CAMPAIGNS: MR opens its doors to the community to avoid shutdown

PR Team: Metals Recycling (Johnston, RI) and Trion Communications (Providence, RI) Campaign: Save Metals Recycling plant Time Frame: July-November 2002 Budget: $3,000

PR Team: Metals Recycling (Johnston, RI) and Trion Communications (Providence, RI) Campaign: Save Metals Recycling plant Time Frame: July-November 2002 Budget: $3,000

On July 13, 2002, a three-alarm fire erupted at Metals Recycling (MR), a recycling facility for cars and appliances located in the small town of Johnston, RI (population 27,000). Several homes in the area had to be evacuated before the stubborn fire could be extinguished, and residents were livid. Despite being located in Johnston for more than three decades, MR had never done much in the way of community relations, and was therefore not well positioned to deal with the complaints. Johnston legislators soon proposed measures limiting the hours MR would be allowed to operate and the types of recycling it could perform. If passed, the measures could have meant the end of MR. Strategy Trion Communications, a full-service public affairs firm, was brought in to manage the crisis and foster communication between MR and its neighbors. "The first thing we had to do was open a dialog with the neighborhood, then open a dialog with council members so we'd hear their complaints firsthand as opposed to reading about them in the paper," said agency partner Frank McMahon. In order to keep its doors open, MR was literally going to have to open its doors. Tactics MR held an open house so its neighbors could see what was going on inside the mysterious building. Consultants, educators, and even a fireman were brought in to discuss the process and risks of recycling metals. Tours were conducted that allowed the public to see every step of the process. MR also used that day to announce the debut of a hotline neighbors could call to register complaints or ask questions. Employees personally responded to calls, which McMahon called "fairly heavy" during the first few days of operation. Better relations with the Johnston council were sought as well. MR representatives "appeared at council meetings and talked about the fire and about some of the actions taken at the plant because of the fire," McMahon explains. Local residents were also able to ask questions at those meetings. "They had heard so many rumors, they weren't sure what the heck was going on," he says. One of the major complaints neighbors seemed to have about MR was the pollution and traffic congestion it caused, as well as the unsightliness of the plant itself. To that end, MR planted tall trees along its perimeter, increased regular cleanups of dust in the neighborhood emitted from the plant, and hired an off-duty police officer to rein in traffic problems. Results The combined power of Trion and MR wasn't enough to stop the council measure entirely, but it did scale it back to what McMahon calls "something we can live with." MR's hours of operation were cut back to between 7am and 6pm on weekdays, which was more generous than the proposal's original guidelines. Future MR has learned its lesson, and is taking steps to ensure continued communication with its neighbors. "We've got a newsletter that's going to be distributed around the neighborhood semi-monthly or quarterly," says McMahon. "and we're going to have another open house in the fall on the same scale as the last one." MR is also forming a neighborhood advisory group that can interact with MR officials and keep the community informed of happenings at the plant. "MR has acknowledged that we will have issues from time to time," says McMahon, but the company is confident that the new measures have put the plant in a much better position to deal with them when they arise.

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