Playing offense

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Determined to change negative perceptions about the plastics industry created by its critics and opponents, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is set to launch its social media-based Internet campaign aimed at the 50 million-strong millennial generation.

“The industry is at a tipping point because of the visible waste stream associated with plastics and single-use disposal litter,” said Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of Washington-based SPI. “You have non-government organizations dedicating full-time resources to doing nothing but putting plastics in a bad light. [Even] if the industry just made durable goods, I'm not sure we'd be fighting the issues we are today.

“We can't continue to fight back just at the reactive stage when things are emotionally charged,” Carteaux said in an interview in advance of his June 22 president's address at NPE2009 in Chicago. “We have to get involved at the beginning of the process, take the offensive and react quicker, rather than get involved at the end at the emotional level and wind up being on the defensive.”

The four-year, $10 million industry promotion initiative — which has been in the works for a year — will include an Internet-based ad campaign, “Imagine the Possibilities with Plastics,” which will tout the benefits of plastics and their contribution to sustainability, and provide information to rebut what industry officials view as misinformation.

It will be the first U.S. plastics-oriented ad campaign since 2005, when the 10-year, $250 million “Plastics Make It Possible” campaign from the American Plastics Council came to a close.

SPI's Internet ads will be contextual advertising — advertising that appears based on other content displayed. SPI intends to link to search engines like Google and Yahoo when certain search terms are used.

“It allows us incredible targeting,” said Tracy Cullen, SPI senior vice president of communications and marketing. “It is a targeted sharpshooter approach as opposed to spray-and-pay.”

SPI has spent $400,000 to research and prepare for its initiative to reach the millennial generation, but it must raise the $10 million for the four-year initiative.

“We will get the campaign funded,” Carteaux said. “We've got quite a bit toward the first year already pledged.” That money has come largely from processors, machinery makers and resin companies that are SPI members. He said $2 million to $3 million is needed to fund the program the first year, “but we want to have close to $10 million pledged before we kick it off,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is start the campaign and have to stop it. My goal has been to get the seed money from industry before we go outside that group.”

The SPI initiative parallels similar programs that the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association are launching. Those also will tout the benefits of plastics and try to bring balance to discussions surrounding product bans and health risks.

“We are sharing all of our research with ACC and vice versa,” he said. “We want to make sure the programs are complementary and not overlapping. This is our campaign to run, but we are sharing data behind the scenes.”

He said SPI will put together a millennial advisory board of roughly 12 people by fall to help the association address concerns of millennials. “This board is so important,” Carteaux said. “They need to help us create the program to help position SPI credibly and uniquely in the online channel and with media.”

The major thrust of the multifaceted educational and outreach campaign will be Internet-based and use social media venues — YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, reddit, Digg, FriendFeed, Twitter and blogs — to provide information and create conversations among 18-28 year olds.

“There are a lot of conversations going on [on the Internet] and we are not involved,” Carteaux said. “If we put our information out there, the millenials will find it and make the right decisions. You can't tell millenials what to do, but they are willing to do the research. But we have been busy fighting regulatory battles and so they have lacked the viewpoints from our industry.”

SPI also will launch an interactive Web site with information on plastics. It will be designed to have a lot of user-generated content and to serve as a forum for discussion and debate among millennials.

“We need a mechanism for third parties to weigh in on what they are finding. That is the whole basis of the Web site,” Carteaux said. “If it is just our facts, people aren't going to embrace it and believe it. We need to point them to the facts and let them do the research.

“We need other people to tell the story.”

SPI also will be an active participant in consumer-oriented discussion boards and blogs; it will produce and post videos highlighting plastics' benefits on SPI's own Web site and on YouTube; and it will create a “benefits of plastics” page on Facebook or MySpace, and establish pages on Wikipedia on the sustainability or benefits of plastics.

The campaign will communicate with government regulators. And it will target employees in the plastics industry to help them become knowledgeable representatives for the industry, using a communications tool kit developed for a plastics ambassador program that launched as a pilot program in September and was rolled out in full at NPE.

“Our second audience is the employees and customers who are naturally invested in our industry,” Carteaux said. “We need to mobilize them against the arguments of people from NGOs [non-governmental organizations].

“Companies have got to get engaged so employees can talk about the positive benefits of the plastic products they make. Companies in downstream industries that depend on plastics have to help us move forward with this.”

Carteaux said SPI is ready to recruit plastics ambassadors in key states. That campaign has three goals: to protect and grow the industry on a global basis, to provide consumers with the information they need to make good choices and to reinforce a positive emotional connection to plastics.

“The problem this industry has is that we are trying to engage people when things have already reached an emotional level, instead of at the start. The national media doesn't have the right information. We are not providing it and we have to do that.

“The plastics industry is being defined by our problems rather than our contributions to a sustainable future,” Carteaux said. “We don't talk about how plastics save fuel, the lives our products save or how it takes plastics to make all the other alternative energy sources possible. The industry isn't out there talking about these things.”

Using the Internet for the core of the information campaign is essential, he said, because “information travels at light-speed around the world,” pointing to how the call by the head of the United Nations Environment Programme to ban plastic bags “went around the world in a split-second.” He said SPI has been monitoring blog and Internet sites daily to stay on top of potential trouble spots and correct misinformation.

A case in point: A blogger pulled back a statement about six-pack carrier rings after SPI informed her that such rings are photodegradable.

SPI will track critical issues and develop a response “before they become Page 1 news,” he said. The group intends to conduct surveys every six months to make sure it is on track with its efforts.

Carteaux said plastics are suffering because of a legislative trend to follow the better-safe-than-sorry precautionary principle when it comes to chemical safety issues.

“Legislation and regulation threaten to fundamentally change our business model,” Carteaux said. “You have regulations based on questionable science” because testing has evolved so that chemical levels in the bloodstream can now be measured in parts per trillion. An example: current legislative initiatives to ban epoxy linings of metal food containers because they contain bisphenol A.

“The plastics industry, through can linings, has basically killed botulism in this country,” Carteaux said. “If we are pushed down that path [to eliminate those coatings], I am not sure the general public is going to be happy. Until we have a better solution, we need to use the ones we have.”

Similarly, Carteaux said the efforts to ban plastics bags and other plastic food packaging is ill-founded.

“You can't just ban products, and this isn't just a plastic bags issue,” Carteaux said. “It is a product de-selection food packaging-related issue. It has spilled over to polystyrene, PVC, polycarbonate with BPA and to non-stick food coatings.

“Some environmentalists and environmental organizations will not be happy until they rid the world of plastics. You can't have a conversation with them, and to a lot of them, if you are not doing bag-to-bag, or bottle-to-bottle recycling, it is not recycling to them.”

Given that scenario, he said the industry must react or “pay a price for inaction.”

“This isn't about SPI getting credit. This isn't about Bill Carteaux getting credit. … Restoring the industry's credibility is what we are trying to do, and we happen to be the medium that can do that at this time. This is a national campaign that will have global reach.

“There has been a void in the industry from a communications perspective on how we benefit from plastics,” Carteaux said. “Our opponents are unilaterally defining the terms of the debate that will shape the future of our industry. But we can change how the debate is being defined.

“If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be doing this,” he said. “There will always be someone taking shots at us, but it doesn't mean that they have to win.”