ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: Public input keeps Seattle Monorail Project on track

From conceiving the idea, to winning over city voters, to dealing with its still-fervent opposition, the Seattle Monorail Project is committed to maintaining its momentum via grassroots PR.

From conceiving the idea, to winning over city voters, to dealing with its still-fervent opposition, the Seattle Monorail Project is committed to maintaining its momentum via grassroots PR.

Eventually the Seattle Monorail will loom 30 feet above street level. But until then, the dream is to keep this project as close to the ground as possible. That's because this hi-tech wonder of transportation comes from very humble beginnings. A local taxi driver sparked the movement to get the 14-mile monorail built, and Seattle voters made it a reality in November 2002 - grassroots all the way. Now the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) is a bona-fide government entity, but it's trying hard not to communicate like one. It's a delicate balancing act, to remain true to one's rebel roots after becoming part of The Establishment. "Our communications effort at the Monorail Project is in large part based on the uniqueness of the grassroots effort that created it," muses Anne Levinson, SMP's director of strategic planning for government and media relations. "People today often talk about the fact that we don't have real grassroots advocacy anymore, we don't have real activism and people involved in their government. What the monorail represents is in fact that very kind of effort." The movement to build a low-pollution, low-noise, hi-rise monorail above the traffic-congested streets of Seattle began, appropriately enough, when a frustrated cabbie named Dick Falkenbury decided in 1997 that he'd had enough. Seattle had built America's first fully operational monorail back in 1962 for the "Century 21" World's Fair. The system was an overwhelming success then, and Falkenbury wanted to bring it back. Grassroots effort from the start He started a grassroots movement that was opposed by nearly every elected official in Seattle. He had varying degrees of success getting his project started, but on more than one occasion city officials used their power to quash it. Eventually, Falkenbury and his supporters passed a city initiative requiring voters be offered the option of voting for the construction of a monorail by Election Day 2002. Through time and persistence, Falkenbury and his movement gained the support of the establishment it had once fought. It was a contentious battle, but in the end, the people of Seattle voted to build a monorail. The decision was hardly decisive, however. The measure creating the SMP passed by a mere 877 votes, and the opponents were nearly as vociferous as the supporters. It now falls to the communications staff at the SMP to bring a divided city together under this $1.75 billion, eight-year project. The simple thing would be to cull together a ton of money for an ad campaign and "sell" the already-approved project to Seattle residents. But Levinson and her staff are keenly aware of the public perception that the monorail is a grassroots initiative, and they are loathe to lose that. So instead of telling the people what they want to hear, the SMP is putting its resources into listening. Levinson sits atop the SMP PR staff, and directly below her is communications manager Paul Bergman, who's in charge of day-to-day operations. Alongside Bergman is Fen Hsiao, communications coordinator, and Lars Henrikson, community coordinator. Henrikson, a longtime member of the original push to get the line built, is a major asset to SMP's grassroots image. His entire job consists of responding to community e-mails, letters, calls - you name it. "He knows everything about this project because he must answer every question imaginable," says Bergman. Listening to the people The heart and soul of this operation, however, is the community involvement team. "We've divided up the [14-mile] monorail route into segments and neighborhoods," explains Levinson, and each segment has been assigned one representative from the team. "We have these community-involvement folks actually go out and walk the routes. They're in constant contact" with the residents of each neighborhood. A large part of that back-and-forth happens at regular town-hall-style meetings, 14 of which have already taken place - an impressive number considering the SMP only came into existence January 1, 2003. "Rather than our staff going out and lecturing people in technical train language, these meetings are designed to have people sit down, break into small groups, and guide the initiative based on their input," says Levinson. Community-involvement staffers - there are six on the streets and four support staff - attend these meetings and listen to concerns, complaints, and ideas from community members, then bring them back to the higher-ups. "They bring to us individual community ideas, what their concerns are, and that gets fed into the management process," explains Levinson. "So it's a real-time ongoing way to have constant communication back and forth with those whose lives are most affected on the route." Seattle is one of America's most wired cities, and the SMP has taken advantage of that as well. Its website, www.elevated.org, plays a major role in fostering the constant dialog with the community. "We've had 10,000 public comments come in through that website," Levinson boasts. It also provides a useful platform to tell the monorail's story, which it does with surprising finesse and detail. The SMP also uses a number of PR firms. Local shop PRR has taken the lead on some survey work, and is "helping out" with one of the route's more controversial stops, Seattle Center. Norton-Arnold & Co. has been organizing the community meetings, while other local firms lend a hand on graphic design and materials. Mike Lindblom, transportation reporter for The Seattle Times, gives the SMP qualified praise. "Last year during the campaign, I coined the phrase 'monorail time' to express the idea that this agency moves a lot quicker in its time table and works faster than just about any government agency I've ever encountered before, and I've encountered more than a dozen of them," he reports. That speed and flexibility penetrates their PR work as well. "They've always been very cooperative with me," he offers. "There are political dealings with the board that are kept under wraps - side conversations, things like that - but generally, they are very fast in responding." Overall, however, Lindblom suggests that the grassroots face of the SMP may not be as pure as the image-makers suggest. "There's a mix of grassroots and political savvy going on here," he explains. Speaking of the community forums, for example, he says, "People who live on the line are eager to take part and be heard, but [the meetings] are to some extent very scripted and professionally managed by a PR agency." Bridging the still-existing chasm But Lindblom concedes that, given the nature of much of the SMP's opposition, there is only so much one can expect. "The election results showed that people along the route are excited about it and people across town are opposed to it," he explains. "This city is split into a Western axis and an Eastern axis. They take comments from [those opposed], but there's really no way to respond to some of these complaints unless you kill the project." Lindblom may be right. But if he's wrong, if there is a way to pacify the critics, the safe bet is on Levinson and her staff to find it. Because if they can't, they know it means yet another blow to the survival of street-level advocacy in America. Particularly the elevated variety. ----- PR contacts Director of strategic planning, government, and media relations Anne Levinson Communications manager Paul Bergman Communications coordinator Fen Hsiao Community coordinator Lars Henrikson Outside agencies PRR, Norton-Arnold & Co.

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