Despite its state-of-the-art technology, the facility, which converts iron ore pellets into extremely pure pre-material for premium steel products using natural gas, is a heavy industrial plant. Its construction therefore required complex and extensive environmental impact assessments with public involvement. It is natural for voestalpine that for a project of this size stakeholders are incorporated into the process from the very beginning. The direct proximity to exclusive residential areas and fragile eco-systems as well as the commitment of professionally organized environmental NGOs, which were quite industry-critical, required a comprehensive stakeholder strategy, especially considering the tight schedule. The matter was complicated by the fact that the “voestalpine” brand was unfamiliar to the local population and government agencies, and the term “steel industry” had a negative connotation by conjuring up images of smoking chimneys and coal dust.
Choosing a two-square-kilometer building site known locally as “La Quinta,” voestalpine was a more or less unknown company as it entered uncharted territory, both geographically and with regard to the local population. In order to ensure that the process of conducting the environmental impact assessments went smoothly, first of all the relevant external stakeholders had to be identified and evaluated. It became clear quickly that involving the federal and state environmental agencies closely in the process as well as proactively approaching the industry-critical environmental NGOs and the neighbors would be crucial to achieve a successful outcome. At the same time, it would be necessary to recruit local key persons from politics, business and industry, education, and the arts through proactive and open communication and to make them ambassadors of the voestalpine brand and of the project itself. Outside of the local area, it was necessary to secure the political support of the state of Texas to enable a pragmatic and efficient way of finding solutions in the case of any bureaucratic challenges. As some of the official notices and permits were being issued at the federal level, it was necessary to establish contacts in Washington D.C. at the senatorial and cabinet level.
Definition of the objective
The communication objectives of the greenfield project were defined as follows:
- Positioning of the voestalpine brand in Texas
- Creating acceptance for the heavy industry project among the population
- Building an efficient network of relationships
- Prevention of objections and negative comments during the objection period of the environmental impact assessment by strategically communicating with stakeholders and environmental groups
- Creation of a friction-free project environment during construction
- Positioning of voestalpine as an attractive employer and a company that is itself an environmental benchmark
In addition to using state-of-the-art environmental technology, voestalpine decided to pursue the objectives by way of a comprehensive grassroots strategy combined with parallel relationship management vis-à-vis key persons and government agencies.
A general principle was laid down that communication had to be proactive, open, and personal. As neighbors and environmental NGOs could massively delay the environmental impact assessment process through objections, a local and regional information campaign about the project was launched. First of all, it corrected the image of the steel industry, positioned voestalpine as an environmental benchmark, and explained the project.
This took place primarily through personal contacts and discussions so that a valuable network of relationships was established at the same time. Concurrently, environmental NGOs were proactively informed and invited to participate in the design process of the plant. This open book strategy created trust and incorporated the NGOs more closely into the project who provided valuable feedback. At the same time, stakeholders from politics, business and industry, education, and culture were closely incorporated into the project and won over as brand ambassadors and opinion multipliers.
voestalpine decided to handle all communication matters in-house and to pursue a strategy of speaking to the public with one voice. For this purpose, the position of head of communications was combined with the position of environmental officer—a very unusual step in the industry and in the USA. An Austrian voestalpine employee was appointed to this position, and he has established himself as the ambassador and the face of voestalpine and of Austrian culture in Texas. The campaign was implemented primarily through personal conversations, discussions, and presentations, with lectures in large auditoriums being just as common as dialogue with and visits to neighbors in their homes. These measures were accompanied by institutional public relations work and a sponsorship program with municipalities and educational and cultural entities. The valuable feedback provided by the NGOs ultimately found its way into the design of the plant.
Achievement of objective(s)
The strategy chosen was unusual in a US context, as local heavy industry often avoids contact to environmental NGOs and open communication with neighbors. Therefore, it was necessary to first of all overcome a certain fundamental skepticism on the part of the population and the NGOs, however, a basis of trust was soon established, and open discussions could begin. The courage to engage in open communication and dialogue bore fruit. On June 14, 2014, voestalpine received the last official environmental notice and history was made: no heavy industrial greenfield project of this size in the region had previously been successful in completing the environmental impact assessment process in the minimum amount of time and without any lawsuits or objections.
Three years ago, voestalpine was still completely unknown, but today, it is not only considered to be an environmental benchmark but also a popular employer in Texas. The good relationships that voestalpine has built now range from the Sea Turtle Club to the White House: both President Obama and Vice President Biden have praised the project in public statements. voestalpine was successful in establishing itself in the USA by engaging in open communication and showing its commitment.