Will you ever love the state Department of Transportation?
The DOT’s board has a bad feeling about the immediate answer to that, following the resounding failure of July’s T-SPLOST referendum in most of Georgia.
But it has hopes.
So on Monday, 12 of the 13 board members trooped out to Macon for a workshop on how to better communicate the DOT’s accomplishments to the state’s travelers – and voters.
It’s important, department officials have concluded. The failure of the transportation referendum in nine of the state’s 12 regions this past summer can be traced in part to citizens’ distrust of government. The T-SPLOST, also known as the Transportation Investment Act, was the only discernible hope for major new roadbuilding funds in the metro Atlanta area besides toll fees. So far elected officials have rejected gas tax hikes and other options.
“Coming out of the Transportation Investment Act, we heard that people don’t trust government and they don’t trust DOT,” said DOT Commissioner Keith Golden, opening the day’s program. He said the department wanted to find innovative ways to show what DOT accomplishes, and “prove to taxpayers we’re good stewards with their dollars.”
DOT started from square one Monday. In hours of sessions, a public relations consultant pushed the board to whittle down its many points of pride into a couple of key messages.
One that didn’t make the cut: simply saying “trust us.”
Instead, the board tentatively chose two statements as building blocks:
“Especially for the traveling public, the Georgia DOT is an innovative service provider,” and DOT brings you “one of the best transportation systems in America.”
DOT officials, like many government agencies, grumble that they get recognition for problems but not for their successes, such as completing projects on time and keeping roads smoothly paved.
Joe Snowden, president of McRae, a public relations firm, led the sessions. He used the examples of the Peach State Health Plan, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Coca-Cola Co. as organizations that had succesfully pared down their messages into one or two strong, easy-to-remember points.
Coke, a global brand, spends about $3 billion a year annually on advertising. DOT board Chairman Johnny Floyd said he didn’t intend to substantially raise DOT’s advertising budget. Snowden said he wasn’t advocating spending money on advertising, merely using Coca-Cola as an example of focused, unified messaging.
“This isn’t propaganda, it’s truth telling in an organized way,” he said.
Snowden said he worked with the Peach State Health Plan. Creating the messaging and putting it together with visuals cost less than $200,000, he said. That doesn’t include the expense of distribution like printing brochures and sending them out, he said.
McRae’s preparation and work Monday cost between $10,000 and $15,000, according to Karlene Barron, DOT’s director of communications. Floyd said the expense was worth it.
In addition, DOT has hired a new spokeswoman, who previously worked in the state senate, to work with its lobbyist.
Advocates for transportation options who dealt with DOT in years past might have been pleasantly surprised at some of the board discussion Monday. A department that has been vilified as hostile or indifferent to trains, bicycle lanes and pedestrian needs put its foot down for their inclusion, saying it serves the “traveling public” instead of just “drivers.”
And when it came time to vote for or against excellent “highways” as the priority, every board member rejected it, most voting for “transportation system” instead.
In sessions with their lawyer later in the day, the board also discussed the role of board members as set out in the law.