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Off Of The Sidelines

New leadership and ad campaign results are lifting faith in chemical industry's main trade association

by Michael McCoy
June 26, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 26

Credit: American Chemistry Council Image
ACC says advertisements such as this one are starting to shift public perception of the chemical industry.
Credit: American Chemistry Council Image
ACC says advertisements such as this one are starting to shift public perception of the chemical industry.

"It's nice to play offense again" is how Gary A. Cappeline, chairman of the American Chemistry Council's board committee on communications, wrapped up his remarks to executives attending the trade association's annual meeting at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Cappeline, who is also president of Ashland's chemical business, was presenting the early results of the council's essential2 public outreach campaign, which was launched last fall. But Cappeline could have been describing the general mood that pervades the association these days.

The annual meeting, which took place earlier this month, marked one year for ACC under the leadership of Jack N. Gerard. Gerard, former head of the National Mining Association, took the council's helm after a period of instability in which the former president, Gregori Lebedev, resigned unexpectedly and several high-profile companies quit the group.

ACC staffers say things are finally beginning to calm down at the council's Arlington, Va., headquarters. Gerard implemented a cost-cutting and restructuring program late last year that pared ACC's staff by more than 15%, to about 220 people. And he has reined in a proliferation of programs, focusing the group instead on a small set of core issues such as energy policy, plant security, and rail transportation.

In his remarks to members, Gerard recalled that when he joined the group, it was struggling to advance its agenda on Capitol Hill. "For an organization representing a $550 billion industry, we were punching below our weight," he said.

Gerard, who has made "advocacy" his rallying cry, argued that the refocused ACC is on its way to becoming a premier trade association. He pointed, for example, to a recent survey by The Hill, a Washington newspaper that ranked ACC among Capitol Hill's top 35 trade associations, the first time it has been so recognized. He also noted that ACC has gained 12 new members in recent months.

The new members are mostly smaller companies, including Velsicol Chemical, AmeriBrom, and Mexichem Fluor. Not on the list are the big firms that left ACC before Gerard's tenure: Huntsman Corp., Chevron Phillips Chemical, Lyondell Chemical, and GE Plastics.

Robert L. Wood, chief executive officer of Chemtura and vice chairman of ACC's board, told a press briefing at the annual meeting that the council has made up a list of its top 10 targets for membership and that it is in active dialogue with the firms that left. "We feel we've addressed all the concerns they had when they left the organization," he said.

Indeed, according to ACC staffers, boosting membership is Gerard's number two priority after increasing the effectiveness of the council's advocacy for the chemical industry. One piece of evidence: On the outskirts of the annual meeting's opening reception, a small camera crew was set up to film CEO testimonials that will be part of an upcoming DVD to be sent to prospective new members.

Better advocacy and more members are both goals of the essential2 public outreach campaign that Cappeline reviewed at the meeting. Launched last fall after much deliberation and delay, the campaign is a mix of television advertisements, magazine ads, billboards, and enhanced Web presence. ACC is spending about $20 million on the program this year and expects it to continue for several years.

Over the past six months, Cappeline reported, ads have appeared on TV outlets such as Fox News, ESPN News, MSNBC, and CNN, while print ads have run in Time, Fortune, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. Billboards have been mounted in New Jersey, Louisiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

The essential2 campaign is targeting "informed Americans," a group of people tagged as being active in their communities and interested in the world around them. "History teaches that if you reach this category of American, other categories will follow," Cappeline said.

In April, after six months of the campaign, the public relations firm APCO Worldwide polled about 3,000 of these informed Americans by telephone. It found that 49.0% of them had a favorable view of the chemical industry, up from 46.8% in September. The plastics industry's favorability was 57.5% in April, up from 55.1% in September.

Cappeline called the gains "encouraging," particularly since they came against a headwind of overall negative public sentiment: the portion of Americans who feel the country is on the wrong track was 70% in September, up from 60% in April, according to a New York Times poll. Still, he acknowledged that the essential2 gains are modest and, in fact, within the statistical sampling error for the survey.

Perhaps more heartening, he said, is the finding that people who recalled the ads had "significantly better" feelings toward the industry than those who hadn't seen them. And hits to ACC's website are up sharply, to some 38,000 in May, from 12,000 prior to the campaign launch.

Just before Cappeline's presentation, Jeff Lipton, CEO of Nova Chemicals and current chairman of ACC's board, got up to make the case that programs such as essential2 and Responsible Care are worth much more than the dues companies pay to be part of them. "Being a member of ACC is a very good deal indeed," he said.



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