Case Study: Steel Magnolia: Research Tracks–and Backs–an Effort to Polish One Industry’s Tarnished Image


Company: AISI Agency: Blue Worldwide & Vistance Timeframe: 2006-ongoing Despite the technological and environmental advances that transformed it into a recycling leader, America's steel industry was still being characterized with outdated terms by U.S. policy makers as steel transitioned to the 21st century. In the years between 1998 and 2003, cheap foreign steel was dumped on U.S. shores, leading to bankruptcies and widespread layoffs within domestic steel companies. By that point, many leaders inside the Beltway had dismissed the steel industry as being environmentally irresponsible. To determine the depth and breadth of policy makers' negative perceptions about the steel industry, the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct primary research in March 2006, against which progress could be tracked. Interviews were conducted among 302 politically active thought leaders in the Washington, D.C., region, revealing that the steel industry had a strong presence when it came to themes of national security and economic impact among this group. However, attitudes regarding the steel industry's environmental record were fuzzy; many surveyed had a limited awareness that steel is highly recyclable. Other findings revealed that some policy makers were under the false impression that steelmaking in the U.S. was in decline when, in reality, production has remained steady and even experienced periods of slight increases. The research methodology also included testing to evaluate the most effective public relations and advertising messages. Recyclable Benefits On the basis of these collective revelations, AISI, working in tandem with ad agency Blue Worldwide and strategic communications firm Vistance Group (which has since closed its doors), launched a brand-driven, integrated communications campaign to refurbish the steel industry's reputation in the eyes of Washington policy makers, including members of Congress, their staffs, federal agency officials and White House officials. "We wanted to change a perception that was really yesterday's news," says Robert McKernan, president of Blue Worldwide. "The good news for us was that there were many new things in the steel industry that people weren't aware of, so we had a lot of evidence on our side to make our case. So, it was a combination of having people really look at the field through a new window and having the backup to be able to explain why this was an entirely new, modern, environmentally compatible industry, and an industry able to compete around the globe on a level playing field." Seeking to achieve a public policy environment that was more favorable to the U.S. steel industry, the team outlined the following objectives as necessary to the success of the New Steel campaign: Shift policy makers' perceptions of the steel industry from "old, dirty, outdated and in need of protection," to "clean, modern, high tech and globally competitive"; Improve the substance of what is being seen and heard in Washington about the steel industry; and, Build awareness among policy makers of steel's environmental profile, especially its leadership in recycling. One Carbon Footprint At A Time Analysis of the research made it clear that AISI needed to dispel misconceptions about the industry while rebranding steel production as a clean, environmentally progressive industry. To achieve this, AISI turned to respected thought leaders, among them economists, professors and researchers, all of whom could tell the steel industry's story with credibility based on their expertise in economics, environment and technology. Deferring to third-party advocates or experts was an important element of the campaign's success. "They can tell your story much more effectively than you can tell it yourself," says Nancy Gravatt, VP of communications for AISI. This particularly applied in instances in which a reporter needing additional information could be referred to the campaign's third-party experts, who could describe the significance of the steel industry in creditable terms. Also working to AISI's advantage were the industry's technological and environmental gains. Organizing all this into messages that could be repeated throughout all the media channels, AISI moved ahead to launch a two-pronged public relations and advertising program. The pretesting/research phase had identified four messages that would support the "New Steel" brand used throughout the campaign: America's steel industry is the backbone of U.S. manufacturing; The U.S. steel industry is progressive and innovative; America's steel industry is reducing its environmental footprint; and, The steel industry is vital to the U.S.' economic and national security. AISI's Web site, http://www.steel.org, would play an active role in the campaign by providing detailed information in support of the campaign's four messages, fact sheets and white papers. To augment steel's online presence, AISI used paid search on Google.com to send policy-driven traffic to http://www.steel.org, which has become one of the top three sponsored links searchers will see. Another tactic was to saturate media outlets that target the campaign's main audiences. Full-page ads ran in publications widely read by Washington policy makers (Roll Call, National Journal, Congressional Quarterly, The Hill, Express). Transit ads included "car cards" inside D.C. Metro trains and large-scale dioramas in stations most frequented by federal government aides and staff members. Radio spots ran on four D.C. stations. Banner ads were posted on Washingtonpost.com, Rollcall.com and NationalJournal.com, driving policy makers to http://www.steel.org for fact sheets, position papers and case studies. Taking It To The Hill--And Beyond To narrow the knowledge gap about the steel industry's environmental profile, AISI organized Capitol Hill briefings, such as the AISI Environmental Briefing (April 2007) and Steel Caucus briefings (Feb./March 2007) that showcased the steel industry's commitment to a sustainable future. Then, to further spread the word about the steel industry being eco-friendly and progressive, article reprints were incorporated in a "Backbone Kit" used at one-on-one visits with congressional and government officials; likewise, news stories in regional media were e-mailed to congressional offices to draw attention to industry progress. Not everything was confined to the Hill, though. To spread the word about the industry's transformation, AISI's chairman and president Thomas Gibson went on a New York City media tour of top-tier business and financial media. AISI also steered reporters to thought leaders to comment on the industry's performance on an ongoing basis. Gravatt found this aspect of the program's media outreach to be highly effective. "For some people, it was almost counterintuitive that America's steel industry could have a great environmental and transformation story to tell, so we went directly to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times," she says. "They ended up writing pretty remarkable stories that helped us to have a great reprint in our media kit to take to Capitol Hill. It's very effective when you go and talk to a press secretary with a story in the New York Times talking about the steel industry's transformation. It lends a lot of credibility to our story. The financial business media industry in New York is so important in influencing how the financial community views your industry; that does directly impact on Capitol Hill as well." Built To Last The results of the campaign were far-reaching. Articles quoting experts provided by AISI showed that 53% featured one or more favorable mentions about the industry's revitalization. But the real proof that the campaign worked came in the form of tracking research (October 2007 against the March 2006 benchmark) conducted by Harris Interactive, which showed that among the target audience, there is a much-improved perception of the steel industry as being modern, clean and globally competitive. The Harris tracking also determined that there has been a 7 point gain in those aware of steel's leadership in recycling--one of the campaign's key messages. The campaign also resulted in several favorable legislative/policy decisions, including a $60 million appropriation to invest in metals technologies and the securing of government funding to develop the next generation of steel to lower emissions. PRN CONTACTS: Nancy Gravatt, ngravatt@steel.org; Robert McKernan, bob.mckernan@blueadvertising.com Want To Reverse A Negative Image? Get Some Backup If you are representing a client or are with a company that wants to alter a negative public perception based on outdated information, you'll need to follow these best practices, says AISI's communications VP, Nancy Gravatt: 1. "It's essential to do research so that you know exactly--and in what detail--the misperceptions are about your industry." 2. "You will need to arm yourself with the strongest facts that demonstrate the positive stories you have to tell, but make sure that they're accurate, defensible, supported by statistics and studies." 3. "Have a 'truth squad' approach. You're trying to tell this compelling story, but the minute that you see something that's wrong about your industry or client, particularly if it's in a prominent media outlet, you need to get it corrected. Make sure it doesn't linger out there. That's an area in which third-party advocates can be so effective."

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