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The San Diego Association of Governments knew it would have a tough task last year winning public support for its $200 billion spending plan to fund transportation needs over the next 35 years.
Four years earlier, when SANDAG approved its last transportation blueprint for the region, environmentalists panned it. They also sued the agency for not doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The environmentalists have won twice in the lower courts and the case is at the state Supreme Court.
So before the vote last fall on its latest transportation plan, SANDAG spent more than half a million dollars on outside media consultants to craft a message that said the plan balanced spending needs for roads and public transit. The money for outside consultants was in addition to more than $1 million a year in salaries for 12 SANDAG communication staff members, plus three interns.
Emails and other documents obtained by KPBS through public records requests show that the consultants and communication staff worked together to sell to the news media and the public that the new transportation blueprint was a good one and worthy of support.
Before October’s vote on the plan, SANDAG staff followed a media campaign crafted with the help of an outside public relations firm. It included a plan to pitch story ideas to reporters, including one that asked — “Is ‘Transit-First’ truly an option?”
SANDAG staffers also successfully pitched the same opinion piece to several newspapers in the county, naming different public officials and civic leaders as the authors.
Records also show that agency employees sometimes exchanged dozens of emails over multiple days on how to respond to negative tweets about SANDAG. They also made sure to coordinate SANDAG’s message about the plan with elected officials throughout the county and identified four local journalists to brief: Joshua Stewart with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Keatts with Voice of San Diego, Josh Emerson Smith, who at the time was with San Diego CityBeat, and me, Claire Trageser.
Preparing to combat critics
SANDAG updates its regional transportation plan every four years. With the controversy surrounding its previous blueprint, the agency wanted to be prepared last year for its critics — particularly the ones who take to social media to voice their opinions.
In mid-September, SANDAG Communications Manager David Hicks sent an email to staffers briefing them on a week’s worth of media operations.
SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan
“We’ll be doing Facebook posts, two or three a week, plus a fair amount on Twitter (one or two tweets a day),” he wrote. “In addition, we will be carefully monitoring conversations that are going on via social media regarding the regional plan. And we will be more proactively taking part in those conversations. We will keep our messages very positive. We won’t get into extensive, negative back and forth conversations. But we will post responses and make key points in ongoing conversations about the regional plan or other directly related issues.”
Many government agencies craft media strategies, monitor social media and coordinate their messages in the news, so SANDAG is not unique, said Bey-Ling Sha, director of San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies.
“People have a choice. They can not know what their government is doing, or they can fund the government to do the work of the people but also inform the people about what work is being done,” Sha said.
But, she said, there is a tension between putting out information and trying to persuade the public.
Colleen Windsor, SANDAG’s communications director, said the agency’s media strategy on the transportation plan was to educate the public.
It was also meant to “educate the reporters who were covering the regional plan to let them know what we’ve done, how many iterations have been going on, what was in, what was out, and making sure the public knew how they could provide input,” said Windsor, who was former Mayor Dick Murphy’s press secretary until he resigned in 2005.
But emails among SANDAG’s communications team also suggest there was an effort to shape media coverage and convince the public the plan was good.
Developing a media strategy
About half of SANDAG’s spending on outside media consultants in 2015 was split between community organizations that did “outreach to disadvantaged and hard to reach communities,” according to SANDAG spokesman Jeff Stinchcomb. The other half — $256,725 — went to San Diego-based public relations firm MJE Marketing to develop a regional transportation plan website, post to Facebook and Twitter, and plan public outreach meetings. The firm sent a media plan to SANDAG staff in September.
It lists tasks to accomplish week by week. Among them: “Identify and prep board spokespersons, identify community papers for op-eds, encourage supporters to submit letters/comments, meet with UT Editorial Board, meet with KPBS, meet with Andrew Keatts, pitch story ideas.”
This shows a document that details some of SANDAG’s media strategy as it worked in 2015 to win support for his regional transportation plan.
MJE also signed a contract for up to $35,000 with public relations consultant Rachel Laing, a former spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, who wrote “media task lists.” One sent on Sept. 21 included holding “briefings” with four local journalists, writing op-eds in eight community newspapers and meeting with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune for “editorial support.”
