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.
Yesterday’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 sperm 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.
There 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.