I remember when they told me they needed to close the CityLink tunnels night and day for seven days to carry out maintenance work. It was the first time we had ever planned to close the tunnels for any length of time. And I must confess I felt a bit sick at the potential PR risk but a strange thrill at the challenge it presented.
VicRoads also carry out an annual maintenance program on the West Gate Bridge, and they had decided to completely close the bridge over four nights for the first time to do these works.
We knew early that Transurban and VicRoads needed a joint charm offensive to convince people about the benefits of major parts of Melbourne’s busiest freeway over the Christmas and New Year holiday break.
The justification for the works made perfect sense – it was a quieter time of year with fewer vehicles on the road. The safest and most efficient way for both organisations to complete the planned road work would be to close the tunnels and the bridge completely.
We had two key needs to ensure the success of the project – to reduce traffic on the detour routes to make sure the road could cope and to protect the reputation of VicRoads and Transurban.
But when we announced the closures in October 2013, the media weren’t convinced. The Herald Sun had put us firmly on notice, saying ‘transport authorities are already staring at a public relations disaster’. It was clear we had a lot of work to do.
Really important was careful mapping and engagement of our key stakeholders and we did this early, talking them through the plan prior to a media announcement so they were on board.
We also gathered as much information as we could to understand how best to talk to Melbourne drivers about road works and to target the right media channels to get our message out.
And we talked to anyone in Melbourne media who would listen to help build an understanding of the works, the level of planning and what we wanted drivers to do.
The first morning of the closures was tense. Talkback radio hosts called out for tales of ‘carmageddon’, TV crews lined the detour routes to voxpop frustrated drivers and the Herald Sun reserved the front page for a ‘car-tastrophe’ splash.
By lunch time, I was getting calls from very confused media. Where was all the traffic? Where could they get images of gridlock? But traffic was moving beautifully.
And that presented another challenge. If the media ran the message that there were no delays, it could encourage traffic back to the road …. And cause headline grabbing delays.
We avoided this by taking the media, and Melbournians, on the journey with us – taking them down to the tunnel to see the old asphalt being ground away, up to the bridge to see the new pavement laid and into our traffic management centres to see the challenges of keep Melbourne moving.
The campaign showed how media relations could help encourage behaviour change – with up to 70 percent of drivers opting to avoid the main detour route. We also managed to protect the reputation of VicRoads and Transurban, with 93 percent favourability across all media – much higher than we could have ever hoped for.
From my experience, the IABC Gold Quill program provides a valuable opportunity for evaluation – working in a fast paced communications team, it is very easy to finish working on a campaign or issue and start the next without taking the time to evaluate.
Also, we work with a lot of engineers and accountants who are often very data driven. The Quills program is a great way to quantifiably assess the value of a campaign.
Tackling the submission allowed me to reflect on what made this campaign stand out – the fantastic collaboration with the VicRoads team and how we worked towards a shared outcome. Just as our spokespeople stood shoulder to shoulder each day to take media questions, behind the scenes the communications teams mucked in to deliver a tremendous workload.
I was a first time entrant, and for those considering it next year, my advice is use all the IABC resources like the Midas Touch guide and the ’24 hour’ guide (good for the procrastinators amongst us). Also, I found the encouragement and advice from other Gold Quill winners invaluable.
To all the other Gold Quill winners congratulations, and to those considering entering next year good luck!
As the Head of Public Affairs Victoria, Ayllie White leads the communications, stakeholder engagement and media relations function for Transurban's activities in Victoria. She regularly represents Transurban as CityLink's primary media spokesperson.