BART’s PR Ethics Questioned

Most communication professionals have found themselves in a similar situation – go find people who will support your company’s position and are willing to be quoted or interviewed by the media. On its face, not so bad. So why then is the head of BART’s (Bay Area Rapid Transit) communications team coming under so much fire for trying to get loyal train riders to speak out against recent protests?

First, the background:  BART has been mired in controversy and protests ever since BART police shot a homeless man in July. A group named “Anonymous” has held several protests designed to draw attention to the shooting and disrupt commuter travel. In advance of a recently planned protest, BART shut off cellphone service on the train platforms in downtown San Francisco for three hours to prevent protestors from communicating by phone. That move drew criticism.

And then a BART effort to organize support from riders, against the protestors, backfired.

A newspaper report by the Bay Citizen says Communications Chief Linton Johnson organized a press conference in which he asked regular riders to appear and condemn the series of protests that are annoying riders and disrupting travel.

The paper obtained an email from Johnson, which asks BART co-workers to recruit loyal riders and then hired a car service to take them to and from the press conference. The email show Johnson provided a script to guide the riders in what to say at the news conference.

In actuality, one rider showed up at the news conference and delivered a half-hearted “we don’t like these protests.” And worse yet, BART admits it spent $872 in taxpayer dollars to reserve two SUVs that it never used because it couldn’t get other riders to attend the news conference.

So where did an okay idea to rally support, go wrong?  PR pros have all written talking points, so was this case so bad?

I’d argue that it’s an okay idea executed completely the wrong way. BART is a publicly funded agency that appears to be caught in an exercise of manipulation.  And at a time when protestors were already questioning the behavior of BART police, this was no time to use PR tactics that could be questioned.

Any communications person who works for a public agency knows their emails are easily discovered, so the email blast to employees was not a good idea. And of course, using public money to pay for riders to go to the news conference never should have happened. As for the “scripting,” there was another way to go about it.

The BART team could have talked in advance to each rider to learn how they felt and to help them shape their own true thoughts. Writing talking points for your company executive is one thing, but trying to script someone positioned as an independent third party seems, at best, disingenuous.

Better yet, if BART had just encouraged the media to talk to everyday riders, reporters would have found plenty of folks who weren’t happy with the protestors and there was no need to create a BART press conference to hear from riders. And most good reporters wouldn’t use those orchestrated testimonials anyway.

To make this whole mess worse, the protestors are attacking Linton Johnson personally. The Bay Citizen reports that the Anonymous group publicized “partially nude photos of him with other men last month in retaliation for the cell phone shut down.”

My only comment to that is: I don’t care what you do behind closed doors, but all PR folks should know taking pictures or video of it is never a good idea.

So it appears BART is a victim of its own poor judgment. I have no idea if BART police were justified in shooting the homeless man – but clearly a protest group has the agency rattled. Each time BART turns the attention to itself, it advances the cause of the protestors.

Patience is hard in times such as these, especially when executives are fuming behind closed doors and politicians are no doubt weighing in.

If BART discovers it needs to reform it practices, then tell everyone and do so. If not, BART executives need to take the high road, protect its riders and ensure uninterrupted service. If it sticks to doing its job, operating transparently and communicating clearly to the public, everything will eventually settle down.

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About Matt Silverman

Matt Silverman is a marketing and communications executive who proactively manages corporate reputations and builds brands. Matt is the Vice President and Managing Director of R&R Partners, a marketing and communications agency ranked among top 50 in U.S. by Adweek. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of R&R Partners. View all posts by Matt Silverman

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