Monday, November 29, 2004

A Classic PR Campaign 

This posting offers something I haven't done before. It provides a case study of a successful political campaign in Northern California for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). I am posting it because against opposition, BART passed a measure that funds earthquake retrofit on the system. The measure had failed once before, and citizens are notorious for defeating tax measures. Molly McArthur, Manager, Community Relations, penned the case at my request. It is presented below. In case you wonder how I know about this, my brother is the project engineer for the billion-dollar job. It's a great story and a classic PR campaign.

On November 2, voters in the three Bay Area Counties that comprise the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) passed Measure AA with a 68% vote. Measure AA is a property tax measure to fund needed earthquake safety upgrades to the BART system. This was the second time around for BART putting forward a bond measure to fund the earthquake work, and passage of Measure AA was far from certain.

The first attempt was in 2002, and the measure failed by just under two percentage points. Voters in Eastern Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco, were the significant opposition to the measure. Many Contra Costans objected to paying for transit system upgrades via a property tax. Their 2002 yes vote at 54.9% diluted the needed two-thirds and sank the measure.

Other residents were unsure upgrades were needed or were unaware that safety problems had been identified. BART had survived the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake nearly perfectly intact. Within 24 hours of that 6.9 Richter shaker, BART was up and running a full schedule, while the San Francisco Bay Bridge was out of service for two months. BART became the Bay Area’s transportation lifeline. The common wisdom in the Bay Area was that the safest place to be in a major earthquake was in BART’s underwater Transbay Tube. BART was the victim of its success.

The problem was how to communicate the nature of the structural vulnerabilities without frightening people away from the trains. The worst-case scenario for the underwater Tube is structural damage that could lead to failure, and flooding of underground stations in downtown San Francisco. BART Leadership was concerned about the financial impact of possible ridership losses, as well as the impact of public mistrust.

It was clear that BART needed an education plan for the Earthquake Program to address issues and create messages that would:

1. Convey enough information about the vulnerabilities of the system to provide the reason to vote yes, without frightening people off trains;
2. Provide reassurance that engineers in charge of the program know how to fix the problems and stand ready to move quickly;
3. Persuade the region that a property tax is an appropriate funding source;
4. Overcome deep public mistrust, based in part on the recent quadrupling of the budget for re-building the Bay Bridge; and
5. Educate the media about the program to ensure accurate reporting.

In addition, because of significant California state budget deficits, multiple competing tax measures were expected on every county ballot. Finally, BART had to accomplish the education plan on a shoestring budget.

BART started by creating an aggressive grassroots public education effort. The Agency created an informative 15-minute presentation. It then contacted groups from the Rotary and Lion’s clubs, homeowners associations and neighborhood groups to schools and PTAs, merchant and business associations and scheduled presentations. Every week, project staff members were speaking somewhere, including the Project Manager, Community Relations and engineering staff. One of the secondary benefits of these presentations was as a gauge of public sentiment. BART recorded comments made during Q&A. Between March and September, 2004, BART detected a discernible shift in understanding of issues, from initial resistance to soft resistance to what we felt was -- and hoped would be -- acceptance. Public feedback confirmed that people wanted to know the information. They wanted BART to level with them.

In addition, members of BART’s elected Board of Directors made presentations to City Councils and policy groups to secure their support for the bond. Cities, especially those with BART stations, signed on as supporters. Significantly, efforts by Board members to reach the Contra Costa Tax Payers Association yielded support as well.

BART knew that media would be critical to gain the widest possible reach for its message. The agency developed a plan guided by several principles: First, news events had to have genuine project news value. Second, the events had to provide something reporters could not get on their own. Third, outside experts willing to participate in our events would lend additional credibility. Finally, each event would build upon the previous one and amplify the effect.

BART planned four events. In April, a midnight tour of the underwater Transbay Tube would take journalists directly to the seismic joints – the site of great potential damage. Few outsiders ever gain access to the Tube, let alone 50 journalists and photographers. Led by the project manager, and joined by outside experts from the United States Geological Survey, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and several highly regarded engineering firms, the event would bring together a veritable scientific conference of expertise. Journalists would see the problem for themselves and question highly regarded authorities. This event would announce to the Bay Area that BART has vulnerabilities that must be addressed.

Executive managers were concerned about negative repercussions on ridership, as well as setting a precedent for taking outsiders into a sensitive secure area. Some, in fact, were dead set against the idea. The communications team and the project management team had to persuade the executives, weighing the risk of riders avoiding the trains against the benefits of successfully educating the public through the media. After long discussions, the event was green-lighted.

The event went off flawlessly and the story ran on every broadcast station and every major newspaper in the Bay Area. Value of the airtime came in at $302,029, with 4,551,281 impressions. Not one negative angle appeared in the entire run. The journalists listened carefully, read the fact sheets, materials and graphics; interviewed the experts and the project leadership -- and got the story right. That set the stage for the rest of the plan.

In August, BART invited journalists to a BART station to witness activation of a newly installed sensor to measure ground motion. In September, on the 30th Anniversary of the Transbay Tube, journalists were invited to take a ride out on San Francisco Bay to see work begin on a drilling platform where tests will yield data necessary to prepare for work on the Transbay Tube. And in October, on the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, journalists were invited to a BART station to hear from EERI and researchers at U.C. Berkeley, from whom a study was commissioned to show traffic impacts in the event BART were not running for any reason. (The impacts were catastrophic).

The traffic study brought the effort home with messages that were personal for each commuter. Study results showed that most commutes would at least double and some would triple without BART. Even people who do not ride BART had a reason to care if trains were not running. BART placed the results on its website on an interactive map. Commuters could click on their commute corridor and compare commutes with and without BART running. The story led the news that day, and data was used in follow-up stories days and weeks later.

Over time, attitudes changed. In presentations during March and April, audience members were surprised to learn about the vulnerabilities in the BART system. By September, most people knew about the problems and were more concerned about the timeline for fixing the problems and how to pay for the work.

As October wound down, the only opposition came from a small, local taxpayers group that felt riders should pay for the upgrades – a plan that would require decades to amass sufficient funds from ticket prices.

Editorial Board meetings yielded endorsements that ran at the end of October in the
San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune – all the major area papers, except for the Contra Costa Times, which opposed Measure AA. BART sought Letters to the Editor from EERI and the USGS, and sent them to the same papers. The papers printed the pro-Measure AA letters, and in the case of the Contra Costa Times, the letter ran side by side with an anti-Measure AA editorial.

Although the newspaper of record in Contra Costa County opposed Measure AA, and the taxpayer anti-Measure AA group was quoted in most stories, the education effort reached enough of the public that the yes vote in Contra Costa County increased by nearly six percentage points – from 54.9% in 2002 to 60.4% in 2004. The 68% yes on Measure AA was among the few tax measures to pass on November 2nd.

From the start, it was clear if we were going to make it over the top with Measure AA, we had to give citizens reasons to vote yes. We said Measure AA would increase public safety on BART, return the system to operation quickly, avoid gridlocked traffic and support economic recovery following a major earthquake. A knowledgeable Bay Area agreed and voted yes on Measure AA.


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