Community Activism: Cleveland coaxes commuters to try out public transit

Like many cities, Cleveland and its Regional Transit Authority (RTA) found that while residents were increasingly frustrated by many aspects of their daily car commutes, they were not seriously considering other alternatives, such as public transportation.

Like many cities, Cleveland and its Regional Transit Authority (RTA) found that while residents were increasingly frustrated by many aspects of their daily car commutes, they were not seriously considering other alternatives, such as public transportation.

But when gas prices began to rise dramatically this past spring, the RTA and its AOR, Brokaw Public Relations, saw an opportunity to drive home the point that not only was public transportation now far less aggravating, it could also save the average commuter money.

Strategy

With the price at the pump front-page news, Brokaw and the RTA knew they had to act quickly, but, at the same time, not be seen as exploiting a national energy crisis.

"The challenge from a PR standpoint was timing and making sure you got the campaign together and approved before gas prices went down," explains John McCauley, Brokaw's director of PR. "But we also stressed that we weren't proposing people give up their cars completely as much as incorporate some public transportation into their daily commute from the suburbs via Park & Ride facilities."

The RTA and Brokaw decided to launch the campaign with "Fair on the Square." The June 21 event in downtown Cleveland highlighted the city's summer attractions, such as the local zoo, that were accessible via public transportation.

They also decided that words alone weren't going to be enough to deliver their message, so they lined up a shiny, 40-foot gasoline tanker truck emblazoned with the slogan "Pass on the Pump."

"We felt we really had to force the issue with the tanker truck because the attitude of many media outlets was that the price of gas was going up, but we have no options," says Steve Bitto, the RTA's director of marketing and communications. "We wanted to remind reporters that there is another option."

Tactics

A week before the downtown event, Brokaw sent out a media alert/press release to local print, radio, and TV outlets, using the tanker truck as the visual hook.

"Though we are happy to get print to reach our audience, we really needed TV to reach that commuter base," explains McCauley.

In addition to getting the local zoo and theater group to attend, the RTA and Brokaw also lured the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers to set up a booth where the team gave away T-shirts of star player LeBron James.

Finally, to not only deliver the message, but to also get people to take the next step and try public transportation, the RTA set up a transit-fare box designed to look like a gas pump and gave away thousands of free bus-ride passes.

Results

Thanks to great visuals, Pass on the Pump generated coverage from all of the local TV outlets, including the CBS, ABC, and NBC affiliates. Six radio stations also covered the kickoff event, while print stories included Cleveland's The Plain Dealer, and Crain's Cleveland Business.

More important, the gas-price-themed campaign and other marketing/PR efforts have helped the RTA boost its ridership by nearly 4% this year, bucking a national trend that has many cities reporting a decline in public-transportation usage.

Future

The RTA and Brokaw are now working on other efforts, including an RTA- and Red Cross-sponsored blood drive that gives coupons for free beer for every blood donation.

McCauley says these types of campaigns are not only helping the transit authority seem more a part of the community, but they're also triggering more respect from local media.

"It used to be painful to get media coverage, but because events like Pass on the Pump are a little different, we're getting a lot more interest from the local press," McCauley says. He adds that the RTA recently retained Brokaw for an additional three years, and both are already eyeing another high-profile event for next summer.

PR team: Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and Brokaw Public Relations (Cleveland)

Campaign: Pass On The Pump

Time frame: April to August 2004

Budget: $15,000

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