- While the debate around PFAS is still focused mainly on the chemicals industry, there is growing media scrutiny of other sectors such as food, cosmetics, retail and fashion.
- Our analysis suggests that brands producing PFAS could learn some health comms lessons from Big Tobacco and some environmental PR lessons from Big Oil.
- We also found that companies can easily lose the narrative in the flurry of new research findings, while first-movers’ advantage in terms of proactively taking measures is still up for grabs.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “forever chemicals”), entered the media conversation just a few years ago, but research has already linked them to everything from liver cancer to reproductive health issues, and some states have moved to ban them altogether.
The conversation intensified when the US Congress passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which will require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water in the future.
To see what the PFAS media debate means for PR and comms, we analysed 526 English-language articles published in the last two years in top-tier media outlets. Here are our top findings:
1. PFAS producers can learn some health comms lessons from Big Tobacco…
Communication around PFAS and tobacco share several similarities.
In the past, tobacco companies denied that smoking was harmful to health and actively worked to discredit scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer and other diseases. Similarly, some companies that use PFAS in their products or are involved in PFAS remediation have downplayed the health risks associated with exposure to these chemicals. For example, a multiyear probe found that companies like 3M and DuPont marketed products containing PFAS for decades despite knowing they cause cancer, developmental defects and other health problems.
To avoid being blamed for using “the tobacco strategy” – the use of PR campaigns to deny the scientific consensus on the dangers of certain products – companies that produce PFAS should provide clear and accurate information about the health risks associated with these chemicals and be transparent about their use and the risks associated with exposure.
By doing this, they can tap into the main topic of the PFAS debate:
But there are PR lessons to be learned not only from Big Tobacco’s mistakes but also from the ways it tries to fix them. Tobacco companies have invested in promoting their solutions for reducing smoking rates, such as smoking cessation programs. Similarly, companies that produce PFAS should promote their solutions for reducing exposure to these chemicals, such as safer alternatives and more effective remediation methods.
2. …and some environmental comms lessons from Big Oil
Since Environmental contamination is the second largest topic in the debate, companies that produce PFAS can learn several environmental PR and communications lessons from oil and gas – an industry which has already been accused of using the tobacco strategy to deny the environmental impact of their products.
To clean up its reputation, Big Oil has invested in research and development to find new and cleaner energy sources and technologies to reduce their environmental impact. Similarly, companies that produce PFAS should be proactive in finding safer alternatives to these chemicals and investing in research to find more effective ways to remediate contaminated sites.
Oil and gas companies have also recognised the importance of engaging with stakeholders, including local communities, environmental groups, and policymakers, to build trust and address concerns. Companies that produce PFAS should engage with stakeholders who are concerned about PFAS contamination, share information, and work together to find solutions.
These include the policy bodies like the US Environmental Protection Agency, and activist groups like the Environmental Working Group:
Oil and gas companies have learned the hard way that being transparent about their environmental impact and the steps they are taking to address it can help build trust and credibility with customers and stakeholders. Companies that produce PFAS should be transparent about their use of these chemicals, the environmental impact, and the steps they are taking to reduce or eliminate exposure.
3. The debate becomes cross-industry, so nobody’s safe
Just because your company didn’t create the PFAS problem doesn’t mean you should be afraid of taking responsibility and claiming the issue as your own.
Not doing so could mean that someone else—regulators, environmentalists, manufacturers, or even customers themselves—takes control of the narrative. For example, when consumers discover that they have potential carcinogens in their drinking water, “it wasn’t me!” probably won’t cut it as an excuse.
This is particularly important since the PFAS problem is becoming an increasingly cross-industry debate, so no industry is safe from scrutiny. You might think that the Chemical industry is at the centre of it all – and for now, it’s still the focus of the conversation – but apart from chemical giants like 3M and DuPont, the media has recently started reporting on companies from the Food & Drink, Retail, Fashion and Cosmetics sectors:
For example, research last month from Consumer Reports found that PFAS were still cropping up in food packaging at major fast food chains, things like McDonald’s bags for French fries and Burger King‘s bags for cookies. And since then, at least three lawsuits have been filed against these two burger chains over their use of these chemicals.
Another lawsuit that gained media traction was against cosmetics company L’Oréal, which failed to disclose its Waterproof Mascara Products contain PFAS. Meanwhile, many outlets reported that retail corporation REI failed to commit to phasing out toxic PFAS from the products it makes and sells.
4. Companies can easily lose the narrative in the flurry of new research
The PFAS media debate is largely dominated by policy-makers, academics and activists who keep making headlines when finding forever chemicals in products or waterways.
This means that if companies don’t become the first communicators on the subject—that is, the first point of truth that the public turns to for accurate PFAS information—they risk losing control of the narrative completely. Finding PFAS in a wrapper or a piece of clothing becomes a scandal, and then suddenly PR teams have to start throwing solutions against the wall to make up for the fact that they’re behind. And that’s where you start making mistakes.
Becoming the first point of accurate PFAS information is especially pertinent since the PFAS media debate is intensifying as of late. The number of articles in our sample more than doubled in Q1 2023 in comparison to the previous quarter:
This was mainly because of the news that the EU started to consider a proposal to ban PFAS in what could become the bloc’s most extensive piece of regulation of the chemical industry.
This news resulted in the media amplification of new research findings – for instance, many journalists reporting on the EU proposal also mentioned that all toilet paper from across the globe checked for PFAS contained the compound, and the waste flushed down toilets and sent to sewage treatment plants likely creates a significant source of water pollution.
5. First-movers advantage is up for grabs
Going first on PFAS won’t just allow companies to cut down on public relations risk. It could also permanently cement their place as leaders and experts on the issue, building lasting credibility with customers, media and other stakeholders who are looking for answers.
Companies should communicate early and often with customers and stakeholders about their use of PFAS in products, any potential health risks associated with exposure to these chemicals, and the steps they are taking to reduce or eliminate exposure to PFAS.
So far, not many companies have been truly proactive, so the PR benefits of first movers are up for grabs. In our research sample, industrial conglomerate 3M became the most influential company in terms of media impact with its move to stop making PFAS by 2025.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
Most media publications noted that so far, 3M is the only major producer planning a wholesale exit from PFAS.
The news also made Mike Roman, 3M’s chief executive officer, the most influential corporate spokesperson in the conversation. He was quoted as saying the decision was an acknowledgement of “accelerating regulatory trends” and increasing customer unease with the use of PFAS.
Other firms have been going in the opposite direction, as some fluoropolymers, such as PVDF, become increasingly important in growing sectors such as lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. For example, Solvay recently announced an $850 million plan to build an integrated PVDF plant in the southeastern US to serve the battery industry.
Meanwhile, Chemours gained media influence as it announced it is committed to fluorine chemistry. It pointed out that in 2018 it pledged to reduce emissions of fluorinated organic compounds by 99%, but some journalists noted that as of 2021, it had reduced them by 40%.