Podesta just wrapped up a major, six-week project to influence media coverage of fly ash and language affecting its regulation in the transportation bill. It was an uphill battle. Environmental groups had been working on the issue for months – years, even – and had done a reasonably good job convincing the press to describe fly ash as “toxic” or “hazardous.”
We had our work cut out for us: the clock was ticking fast, the other side had effectively painted fly ash as a dangerous substance, and, let’s face it; fly ash isn’t the sexiest issue to sell to the media. We deployed on a variety of levels. We put together a five-state and an inside-the-Beltway strategy to influence critical members of Congress, build public support for our position and perhaps most importantly, change the broader debate over fly ash.
What is fly ash, you ask? It’s a byproduct of coal combustion that replaces Portland cement to form a more durable, safer and more cost-effective concrete for transportation and infrastructure construction. Fly ash is used all over the country – in some states it’s even mandated for use – in bridges, highways, runways, rail transit, building construction and other projects. It is being used to build the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco, and was a key ingredient for the concrete in the EPA building and Metro system here in DC, the new I-35 Minneapolis bridge, the Port of Miami Tunnel, and the list goes on.
Fly ash can nearly double the life of a project built with Portland cement alone. Its use saves the country $5.2 billion annually. And despite what the critics charge to the contrary, recycled fly ash is safe: it reduces energy and water consumption, as well as greenhouse gases and other hazardous emissions. It makes sense to recycle and use it; otherwise, it would be disposed of in a landfill, which makes no sense.
Clearly, we had a good story to tell, but we had to tell it and tell it fast.
Our team immediately went to work to place op-eds in influential publications here in Washington and in West Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Montana. We solicited letters to the editor and pitched reporters and editors to consider articles or editorials in our favor. We were able to secure sit-down interviews with the CEO of the largest fly ash recycler in the country with The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Energy and Environment Daily, Reuters, and CQ-Roll Call, among others. We got our issue in print in the most prominent news outlets in DC and in our targeted states.
The issue got hot in the final weeks of June as House and Senate conferees hammered out the language of the transportation bill. We were advocating that they include compromise language that would set, for the first time, a national standard for the regulation of fly ash. It would have ensured that fly ash be approved for beneficial use and regulated by the states. It would have given the EPA the authority to step in, however, if the states didn’t do their job. The language was supported by Democrats and Republicans.
We had many allies and our efforts cemented (no pun intended) their support and allowed us to gain more backers. There’s no doubt our media offensive played a critical role.
At the 11th hour, the compromise language on fly ash regulation was negotiated out of the transportation bill. Despite this setback, our legislative fight continues – supporters of the bipartisan, compromise language are considering a standalone bill.
But our public relations efforts were anything but a loss. In an extremely short period of time, we were able to completely change the debate. We convinced the media to stop using the terms “toxic” or “hazardous” when describing fly ash. We secured numerous articles, op-eds and editorials on beneficial uses of fly ash as a critical transportation ingredient. We successfully articulated through the media the economic benefits of fly ash to the federal government, private companies and cash-strapped states. And, we were able to present – in a very credible and effective way – the truth about fly ash: it’s an environmental success story.
We consider that a real win and the client did, too.Tweet