2018 Top 40 Under 40: Joe Harrington

Sept. 14, 2018
Joe Harrington, Senior Manager of Public Relations, Public Information Officer and Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, Palm Tran
  • Alma mater: Kent State University
  • Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent (and why): Palm Tran Route 1 in West Palm Beach, Florida. This route enables riders to visit all kinds of amazing shops and restaurants in several coastal communities. It’s easy to ride and is the most popular in the system. It also connects to Tri-Rail (SFRTA) and Brightline is a short distance away.

It was an internship on Capitol Hill when Joe Harrington was in college was when he fell in love with government and has since dedicated his career to serving the public.

As the public information officer for three years for the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC) in Reno, Nevada, Harrington led outreach on several major transit projects. He worked with a diverse group of stakeholders on the extension of RTC’s premier bus rapid transit line, the RAPID, to the University of Nevada, Reno. This project involved working with business owners, property owners, students and university administrators ― many of whom had competing ideas for the project. He worked to ensure everyone’s ideas were heard at community open house events and helped build consensus on key elements of the project. Moreover, he engaged local media to share the story of how the project would create ladders of opportunity to education, while enhancing economic development and prosperity for the region. He used innovative techniques, including development of a YouTube video to facilitate a robust discussion on the project and share its benefits with everyone. He also visited businesses door to door, to ensure every citizen had a voice in the project.

He was also heavily involved in the outreach and communications aspects of RTC’s second BRT line, currently in development. Among the new communication methods he helped introduce were text message updates for the project and tours of the future BRT corridor. He worked to support, promote and have a significant presence at special events in the corridor to encourage transit use and build excitement and support in the community for the future BRT.

Harrington marketed new technologies that enhanced the ridership experience at RTC, including mobile fare payment. This technology not only enabled the riders to pay for passes using credit and debit cards, but sped up boarding. Through marketing, especially online and earned media, mobile fare payment accounted for about six percent of the fare for all passengers within a very short time of the launch.

Currently, Harrington is the senior manager of public relations and public information officer for Palm Tran, the public transit and paratransit provider for Palm Beach County, Florida, where he oversees both public relations and customer service in the geographically largest county east of the Mississippi River. He has continued to introduce new digital techniques to reach current and potential riders and has significantly expanded social media. Palm Tran went from no presence on Twitter to roughly 130,000 tweet impressions between the launch in fall of 2017 to the end of the calendar year ― only a few short months.

Social media proved a critical tool in communicating with both transit and paratransit customers in September 2017 when powerful Hurricane Irma hit South Florida. Harrington worked at Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center leading up to the storm, working with local media to ensure coverage of the eleventh hour evacuation of roughly 800 Palm Beach County residents from the Glades region during the frightening hours leading up to the hurricane. After the storm hit, he was one of only a handful of employees who returned to Palm Tran’s main office amid power outages and downed trees during darkness, immediately working to communicate how everyone would be returned home once roads could be made safe again.

After the hurricane, Harrington went back to work preparing to market a six-mile extension of Palm Tran’s Route 4. He employed new marketing techniques for the transit agency, including Facebook advertising and e-mail marketing campaigns adapted for mobile technology. He also coordinated a ribbon-cutting event in early January to coincide with the launch of the extended service to the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach and FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Moreover, he formed a partnership with the ballpark for Palm Tran signage and announcements during spring training at games featuring the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. Four months following the launch of the Route 4 extension, and with continued marketing in place, this route has experienced an unprecedented nearly 90 percent increase in ridership.

In addition, Harrington supports and organizes a number of community events for Palm Tran to encourage transit use, including Dump the Pump, Stuff-A-Bus (which collected 300 toys for kids in need in its first year), a Susan G. Komen bus debut and a bus in the Martin Luther King Jr. annual parade.

”I really enjoy being a part of the big transformative transportation projects that are based on a multi-modal approach, community-based planning and extensive public outreach.  However, at the end of the day, solving a transportation problem for even just one person is, by far, the most rewarding.”

“Funding is always a challenge. I would like to see more federal funding for grants and particularly for projects to make the industry cleaner and greener. Perception of public transportation can also be a challenge in attracting choice-riders – that’s why I feel robust public relations initiatives are absolutely critical to the industry’s future.”

“[The achievement I’m most proud of is that I] managed the public relations and marketing for a new $300 million roadway linking Sparks and Reno, Nevada, that included extensive community outreach. More than a roadway, the SouthEast Connector was a national model for sustainability and the project included wildlife crossings, a multi-modal trail detached from the road, accommodations for buses, and even plant life that cleans water from run-off.  The project removed historic mercury in the soil from exposure to the environment and removed tons of garbage and invasive weeds. I worked with a diverse set of stakeholders throughout the project. The roadway opened this year (2018) after having been in development for decades.”

“My best tip is to always search for new ways to reach current and existing riders. I introduced e-mail and text message marketing at two transit agencies at relatively small costs. Moreover, working within a limited budget I have expanded media partnerships.  One of my major initiatives at Palm Tran has been to expand and enhance social media. Through these efforts, metrics show Palm Tran is reaching thousands of people more each week than if we hadn’t undertaken these relatively inexpensive initiatives.”

“I am excited about the power of transit to transform communities by giving everyone access to jobs and educational opportunities. Transit is the key to smart development, economic revitalization, cleaner air and an overall great quality of life.”