Getting media coverage for mass transit isn't hard, but positioning that coverage, handling constant turnover in specialist reporters, and disproving myths about it can be.
Along with crime and education, transportation - especially as it relates to the morning and evening commutes - is one of those hot-button issues near and dear to the hearts of most American adults.
As metropolitan areas grapple with increasing suburban sprawl and the resulting nightmarish traffic problems, more and more media outlets are focusing on public transportation as a possible solution to congestion.
But it isn't nearly as cut-and-dried a media topic as you might think.
In addition to being a story on its own, mass transit is also a sub-theme in a whole host of other issues, ranging from real estate, business, and politics, to big-picture debates on the continued growth of cities and how it impacts quality of life.
"It ends up being sprinkled through a lot of stories, notes Stephanie Barker, communications coordinator with the Jacksonville (FL) Transportation Authority. "There's a huge political component to public transportation issues, so it gets a lot of coverage through that."
A predominantly local flavor
By and large, public transit is a local story. While most transit systems are in part federally funded, national coverage of the issue tends to be narrow in scope, consisting of features on the traffic problems in individual cities such as Atlanta or Los Angeles, or legislative pieces on the future of Amtrak as an ongoing rail entity.
"Whenever the government or an organization releases a major report on traffic or public transit, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal will take a look at it, says Edward McNally, founder of Decatur, GA-based Above the Fold Media Relations. "But they have to be pushed into doing that story by some new statistic or pending bill in Congress."
Whether it's news-you-can-use pieces focusing on the schedules of local buses or commuter rail lines, or stories about the new taxes needed to fund additional mass transit, most local newspapers are willing to write about their local public transit system. "I would say they cover it more these days, only because it's such a hot issue, says Michael Goodman, partner with the Ft. Lauderdale, FL-based Bitner.com, which represents south Florida's Tri-Rail commuter system. "There's a real emphasis on reporting everything from board decisions to commuting groups either in a favor or against new public transit initiatives. So the real challenge isn't pitching, it's positioning the story."
Part of this positioning has to do with who uses public transportation.
In cities other than New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco, PR people must battle with the public perception that public transit is only for those who can't afford or don't have a car.
"One of the challenges is trying to debunk the myth that public transportation is primarily transportation of necessity, as opposed to transportation for quality of life, says Steen Miles, media relations officer for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). Miles suggests the city's lone major news outlet, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, alternately feeds and debunks that myth, touting the use of MARTA for special events like the Super Bowl, but also focusing on sensationalized angles to public transit stories, such as crime on the subway lines or labor strife. "Public transportation is like public health in that it's important to the community...but it's not a sexy topic unless it's something negative, Miles says.
But Kellie Grob, senior PR specialist for Cincinnati-based HSR Business to Business consultancy service, says the media deserves some credit for delving into sensitive themes. In Cincinnati, the local media has been willing to look at the city's race relations and how that impacts public transit policy, particularly in terms of getting workers from the urban core to the suburbs where many jobs have moved.
Dealing with reporter turnover
But Grob adds she's seeing less of these big-picture stories as news staffs become increasingly stretched. For example, Grob says The Cincinnati Inquirer's transportation beat reporter now also covers terrorism, aviation, and the Catholic Church. "He's still the contact person, but most of the public transportation stories, unless they're huge, get deferred to a general assignment reporter... who has just a couple of hours to spare before he or she moves on to the next story. So we have to prepare a lot more fact sheets and other materials that we can send out as background for the reporter to study before an interview."
"It used to be that every outlet had a transportation reporter, adds Bill Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance advocacy group.
"Much to our chagrin, today most do not, and those that do experience a high turnover."
That media turnover ends up compounding the difficulty of PR efforts pertaining to public transportation. Many public transit initiatives can require up to a decade or more to complete, with much of that time spent getting the necessary funds and approval to begin construction. At each milestone, PR pros routinely find themselves dealing with a new reporter on the beat, who then has to be brought up to speed before the story can be done.
There are some exceptions to that, of course. Among the top journalists who cover transportation-related issues are Milo Ippolito of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kurt Streeter of the Los Angeles Times, Haya El Nasser of USA Today, and Chuck McGinness, who covers transportation for both the Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald.
While it varies from market to market, TV and radio can often be a very hard sell for public transit stories. "It is so challenging as a PR professional to get local TV to cover your project, says Arthur Sohikian, SVP with the MWW Group's Los Angeles office. "You have to work from the angle of how this benefits a particular neighborhood. And when TV does cover public transit issues, Sohikian says they often take the short-term view, focusing on the delays and inconveniences caused by transit-related construction, rather than the benefits of the system once it's completed.
While in some cities the debate is whether to have mass transit, the issues in cities like New York tend to be primarily about the quality of service. Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, says the New York press tends to write about the city's subway and bus system as a political story. "People on the city beat have to write about issues such as the lack of air conditioning on some subways or any sort of labor strife, he says.
But Paul points out that at least in New York the need for public transportation is a given and indeed a major component of coverage of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center is focusing on the opportunity to put in a transportation hub to link the city's subways.
Debate over coverage
There are two sides to the public transportation debate. While some argue against the tone of the media's coverage of mass transit, there are others who say the fact that it gets such extensive coverage is out of tune with the general public's attitudes.
Fay, whose group represents both car groups such as AAA as well as truckers, points out that even with the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been poured into US mass transit, the actual number of people who use public transportation to go to work has actually declined in past 40 years.
In the meantime, the number of people choosing to travel to work alone in their car has been rising steadily and is now well over 90% nationwide.
But Fay says pitching the concept that people love their cars and want more roads rather than more mass transit remains a tough sell to the media.
"With some exceptions, notes Fay, "press conferences that address public transit are packed, while highway-oriented events are sparsely attended."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers The New York Times; USA Today; Los Angeles Times; Chicago Tribune; New York Daily News; New York Post; Newsday; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; The Cincinnati Enquirer
Magazines Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report
Trade Magazines Passenger Transport; Metro Magazine; Transportation Leader; Urban Transport News; Progressive Railroading
TV & Radio National Public Radio; CNN; Local morning and evening TV news shows.