A regular commentary on the practice of communicating about the transportation industry
Author: Lloyd Brown
I am the director of communications and marketing for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
The Oregon road user charge program, OReGo, has a huge challenge. It is leading the nation in implementing a road user charge program, one that is often hard to understand for people accustomed to paying a per-gallon tax at the gas pump.
And in researching ways to connect with their customers, the team at OReGO came to a realization.
“People just don’t get road user charging when you write about it,” said Michelle Godfrey, education and outreach coordinator with the Oregon Department of Transportation, in a recent phone interview.
What people need, Godfrey said, is storytelling. They need a way to have a conversation. And the outreach campaign in support of this new road user charge program, according to Godfrey, needed to answer a single specific question that should very much resonate with anyone working in transportation communications: “What matters to people?”
It’s nearly 2020 and social media has been a thing for more than a decade. So it should surprise no one that social media trends come and go. There was MySpace, Vine, Meerkat, Google Plus , Friendster and … so many more platforms that have faded after promising starts that it is hard to remember them all.
Picking which new platforms are worth the time to learn and develop is a serious question for communications professionals, including those at state DOTs. There are only so many hours in a day, and smart managers have to understand their abilities and anticipate trends worth pursuing and those to ignore.
It was nearly 20 years ago that I was sitting in a meeting and a Washington State DOT co-worker stopped me cold. I was describing an incident on a local highway that was snarling traffic, and my colleague interrupted my report.
“It’s ‘crash’ not ‘accident,'” he said. “We should never use ‘accident’ when describing crashes.”
I’m sure that I rolled my eyes. After all, I was the former journalist. I worked with media every day. I knew more about language that this guy. What was the big deal?
But in reality, he was right and his lesson stuck with me. “Accident” implies some kind of unavoidable randomness had a hand in the incident. Yet, in nearly every story behind the more than 34,000 annual highway fatalities, there is a cause. Those deaths were avoidable. Randomness? Perhaps. But certainly few were truly accidents.
While my co-worker’s lesson took place many years ago, the casualness with which most of us toss out the word “accident” is the focus of a new video by the Michigan DOT. The minute-long animated video makes the case that everyone who drives should take responsibility for their actions.
Michigan DOT is not alone. Safety advocates have argued for years that words matter and that we should not dismiss the carnage on our highways as simple accidents. The words we use help frame the way in which we see things.
Hopefully we’ll all heed the latest lesson from Michigan DOT, that actions (behind the wheel) matter too.
It’s no secret that viewers are turning to streaming media for their television entertainment. But the appetite for local news remains strong, as evidenced by the continued success of local TV news programming. State DOTs have learned that there also is an audience for well-produced compelling local news video.
Local television news continues to be Americans’ most popular source for news, according to the annual Pew State of the News Media report. While the overall local TV news audience declined last year, still more than 3.4 million viewers tuned in nightly to watch the evening and late news programs, far outpacing other sources for local news including newspapers and radio.
Most state DOTs use video regularly, but a handful are producing videos that replicate the look and feel of local TV news broadcasts. These news updates typically feature a regular host, or at least a consistent lineup of hosts. And the programs focus on stories about the state DOTs that may not otherwise garner coverage in more traditional media outlets. These state DOTs are reporting their own news in a professional, hosted format that is credible and compelling.