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Talking Headways

Talking Headways Podcast: Public Sentiment and Public Transit

Adelee Le Grandand Scott Wilkinson chat about how transit agencies can get a better handle on how riders and non-riders alike feel about their service.

This week we’re featuring a one-on-one conversation between Adelee Le Grand of Intellectual Concepts and Scott Wilkinson of AlphaVu. They chat about how transit agencies can get a better handle on how riders and non-riders alike feel about their service.

Click here for an AI-edited transcript of the conversation. You can read a partial, edited transcript underneath the audio player below.

Adelee Le Grand: So there’s so much information being thrown at us all the time. And I believe that it’s, like, over 2,000 advertisements every single day [that] individuals are exposed to, even if you just open your phone, right? I’m not a big social media person at all, but if I just open my phone to look at my emails or text someone, the next thing you see is like some ad that popped up, right? Or you're reading an article, even if you subscribe to like the New York Times or your local paper, like, some ads are gonna pop up — and how do you navigate [that], right? And how do you, as an agency, let’s say, how do you take the fact that people are so exposed to so much advertisement to maneuver through that to get your message to really resonate with people who are living their lives, right?

Understanding more about transit is probably not on the top of anybody’s list, even the person who is riding it every day. So how do you navigate that, and what are the tools that agencies — and I would say practitioners — should be aware of that they can utilize to help get through all of that noise, if you will, through the advertisements that everyone is seeing

Scott Wilkinson: It’s a great point. Those 2,000 advertisements, I mean, just think about that for a second: From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, 2,000 ads — how many of those do you remember? Close to zero, right? And those ads are being put out there by huge consumer product companies that have really big budgets. Again, if you’re Nike or you’re Coca-Cola, if you want to affect [or] create public opinion, you go and spend a ton of money to do that. Transit agencies do not and will not have that luxury. I’m not saying advertising doesn’t have a role, but I think we need a little humility to understand that a transit agency is never going to compete in advertising on the level [of] most of the companies out there who are advertising.

So that means we have to be smarter — we have to be smarter and more targeted to make those dollars go farther. That’s where my team and our business, we do a lot of measurement around public sentiment. So when people are talking about transit across all of those channels, we mentioned, is it positive? Is it negative? Which way is it trending? And importantly, what’s causing it to change? What’s causing public sentiment to become more positive or more negative? 

Because we can identify the causal factors — that gives us something very targeted we can go after. Sometimes we see a drop in public sentiment and it’ll be tied to an operational issue. A bus is broken down or there’s a delay or something. And that’s totally expected, right? People, we don’t expect people to be happy about operational issues. 

But sometimes we’ll see a drop in sentiment that has got nothing to do with an operational issue. It could be just some misinformation that’s out there. And that is a real opportunity where a transit agency can go in, they can put some content out, they can advertise, they can make a statement and they can have a real significant impact for really a very small or reasonable investment. And it’s that kind of precision that’s really necessary in the modern communications environment.

Adelee Le Grand: I like what you said there as far as really understanding the sentiment. So when there are these negative perceptions that are out there and sometimes there’s another outfit that is putting the negative messaging out into the community, how do we counter the anti-transit messaging that the community is hearing in a way that makes sense, right? It’s not a waste of money, like you said , you can’t over advertise. But how do you, how do we instead of you, how do we as practitioners and those who work in this space and even those who may be the head of community organizations that understand that there is value to supporting public transit, how do we work in your space I would say, to really counter the anti-transit messaging in a way that doesn’t break the budget and make sense and that’ll give you results.

Scott Wilkinson: Well, as public agencies, we’re burdened with having to tell the truth. I’ll start with that. There are organizations out there that are in campaign mode that frankly can say whatever they wanna say, whether it’s true or not. If you are a public agency and you are communicating with the public about services and capital projects or whatever the case may be, you have a legal and moral obligation to only speak facts to tell the truth. That can be a challenge. But I think one of the things is understanding that there are some people who you’re not going to persuade — and that’s okay. There are people who have made up their minds, they’re not interested in what you have to say.

Being able to know who they are so that you don’t waste your time and your money trying to communicate with them — that in itself is a win. You’re not wasting resources in an area where you’re not gonna have any effect. But what we can do is we can understand the populations that are genuinely interested in information about the service. We can understand populations that may be vulnerable to misinformation and make sure that we get the facts in their hands so that they have access to the facts. I think that’s a really important function of communications in public agencies. But to do all that, we have to know where the community is, who they are, and how to reach them. And that is just — that’s a massive project.

It’s a massive data project in this day and age. But it can be done. I just think we have to remember that we’re working in the context of — we have to tell the truth and we have and understand that there’s some people who are just aren’t interested in it.

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