It also said Laing would pitch two stories: “Is ‘Transit-First truly an option?” and “What would it take to meet the governor’s executive order?”
The more than $250,000 spent on MJE is taxpayer money, Windsor confirmed. She said the funding came out of the budget for individual projects. SANDAG is required to do public outreach on each project it does, and sets a budget that includes internal communication staff salaries and outside consultants.
Windsor said SANDAG hired MJE and other media consultants because she only had one staff member dedicated to media for the regional transportation plan.
“The regional plan is a 35-year planning document that touches every single person in this region, so having one person, and I had one person doing the regional plan, it is impossible for that person to do that much outreach,” she said. “So we hired consultants to be an extension of that arm, to do some of that boots-on-the-ground public outreach. Did they provide some media ideas? Sure. But that wasn’t the bulk of why they were hired.”
Emails show at least four members of the SANDAG communications team regularly discussed media strategy: Windsor, Hicks, Stinchcomb and Joy De Korte, electronic media coordinator.
SANDAG’s communications staff does public outreach about the agency’s “more than 150 projects and programs that have an annual budget of approximately $1.4 billion,” Stinchcomb said. In 2015, the agency spent $3.6 million on outside firms for marketing and communications for all of its projects.
The communications departments for the city of San Diego and San Diego County do not hire outside firms, officials for each said. The city has 31 staff members in its communications department with a combined annual salary of $1.6 million. The county has 11 communications staff who earn a combined $840,000 a year.
Writing opinion pieces
In the months leading up to the regional transportation plan vote, SANDAG planned to publish opinion articles, called op-eds, in regional newspapers.
“One focused on North County, one on South County, one on East County, and central that would likely be the UT, but also maybe even central San Diego, like City Heights type area,” Hicks wrote in a Sept. 3 email. “As well as others that hopefully we can place in various papers that are aimed at specific audiences, like El Latino and Voice and Viewpoint.”
The plan was to have the letters be “signed by a Board member with name recognition in the target audience of the publication as well as possibly a business organization or leader, like the EDC (Economic Development Corp.) from the area or the like,” he wrote.
Windsor told KPBS the purpose of the opinion articles was to “communicate to communities as to what was in the regional plan they could look forward to.”
Because every region is different, “we intentionally went after those community newspapers so we could talk to individual communities to let them know what was in the regional plan.”
But SANDAG staff wrote the same op-ed for each local newspaper, with a few paragraphs substituted depending on the region.
It was published in:
• The Star News in Chula Vista, where it was signed by Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas and Monica Montaño, chairwoman of the South County Economic Development Council.
• The Mission Times Courier, where it was signed by San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Santee Councilman Jack Dale.
• Voice of San Diego, where it was signed by Roberts and Dale.
• The Del Mar Times, where it was signed by Roberts and Dale.
The bulk of each article was the same, except for a few paragraphs highlighting different projects in each region.
Emails show SANDAG staff had hoped Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner and Carl Morgan of the North County Economic Development Council would sign The Del Mar Times editorial, but that didn’t happen.
They also asked San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Sanders to co-sign an op-ed in San Diego Downtown News/San Diego Uptown News.
Staff also planned to publish the piece in The North Coast News, but the editor passed.
SANDAG staff also planned to publish in The Pomerado News and the East County Californian. It’s not clear from the publications’ websites whether that happened.
Responding to social media posts
On Oct. 1, SANDAG’s De Korte emailed Hicks about some tweets that mentioned SANDAG.
“@SANDAG I’ll have been killed on my bicycle long before then on our region’s horribly dangerous roads,” the user @BikerRobert wrote.
“Voters wanted congestion relief, not money for roads. SANDAG board has interpreted that to be more roads,” @ollingers posted.
“SANDAG’s Gary Gallegos: “Transit is not going to work for every person in the region,” @bikesd tweeted.
Hicks responded to De Korte:
“On these below — should we reply to each individually? If so, in general, this is what I would suggest:
Lawson: The bike EAP will spend 200 million in the next 10 years to build safe bike infrastructure, most of which will be separated from vehicle traffic. Find out more …. check this with Kluth).
Ollinger — The TransNet ordinance lists specific projects and programs, including setting aside funds for transit, local roads, and highway managed lanes. See that list of project here — link to transnet page.
