ANALYSIS: Industries in image trouble must face all their critics

The coal industry wants to improve its image, and in looking at similar turnaround efforts, John N. Frank discovers that a one-size-fits-all PR campaign won't be the answer.

The coal industry wants to improve its image, and in looking at similar turnaround efforts, John N. Frank discovers that a one-size-fits-all PR campaign won't be the answer.

Few industries have faced as much public scrutiny and negative press as the coal business. The industry has a history of stormy - often bloody - labor relations. It lost favor as natural gas became the fuel of choice for homeowners, as well as large chunks of industrial America because gas was seen as less polluting. Environmentalists have hammered at the pollution caused by burning coal, and also vocally campaigned against strip-mining techniques they claim rape the land. So the coal industry has decided it's time to use PR to position coal as an important natural resource and a vital industry. The campaign is beginning in West Virginia, the largest coal-producing state in the country. The state coal group has hired Charles Ryan Associates for a five-year, $5 million effort. Agency chairman and CEO Charles Ryan wants to position coal as the energy source of choice for West Virginians. He plans to stress the positive economic impact coal has, and he told a recent meeting of the West Virginia Coal Association earlier this month, "Coal is a good neighbor - socially, environmentally, and economically. We say that because we can back that up. You can't do image without substance. Well, folks, I think the coal industry has substance." What lies ahead How difficult a task does coal face? How can an industry with a tarnished reputation rehabilitate that image with a well-thought-out PR campaign? A successful campaign needs substance, as Ryan points out, and those who have worked to turn around other industries or trade groups would agree. But a successful campaign of this scope also needs research to identify problems the industry faces; tailoring of messages that will resonate with all the audiences the industry must reach; stepped-up internal communications to change industry activities so they back up the new messages being put out to the public; measurable, attainable, realistic goals; and above all, long-term commitment. "You have to have done enough research to know that the arguments you are about to make will resonate," says Bob Sommer, EVP with The MWW Group. That means finding out exactly what key audiences think, and taking their concerns seriously. Too often, clients with poor reputations are either out of touch with their audiences or don't consider others' concerns. That attitude must change for a campaign to be effective. When Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates in New York, was doing work for a construction union, one of the first things he had to do was convince union members that the image they had - as lazy workers who sat around construction sites whistling at passing women - was not good for their business. "A lot of it ended up turning into an internal communications effort," he recalls. Research he did for the client "found out the problem was much deeper than they thought" when it came to public perception. Mary Beth Aiello, SVP of Skutski & Oltmanns in Pittsburgh, found similar perception problems when she started working on a campaign for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. She also found the problem wasn't just with the public; negative images meant the union was losing members, and that members were losing potential jobs to nonunion workers. "Change takes time, energy, and a lot of commitment," Aiello says. The carpenters' campaign, which started in 1999, began when the union "changed their own way of thinking about things," she says. Aiello's research also demonstrated the importance of recognizing all important audiences. Her client's problems weren't just with the public, they were with contractors and even other workers trying to decide if they should join the union or not. A one-size-fits-all message won't work in such a campaign, Aiello and others agree. "If you've missed an audience, your message is incomplete," says Paul. "Most of these image problems are coming from not looking from the perspectives of all the audiences you have to reach." Targeting all audiences even means being prepared to answer an industry's harshest critics. While you may never win them over to your point of view, you can neutralize their arguments in the minds of audiences that are undecided about how to think about the industry. Specific goals for each target "You have to take a harsh look at reality and decide where to put your resources," says Christine Barney, CEO of RBB Public Relations in Miami. She recommends setting specific goals to achieve with each target audience. Last year, her firm began working with the Florida Bar Association to address lawyers' image problems. "We wanted to get the message out that attorneys and judges do good work," says Tadd Schwartz, a VP and partner at RBB. "We're not trying to whitewash the bad. What we're trying to do is put out the word that nine of 10 attorneys and nine of 10 judges do good work." The campaign began with media relations, but the agency also decided to strike alliances with Florida law schools, which also had an interest in seeing lawyers' images upgraded. This allowed the agency to schedule events at major Florida college football games under the tagline, "Power on the Field. Dignity in Law." The events featured former college football players who had become lawyers, who talked about pro bono work attorneys are doing. The agency also encouraged lawyers around the state to send in tips about other lawyers doing good work that might interest the media. That generated 20-30 tips a week, which the agency then pitched to local media, targeting 800 reporters in Florida. Six months into the campaign, it's gotten coverage in all of Florida's major dailies and The National Law Journal, a major trade publication. "It's very important not to skimp on the goal-setting right up front," says Barney. "It's vital to know how the program is working." The carpenters union had lost almost half its national membership in the 1980s and '90s. Since Skutski & Oltmanns has been working on its image campaign, the union has seen membership rise 40% in Little Rock, AR, and go from zero to 280 members in Boise, ID - two of the target markets. The union has also seen more contractors willing to work with it, says Aiello. She agrees on the importance of goal-setting, but also recommends patience. Decades of misperceptions won't change in a few months. "It really was baby steps," she says. MWW's Sommer agrees. "It's taken half a century to end up where they are," he says of coal's image problems. The coal campaign "has to anticipate what they'll be up against, not just next year, but through the next election. By definition, it's not a one-year campaign." Coal's image is anachronistic, Sommer says. "It's seen as something quaint, like using a railroad for vacation travel. They may be so down and forgotten that they almost get a fresh start now." He advises the industry to come up with credible messages and to face its detractors. "You have to at least show that while their concerns are well-meaning, they're no longer valid," he says. Sommer has worked on getting brownfields - redeveloped waste sites - used for new development. Rather than talk about what the areas used to be, MWW talks about what they could be, and addresses environmental concerns by noting that developing brownfields near cities preserves nearby farmland that might otherwise be built on. The agency also tells local municipalities and area residents of the advantages of redevelopment. "When you unveil your campaign, you can't be speaking to you," he says. "You have to win new friends." So, will that mean new friends for coal? Stranger things have happened. Paul recalls that pork was once thought of as a fatty meat people didn't want to eat. The pork industry has successfully repositioned it as a lean alternative to chicken. Whether the new coal campaign succeeds will depend on how much homework is done, how well audiences are defined, and how well messages are tailored to those audiences.

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