW's northeast region director, blames high worker turnover at Solvay and outstanding EEOC issues for the current unionization stall.
Rabinowitz said post-crisis firms should have media-worthy programs to publicize their commitment to crisis prevention.
``They need to put in place programs to build back their image,'' he said.
Greg Landis said recently that if he had to go through the trouble all over again, he would communicate better with the media.
``I wished we could have talked more openly, but we listened to [our lawyers],'' he said. ``We are not arrogant at Landis.''