Off the Wall
Fighting Flacks Can Make or Break Industry
Throughout the world of nature there are many species equipped with both the survival instinct and tools needed to ward off attacks by predators. A rattlesnake will sound an alarming rattle when threatened, and, if necessary, strike with lethal venom if it feels its survival is in jeopardy. A scorpion will play dead in the presence of an aggressor, but if backed into a corner, it too will respond with a poisonous strike.
Within the civilized world, people can also be driven by instinct to take drastic steps to ensure their survival. However, unlike the animal kingdom, extreme measures of defense will sometimes transgress the rules of orderly social conduct. Whatever the perceived threat or injury, there are some responses that are simply not appropriate within the context of a civilized society.
Take out the trashThese rules of conduct apply not only to individuals, but also to organizations and businesses. While many of these are embodied in laws and regulations, there are also several unwritten rules that good corporate citizens are expected to follow, such as not resorting to dirty tactics or talking trash about your competitors.
For some business entities, the pressures to obtain results can sometimes outweigh their commitment to good business practice. When threatened by competing entities, some businesses will resort to unsavory actions in hopes of ensuring their survival. The greater the threat, the more extreme the response.
In North Texas, evidence has recently come to light of a negative campaign targeting EIFS and stucco claddings. While the Texas plastering industry is no stranger to attacks from competing interests--a few years back, the brick industry sponsored a million-dollar anti-EIFS radio campaign in Dallas--the plastering industry has never experienced the type of insidious tactics currently being used by competitors in several North Texas communities.
According to Wayne James, executive director of the Texas Lathing and Plastering Contractors Association, four North Texas cities have recently enacted or moved to consider restrictions on the use of EIFS and stucco. The cities' actions--enacted at the city council or planning and zoning board level--occurred quietly, without prior notice and little public discussion. In each instance, a single member of the governing body initiated the action after having received negative, misleading information about EIFS and stucco from competing interests. "We know where this is coming from," said James. "We just can't prove it."
Left outThe lack of advance warning is particularly concerning in that the plastering industry is not being given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. In three of the cities' actions, Texas plastering representatives learned of the decisions only after they had been taken.
"In Sunnyvale, one of our contractors found out when he had submitted his own home for approval. He was told you can't build with EIFS or stucco," said James. "They're doing this without our knowing about it. And when we do find out about it, it's too late."
In the fourth instance, in Frisco, a small but rapidly developing community outside Allen, Texas, the industry learned completely by chance about the formation of a planning and zoning advisory committee considering EIFS restrictions. Having now learned of the initiative, TLPCA members will be able to participate in upcoming meetings of the city's planning and zoning committee, but it's not known how many other cities may be quietly considering similar restrictions as a result of the competition's covert smear campaign.
"The areas they're getting into are big growth areas outlying big cities," noted James. "And it's beginning to hurt the industry," noted James.
At stake are some of the fastest-growing communities in the state. While Frisco's population is only 43,000, the population is expected to grow to 150,000 by 2010. The rapid growth represents a great deal of exterior cladding opportunities that could be lost. In public construction alone, an estimated 56 schools will be built to meet the city's burgeoning student population. While the loss of a market such as Frisco would a considerable setback for the industry, the loss of dozens of similar-sized communities would be devastating.
In an effort to defend its market share, the TLPCA recently hired a public-relations firm and legal counsel to conduct an information campaign to present the "factual truth" about EIFS and stucco to city officials throughout the state. The association is also counting on its members to stay abreast of local developments in their respective communities.
"The contractors have got to wake up to the fact that they've got to be involved," said James. "It's damn time for the industry to get on the offense."
Look who's talkingThe Texas plastering industry is not alone, however, in its need for vigilance. EIFS has long been a target of an attacks from competing interests, with the brick industry being a formidable foe.
In 1999, the Chicago City Council moved to adopt a citywide ban on EIFS, reportedly in response to concerns over fire safety and water intrusion. It was later revealed that the sponsor of the ban proposal--city Alderman Tim Allen--was the son of a Brick Institute board member. The ban proposal was eventually withdrawn following staunch opposition from the EIFS industry coupled with extensive media coverage of the apparent political maneuvering.
Two years earlier in Georgia, a brick-industry-funded negative-publicity campaign helped bring about a statewide ban on barrier EIFS. Leading the campaign for the EIFS ban was the Georgia Chapter of the Stucco Home Owners Committee, an apparent grassroots group that received substantial support from an Atlanta public-relations firm. It was later revealed that the firm, Duffey Communications of Atlanta, was working on behalf of the Atlanta Brick Marketing Council.
While marketing itself is not inherently unethical, some marketing strategies--such as conducting smear campaigns to spread misleading information, or hiding behind bogus citizens groups--go well out of bounds of ethical conduct. Despite the temptation to fight fire with fire, a reputable business entity can't afford to stoop to the level of low-ball tactics.
The best defense against such actions is to maintain both a positive presence and an acute awareness within the marketplace. For stucco and EIFS contractors in Texas and throughout the country, this involves taking the extra effort to stay abreast of city code and planning developments. Organizations like TLPCA can do a lot to defend the industry against outside attacks, but they are dependent upon the eyes and ears of their membership to know where new trouble spots may be emerging.
Both individuals and industry organizations must also stay on the offensive and maintain a positive marketing approach. Whenever possible, connect with city and code officials and let them know that if they have questions or concerns about EIFS or stucco claddings, they can count on someone within the industry for straight answers.
And this education must be an ongoing effort. Because if we fail to spread the good word about the many benefits of our industry, we can be certain our competitors will step in to offer their own twisted view.