New PERC Campaign accelerates propane school bus education

The number of schools moving to propane-fueled school buses has rapidly increased in recent years, and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is stepping up its work to get many more schools on board. Recognizing that schools across 45 states now use a total of more than 7000 propane-fueled buses, PERC in October launched the Better Our Buses campaign to educate parents, school officials, and community members about the benefits of fueling school buses with propane. Benefits include the fact that propane buses start right up in cold weather, while diesel models can take up to half an hour just to warm up before driving, putting that much more pollution into the air. PERC president and CEO Roy Willis told BPN that the Better Our Buses campaign, based on “earned media” coverage of campaign events, is a micro campaign that is a precursor to a broader, national consumer awareness campaign to promote propane’s advantages and versatility. PERC will launch the national campaign in 2016.

For the Better Our Buses micro campaign, PERC hired Jenna Bush-Hager as a celebrity spokesperson. Bush-Hager, who is the daughter of former U.S. President George W. Bush and is a journalist and former teacher, appeared at the campaign’s opening event in October at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Massachussetts. PERC donated $10,000 for the school to purchase supplies for its classroom. Separate from Hager, PERC held similar events and made donations to additional schools: St. Francis Independent School District in Minnesota, Friendship Independent School District in Texas, Adams 12 5 Star in Colorado, Kyrene Elementary School in Arizona, and Reynolds School District in Oregon. The council will hold two more events at schools in Broward County, Fla.

“It’s clear when you talk to school administrators and transportation departments that they are saving more than just dollars and cents by going with propane buses,” Hager noted in a PERC press release about the event. “The switch is improving their school as a whole and giving them the opportunity to invest in more teachers or school programs.”
Willis added that the campaign is designed to elevate public awareness of propane as a clean fuel alternative for student transportation. The targeted school districts have already adopted propane buses, and as part of the program, PERC is also contributing to AdoptAClassroom.org, which solicits donations for classroom supplies and materials. 

How is a donation to AdoptAClassroom.org part of PERC’s mission? Willis noted that a 30-second prime-time television or radio ad in Boston would be expensive. But the council ceremony in which it donated to the AdoptAClassroom.org program probably received five times more air time than a 30-second paid spot would have provided. So the AdoptAClassroom.org donation brought high visibility to the propane industry and publicity for the benefits of propane school buses. 

“It’s what’s known as ‘cause marketing’,” Willis explained. “We believe you can do well by doing good.”PERC has been involved in school bus projects for at least 10 years. Bluebird several years ago was in the middle of developing a General Motors school bus with a propane system. As momentum began to build toward propane school buses, the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and General Motors went into bankruptcy, pulling out of the commercial market (and not re-entering that market until this year). With PERC’s funding and marketing help, Bluebird went on to develop a Ford product with Roush CleanTech (Livonia, Mich.). 

Willis explained that PERC functions as a “technology incubator,” working with manufacturers to cover engineering and design costs to get products ready for market, then collaborating with the manufacturers on marketing programs to build market share. 

“That’s what this Better Our Buses effort is really about, that marketing collaboration,” Willis said. The campaign focuses on school bus fleet managers and the general public, but also toward more influential final decision makers such as school administrators. 

The Better Our Buses school bus campaign is one of PERC’s early public relations projects since the council announced this past April that a U.S. Department of Commerce restriction on its public education activities had been lifted. Willis commented that the new campaign illustrates how much the media environment has changed since the restriction went into effect in 2009.

“We’ve been working to take advantage of those digital online channels that enable us to tell the propane story in ways that we were never able to do before,” he said. 

Fleet managers and school officials share online videos that they see on PERC websites and other media. PERC is working to create tools that support peer-to-peer conversations. People are talking on various media about many products that use propane, including products such as school buses, boilers to replace their old fueloil equipment, landscaping equipment, or irrigation engines.

“The experience with propane is positive enough that people are willing to sit in front of a video camera and tell the story,” Willis stressed. “People don’t do that if they’re reluctant about the experience. But people that are using propane and the new propane products in the marketplace are having a very positive response to it, and having been part of developing much of that equipment, I have to admit I’m very enthusiastic about the consumer response to the products that we sort of helped bring to the marketplace.”

PERC will use tools such as satellite media tours for other products as well. Willis explained that for the school bus satellite media tour, Bush-Hager will appear at television and radio station studios, and several media outlets can interview her remotely in one day. Willis added that he has done satellite radio media tours and talked to 15 to 20 radio stations in a two-hour stretch. “You make yourself available to hundreds of potential media outlets.”    —Daryl Lubinsky

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