Over the past four years, the American steel industry has undergone a dynamic transformation that has yielded a competitive, strategic, technologically advanced and environmentally progressive industry. As most AMM readers who follow the industry know, the crisis period spanning 1998 to 2003, during which cheap foreign steel was illegally dumped on U.S. shores, led to many bankruptcies and layoffs. During the breathing space afforded by the Section 201 tariffs imposed by the Bush administration, America's steel industry underwent extensive consolidation, forged new labor-management agreements and developed a more effective cost structure.
Out of this period of dramatic change, a revitalized domestic steel industry emerged just as global demand for steel surged, primarily due to massive industrial expansion in China and other parts of Asia. The transformation isn't over. Overdue investments in advanced technologies occurred during the Section 201 period and have continued at a brisk pace, producing impressive gains in the environmental arena and in productivity. Even today, consolidation and its associated efficiencies continue.
Moving forward, the American Iron and Steel Institute's leadership believed that the crisis period had left lingering negative perceptions of the industry among an audience critical to the industry's future Washington policymakers. To determine whether this premise was correct, the AISI commissioned research by Harris Interactive in March 2006 to determine the extent to which policymakers viewed the American steel industry in outdated or unfavorable terms.
Interviews were conducted among 302 politically active opinion elites living within the Washington metropolitan region, who for research purposes served as a surrogate policymakers' group. The benchmark research showed that a plurality of respondents viewed the steel industry as old, dirty and outdated rather than modern, high-tech, clean and globally competitive. Most respondents (62 percent), however, were found to be in the middle—meaning there was ample room to change opinions.
As AISI's board of directors considered how best to address misperceptions, changing opinions became a central objective because doing so would position the steel industry more positively in terms of its public policy agenda. AISI's board determined that an educational campaign aimed at Washington policymakers would complement the industry's aggressive public policy efforts. AISI's leadership conjectured that the industry could not expect sound and fair public policy from Congress or from the Bush administration if government decision-makers didn't know the facts that demonstrate the domestic steel industry is technologically advanced, globally competitive and strategic to America's future.
AISI's New Steel campaign was launched in June 2006, targeting Washington policymakers and focusing on a platform of global competitiveness, emphasizing that America's steel industry is the backbone of U.S. manufacturing, that we're reducing our environmental footprint and that the steel industry is vital to America's economic and national security.
One of the unique things about the campaign is that it's designed to address a knowledge gap, not to push a specific piece of legislation. Having Congress and other policymakers understand the facts about our industry and the rationale in regard to our positions helps us bolster our case for seeking sound public policy that will support maintaining a healthy, viable domestic steel industry in the United States.
Since the launch of the campaign, we have unveiled five print advertisements and four radio spots that mirror the print ad messages. All of the ads focus on the key messages of the campaign 1) we are a strategic industry, essential to America's economy and national security; 2) we are committed to sustainable development; 3) we are a high-technology industry; and 4) we are a globally competitive industry.
The ads to date include "The Backbone of America," which discusses the industry's economic importance and impact; "The Clean Little Secret," which highlights the industry's positive environmental story; "America's Job Engine," focusing on the people behind the industry; "The Brains Behind the Brawn," touting the industry's technological advancements; and "Setting the Standard," which highlights the industry's environmental leadership and suggesting that other steelmakers around the world need to shoulder their fair share of the responsibility, since global problems require global solutions.
The print and radio ads are appearing throughout the Washington area in publications and on radio stations frequented by our target audience Washington policymakers. The campaign also features online ads, which the AISI has leveraged by placing Web site banners featuring the campaign images and messages on our own Web site (www.steel.org). In addition, our print ads are displayed inside the Washington Metro System's subway cars and in the large-scale dioramas that appear throughout the underground stations. We selected stations most frequented by those making or influencing policy to display our campaign ads as a very cost-effective element of the campaign.
We also have focused on aligning our key messages among our 20 U.S.-based AISI members who are underwriting the campaign. To achieve this, we identified a task group of senior company executives who provide input on all the creative efforts, have been actively involved in reviewing and giving feedback on copy points and continue to serve as an important team for proper coordination.
Another way the messages of the campaign are being extended is through the headquarters offices of our member companies. We have sent out to our members supporting the campaign poster-sized versions of the ads suitable for framing. Many have told us they have had positive feedback from employees, customers and community leaders who have visited their offices. In addition, AISI members are using the materials we have developed to reaffirm our campaign messages when they meet with congressional representatives.
These materials include our "Backbone Kit," which was created to be used as an educational tool as industry spokesmen talk about today's clean, modern, high-tech steel industry. Included in the kit are copies of our print ads, article reprints about the campaign and supporting fact sheets. The kits have been especially useful in face-to-face meetings with congressional press secretaries and with reporters we have talked specifically to about the campaign and its key messages.
In evaluating the success of the campaign, there are four areas that we are focusing on 1) media and online coverage; 2) outreach on Capitol Hill; 3) research results; and 4) what people are saying. Since the launch of the campaign, major media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the National Journal, have published significant stories profiling the campaign and its objectives. Our online ads also garnered favorable coverage on www.washingtonpost.com and www.nationaljournal.com, achieving more than 10 million impressions this year.
In terms of a campaign presence on Capitol Hill, we believe that common and unified messaging has provided higher impact briefings and testimony. In 2006 and 2007, more than 150 members, congressional staff and federal officials attended Capitol Hill briefings held by the AISI and its member companies on a variety of policy issues, and more than 50 face-to-face meetings took place with press secretaries and legislative aides specifically to review key messages of the campaign. Since Capitol Hill is a key demographic of our target audience for this campaign, gaining exposure on the Hill is an important aspect of changing the outdated perceptions some policymakers have about our industry.
The most important evaluations of campaign success, however, are research results and what people among, or influencing, our target audience are saying, because these evaluate whether or not we've actually changed perceptions. In April 2007 and again in October, Harris Interactive conducted research to compare progress of the campaign against the original benchmark survey findings from March 2006. What Harris found was that there has been a definite overall shift of opinion about the industry, with a plurality of respondents now identifying the industry as modern, clean, high-tech and globally competitive, and the number of those viewing the industry as old and outdated significantly decreasing. And a growing number of people are starting to recognize the message about steel being the most recycled material in the world, with a seven-point improvement in this area.
Further, comments from congressional staff members indicate that the ads are conveying our key messages and further supporting our broader goal of shifting perceptions about the industry. For example, a press secretary on the House side commenting on the "Clean Little Secret" ad said "I see that this ad is trying to win our new Congress' support by educating them about the advancements that their industry has made, proving that they are worthy of congressional support."
While all of these evaluations of the campaign's success are encouraging, there is still work that needs to be done. Shifting perceptions about an industry takes time, and thus perseverance over an extended period. It's a fact that innovation and technology have transformed America's steel industry into one of the world's most competitive, sustainable and environmentally progressive, with the sector ahead of Kyoto greenhouse gas emission goals by 240 percent. But if policymakers do not understand this and fashion policy that disadvantages us in the global marketplace, our domestic steel industry could be a thing of the past. As policymakers continue to come to understand the modern profile of America's steel industry, they can better shape sound public policy that recognizes steel as an industry strategic to America's national and economic security.
Andrew G. Sharkey III is president and chief executive officer of the American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington.
Metals Forum appears monthly and is open to submissions from industry and trade associations wishing to address issues of concern to the metals community.