After paying a politically-connected consulting firm more than $4 million to come up with slogans like “Take the Orange Line. It’s high time for some lo mein,” the MBTA is once again looking to hire a marketing firm to promote the agency and develop communications plans. And while outside marketers could help as the authority is beset with service problems and hiring concerns, public transportation advocates said the main way for the T to improve its messaging is to be more transparent about what it’s doing—and what isn’t working.
“Go with the transparency route, let people know what you’re doing. There’s a real value in marketing to help simplify really complex things,” Stacy Thompson of LiveableStreets Alliance said. “Something riders say over and over is, Hey, MBTA, you are not communicating with us, what’s going on? This is a way of communicating and building confidence in the MBTA.”
Slogans and breakdowns
In 2018, the MBTA signed a contract with Waltham-based consulting firm Boathouse Group for up to $5.5 million to “humanize the brand” and work on marketing for the T. The company has been paid more than $4.5 million, according to state records.
While Boathouse was bidding for that work, Hill Holiday founder Jack Connors became chair of then-Gov. Charlie Baker’s re-election campaign. Meanwhile, Connors’ son John is a co-founder and CEO of Boathouse. John Connors gave the Baker campaign $1,000 that year, as did Boathouse principal Robert Parks, while Boathouse co-founder and CFO Christopher Boland gave $5,000 to the Republican State Committee.
The politically-connected consultants worked on several campaigns over the next four years, including pitching T alerts with ad copy reading: “More ETA. Less WTF”; “The fastest way to learn why things are slow”; and, “Think of it as an ‘out-of-service’ service.” For the recent Take The T campaign, aimed at encouraging riders to return to trains after the pandemic, Boathouse pitched ads like, “Take the Red Line to where brunch is perfected … Take the T to Southie” and, “Take the Orange Line to find your one true soymate.” That campaign began before the dragging death of Robinson Lalin on the Red Line, and before a scathing Federal Transit Administration audit outlined numerous safety, training, and staffing problems at the T.
Boathouse also worked on a campaign to hire more bus drivers in 2021 and 2022, according to MBTA records. The agency has since hired some new drivers, but is still hundreds short, according to a January State House News Service report, while MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore said the agency is “not making the sort of progress we really want to see” on that front.
Meanwhile, the T is still facing major service issues. After shutting the Orange Line down for a month last year to improve its track, officials admitted some slow zones that had been fixed were still in operation in January. And earlier in March, Interim General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville placed the entire subway system on speed restriction after a Department of Public Utilities inspection of the Red Line, all while missing paperwork led officials to be unclear about where repairs were needed. While other lines saw their restrictions lifted after a few days, the Green Line was restricted for nearly two weeks. All this as Gov. Maura Healey announced earlier this week that Phillip Eng, a former president of the Long Island Railroad, will take over as the new MBTA general manager to face all these challenges.
Showing, not telling?
In mid-March, the MBTA released a new bid for a firm to “develop and execute a comprehensive marketing and communications plan to support the Authority’s efforts to engage with our customers and stakeholders, as well as to support the MBTA’s brand development and major marketing initiatives,” with the firm’s job “not limited to but possibly including ridership, service, products, System Wide Accessibility, recruitment, and more.” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the T will require the selected firm to propose two or three “strategic proposals” each quarter.
“This is an opportunity for an agency to brainstorm and provide us with new and creative ways to communicate with our riders and stakeholders,” Pesaturo wrote in response to questions. “Many of the campaigns designed by the T or its Agency of Record are awareness campaigns. A good example is the Building a Better T campaign that updated our riders on the improvements the T is making to the transit system. Another example is last year’s Take the T campaign that focused on the benefits of public transit when compared to driving and the high cost of gas. The T included messaging at the gas pumps, on highway billboards, and on radio. This campaign captured drivers at multiple touch points during their commute and reminded them of the benefits of taking the T.”
But what riders really need, Thompson said, are clear explanations of service problems and what the T is doing to fix them.
“Half the job is simplifying the T’s perspective to others,” Thompson said. “I appreciate [now-former Interim General Manager Jeff] Gonneville is doing a much better job being transparent … but that doesn’t necessarily mean the public understands. I think there is a real need for support in translating to the public.”
And that means describing complex problems like the recent speed restrictions in an easy-to-understand way, but also literal translation, Thompson said. While Boathouse produced work in other languages, the new bid specifically requires “foreign language outreach” that the old one did not. Pesaturo said the T wants “to ensure that our communications efforts are reaching all our riders and stakeholders, including people for whom English may not be their first language,” and Thompson said the agency should go further, including having more multilingual ambassadors at stations.
“We have actually seen the MBTA in house do much more work to communicate in multiple languages, but they can do more. I think this is a reflection of where the T is moving in the last five years,” Thompson said. “This is a positive first step, but it’s not everything.”
And the T needs to do a better job highlighting the work they are doing, Thompson added, saying it should promote initiatives like the free bus line pilots in Boston and be more open about showing construction and repair work to the public.
“Some of the work that they’re doing is really cool, they can be doing videos of that. Say Hey, we know you’re frustrated and we’re sorry but here’s what we’re doing to fix that. They can’t make the trains run faster overnight, but show what they’re doing and thank the public for their patience while working to make things better,” Thompson said. “You don’t want to be too rosy but I actually think they can do a better job of highlighting the work they have done.
“Some good marketing campaigns will get people to purchase really crappy products but if a product isn’t good, they won’t buy again. … Have fewer slogans; more show, don’t tell.”