WASHINGTON: The Department of Transportation, not traditionally known for its aggressive approach to communications, is coming out swinging in 2004, launching nearly 20 separate PR efforts to remind Americans how vital US modes of transport are to their lives and wallets.
The initiative will mark the first major move under Robert Johnson, head of DoT public affairs. He moved into his post in September 2003 from an identical position with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), where he was alternately praised and criticized for using aggressive media tactics to push the agency's message. Since arriving at the DoT, he has instituted a number of changes under a "one department, one message" policy, including daily news meetings among the various public affairs heads.
"There used to be very little coordination between the public affairs officers at the different agencies here," offered associate director of public affairs Bill Adams, a nine-year department veteran. "Now they are full players in the planning and implementation of the department's public affairs policy."
Johnson said the new program is not intended to be modest in scope. "Our goal is to enhance the public's understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of transportation's role in supporting the economy and moving people and products safely," he said. "Americans tend to think about transportation only when something goes wrong. They take it for granted. We want to change that."
The initiatives to be launched this year range from ambitious, long-term projects to single-day events. The first, still under review but scheduled for debut in February, is the Transportation Services Index (TSI), a statistic the DoT will produce each month that will attempt to gauge the strength of the economy based on factors such as the number of trucks on the road.
"The idea is to measure the performance of the economy as it's reflected in the movement of freight and passengers," said Johnson. "We hope over time it will establish itself among the leading economic indicators, like the GDP or the unemployment rate."
A major campaign is planned around the TSI rollout, including visits to stock markets.
Other initiatives include seeking coverage of the usually invisible process of allocating funds for local projects, promotion of safety-belt laws, a new air-traffic-control system that makes it easier for planes to avoid bad weather, and a partnership with ExxonMobil promoting the nation's scenic byways.
Despite the magnitude of work expected in 2004, Johnson says it is unlikely any RFPs will be issued for outside help. "A lot of agencies already have outside PR help," he said, "and we'll be tapping them for support on anything we can't do internally."