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Public agencies must communicate to succeed

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We're pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how an agency must communicate well with the public if it's to be successful.

Communication image from Shutterstock.

Why should the private sector have a monopoly on high-quality marketing? On next-generation customer engagement? On technology-enabled products and services? [When I started at DDOT], communications to stakeholders were generally fair to middling in quality and consistency, we weren't very proactive, we needed to listen more, and some of our services had grown stale, if consistent.

[I worked] to communicate with the public effectively while empowering our great communications and public relations staff to open up the black box that had been instinctively created. Their first reaction was always shock. Really? We can talk about all of this stuff the agency does?

In DC, people were not used to someone aggressively selling the program as much as I was, but the reaction was very positive internally within the government and externally with the business community and the public at large. The public appreciated our efforts and the ability to know our reasoning behind the projects we were undertaking, and there was a lot pride within the agency that we were being recognized.

In fact, Karyn LeBlanc and John Lisle, who ran our communication and marketing efforts, were frequently asked to speak around the country about best practices in government communication. Our embrace of social media was one of the first in the country at that scale. From Twitter to Flickr to Scribd to our own blog and live chats with the public, the black box opened up and the public had the access they wanted and deserved.

Chicago grapples with a culture of not communicating

In Chicago, meanwhile, there was far more confusion and skepticism within the government about our overhaul of the communications program. The culture of the political machine had taken a heavy toll on the city and its staff. The month before I arrived, Mayor Daley's commissioner of streets and sanitation was indicted. People casually joked that the next most likely position after someone was an alderman was cellmate.

Although I thought this was funny, it was also tragic, and dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago and Illinois government workers had gone to jail over the past twenty years. To say the public lacked trust in the government is an understatement, and the honest people working in government were understandably shell-shocked from the constant scandal playing out in the papers and the courts.

Rahm Emanuel was coming in on the heels of twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley and forty-three years of Daley family control in total. Tumult, nervousness, and excitement ran amongst many government employees eager to turn to a new chapter, but many were also scared to find themselves on the cusp of a new era with unknown changes to come.

Against this backdrop, in May 2011, I immediately adopted an open-door policy with the press and not only returned their calls without a great deal of oversight, but aggressively worked to sell the Emanuel administration's new vision for CDOT and beyond. The mayor and I articulated our goal of moving people within the context of creating jobs, healthier citizens, and a more robust economy—messages aligned with the mayor's mission.

The public responded positively to it. Why? Because it was all true and was tied back to our stated goals. With few exceptions, we also received positive reaction from the rest of our key stakeholders, who had been long awaiting this change.

I had my battles with city hall to keep talking proactively to the press. The culture under Daley had been to avoid having your name in the paper if you could. We kept pushing, though, and rebranded the agency, rebooted our website, started social media accounts, and created a Complete Streets initiativean effort to ensure that users of all modes of city transportation can travel safely and comfortably—over which we had full control.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.


The voice on Chicago's trains has a little fun with riders

Since 1997, Lee Crooks has been Chicago's "Voice of the CTA," his resonant tones announcing the next station, transfer possibilities, and other service updates. Recently, a local news outlet got him to ride the 'L' and talk to riders.

Crooks has an amazing voice. I've always loved listening to CTA announcements because "CTA Guy" has perfect pacing, diction, and tone. I like to joke that if I ever win the contest on NPR's Chicago-based Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, I'd like CTA Guy to record my voicemail message instead of Carl Kassel.

And it appears he indeed does have a sense of humor.

WMATA doesn't have recorded announcements on trains, though the 7000 series cars are capable of making them. Currently those cars make announcements by having a computer read text.

But if we ever get our own Lee Crooks, we could have a fun Voice of WMATA to identify with. I nominate Lee Crooks.


How Chicago provides warmth to waiting transit riders

It's been a cold winter in DC this year. Transit riders, stuck waiting for buses and trains, are particularly susceptible to extreme cold. Chicago, where these sorts of temperatures are more regular, has a nice way of keeping their riders warm.

A heat lamp at a Chicago station. Photo by the author.

Most of the outdoor CTA stations have these heat lamps placed strategically in L stations. In many cases, these are placed inside the plexiglass shelters on the platform.

To save energy, these don't run all the time. Riders can turn them on by pressing a button. They turn off after a minute or so, but riders who are still waiting can push the button again.

"Push for heat." Photo by the author.

Given the warmer winters we experience here, it may not be worth installing these on WMATA, but they would certainly be nice to have on days like today.


GGW on the road: Chicago's "Unicorn bike"

How can you generate publicity for a new bikesharing system? Chicago's newly launched fleet of pale blue bikeshares includes one "unicorn bike": a bright red bike, dubbed #Divvyred, that Chicagoans are chasing all around the Windy City.

Photo by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Chicago's bikesharing system, Divvy, launched this summer with a fleet of pale blue bikes. Except one. As a clever marketing tool, one of the Divvy's 3,000 bikes is painted bright red. Chicagoans who spot the bike can post photos of it on Twitter using the hashtag #DivvyRed to be eligible for daily prize drawings. In addition, the 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 200th, and 300th riders get free memberships.

Installing what Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein calls a "unicorn bike" is an inexpensive and fun way to generate publicity for this new city service. Photos of the elusive #Divvyred are slowly appearing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The random node-to-node transfer path of bikesharing ensures the bike will eventually make its way all around the city, appearing at Wrigley Field one day and in Bronzeville the next.

If Capital Bikeshare added its own unicorn, what might it look like? As we've learned, bright red is a striking color. Few colors, except maybe gold, can outshine red in conspicuousness and mystique. Popular stories prize elusive golden items, from the golden ticket to the golden fleece, so why not add #theGoldenCaBi to the list?

Image by the author.
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