Talking Transportation, Advice from Communication Professionals

Alaskan Way Viaduct being built
Start talking transportation with people at a cocktail party or social gathering and you’ll likely see their eyes glaze over. As far as topics go, it’s one of the least sexy things you can bring up. While not the first topic on everyone’s mind, it’s a very important aspect of economic development and daily life.
Last week I sat in on the Seattle Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation’s (YPT Seattle) first meeting of 2014. I was drawn to the event by a post I saw on the Seattle Transit Blog and the speaker panel which included Travis Phelps of WSDOT, Charla Skaggs of EnviroIssues, and Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times. The event was held at Enviroissues and focused on details of sharing transportation project information, how agencies provide information to media outlets, and the impact on the traveling public. The event shed some light on some of the complexities of communicating about transportation projects.
Below are a few notes from the event highlighting key takeaways.
Investment Cost Stacks of coins

Most transportation projects involve some type of investment. To win over support it’s important to get buy in from both the public and private sector. The common question often asked is, “What does the investment yield?”While not a simple answer, using info available from engineers and other technical folks, communication professionals can paint a better picture of what the project will entail and explain potential risks involved. The more information available the better; it allows internal communication professionals to strongly advocate for the organization’s point of view to media and influencers. Preparation is key to executing a successful communication strategy. Travis from WSDOT put it well saying you can only communicate what you know to stakeholders and media. WSDOT particularly prides itself in looking extensively at its projects before beginning construction and is focused on limiting the number of surprises which might occur. Before conducting outreach, it’s important to analyze your story for holes or potential issues.
Use Data with Care

There is no shortage of data these days. Thanks to wired devices and the widespread use of sensors, information about transportation projects is especially easy to collect and share. That being said, it’s important to use data correctly and provide proper context to prevent misinterpretation. This frequently happens with percentages. Mike from the Seattle Times mentioned many people don’t know how to use percentages correctly and when left to their own devices and agendas may use the information to construct stories which may not be 100% true.
To prevent information from being used incorrectly, Travis recommended considering how to display it and keeping in mind your audience. Display types can vary; options include infographs, detailed blog posts, videos, and other creative options. As far as audience is concerned, location matters. The Seattle area is particularly challenging to deal with when communicating highly technical information because of the region’s highly educated population.
A good example shared by Travis was the Skagit bridge collapse. He went on to say many people in the area actually know technical terms such as ‘fracture critical.’ To compensate WSDOT will generally share very detailed information because it knows the audience will likely be able to understand its complexity and many of the media outlets in the region will take the time to drill down into the data and explain the issue in depth.
Storytellers and Gatekeepers
Ferry turnstiles for the Bainbridge ferry
It’s no secret; the media landscape has changed and continues to change. Most newsrooms are adjusting to cuts in staff and the method content is gathered and consumed by audiences. Mike illustrated this point best when he explained that many newsrooms are now generally outnumbered by internal communication folks.
The internal side isn’t immune to the shift either. While it’s now easier than ever to share your own content thanks to social media, influential sources still have a stake in how you’re story is told. In the Seattle media market this shift is particularly evident in print media. The city now only has one major newspaper and is host to a collection of other nontraditional outlets such as the Stranger, Crosscut, and Publicola to name just a few. While the variety is great for internal communication professionals, the function of new media sources isn’t always the same as traditional media outlets. For example, many nontraditional outlets such as the Stranger are often highly opinionated and don’t follow the “rules of journalism,”  i.e. embargos, fact checking, balanced reporting, etc.  That being said, great coverage can come out of outlets like the Stranger which has won a Pulitzer and is often the authority on stories such as the closing of the Orion Center.
There is no perfect coping mechanism for dealing with these changes. Instead, the panel seemed to agree it’s important to strike a balance. For media this means working closely with internal teams to gather the best information and for internal communication folks it’s about picking your outlets wisely – sometimes you can get burned or misinterpreted if you go with the wrong outlet.

Transportation Brands


Branding for transportation is a tricky subject. While it’s tempting to focus heavily on individual projects, it’s best to advocate for the agency as a whole. WSDOT recently experienced this with its deep bore tunnel project along Seattle’s waterfront. Shortly after the start of the project the agency frequently used the machine’s nickname, “Bertha” when referring to the project. Initially this generated interest from media outlets and people on social networks but when the project ran into trouble (literally) a few politicians and naysayers quickly latched on to the nickname and began to use it as a way to bash the project as a whole. Media also quickly stepped away from the cute factor and began to scrutinize it closer.

Mike closed out the discussion about transportation branding well. Stepping back from the Bertha issue, he advocated for viewing the WSDOT brand as an entire agency, not individual projects. He went on to say the agency’s brand is more about information and hyper awareness. This argument can be witnessed across Washington’s highway network. WSDOT provides a wealth of useful updates on the web, digital reader boards and social media (WSDOT’s Twitter account is incredibly helpful and does a good job at making traffic interesting – lots of well-timed jokes).
Closing Remarks

Transportation may not be as sexy as iPhones or the latest celebrity gossip but it’s an important part of our daily lives. After all the products we use are shipped from somewhere and commutes are directly impacted by the quality of transportation infrastructure.