Following the wrath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, South Florida woke up from a twenty-year period of very mild hurricane activity. In the years following the devastation, the hardest hit South Florida counties adopted tough building codes designed to help buildings better withstand flooding and ferocious windborne debris. The rest of the state seemed poised to follow suit as Florida prepared to adopt a unified building code in 1999. Shockingly, the powerful and well-financed National Home Builders Association (NHBA), who vehemently opposed stronger standards, had quietly lobbied to move the windborne debris portion of the code to the addendum. This move would have made hurricane protection an option, not a mandate.
A public debate quickly arose, as the homebuilders claimed hurricane protection was un-warranted, and others in the state (particularly victims of hurricanes) disagreed. Solutia Inc. (and its sister organization, Laminated Glass Information Center), which supplies a tough plastic interlayer that is used to make impact-resistant windows and doors called KeepSafe Maximum, quickly found itself in the middle of a swirling controversy. Despite the fact that Solutia is a very small player in the overall hurricane protection industry, David decided to take on Goliath. By employing a savvy coalition building strategy, Solutia Inc. created a powerful grassroots campaign that resulted in the passage of a building code in 2000, tough enough to protect people and property in Florida for generations to come.
- Ensure that the new Florida Building Code included specific design and windborne debris requirements for hurricane protection
- Convince homeowners and “snowbirds” of the importance of protecting their homes from hurricanes. Due to massive population shifts to the coastline, evacuation during a powerful storm may not even be an option.
- Create a market for the use of impact-resistant glass by educating the building industry and homeowners about the benefits of this product versus more traditional forms of hurricane protection – shutters and plywood.
- The Florida Building Commission (the body responsible for recommending the final code to the Florida legislature)
- The Florida Governor and State Legislators
- The insurance industry, who supported tough hurricane codes, yet was reluctant to enter the debate as the cost of insurance in a disaster prone area such as coastal Florida creates huge difficulties for the industry
- Solutia’s competitors, whose support was critical to achieving the overall objective of a tough building code
- Homeowners who stood to lose everything if another “big one” hits
The following helped Solutia realize this code was worth fighting for:
- A Solutia-sponsored cost study that showed the cost of impact-resistant windows and doors for hurricane protection in new construction compared favorably with that of accordion shutters, and provided significant additional benefits, such as year round safety and security
- A DuPont (Solutia’s giant competitor) study that showed homeowners in Florida were concerned with window protection from hurricanes and would pay more for homes with impact resistant products
- Demographic research that showed coastal Florida is rapidly growing and dramatically overpopulated, making evacuation a physical impossibility in many areas
- A Harvard study that shows the importance of mitigation and insurance efforts in hurricane-prone areas
Only weeks before a series of public hearings throughout the state began, the Florida Building Commission removed the windborne debris portion of the code to the addendum. As a result, Solutia/Weber Shandwick Worldwide had only a few weeks to prepare, and needed to act with lightening speed. A coalition of diverse players and influencers, many who were out-of–state, needed to be corralled and engaged in the process. Solutia quickly began a phone contact program, and set up the first coalition meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Solutia knew it would take the combined efforts of those who supported tougher building codes. As a small player in the industry, Solutia did not have the financial resources to effect change on its own. But, by leading a coalition, Solutia could extend its reach far beyond its own limitations. By combining forces with its competitors, the insurance industry, hurricane experts, code officials, governmental offices and other influencers, Solutia began to build the grassroots support it needed.
While Solutia successfully began to build the coalition, it was often difficult to motivate various members to actually take action. It was necessary in many cases to provide the tools, coaching, encouragement and leadership to the coalition, which Solutia/Weber Shandwick did. Actions taken included:
- Development of letters to editors and key government officials which could be personalized by coalition members
- Opinion pieces ghostwritten by Weber Shandwick for various high–profile coalition members, such as the former director of the National Hurricane Center, well know glazing experts, university professors and others
- Created complete media kit for the Florida Insurance Council, who was conducting a multi-city media relations tour, but had no background materials
- Created collateral materials, such as wind maps and fact sheets for use by members
- Staged several special events, including air cannon demonstrations to simulate the power of a hurricane, which were attended by high level state and federal officials, including FEMA director James Lee Witt
- Scheduled testifiers and attendees for each and every public hearing
- Hosted four group meetings and weekly scheduled teleconferences to monitor group progress
- Solicited media coverage throughout the entire process and brought national attention to the situation via NY Times and Wall Street Journal
The Building Code passed, overwhelmingly. The code, which goes into effect on July 1, 2001, calls for windborne debris protection along the entire state’s coastline. Key results include:
- Solutia achieved its other objectives by creating a solid market for laminated glass, using the massive media coverage of this controversy as a vehicle to educate the public about the benefits of this product. Newspaper circulation totals alone reached over 17,000,000.
- The company built lasting relationships with key influencers and mitigation experts in the state, and impressed its customers by its commitment and leadership during this controversy.
- Consumers, who once considered plywood or shutters the only options for protecting their homes, are widely aware that KeepSafe laminated glass is a safer and more attractive alternative.