The State of Transit: Building Value

tyler tullis

Nico Archer
Vice President

Nov 19, 2018

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Because transit is a community investment subject to public approval, transit agencies have a responsibility to demonstrate a return on that investment — not just to it’s users, but to it’s community leaders and the voting public.

While there are a sliver of mass transit agencies in the US whose operating expenses are recovered through passenger fares, most depend on federal and state funding to bankroll a majority of operations — sometimes more than 80 percent. In short, public sentiment, approval and policy has a major impact on the bottom line. Through communications, transit agencies need to think perennially and proactively about the voting public and be demonstrating “what’s in it for them” — “them” being the non-rider.

Less congestion on the roads, a stronger economy, safety, people getting to and from work, fiscal responsibility, access to essential community services — these are the messages that need to shine through in order for communities to win and maintain the support of their voting public.

Transit agencies must continuously tell their stories to demonstrate how they’re delivering services to better the lives of all residents, while also using taxpayer funding wisely and effectively. Following are important facets of a strong communication program — from defining your value, to managing PR, to ballot-measure strategies and opposition planning — these recommendations can help you build reputation and goodwill in the community.

Defining Your Value

Start with why. Clarify what you are hearing from the community and bring to life the decisions you’re making as an agency. Help elucidate what it is you do and explain your approach to problems you’re solving. Avoid getting stuck in the weeds or hung up on technical planning information. Your public wants to understand why you’re making certain decisions and how your business strategy will impact riders and community members.

Route, logistical, and planning information is not your marketing story. Instead, paint a larger vision about how you are helping shape the future of your community. Get your audiences excited. Tap into what your community cares about right now. For some communities, it might be infrastructure supporting business development (such as the recent RFP many cities participated in for Amazon H2). For others it might be reducing congestion and preserving the natural environment.

Develop and maintain a messaging platform that demonstrates the value you bring to the public, even when there is no ballot measure on the horizon. Plain-speak your message (aim for a 6th grade reading level). This is a best practice for agencies in WA state, as outlined by Gov. Inslee’s Plain Talk executive order to “use simple and clear language when communicating with citizens and businesses [so information] can be read and understood quickly.”

Managing Your Public Reputation

A transit agency’s reputation can be thought of as the amount of goodwill in the bank.

Participate in actively shaping your story as an agency. Don’t let the news happen to you. Proactively reach out to news outlets. If the agency has implemented a new technology or won an industry award, a newspaper piece or a TV report goes a long way to build public support.

You know better than anyone the good your agency is doing. You know the value you’re bringing. Surface stories about your drivers, riders and community partners. Emotionally connect with your audiences through human-interest stories.

Don’t forget to leverage community partners to help spread the transit agency’s message — this can save you time and resources and help you strengthen your relationships.

A transit agency needs to make a significant investment in storytelling — including video production, public relations, social media and paid media — and do so sooner rather than later. Develop a content calendar to identify stories and build a plan for sharing them with your community.

Developing a Strategy for Ballot Measures

Any political strategist will tell you that passing a transit measure at the ballot box isn’t easy.

In the Northwest, there are a few recent successful transit propositions that provide some best practices for building support at the ballot box. The most sizable took place in November of 2016 when Sound Transit (officially the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority) placed a $54 billion measure on the general election ballot. The proposition, called Sound Transit 3, proposed expanding the Link light rail system.

Sound Transit 3 relied heavily on messaging surrounding the Puget Sound’s increased traffic concerns. The measure was promoted as a solution to this congestion and an alternative to commuting by car. You can see some of the campaign’s messaging here.

On the eastern side of the state, voters in Spokane voted on Spokane Transit Authority’s (STA) Proposition 1, which aimed to increase service hours, add routes and also create a rapid transit line through the heart of the city.

DH helped STA develop a community educational program including a direct-mail, digital, multimedia and media relations strategy. We positioned Proposition 1 as the natural and strategic next step in supporting the region’s growth with high-value return to the voter.

Go to the ballot with an integrated strategy. You must consider all frames — not just the political. Ensure your strategy starts with messaging and a campaign brand and outline tactics for paid media, earned media, direct mail, social media and community outreach. Make a clear connection for taxpayers about the return on investment they will see if they support the measure. It’s also important to engage supporters and community partners to help communicate their endorsement of your vision.

Planning for the Opposition

Be prepared for parties that oppose you or your ballot measure. In May of 2017, the Nashville area had a measure on the ballot for an expansive $5.4 billion transit project that was initially popular in the polls until American for Prosperity, a political action group, launched a massive grassroots campaign against the transit project that included doorknocking, placing op-eds in newspapers, phone banking and placing paid media.

Messaging for the anti-transit movement focused on higher taxes and the notion that public transit is robbing people of their right to choose their mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, the transit effort failed badly at the ballot box, as detailed in this New York Times story. Opposition like this isn’t isolated to Nashville. Most transit ballot measures face anti-transit efforts.

That’s why it’s important to ensure your ballot is a reflection of the community voice and goals. Gather input and feedback from stakeholders, businesses and residents in your community. Link what you aim to fund back to what you heard from your community. Position your efforts as a response to needs heard in your region.

The Nashville example shows why a transit agency needs to bank public support and goodwill throughout the year so that the talking points of an opposition effort can’t damage the agency’s reputation. Continually gathering public opinion and feedback helps protect against such attacks. And remember, it is a campaign. Your opposition is running their efforts like a political campaign — you need to be just as organized.

Keeping a steady drumbeat.

As communicators in the transit space, we can’t ever take transit funding for granted. The money to run the agency is never guaranteed, especially in today’s political climate. This is why communication and marketing strategy is important not just during the election season, but all the time.

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