Can we talk? How to communicate on transportation issues

By Robbie Webber

Anyone who has tried to talk to a member of the general public about transportation issues knows that eyes quickly glaze over. Gas taxes, freight policy, transit schedules, and infrastructure priorities just aren’t sexy subjects. Sure, people want to get places and know what they don’t like: tolls, being stuck in traffic, buses that don’t show up, and streets that are dangerous to cross with a baby stroller. But trying to capture the public’s attention about our options to fix these problems, and that we especially need to make funding and revenue choices, is a tougher job.

That’s why Lloyd Brown, Communications Director for AASHTO, started a blog called Talking Transportation. He’s thought about transportation communication for many years and has some ideas about delivering the important information that the public and decision-makers need to shape 21st century policy and priorities. Although his blog is aimed at transportation professionals, his tips can be of use to anyone wanting to improve communication.

Brown’s post, “On writing well: Four tips to better writing and communications,” is a short, useful primer on getting your message across, even if it isn’t about transportation. Many people seem to forget such common sense advice as, “Don’t use jargon.”

Last year AASHTO also helped to develop materials to assist all of us craft our transportation message. A supplement to an AASHTO and Parson Brinckerhoff report, Making the Case for Transportation Investment and Revenue, these new materials are shorter and easier to use. In addition to a Power Point presentation with specific messaging advice, there is also a four-page brochure on creating your campaign. Case studies of successful campaigns and a supplement to the original report, subtitled, “Talking Transportation in a Post-Recession World,” were also released.

And in May 2012, SSTI published a report and offered a webinar based on work done by Spitfire Strategies for the Iowa DOT, titled, Building Public Support to Fund Preservation Work. Although the campaign to increase the gas tax was not successful in Iowa, the lessons learned have helped other states think about how to ask for funds for needed maintenance.

As AASHTO and their partners discovered, the resistance to increased funding for transportation is not simply a lack of appetite for increased taxes, but also the distrust from the public about how the current funds are being spent.

In order to move forward with all of our mobility decisions, whether about funding, priorities, maintenance, or new infrastructure, we must all learn how to deliver a clear and credible message to the public as well as elected officials.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.