The appliance of science (to PR)

The whole Dasani debacle (MW March 25) highlighted the need to involve someone skilled in science communication when dealing with contamination crises. I listened to a Coca-Cola executive squirming on Radio 4’s PM programme, doing everything he could to avoid mentioning “cancer” in relation to the withdrawal. He ended up sounding shifty, as if he had something to hide.

In truth, no amount of Dasani would have given anyone cancer – they’d probably die of water intoxication first. The reason bromate limits are set for products is that a high level of bromate intake over the whole diet, over a long period, would significantly increase the risk of cancer. To ensure this does not happen, there are limits which apply to all products. A single product having an increased level of bromate will not, in itself, cause a significant cancer risk. However, if a company was allowed to keep a high-bromate product on the shelves, it would indicate to other companies that the limits were not taken seriously and so could result in widespread flouting – with the possibility of people getting long-term exposure to cancer-causing bromate levels.

Coca-Cola did what any conscientious, law-abiding company ought to do and removed the product to ensure it would comply with the law, rather than face the PR disaster of enforced removal. It is a pity the company then fluffed the business of communicating the scientific reasoning. Had they got this right, Coke’s representatives could have come across as knowledgeable and conscientious, instead of flustered and furtive. The UK has a number of courses turning out trained science communicators, so there is really no excuse for major companies not to use them when it comes to talking to the media on scientific issues.

Ian Simmons

Operations and marketing director

Techniquest

Cardiff

South Glamorgan

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