Getting the Message Out: APTA Marketing & Communications Workshop

This week the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) held its Marketing & Communications Workshop in Miami, Fla. The workshop brings together the marketing folks and the public information officers from transit agencies and the business members in our industry. 

Preparing for the Unexpected

New to the workshop this year was a transit security communications drill. What would transit agencies do if there were a terrorist attack on public transportation? Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) were on-hand to run through scenarios with transit communicators.

APTA Senior Program Manager – Media Relations Virginia Miller was especially excited for this session because it was something that has never been done in the country before. "People will be focusing on a number of scenarios with the DHS, TSA and FTA," she explained. "Not only affected agencies, but people across the country may need to respond."

The scenario was run in "real-time" and while panelists explained what they would do at the time of event, 15 minutes after, 30 minutes after, etc., agency communicators in the audience were sharing what they would do as they learn about new information. At what point do you notify your GM? Your chief of police? When do you ramp up security? At what point do you shut down your service? And what are you telling your local media?

"It will provide us with an opportunity to figure out what we don't know," Miller said. "It's the opportunity at a national level, to look at this together, for a day we hope to never see. But if we do, we won't be going in cold."

Involving All APTA Members

While that was one of the specialized sessions, there are a variety of topics covered. I hear from quite a few business members that they don't go to the workshop because they see it as being for just agencies. Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager with The Rapid in Grand Rapids, Mich., and vice chair for the Marketing and Communications Committee, explained, "While content is sometimes focused on agency-specific issues, others are general and there's a lot of overlap to the discipline of marketing."

"It's learning about the craft of marketing in our industry," added Richard Maxwell, assistant vice president of marketing for The T in Fort Worth, Texas, and chair of the Marketing and Communications Committee.

He also talked about the newly created Business Members Task Force, which was created to strengthen the business member's voice within the Marketing and Communications Committee. "Alan Wulkan [managing partner for InfraConsult LLC and past chair of APTA's Business Member Board of Governors (BMBG)], has been appointed to be on the task force and will be a link with the BMBG to let them know why it's important to get involved." He stressed, "Telling our story is much more powerful with everyone collectively."

Funding and Telling Our Story

And "telling our story" is as important as ever trying to ensure federal funding. FTA Associate Administrator for Communications & Congressional Affairs Brian Farber asked attendees what we all can do to get our transit riders to share their feelings on public transportation. He said, "If you're idle, so to will be your buses and trains."

APTA President Michael Melaniphy gave an update of what has recently transpired on the Hill, including the House backing off last week. "It showed that people working together, following a specific, united path, got things moving in a positive path."

He also pointed out that during these tough economic times this past year, out of 28 local tax elections, 22 of them passed; people voted "yes" for local tax initiatives to support public transportation.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit Director, Media Relations, Morgan Lyons led attendees in a group exercise for people to leave the conference with some specific things each of us could do when we got home in a variety of areas, including tips on talking to elected officials, educating business members in your community, and the table I was at: leveraging social media.

Our table brainstormed how social media is used and could be used and looked at challenges, including understanding educating vs. advocating. There were a number of people at the table that have used social media to find people to tell our story: riders that love, support and rely on public transportation. And an easy time-saver for spreading transit's message via social media? "Sharing" or "retweeting" general transit-supportive messages from other agencies or suppliers. And while our table wanted an easy-to-access listing of elected officials, APTA Vice-President-Communications and Marketing Rosemary Sheridan pointed out to me after the session, APTA's website Public Transportation Takes Us There already has that resource! (So to everyone that was at my table, check out: http://napta.capwiz.com/election/home/!)

Providing for the Military

Something else new that's exciting to mention is an initiative that Parsons Brinckerhoff's Alice Wiggins-Tolbert, director, project development, has been passionate about is the Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative (VTCLI).

The Marketing & Communications Committee has created a VTCLI Task Force to help spread this message and Wiggins-Tolbert invited Erik Weber, member of the United We Ride team, to come and speak to the committee about this initiative.

Last summer the DOT joined with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Labor, Defense and Health and Human Services to establish this initiative to improve transportation options and mobility for America's veterans, service members and their families. Weber said meeting their needs is extremely important and the first round of funding for $30M was announced last year around Veterans Day and there will be a second round and more information can be found on the FTA's website.

Recognizing the Front Line

While the Call Center Challenge is not new, seeing the APTA president and APTA chair attending the entire event was. John Metzinger, marketing/development manager with CityBus in Lafayette, Ind., is chair of the Customer Service Challenge Task Force and explained that the Call Center Challenge was first initiated about five years ago at the Marketing Workshop in Orlando, Fla.

"The Call Center Challenge highlights the value and importance by recognizing customer service and it allows front-line employees to demonstrate their skills and shine," he said.

"The call center people – they're my heros," said APTA Chair and Dallas Area Rapid Transit President/Executive Director Gary Thomas. "When people call DART, these people are the voice of the agency; the operators are the face and these folks are the voice.

"They know how to help an upset person, to know how to solve their concern or to help them with a question." He stressed, "It amazes me they can do it hundreds of times a day and they always do it with enthusiasm."

And it's more than one challenge/event a year for these folks. Metzinger said that at the first challenge, "some participants made contact and shared best practices and they started a monthly conference call." And, it continues today through the National Transit Call Center Peer Group.

The National Transit Call Center Peer Group is open to any call center managers or supervisors who want to share best practices and get advice for challenges. If you or a staff member is interested, contact me and I'll get you in touch with the right person so you can be a part of this active group.

And congratulations to this year's Call Center Challenge winner: Gabrielle Rodriguez from MTA Long Island Rail Road!

Marketing: Something that Touches Every Department

Virginia Miller stressed about the workshop, "Not only are you learning from your peers, you get to meet people that understand the world you live." And it is a unique world for transit marketers and public information officers. As one PIO said with a smile, "W-T-F was created for PIOs."

A first-time attendee, and a new face in the transit industry is Kristy Torbik of Commuter Advertising who said she was happy to see how open and personable everyone in our industry is. "They're open to share ideas and wanting to share their ideas." And when it comes to finding solutions to transit marketing challenges, she said, "This all is so much better than anything you can Google."

Aaron Weinstein, BART department manager, marketing and research, said, "This is a great place for networking and being able to get information about what your peers are doing at their agencies." And with this industry having plenty of unique challenges, he said, " Let's use this advantage to its fullest."

"You don't have to recreate the wheel," Maxwell said. "Come here, get the tools that are available. Learn about the trade, meet people; we've all be through your problems."

Kalczuk agreed, adding, "We share challenges and have the same opportunities. We all benefit from our peers."

"You learn from the people that do the job you're doing," said Miller of APTA. And, just as important, "You're building not only professional connections, but you're making personal friendships and the learning continues beyond the conference.

"You're not alone."

When interviewing Melaniphy prior to his taking on the position of president at APTA, one of the things important to him was getting people involved and he always stresses, "This is your association." There are a variety of committees and within the Marketing and Communications Committee, there are specialized areas for people to be involved in the areas they're most passionate about, from social media or ad revenue to the newest Military Family Task Force.

Not sure how to get involved? Just contact APTA and they'll be happy to head you in the right direction. Or as Melaniphy said in a previous interview, "You have to raise your hand. There will be a lot of people to help you and guide you."

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