You're the CEO. There's an environmental crisis. What do you do?

Let’s say you’re the CEO of Wolverine Worldwide. Your company has a 130-year history of shoemaking. Your brands are well known – Sperry, Keds, Saucony, Stride Rite and licensed names like Cat and Harley-Davidson, among others.

Today you woke up to a New York Times article that essentially blames Wolverine for an environmental crisis near its western Michigan headquarters.

The story has been gaining traction for some time but really took off this year when tainted water was discovered near your former tannery. The gist is that the old tannery allegedly had dumped scraps, sludge and toxic substances for many years in the area, polluting the local water supply with PFAS, a group of manmade chemicals linked to health problems potentially including cancer.

The New York Times coverage changes everything. It magnifies the heat on Wolverine exponentially. Media attention will increase massively. It won’t be long until the social media arena explodes. There will be calls for boycotts. Elected officials will engage. Partners like Cat and Harley-Davidson are protective of their brands and will demand answers. Investors will be nervous. The list goes on.

As the CEO, your already rocky road ahead just became a mine field. What’s your next move? How do you respond to the NYT article? What do you communicate and to whom?

Since no one like a 50,000-word blog, let’s look at some especially pressing needs.

Take the Wolverine Worldwide website, for example. On the plus side, the site devotes its “Environment” page to the dumping situation. Of course, the word “dumping” is nowhere to be found, as you’d expect.

But the tone of the page is cold and corporate. Probably because it was written mostly by the C-suite and heavily massaged by a squadron of lawyers concerned solely with liability. Empathy and anything remotely human are totally absent. Here’s a key piece of text from the page:

“Wolverine has established We Are Wolverine, a blog that allows us to create a regular cadence of information and maintain transparency with residents in our hometown. This blog is updated regularly and is a recommended resource for the latest information on our current environmental matters.”

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No real person talks that way. “Regular cadence of information” -- seriously? And “environmental matters” is such an obvious attempt to gloss over the ugly reality of what that phrase really means. You can imagine someone making air quotes with their fingers while speaking the phrase “environmental matters.” Ditto for the phrase, “the situation,” used a little lower on the same page.

Words and phrases like these, which say virtually nothing, are patronizing. They likely make those dealing with “situations” and “matters” in the neighborhoods near Wolverine feel suspicious and angry. By fueling suspicion and anger this way, Wolverine is only energizing their outrage.

So, as CEO, you need the company to sound more human. More empathy, less corporate non-communication.

If the presidential election of 2016 proved anything, it’s that people are sick and tired of overly sanitized talking points. They’re onto that game and they now demand honest, frank, genuine communications. Just as true for consumer products as for politicians.

A more relatable tone shouldn’t be limited to the website. It should be baked into public appearances, news media interviews, social media, etc. The key messaging (those pesky talking points again) also should be more human in tone and substance.

Real humans don’t say things like “cadence of information.” They say, “Look, we live here, too, and we’re sincerely trying to sort everything out and make things better. Let me tell you what we’re doing about that, and tell me what’s on your mind, too.”

In short, the company doesn’t need to sound like a faceless corporation. It needs to sound like a person. A person who cares. A person who honestly wants to do the right thing.

Oh, the lawyers won’t agree. For them the only thing that matters is exposure. Each phrase, word and punctuation mark is reviewed with the only concern being whether it increases or reduces exposure to liability and legal action. That’s a legitimate priority, without a doubt. It’s almost certainly the reason for the icy language on Wolverine’s website.

What it cannot, must not be is the only priority. Every stakeholder in Wolverine’s orbit needs to know – really know – that the company genuinely cares, has a soul, and will do whatever it takes to make things right. If the lawyers have total control of words and tone, that’s not going to happen, and the suspicions and anger will grow quickly.

Eric Whittington