CAMPAIGNS: Community Outreach - DPS clears the air in latestinitiative

On May 1, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston motorists were introduced to their third vehicle emissions program in less than a decade, and state officials wanted the new effort to be better-publicized and more graciously received than its predecessors.

Texas' first attempt at auto-emissions testing failed dismally. Citizens rebelled against the inconvenience and expense of getting safety inspections at one station and emissions tests at another, so advocating the program's demise was one of George W. Bush's first actions as governor in 1995.

The state then implemented less stringent and more convenient tests, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually demanded inspections that measured different pollutants.

With a new, tougher, more costly program to debut May 1, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) sought outside PR help. Austin's Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia was hired with funds scraped together from the DPS, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), and local councils of government.

Strategy

Research in other states, along with motorist surveys in areas where the EPA deemed testing necessary (several counties around Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston), showed that while citizens felt $35 was too much to pay for an auto inspection (tests ultimately cost $39), they were also concerned about air pollution. This was particularly true in Houston, where the smog level exceeds that of Los Angeles.

"The agency's goal was to increase consumer awareness and acceptance of the new enhanced emissions test, while creating an identifiable brand for the program, says agency president Kevin Tuerff. Officials also wanted to reach out to station owners who would perform the tests to head off any confusion or frustration.

The team settled on AirCheckTexas as its brand, and the slogan "So we can breathe it, not see it, to emphasize air-pollution reduction.

Tactics

Although some direct mail and advertising directed citizens to the program website, airchecktexas.com, the campaign relied heavily on cost-effective PR.

EnviroMedia staff brainstormed with state officials to identify potential crisis issues. The agency provided media training to the DPS' uniformed field spokespeople and to personnel who work closely with inspection stations.

The DPS and TNRCC board chairmen also campaigned actively, and participated in editorial board visits.

EnviroMedia also identified local business and environmental organization leaders to speak out on behalf of AirCheckTexas. "It was very difficult to find any elected official who wanted to come out up front with this, Tuerff explained.

Two-day media blitzes were organized in March, and again as the program took effect around May 1. The first round featured demonstrations of the new testing equipment. Media relations operatives arranged photo ops of last-minute equipment testing on April 30, and arranged for state legislators to be the first to have their autos inspected May 1. In mid-April, the team targeted local press in Collin and Denton counties near Dallas, which previously had not been subject to emissions testing.

Client: Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)
PR Team: Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia (Austin), personnel from DPS, the
Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and various local
organizations
Campaign: AirCheckTexas
Time Frame: Fall 2001-ongoing
Budget: About $1.25 million
Addressing concerns that too few inspection stations would be ready to offer testing in May, officials encouraged citizens to get their cars inspected in April. This caused a publicized rush on inspection stations, especially by motorists fearing the more stringent tests might mean expensive auto repairs.

Results

EnviroMedia tracked 42 television stories and 63 newspaper articles during the first two months of the campaign. Although not all coverage was positive, DPS officials said it was balanced and informative. "(EnviroMedia was) able to devote far more resources to getting the campaign off the ground than our three-person office could have, says DPS media relations chief Tela Mange.

"So far, the public has accepted it, says Don Wall, an environmental reporter at WFAA in Dallas, comparing AirCheckTexas to the despised 1995 program. "There does not seem to be any noticeable cry of rejection."

Future

The DPS has renewed EnviroMedia's contract through August 2003. Next spring, the emphasis will be on expanding the program to several additional counties where emissions tests haven't been required in the past.

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