In April 2005, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced S. 852, the "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005," to Congress, trying to sell it as the solution to the national asbestos litigation crisis.
The bill proposed a $140 billion trust fund for victims of asbestos poisoning, eliminating the need for individual legal battles. But the Coalition for Asbestos Reform (CAR), a nonprofit group of small and medium-size businesses and their insurance companies, saw it as beneficial only to big business and capable of destroying smaller companies. CAR hired Fleishman-Hillard and set out to kill the bill.
"Our entire reason for being was to prevent this bill's action," says Bill Black, senior partner at Fleishman's Washington office.
Both client and agency had to do a lot of homework to argue against the proposed new law.
They researched public opinion and found that it could be swayed by providing information regarding the trust fund's viability. The team aimed to present evidence that the fund would not be solvent once it was established.
Instead of just reciting numbers, the PR team also decided to show the media, senators, and other influencers the possible negative impact and how much the bill could cost businesses.
Fleishman incorporated and launched CAR as a unified group. It aggressively reached out to the media, used targeted advertising, and communicated using grassroots methods.
The agency targeted inside-the-Beltway media, major dailies, legal and insurance trades, and local business journals. It set up interviews and editorial boards for CAR spokespeople to argue against the bill. CAR members provided concrete examples of how S. 852 would impact their businesses, showing some would even be forced into bankruptcy.
Fleishman developed trust with reporters and influencers by holding personal meetings. "One-on-one meetings were the primary mechanism," Black said. "Over time, they saw us as a resource."
Fleishman contacted key Senate members, exposing the flaws in S. 852 and the threats to companies in the senators' home states, and created materials for briefings and floor speeches.
The agency also exploited activity by the bill's proponents, such as Specter's public speeches, as an opportunity to get CAR's point of view into the discussion, he notes.
In a February 14 vote, the bill was blocked.
Black says that during the course of the campaign, Fleishman gained respect from reporters and successfully got the issue in the media, from local Washington papers to an editorial against the legislation in The Wall Street Journal.
"When we started, we could barely get our phone calls returned," Black says. "By the end, we were credited with stopping the bill."
CAR was extremely satisfied with the agency's work. "The results have been fantastic," says Tom O'Brien, chairman of CAR. "It was a true team effort."
O'Brien says CAR and Fleishman will continue to stay engaged on asbestos issues.
"We'll still meet periodically, operating at a lower level, well into next year," he says.
PR team: Coalition for Asbestos Reform (Washington) and Fleishman-Hillard (Washington)
Campaign: Dealing the Deathblow to Flawed Legislation
Duration: April 2005 to February 2006
Budget: $140,000 per month
This campaign is a solid example of how small and medium-size businesses can rise up and fight against the millions of dollars that go toward passing laws that ultimately only benefit big business. By joining together to fight this proposed law, CAR gained the respect of both the media and Capitol Hill. The group's tenacity, augmented by hiring Fleishman, paid off. The effort managed to change the discussion so that average people related to the issue, rather than dismissing it as just a battle between high-powered trial lawyers and businesses.