We’re all on drugs: This explains everything!

The AP today released the second segment of its 3-part series about drugs in our water supply. We’re all on dope, it seems — even the fish, and wait ’til you hear what it’s doing to them.

rx.jpgYesterday’s AP story tells us that municipal systems serving over 40 million Americans report finding traces of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water. Drugs detected range from OTC pain killers and decongestants to prescription meds of all sorts. No one can say how these substances affect public heath, but if the fish are any indication…

Some of the fish exposed to the drug-laden water have lower fish_fishgonad1.jpgsperm counts, and their gonads are shrinking. That’s right, shrinking! So now the story morphs from “just another toxic scare” to a horror that strikes at the very heart of one’s reproductive being — if you know what I mean. And yes, those are fish gonads.

Enough with the jokes. As PR professionals, this story raises questions in two areas: our communication transparency and our communication competence. We must examine both.

This passage from Part One of the AP story has me thinking about transparency:

Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public “doesn’t know how to interpret the information” and might be unduly alarmed.

Since they can’t handle the truth, let’s just not tell them. Hmmm! There’s a strategy that will get you nowhere. Transparency is the foundation of modern PR practice (which should not to be confused with marketing) and has been for decades. Transparency is key to building trust and foster relationships. But you know all that.

To admit you don’t test the water for toxins is negligence. But to say you won’t communicate what the tests reveal is unconscionable. That kind of silence isn’t public relations, it is deceitful spin and flackery.

My second concern is communication competence. Do most PR professionals have the science savvy needed to communicate a story like this? I’m not so sure.

While in school, I scored well in math and science, and it paid off. I was the writer my bosses and clients would call on to interpret the complex — to “dumb it down” for the masses. I don’t consider myself a geek, but I speak the language.

Translating geek-speak is an important skill in this complex and toxic world. More than ever, PR professionals need knowledge of science AND communication skills to connect with stakeholders.

Most PR students in my classrooms are writers, not chemists. They’re right-brained dreamers — smart, but not in a quantitative way. Physics and chemistry are as foreign to them as Mandarin Chinese. I wonder how they would perform if asked to manage this “drug water” story. Would they simply tell the good people of California that it’s, you know, “complicated”?

My friends in Cleveland needn’t worry. Your city doesn’t measure pharma-pollutants in the water, so it must not be a problem here on the shores of pristine Lake Erie.

In Washington, D.C. it’s a different story, where drugs in the water almost certainly explain the collective lack of courage on Capitol Hill. Maybe the water has Congress suffering from a massive case of shrinking cajones.

tsigfy.gifThere may be an upside to this story. Maybe, just maybe these tap-water drugs will actually treat our ailments. Maybe the kitchen sink will become tomorrow’s fountain of youth — a healing spring of sorts. Maybe the toxins in our tap water are good for us.

I don’t know if John Stauber reads this blog, but I read his. He keeps me honest.

10 Responses to We’re all on drugs: This explains everything!

  1. Joseph says:

    There are a few filters on the market that are certified for the removal of synthetic organic chemicals (SOCs) and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Most prescription and over the counter drugs fall under those categories. Check them out http://www.waterfiltercomparisons.com

    I hope you find this information useful. Until there’s some standard set for the removal of prescription and OTC drugs I guess it’s up to us to do it on an individual basis.

  2. Mike Keliher says:

    I’d argue that PR people really shouldn’t worry about having enough “science savvy.” It’s not our job to be amateur chemists. We’re supposed to do the necessary work to understand what the chemists know and communicate that to people without and science savvy – you know, in English.

    Also, if I were a PR person for, say, a “water provider,” I’d hopefully be a bit more science savvy than a PR for, say, Wells Fargo bank or the local food shelf.

    And regardless of my science savvy, I’d hope to god I never end up being the person who decides, “You know, this is bad news, but it’s too complex. Let’s just sit on this one…”

  3. Shelley Prisco says:

    No one said that PR was an easy job. Practitioners are constantly walking that fine line, never knowing who’s going to get pissed off and put the blame on them for God knows what. It’s hard to be transparent in this world, which in a sense, can project a state of vulnerability. People will trample on vulnerability. That could be why so many people withhold truths, partial or whole. There are just plain selfish reasons, too.

    I agree that communication competence is a key factor in effective strategy. Not everyone is going to be good at retaining the complicated “science” jargon unless they work in it on a daily basis, though.

    I feel that my head is going to explode with the physical therapy knowledge circulating in my head right now. But next year, I will start working in the field everyday, and the jargon will make a lot more sense. It will be to my advantage to know this “science” stuff because I want to write articles and communicate with different publics about physical therapy. There’s a time and place for just about anything.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Maybe I should clarify. I don’t expect PR pros to be scientists or even to know the jargon of scientific disciplines. But what I see in the next generation of practitioners is a group with an aversion to things quantitative: math, science — even accounting and finance. Maybe it’s not a problem at all, but it’s safe to say our world isn’t getting any less complex.

  5. Of course, the AP story also mentioned that the concentrations of these foreign elements are quite low — nor does there appear to be any demonstrable risk to people. The fish are literally imbued entirely in the water — and are much smaller and lighter than humans (though checking babies for drugs might be a good idea…). This story seems likely to cause a scare –“my G-d, they’re drugging us!” for no reason. Shouldn’t we worry more about the safety of our food from biological contaminant than tiny traces of drugs? How indeed should we interpret this information?

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    You’re right, Sean. And I guess that is, in part, the point: We’re left to interpret this stuff on our own — and to turn it into a scare when perhaps it shouldn’t be. I believe PR needs to play a role in clearing the air — or the water, as it were — on issues like this one. Otherwise, the public water supply runs the risk of becoming a chapter in John Stauber’s next edition of “Toxic Sludge.”

    Food supply is another issue, indeed. Just a few weeks back my colleague, Jeanette Drake, pointed to concerns on rBGH and the milk supply. And I’m guessing it’s one of many stories waiting for more in-depth investigation by an understaffed and under-appreciated MSM — the erstwhile guardians of democracy. They’re a bit busy covering American Idol.

  7. John Stauber says:

    Q: How much do I owe you for this plug, Bill?

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not a dime, John. Just happy you dropped in.

    I’m speaking tomorrow to an Ethics class that has just watched the “Toxic Sludge” video. You know, we’re not all like those folks, and some of us work hard to promote a symmetrical approach to PR. But we also count on you and Rampton to keep the rest of those PR jamokes honest. Thanks for your vigilance.

  9. letterhead says:

    Bill…. very true. All of it. But it’s not necessarily “science” brained people PR should be after. As you know, I was a philosophy grad and have an MA in cretive writing.

    But I have written (quite well I am told!) on topics as diverse as non-stochastic investment optimization, pharmaceutical patent extension, corporate governance and Islamic investing. To be versatile in our advocacy, the important thing PR people need is analytical hosepower… to be able to dig into ANY topic, understand the basic concepts and definitions, and then structure them into an argument or position.

    It’s an issue of logic, critical thinking, judgement and argumentation rather than niche science expertise. You can gain the latter from sitting with an expert for 90 minutes or reviewing a presentation slide deck. I think it’s the former that they’re paying us for.

    – Martin

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    I don’t disagree with a word you say. But I have a funny feeling you’re smarter and more critical in your thinking than most folks in this business. That’s why I read your blog.

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