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Talking Transportation, Tolling and Going Cashless at IBTTA in Seattle

August 7, 2019
byJeffrey Davis inTransportation Marketing

Everyone in today’s transportation departments serves as a communicator, bringing both benefits and challenges in a connected society. The information is complex. The stakes are high. Elected officials are paying close attention and many times jobs are on the line.

“Lack of communication is usually at the root of any problem you have,” said Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), speaking at the recent “Communication and Change Management Summit” in Seattle.

The theme continued:

Luncheon keynote speaker Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation, stated, “We firmly believe every employee is a communicator.”

And during “Communicators in Chief Tell All (Or Mostly All),” Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, took it a step further: “95 percent of everything we do in transportation is communications, and it always will be.”

Don’t feed the trolls

The conference, where I was invited to speak about PR measurement, served as a safe space to share war stories about public meetings and the gadflies who disrupt with their wild and off-target questions and comments. It’s even more pervasive with social media as communicators have those pesky trolls lurking amidst the more reasoned questions and comments from the public. The cost, just in time spent in meetings and agreeing on response strategies to their loaded comments, must be off the charts.

One speaker suggested using focus groups as a solution. Rather than rely solely on public meetings where some will perform for the audience and cameras, a controlled focus group setting allows communicators to recruit a cross-section of the public for a more reasonable conversation.

Social media has changed transportation communications

Ideas included using the Waze app, especially with the option that only serves ads when the vehicle is stopped. The Nextdoor app is a good option for highly targeted neighborhood by neighborhood outreach. Of course, the social media stand-bys are as important as ever, beginning with Facebook and Twitter.

Getting complaints that you don’t have adequate signage to communicate tolls or other highway information when you actually do? One tolling authority created a fun and fast-paced “signs are everywhere” video that they placed on YouTube showing they have dozens of signs and then linked via social media. When the complaints come in, the video is shared.

All agreed a skilled communications team is essential to simplifying a complex message, such as the move to cashless tolling that we’re talking about in Maryland. It needs to be conveyed in a tweet or social media video. And then repeated.

Simplify, Post and Repeat: Attendees Share Nuggets from the Summit

At the conclusion of the summit, IBTTA’s Jones passed around the microphone asking attendees to share their biggest take-aways. Here are the most popular:

  • When in crisis, keep your message simple and put your victims first. Don’t play the “blame game.”
  • Develop those critical relationships now. Not when you need them.
  • You can lose public confidence in a moment; getting it back takes time.
  • On the same note, “up your messaging game.” You need professional communicators to frame and develop communications that will work. If you are communicating news about traffic headaches, “create the sense that we are in this together.”
  • Trust is essential to a team’s success, and leaders need to understand their leadership style and its impact.
  • Until you acknowledge the piece that’s most important to your audience, they can’t hear anything else.
  • Your messages need to be simple and they need to be repeated. More than once we heard the example of Coca-Cola marketing. Yes, they have the budget, but they still keep reminding consumers about their product even though we all know about it.

The good and not-so-good traits of communicators

Finally, during a panel of executive-level tolling executives all were asked to share a few words about what makes a good communicator. Who do you want in charge, handling this all-encompassing responsibility?

Answers: the best of the best are strategic thinkers. They are listeners. They have sincerity and confidence and understand that a message needs to be repeated consistently.

Who doesn’t make the cut? In their view, it’s the constant talkers. Those who come across as “slick.” Those who act and think they’re always right. Spokespeople who come across as nervous in front of a camera.

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