Bike SD — thanks for your comment.
Can you work on polishing these up and getting them approved?”
The exchange is typical. De Korte spent one to five hours a week monitoring social media, according to SANDAG. She then sent tweets and Facebook posts about SANDAG to Hicks, who often forwarded them to other SANDAG staff to weigh in on responses. Sometimes, multiple emails were sent and days passed before a response was settled on for a single tweet.
“Hmmmm not sure how to respond to that barrage. Your thoughts on that?” Hicks wrote.
“I’m not sure Twitter is the place to respond to these. However, maybe we can suggest to them that they are welcome to attend Friday’s Board meeting and speak during public comment period. This way the Board can address their comments directly if they desire. What do you think?” De Korte responded.
“I hate to leave anything unreplied to — but these are the folks suing us, and they are never going to stop — so I seems silly to reply [sic]. Maybe if we took the whole day and replied to every single tweet — but they would probably all have to be cleared through legal,” Hicks wrote back.
They then went through three revisions to arrive at the tweet, “Thank you. We hear your concerns & have tried to address them & those of many other stakeholders in SDForward to achieve a balanced plan. We really appreciate your feedback.”
Windsor said SANDAG views social media as another way to communicate with the public.
“So if somebody’s talking about the regional plan, we certainly want to jump in and let that conversation continue and inform,” she said. “Especially if there’s misinformation.”
Coordinating with elected officials
Last summer, KPBS sent a list of questions to Councilman Gloria’s office for a story about whether SANDAG’s plan did enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Gloria is on SANDAG’s board and was specifically singled out for criticism by environmentalists for his support of the plan.
Emails show Gloria’s staff forwarded the questions to SANDAG, which had staffers write up answers and send them back.
Gloria’s spokeswoman at the time, Katie Keach, asked another staffer for the councilman how she felt about Gloria saying what SANDAG had written.
“They seem a bit more defensive in tone than (Gloria) needs to be, in my opinion,” she wrote. “If you agree and (Gloria) wants written responses, I’ll rework them a bit to make them more Todd-esque.”
“They are also too long and wonky,” the staffer, Molly Chase, responded.
Gloria ended up doing a phone interview for the story.
It wasn’t the only time Gloria’s office and SANDAG coordinated their messages.
“SANDAG is trying to use Todd in its communication strategy,” according to a Sept. 10 email written by Keach, who is now the city’s interim communications director.
In response to a request from Voice of San Diego reporter Andrew Keatts, Keach wrote a comment and checked it first with SANDAG.
“I vetted your response and it sounds great,” Windsor responded to Keach. “There is only one correction…the 75% is for transit and active transportation. If you add that, it’s good to go.”
Originally, the statement had only said “transit.”
“This totally aligns with what we gave VOSD,” Windsor wrote in response to another statement Chase forwarded on Oct. 21.
Gloria also went with SANDAG staffers to talk to The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board and to brief KPBS reporters, editors and producers on the regional plan.
“Thanks Katie — went well — Todd was awesome,” Hicks wrote to Keach after the KPBS meeting.
SANDAG staff also looked to other city staffers to support their message. When a report was released suggesting SANDAG’s regional transportation plan would hinder the city from achieving its climate goals, Hicks wrote in an email:
“If we do get press calls tomorrow, do you think there is someone with some credibility at the city who would be willing to stand up and say what you have said below — that they are assuming we reach our goals, and then they will need to follow through with their plans as well to get there — that the (regional plan) is not ‘preventing’ that?”
Staff suggested the city’s sustainability manager, Cody Hooven, or the director of land use, Mike Hansen. Neither responded to the report in the media.
Getting to the vote
Despite opposition from environmental groups and many public speakers, SANDAG’s board unanimously approved the regional transportation plan in October.
Windsor described the media strategy in advance of that vote as “moderately successful.”
“Trying to do a regional plan on television doesn’t always bode well,” she said. “In print it does, because you can explain more. Would we have wanted more press? Sure, but we understand there’s only so much time in a newscast and only so much print in a newspaper.”
She said it was a good use of taxpayer money to buy outside media services.
“We do really good work here at SANDAG to be able to reach as many people as possible and use taxpayer dollars very effectively and efficiently,” she said.