Early last year, in an article about the perils of allowing discarded electronic products to pile up in landfills, Wired News called e-waste the "dark side of the digital age."At the time, a significant amount of the concern over the discarded products - some of which contained toxic materials like lead, cadmium, and mercury - had singled out the computer industry and its leading figure, Dell.
Although Dell already had a recycling program in place, consumer awareness was low and several activist groups had accused the computer giant of not doing enough to reduce the amount of rotted-out Dell Dimensions dotting the landscape.
Dell turned to its US PR agency of record, GCI Group, and specialty shop EnviroMedia to improve awareness of the company's computer exchange program and, by extension, bolster its reputation on environmental issues. Working together, the two agencies had won a competitive pitch for Dell's environmental business, and the partners' first assignment would be a five-city recycling tour to show that Dell was anything but a part of that dark side.
To publicize enhancements to Dell's consumer recycling program, the PR team embarked on a tour of Nashville, TN, Columbus, OH, Charlotte, NC, Portland, OR, and Austin, TX - each chosen because it's either a strong consumer base for Dell, a community known for its environmental concern, or a place with a large amount of college kids.
EnviroMedia, which had won plaudits for organizing a nationwide recycling day, opened doors with stakeholders in the environmental community and developed the model for the recycling days.
"We knew it needed to be a public-private partnership with recycling stakeholders," says Kevin Tuerff, president and principal of EnviroMedia. "At each of the tour stops, we opened the doors in a short period of time and convinced local city solid-waste offices, environmental groups, Keep America Beautiful affiliates, and others to partner with the program by providing publicity and volunteer labor for the events. It would have cost 10 times as much without that support, and it wouldn't have been as effective."
In addition to local media outreach in each of the markets, the PR team organized a massive grassroots and viral campaign aimed at getting the word out to major organizations. To combat skepticism about Dell's motives, the outreach included a lot of up-front presswork.
"We did a lot of aggressive advance promotion, so it wasn't as much about Dell as it was an event that allowed people to empty out their closets and bring their computers in, whether for the good of recycling or to donate it to a local nonprofit," says Jake Drake, president of GCI California.
Because the tour was so successful, Dell added 10 cities and, in the end, collected over 900 tons of computer equipment from more than 7,500 consumers. In addition, the campaign generated 100 million media impressions, including coverage in USA Today and on CNN.
"It was incredibly effective," says Bryant Hilton, Dell's PR manager for sustainability. "It accomplished our goals, raising awareness not only overall but of Dell's recycling program. It's still way too low, but we're moving in the right direction."
By establishing a grant program, Dell is now trying to put the computer recycling issue in the hands of individual communities. Twelve communities have received grants of $10,000, as well as training workshops.
"I'm hopeful that we'll get a fall grant funding round," says Hilton. "The initial results are that [the grants] are as effective in terms of the amount of material we capture and probably a smarter way to use our resources. It's a way to empower the people that are on the ground and know the community best to do the right thing with our help, rather thanus rolling into town and pretending that we know the community the best."
PR team: Dell, GCI Group, EnviroMedia (Austin, TX)
Campaign: Dell Recycling Tour
Time frame: March 2003 to present