Pierce Transit set to spend up to $450,000 on public relations campaign

Tacoma News TribuneApril 21, 2014 

Pierce Transit wants to spend up to $450,000 over the next three years to work with a California consulting firm to improve the agency’s public image.

The first step this year would be a survey asking both riders and non-riders what they expect from the transit system. After that, the firm would develop a “public perception improvement strategy” for problems identified in the survey. It’s not clear yet what that marketing-related campaign would involve.

Board Chairman Rick Talbert said the project would aim to correct public misperceptions and identify areas where Pierce Transit could improve.

“This is another chapter in making sure we meet the needs of all of the citizens, even those who don’t ride us,” said Talbert, a Pierce County Council member.

Talbert and the three other members of the board’s executive/finance committee met last week and unanimously recommended contracting with Moore & Associates of Valencia, Calif., for public relations and marketing help. The full, eight-member transit board is scheduled to vote on the contract May 12.

Pierce Transit has traveled a rocky road in the past several years. It weathered “several years of declining revenues that resulted in major reductions in staff and service to our customers,” according to an agency document. It also cites two failed ballot measures, a reduced service area and “unfavorable media coverage.”

These factors may have hurt the public’s perception and “eroded the public’s confidence in the agency’s effectiveness,” the document said.

“We’ve had a pretty turbulent time,” said Chief Executive Officer Lynne Griffith. “We’ve upset a lot of people with the changes that had to be made.”

She said the marketing help is necessary for Pierce Transit “to connect with our citizens in a more significant way.”

“We want people to understand now we’re on stable footing,” Griffith said.

Nick Sherwood led the campaign to defeat Pierce Transit’s last ballot proposal to raise the sales tax in November 2012. He said he’s skeptical of the new plan to hire a public relations company.

“I don’t think the public would be comfortable they’re spending their tax dollars on non-transit-related services,” Sherwood said. “That’s a lot of money.”

Sherwood asked: “Is the money so plentiful they don’t have to worry about service hours anymore?”

Griffith said $150,000 would fund about 1,000 service hours annually. Pierce Transit is increasing service hours this year to 427,717.

That’s still dramatically lower than the 617,000 hours that were in effect in 2008 before voters twice rejected sales tax measures.

“Obviously, we need more service hours,” Talbert said.

But he added he’s committed to making sure Pierce Transit builds a system that meets the public’s needs.

“We’re actually in a position where we’re repairing the agency,” Talbert said. “I think this is a prudent way to make sure we’re building it back right.”

Pierce Transit has cut service in recent years due to declining sales tax revenue. But after those tax receipts started picking up last year, the agency decided in July to reverse its plans for even more cuts.

Also last summer, the board cited “improved public perception” as one goal in a three-year strategic plan.

It included $150,000 in this year’s operating budget of $119 million for the public relations work.

Moore & Associates, which specializes in public transportation consulting, was selected from among six firms that applied. The contract would include options to renew for the following two years, not to exceed a total of $450,000.

Both Talbert and Griffith said the consulting work would not be a prelude to another ballot measure.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard

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