Trash talk Featured

8:00pm EDT September 18, 2006
 Bill Rumpke Sr. has just come away from a zoning board meeting where a proposal for an expansion of his company’s landfill in Colerain Township was turned down.

To say that it’s just another day at the office for the chairman, president and CEO of Rumpke Consolidated Cos. Inc. would be an understatement, but Rumpke has learned to take such setbacks in stride, and he’s learned to counter them through an effective public communications program that involves just about everyone in the company.

Rumpke Consolidated Cos. has faced some challenging communications circumstances, such as dealing with the largest landfill slide in United States history at the 565-acre facility in 1996. The landfill opened up and caught fire, an event that attracted widespread media attention and the concern of the community.

In response, the company set up a safe area at the site for reporters and photographers to report on the event, kept a constant flow of information going to the media and offered hotel rooms to area residents, even though there was no immediate threat to public health.

Rumpke says staying ahead of the story and making sure the company got its side out softened the negative effect that the event could have had on its brand. With much of Rumpke’s business focused on waste management — an industry that often draws negative images from consumers — it’s important for the company to maintain a positive image to maximize its growth potential, especially when that growth can be limited by government officials who may be leery of having waste operations in their area.

Some companies circle the wagons when they’re under siege or try to keep what they’re up to under cover. But Rumpke chooses to overcome the obstacles with information disseminated in an open, careful and methodical way, through a consistent and well-thought-out communications apparatus that’s in motion every day.

“As far as the public relations, we’re working on that daily,” Rumpke says. “We try to put out the message that we are compliant as can be. We follow all rules, go above and beyond.

“We try to make everyone understand that we want to be a good neighbor. We’re always working on the surrounding area, working on clearing the area, upgrading the area.”

Rumpke molds the $316 million company’s image by making sure that it has a clear and effective communications strategy in place, and it keeps its doors open to the public and to the news media. Its Colerain Township landfill, for example, is almost as much a tourist attraction as it is a refuse disposal.

“Education is key,” Rumpke says. “This is like a big, unknown place out here. We take tours. We ran 10,000 people though here last year on different kinds of tours.”

Rumpke Consolidated Cos. does a lot of the conventional things that companies do to keep their public image polished. It sent employees to the Southeast to assist in the cleanup efforts of last year’s hurricanes and sponsors Little League teams and school and church activities in all of its service regions. It initiated a program to get area businesses to partner with local schools to provide volunteer and financial assistance, and it recently contributed $163,000 to Northwest High School to help construct a state-of-the-art weight room.

But its public relations efforts go well beyond those initiatives. It structures its communications to involve its employees and engage the media with proactive efforts to secure media coverage, and it aims to get its message out early to the public and to local government officials.

“We have one general plan, but it includes a lot of subplans, and each one has its own mission, strategies and tactics, evaluation and budget associated with it, and each subplan is ... connected to a goal of the company,” says Rumpke. “For instance, if we’re doing an expansion in one area, there’s going to be a public relations plan that coincides with that expansion process. Another thing that we’re trying to develop this year is a new corporate branding, so that has its own plan that we’re developing and moving through public education, community relations, advertising efforts.

“All of it kind of builds together and secures one overall message, but there are several subplans to get to that final mission or goal.”

Stay ahead of the story
Staying ahead of a story and not letting incomplete information spark rumors or speculation also helps Rumpke maintain a positive brand image.

For instance, when fuel prices spiked, the company absorbed the additional costs until it decided it could no longer sustain the added expense and had to pass it on to its customers.

“We could have added the charge and tried to keep the media in the dark, but we didn’t,” says Rumpke.

Instead, the company issued a press release explaining why customers were going to see a small increase in their fees that they might not otherwise have noticed anyway. The release spurred positive news coverage that highlighted the effects that rising fuel costs were having on Rumpke Consolidated Cos. and other fuel users in the commercial sector.

