If the referendum does pass, it won’t be because the proponents made a good case for it. It will be in spite of that fact. As I have said previously, advocates have done nothing to build grassroots support. Instead, they have continued to talk down to us — a common and long-time problem with the insular Atlanta power structure — and their messages have been inconsistent and even contradictory.
I was deeply involved in two of the biggest organizational challenges in modern history — the divestiture of the old Bell System and the ramp-up and management of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. In both cases, our strategy was to create a few simple, understandable messages (after a whopping amount of research) and to repeat them over and over and in every possible way until all the publics with whom we dealt — government, regulators, media, customers, employees, etc. — understood what we were all about. It worked.
Not with the transportation referendum. Even with $6.5 million in their advertising arsenal, until I called the communications people and asked, I had no idea what messages the proponents were trying to convey. That I even had to call them and ask is amazing. The opponents seem to have no problem in reaching me.
I was taught by my mentor, the late Jasper Dorsey, to keep your friends but work on those who are not and try to make friends out of them. That simple concept has been lost on the advocates.
With all the humility I can muster — which isn’t much — I would tell them I was named one of the 100 Most Influential Public Relations Practitioners of the 20th Century. I don’t know a lot about how to build a road but I know a helluva lot about how to manage external issues.
Had I been asked (insert joke here) I would have told them their problem is one of trust. As critical as our transportation issues may be, most voters don’t trust proponents to do what they say they are going to do. Period. Look no further than what happened in the General Assembly. Members who worked to pass the bill authorizing the referendum immediately ducked for cover when they experienced a backlash from their constituents.
That doesn’t exactly inspire trust in the program.
Proponents say that this referendum has nothing to do with getting rapid transit established throughout the region. Talk about your mixed messages. If you look at the comments from many leaders who support the referendum, they state clearly that for MARTA to survive financially there will have to be a regional system.
Many think this is getting the camel’s nose under the tent.
The biggest stretch is that all the proposed projects will be built on time and on budget. Somebody has been spreading pixie dust. I haven’t seen many road projects in my lifetime that were finished on schedule. There is the little matter of lawsuits, weather delays, increased and unanticipated costs for labor and materials and a litany of other issues that can impact the construction schedule.
We are also assured that in 10 years, the tax will go away. No one is saying how we are supposed to maintain all of the transportation projects in the next decade and beyond. I suspect you and I know the answer to that. There is no such thing as a temporary tax in this world. Government will be back for more. Trust me.
I can’t say that the referendum won’t pass on Tuesday because proponents will have spent some $6.5 million trying to convince people to vote for the measure. (Give me $6.5 million to spend and I can convince you to bark like a dog.) Passage should have been a slam dunk but given how the TSPLOST has been sold to us, it is not. It has been a top-down, finger-wagging lecture that got tiresome a long time ago. Now, advocates are asking us to trust them on both the size of the problem and their proposed solutions.
Trusting this bunch is the last thing I am going to do when I walk into the voting booth Tuesday.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.