The State Worker

The State Worker: Caltrans’ Fix50 PR team gets opening day win

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

Sacramento political strategist Aaron McLear’s tweet and dozens of others like it on Wednesday represented a big win for Caltrans’ Fix50 communications campaign.

“SkyTeam news choppers: Here’s a shot of traffic in Midtown,” McLear tweeted with a photo of a leafy, empty street. “U can stop circling my house now.”

After nearly a year of Caltrans’ warning that the W-X freeway repairs might strangle Sacramento’s highway system and surface streets, the impact this week has been more like a mild springtime chest cold: a little irritating, but we’re handling it.

And Caltrans couldn’t be happier that its dire forecast was so far off the mark.

That’s what public communication often does: Offer the worst-case scenario. Hammer it home through every medium possible. Then hammer it some more.

Then if everyone on Day One is asking, “What’s the big deal?” and complaining more about traffic helicopters than hellacious traffic conditions, you’ve succeeded.

Caltrans has plenty of experience.

In 2008, the department convinced many drivers to avoid the I-5 project in Sacramento, just around the corner from the stretch of freeway currently under repair. And, of course, Caltrans warned drivers early and often about the 405 freeway closure in 2011 that media in Southern California dubbed “Carmageddon” and “Carpocalypse” for anticipated traffic snarls that didn’t materialize.

Now it’s the Fix50 project that exemplifies how the state can flex its communications muscle to alter how people get to work. Print, TV, radio, social media, highway billboards, Caltrans’ electronic freeway signage – everything is in play.

Not that Caltrans gets to spike the ball. Wednesday’s news that three Fix50 workers were injured on-site is a sobering reminder that the project is a dangerous construction zone. And the department now must shift its message to keep drivers from prematurely returning to their old commute habits.

“We’re not letting up,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said Wednesday.

Look for the department to credit commuters for adjusting, said John Williams, a Sacramento State communications professor. Officials will publicly tie the project’s success with community cooperation, especially if the work gets ahead of schedule.

A cynic would say that Caltrans, with media complicity, used scare tactics to get drivers off the road. Overstate the problem. Gin up the front page and home page headlines. Cue the on-site interviews.

But consider the alternative, Williams said. What if Caltrans had predicted the W-X project wouldn’t have much impact and then the street in McLear’s photo jammed with commuters on Day One? News coverage and the public would have turned on the department.

“What you don’t want, if you’re Caltrans, is to underestimate severity,” Williams said. “You damage yourself. It’s easier to come back with good news.”