Peninsula residents concerned about California's proposed high speed rail line may soon notice some new faces addressing the crowds at public hearings on the controversial project.
That's because the California High-Speed Rail Authority has just hired a new player to assist its admittedly flagging community-outreach effort — the global firm Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.
Ogilvy, which will be paid $9 million for its services, is expected to increase the frequency and effectiveness of the rail authority's communications, correct any misinformation about the project and engage stakeholders along the rail corridor in the environmental-review and design processes.
Perhaps more importantly, Ogilvy is charged with bringing the state agency's previously diffuse communications effort "under direct report to the rail authority," according to a report by Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy director.
The authority's Board of Directors agreed the new contract is urgently needed. The state agency has been battling a storm of criticism and a high-profile lawsuit from Palo Alto and other cities where residents have been packing into public hearings to question and, occasionally, denounce the rail authority's plans for the new system.
The proposed rail line would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and carry passengers through the Peninsula at a speed of 125 mph. State voters approved $9.95 billion for the project in November 2008.
The communication problem, Barker said, has much to do with the fact that the authority has been conducting outreach through dozens of different project contractors, each working on a specific segment of the 800-mile line. The new public-relations firm would streamline the process and report straight to the rail agency's Board of Directors.
Director Rod Diridon agreed with Barker that the agency's communication structure needs an overhaul.
"We need top-down control in terms of consistency of message, which was a real problem in the past," Diridon told the board at the Nov. 3 meeting.
Diridon pointed to "misinformation" as a particular problem. He likened the misinformation to "a sore that festers" and a "rotten apple" that Ogilvy needs to get out of the barrel immediately.
Diridon told the Weekly he was specifically referring to an incident in Visalia, where a project manager reportedly told a local newspaper the rail authority had reached a decision about a possible station in Visalia. It hadn't, Diridon said.
He also had in mind the popular Peninsula belief that the rail authority will build a "Berlin Wall" along the Caltrain tracks to support the new rail line (elevated tracks are just "one of four or five alternatives" and "not a very likely one," he said).
Diridon asked Ogilvy staff at the November meeting how they would create "flying squads of emergency response to nip those problems in the bud" and directed them to come back with information on how they'd go about it.
But while the communication professionals from Ogilvy are preparing to pluck rotten apples, soothe sores and teach its responders to fly, another group has been performing its own outreach effort across the Peninsula.
Unlike the top-down model trumpeted by the rail authority in Sacramento, the largely local, grassroots movement has consisted of residents and local officials. Since spring they have been holding meetings throughout the Peninsula to discuss the rail project and get regular updates from rail officials working on the local segment of the line.
A few Palo Altans have even made the trek to Sacramento to address the rail authority directly. One of them, Elizabeth Alexis, said she took issue with Diridon's Nov. 3 comments about "rotten apples" and "flying squads."
"We're trying to build something positive, and it's very disappointing to hear this type of language," Alexis said. "I was very surprised to hear someone in that role, in that responsibility, speaking that way."
Alexis has been working with a group of Peninsula residents and elected officials to create a more collaborative approach to designing the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line. Last month, the group convinced the rail authority to use the "context sensitive solutions" (CSS) approach to the project. The context-sensitive approach, which is often used for highway projects, gives stakeholders along the rail line a greater say in how the project is designed.
Palo Alto Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto has been one of the leaders of the local outreach movement for high-speed rail. Kishimoto chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition of elected officials that meets on alternate Friday mornings to discuss the $45 billion project. The coalition, which consists of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame, was formed largely to address the dearth of information coming out of Sacramento about the potentially transformative project, Kishimoto said.
Earlier in the fall, the coalition sponsored a teach-in and a design workshop on the project.
Last week, the group brought in Hal Kassoff, an expert on context-sensitive solutions, to explain the process to the residents and local officials.
Since the organization has sprung into existence, the mood at the community meetings on the project has gradually lightened. In late February, more than 200 angry Palo Alto residents jeered and booed at rail officials at an emotional meeting at the Mitchell Park Community Center. In September, many of the same people came to a teach-in at Cubberley Community Center, where the mood was considerably more civil and respectful.
"We basically stepped in to fill a vacuum because there was nobody really taking any action to really have true dialogue about how we can potentially merge the high-speed rail with the community in this area," Kishimoto said. "There's still a gap. In some ways, it's almost like the future is coming at us faster than we expected."
Kishimoto said it's too early to judge whether the rail authority's $9 million effort will improve communications. But she said the authority's efforts might be more effective if it focuses less on "public relations" and more on "public participation."
"It doesn't have to be a kumbaya, happy discussion," Kishimoto said. "It should be a hard-nosed discussion about what on-the-ground decisions we should be making."
She also said it would be a mistake for the rail authority to put "paid PR people" between the Peninsula community and the rail officials with whom the community has been negotiating thus far.
Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, and Domenic Spaethling, the rail authority's regional manager for the Peninsula segment, have become a familiar presence at local meetings, often staying late to provide information and answer questions. The rail authority should take care not to create an extra public-relations barrier between these project managers and Peninsula residents, Kishimoto said.
But the rail authority's board agreed its new contractor should strive to provide a disciplined message, directed by the board itself. In the coming weeks, Ogilvy will be surveying public opinion, coaching project managers on effective communication strategies and helping the board craft the proper message.
Diridon said he doesn't see the authority's new communication effort as in any way competing with the grassroots effort on the Peninsula. The two efforts should complement each other in a way that ensures the information being put out is accurate, he said.
"If it's all accurate and there's no attempt to provide skewed information or inflammatory information, then the more information the better," Diridon said.