The approach has paid off in positive media coverage when the company has responded to events that could have been perceived only as negative. When two of its refuse truck drivers were involved in separate accidents within a week of each other, with one killed and another seriously injured, the company initiated a campaign called “Slow Down To Get Around” to alert motorists to drive carefully as they approach and pass service vehicles on the road.

The campaign attracted positive media coverage and was eventually adopted by a national organization and promoted to operators of commercial vehicles across the country.

When the state raised tipping fees, the charges assessed for depositing trash in landfills, Rumpke alerted the media and consumers to the increased costs. Again, the media covered the story, and the company got an opportunity to talk not only about the tipping fees but also about the construction of sanitary landfills and how they are built to minimize the impact on the environment.

“Our strategy is to respond as quickly as we can or to be proactive, to build positive relationships with the reporters and the writers that we’re working with,” says Rumpke. “One of the ways we do that is as soon as we know something’s going to happen, our goal is to contact our media and let them know here’s what’s going to happen, here’s what we’re going to do. We give them the facts to make their jobs easier. They don’t have to dig for them.

“If they call us about a story that they’re working on that we might not be aware of, we try to get back to them as quickly as possible and help them research and find the information they need and get their questions answered.”

Teach employees media savviness
At Rumpke, the communications program starts with its 2,000 employees. From the very start, employees are trained to communicate with the public. They are kept informed as events develop and are able to pass it along, when appropriate and required, to customers.

“They learn about the Rumpke pride, they learn about the background of the company, so as they move forward with their daily tasks, they have the foundation to do their job, and there’s constant training and updates as we move through expansion processes that involve the public or as we change things ... to keep our frontline employees, and each and every employee, informed,” Rumpke says. “Before the public is told anything, the employees receive communication first so that they know what is going on and they can share it accurately and factually.”

Key people get additional training.
“We work with the safety department to be part of the crisis communications plan,” says Rumpke. “All of the safety supervisors and lead safety people have gone through a media relations training course that repeats every 18 months to two years to refresh them. During that media relations course, we deal with a positive media relations issue and a crisis situation, and we help them learn how to develop key messages and how to talk to the media in sound bites and answer questions appropriately during a crisis.”

During the seminars, basic media relations skills are reviewed, and candidates learn how to meet reporter deadlines, participate in mock interviews and anticipate questions. Rumpke says putting employees out front to respond to questions from the news media adds credibility and ensures that the information that is disseminated is accurate and helps to establish the company and its employees as expert industry sources.

“We try to let our experts discuss issues and participate in interviews because they work with the subject at hand on a daily basis,” Rumpke says. “The communications department is very involved in that process, but I think it adds to the credibility and the accuracy of the information, and our goal is to be open and honest with the public and our customers.”

Give locals control
Rumpke has operations in three states, where the company operates nine landfills, six recycling centers and a host of other businesses, so he encourages his employees in those areas to stay in close contact with their respective communities and customers.

“You have to be part of the neighborhood, wherever you are,” says Rumpke. “You can’t stand on the outside looking in; you need to live in the area that you’re talking about. We try to put in our people’s minds out there to be part of the community, to know people out there.

“We’ve watched it a thousand times. The people who are close to the community know it, they can get this stuff done, while we, coming from Cincinnati, can’t. We show up at the zoning meetings and so forth as the owners or part of the Rumpke organization, but they usually lead the charge.”

While common perceptions of landfills and the trash handling industry in the minds of the public might pose a formidable obstacle to Rumpke Consolidated Cos.’ plans to expand its operations in Ohio or elsewhere, Rumpke knows that getting the message out about the reality of modern trash removal and landfill operations is key to turning the tide of public opinion. And the most effective method may be in changing a few minds at a time, something that a strong public relations effort and tactics such as tours of its facilities seem to accomplish, not immediately, but over the long haul.

Says Rumpke: “Once they’ve seen it and how it’s operated, how professional it is and how neat it is for a landfill, they come away shaking their heads and very impressed. And we’ve usually got a new ally.”

How to reach: Rumpke Consolidated Cos. Inc., www.rumpke.com