A Cefic-Commissioned Survey Paints a Fair Picture of the Chemical Industry’s Reputation across Europe
Room for Improvement - The chemical industry seems to be improving its reputation across Europe among the general public and opinion leaders, according to the results of a survey commissioned by the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic).
The study which covered almost 6,000 people in Brussels and 10 European countries found variations in levels of reputation of the countries among the populations of different states and their opinion leaders. In Brussels, policy makers, such as members of the European Parliament and European Commission official, and policy influencers, mainly NGOs and non-chemical trade associations, had a more positive view of the industry than the general public and opinion leaders in most of the countries.
Despite its apparent better public image, however, the industry still lags behind other sectors with Europeans having overall a more favourable view of segments like computers and biotechnology.
The survey, conducted by APCO Insight, a US-based polling company, comprised around 40 questions covering innovation and competiveness, safety, co-operation with governments, community involvement and the environment. Participants were asked how they rated from a scale of 1 to ten the industry's performance on aspects of each of these areas. They were also questioned about aspects like what products they associated with the industry and their awareness of the industry's Responsible Care programme.
From the answers APCO calculated a reputation index of 1-100 with ‘reputation' being defined as the industry's perceived ability to meet people's expectations. Scores above 50 were regarded as positive because they showed that the industry was closer to satisfying expectations than otherwise.
Among the general public in the 10 countries, the reputation index averaged 56.5 with the UK having the highest at 63.8 followed by Germany with 60.1 and France and Italy the lowest at 52.2 and 51.6 respectively.
With opinion leaders, including political and other activists, the average across the selected countries was 58.6 with the UK and Germany have the highest scores and France the lowest. In what Cefic called the Brussels ‘Bubble', opinion leaders had a score of 57.7, policy makers 61.1 and policy influencers 62.7.
A Platform for Further Upgrades
Cefic sees the results of the survey as providing a platform for further upgrades of the industry's reputation across Europe. "Our reputation is better than we felt it was," Ben van Beurden, head of Cefic's Programme Council on Communication, said at a press conference in London during Cefic's annual general assembly. "But there is still room for improvement if we compare our image with that of other industries," he continued. "There is a clear need to address key concerns more transparently. The survey is an incentive to communicate more positively on our achievements and aspirations and to keep the conversation going with our stakeholders, including the press."
One major effect of the study may be that the industry will now be less defensive because of a new belief that the benefits of its operations are being appreciated. "We have tended to be more self-critical than we needed to be," said Mr van Beurden, Shell's executive vice president, chemicals, who will become a member of Shell's Executive Committee effective January 1, 2013. "We have tended to be too tough on ourselves. It's a little surprising that on quite sophisticated issues there is a very positive impression of the industry."
The Levers behind the Industry's Reputation
The study was based on a polling model which was different from previous opinion surveys commissioned by Cefic and which have shown that the industry had a generally poor image across Europe. So its results cannot be directly compared with past polling figures. "Due to this survey we have more insight into what are the levers behind the reputation of the industry," explained Mr van Beurden.
Among the chemical industry's strengths in terms of reputation were its involvement with what is regarded as quality-of-life products. When the general public was asked with what they associated the chemical industry, the highest proportion (35%) said cleaning products and 23% pharmaceuticals.
Another area of high scoring in the survey was innovation in which people were asked to rank the industry as a facilitator of the development of chemicals "essential for the creation of new products and processes."
The industry also performed well on energy efficiency, both in relation to its own energy usage and its creation of products which encourage better use of energy among its customers and further downstream.
There were lower scores, however, on issues related to the environment and safe use of products. "Dealing with environmental matters and use of natural resources were seen as a weakness of the industry," said Mr van Beurden." These are a potential Achilles heel for the industry and something we need to work on."
Risks versus Benefits
Nonetheless, more people appear to be acknowledging that chemicals are essential to their standard of living. More are emphasizing the importance of the benefits of chemicals against their risks. When people were asked in the 10 countries surveyed whether the benefits of the positive aspects of chemicals outweighed their risks, 65% opted for the benefits while 35% thoughts the risks were more important.
In the Brussels Bubble there were two separate questions on benefits against risks, one on the environment and the other on health. On the environment there was a 62-38% gap in favour of the benefits and with health 69-31%, possibly because a lot of people categorise pharmaceuticals as chemicals.
On the whole the more informed people were about chemicals, the more likely they were to have a favorable view of the industry. Opinion leaders, who had to be daily readers of printed or online news, including that on issues affecting the chemical industry, to participate in the survey, tended to give higher scores than the general public.
The exceptions were France and the Netherlands were the reputation index scores among the opinion leaders was marginally lower -51.6 against 52.2 and 57.4 against 57.9 respectfully. The biggest divide between the two groups was in Italy in which the general public's score of 51.6 contrasted with the opinion leaders' 57.3.
One key question in the survey turned out to be that covering Responsible Care, the industry's voluntary programme on health, safety and environmental improvement and sustainable development. The results showed that the more the respondents were aware of the initiative the more likely they were to have positive views of the industry.
In the 10 countries in the survey 18% of the general public and 33% of opinion formers were aware of Responsible Care. In Brussels the proportion was 41% among opinion leaders, 42% among policy influencers and 37% among policy makers.
Among those aware of Responsible Care at the country level, the Reputation Index of the general public was 57.6, over 1 point higher than the average total score, while the margin of difference was similar with opinion leaders -59.7 against 58.6. The difference was even bigger among Brussels stakeholders with those aware of Responsible Care giving a 6 points higher score than the average.
"It is now very clear that there is a clear correlation between knowledge about initiatives like Responsible Care and the reputation of the industry," said Mr van Beurden. "It is a lever which can move the reputation needle forward by several point among certain groups. It will help us target our communications messages more effectively."
Cefic will now be adapting its communications strategy in the light of the results of the survey. It will be hoping then to achieve even higher Reputation Index scores when it conducts its next survey, likely to be in 2014.