Nelson Doesn't Just Blow Smoke in Clean Air Campaign Federal laws may start in Washington but they don't often stop there. Beginning several years ago, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District (APDC) decided to translate federal and state air pollution laws into a multi-faceted education effort by increasing public awareness about commuting options and alternative public commuting behaviors. It turned to the communications professionals. Four years and three firms after launching its PR efforts with a $715,000 budget, the APCD hired local firm Nelson Communications Group to unearth new ways to promote commuting on a continuous basis. The APCD created a laundry list of emission reduction projects in the San Diego region, including van pool subsidies, shuttle services, a guaranteed ride home program and $20,000 of new bicycle racks to encourge cycling to work. The commuting campaign, however, was more than just good community relations. Local governments throughout the U.S. can face stiff fines if they don't work to enforce federal pollution reduction guidelines, coined Regional Air Quality Strategy (RAQS), to reduce emissions. Research commissioned several years ago by the City of San Diego indicated that messages advocating clean air aren't enough to bring about changes in driving habits, according to Denis McGee, one of the county's air quality contract managers. Those were the findings of Ilium Associates, a market research firm in Bellevue, Wash. "The biggest problem in reaching those in San Diego is that residents don't consider air pollution that bad when compared to Los Angeles." Officials obviously didn't want San Diego to earn a similar reputation, but they took some lessons from the L.A. controversy. Los Angeles, too, is under similar government compliance mandates, and a South Coast Air Quality Management Study reveals that stage-one alerts (residents are encouraged to cut down on strenuous activity) dropped from 121 in 1977 to seven in 1996. The San Diego Story Nelson provides a breath of fresh air to federal initiatives through several public education tactics. APCD's most powerful campaign initiative was the creation of the San Diego Commuters Club, which brings together the APCD's target audience. They launched the Club at Earth Day in Balboa Park in San Diego, with 80,000 participants at the April gathering. The Commuter's Club, which now tops 2,000 members and boasts a commuters hot line, has provided a motive for residents to change habits. APCD's public information budget this year was $250,000 and it's expected to reach $320,000 next year. Budget allocations vary according to the APCD projects which are in place. Those who join the club receive discounts on food, coffee, entertainment, newspapers and services from various businesses throughout the county. They also receive a quarterly newsletter, "Commuter News," which provides them with transit information, coupons and tips for drivers. Although NCG and APCD say they have no way to gauge the exact number of commuters using more emissions friendly methods in the San Diego area, press coverage provides some measure of the campaign's success as well as statistics that provide bench marking possibilites. News stories this year, for instance, report that air quality is the best it's been in the 40 years since pollution levels were first tested, according to EPA standards. This spring, for example, The San Diego Union-Tribune tipped its editorial cap to the commuter club. Creating A Commuting Community Although Nelson is credited with creating the club this year, it has also been recognized (it won an award from the San Diego PRSA chapter) for continually leveraging new messages meant to reach the 2.1 million San Diego area residents. To trigger interest, SDCC literature is circulated in both English and Spanish and includes everything from the entertaining to the serious. Examples of that surface in this "Did You Know?" feature, with these fast facts: In their cars, Americans make the equivalent of three million trips to the moon and back each year; the EPA estimates that 100 million U.S. residents encounter health problems from breathing dirty air. Newsletters and fliers promoting the club include phone numbers for local bus, trolley and train services, making it easier for commuters to call and compare the cost and time of all their opitons. NCG also generated some interest when it devised an Earth Day contest challenging kids to create a name for a commuters mascot. More than 100 children entered the contest. The winning entry, "EZ Rider," is now the mascot. The World of Transportation For PR firms, working on transportation issues requires an insider's knowledge because laws and policies change frequently, says Nelson's David Jacobs. Nelson's expertise in this market evolved out of VP Jim Bartell's former membership on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, along with the firm's work with clients like the non-profit, Citizens for Clean Air Policy. (Nelson 619/687-7000; APCD, 619/694-2422) Nelson Communications Group Number of Employees: 54 Number of Clients: 80 1997 Revenues: $5 million Campaign Highlights: NCG secured more than $2 million in public and private sponsorships and pro bono services to cover expenses. Companies included GTE Wireless, Einstein Brothers Bagels; the restaurant chain, Soup Plantation; and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board;It recorded and placed a series of paid radio ads that promote various emission reduction projects on 11 local stations; andIt secured full sponsorship and placement of an SDCC bus wrap for one year and arranged for it to rotate spots.
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