A social problem


Elected officials will often say that the most important element of any successful political campaign is noise. Without adequate noise both politicians and the public will find it easy to ignore the issue and even the best ideas will perish.

The broadcast power of social media has the ability to amplify a single dissenting voice above those of thousands of muted proponents. The fact many opponents to road pricing see the charge as a new tax on hard pressed motorists only strengthens their cause. Unpopular officials and unelected bureaucrats pilling financial misery on a stretched public is an easy argument to sell. This argument also conveniently bypasses the more substantive issues of fairness, behavioural change and environmental improvement. Simplicity is a potent delivery mechanism.

If public authorities are to match the vociferous talents of individual exponents they must find a way to simply the message behind road pricing. In an age of Twitter, 24 hour news and short attention spans, condensing the benefits into a single, digestible message is crucial.

In 2004, the Labour government in Britain was able to ban hunting with dogs despite visceral and often violent opposition from those it would affect most. It was able to do this as a result of the scale of support received from urban residents and animal rights activists. None of these individuals had anything tangible to gain from a ban on hunting, but each believed that the existing rules were outdated and not fit for purpose. The ban also received clear support from high-profile officials who were able to champion the benefits, unwilling to waver in the face of resistance. Road pricing shares many similarities. It is a highly political issue with cultural significance, yet any change would affect members of the public in very different ways. A variable pricing system would create obvious benefits for infrequent users or those living in congested areas. The private sector could and should do more to promote these benefits, particularly through national media and social media platforms. Misleading headlines about the inflated cost of driving or big brother in your car all too often go unchallenged. A substantial number of otherwise innocuous smartphone apps collect and share the same information without a hint of resistance from the user.

The successful launch earlier this month of the Oregon RUC pilot website, OReGO, highlights an excellent example of how public relations should be managed. The website wisely focuses heavily on specific users and their experiences with the mileage based system. Each individual has a story and each story makes a point to tackle the fundamental points; namely privacy, cost and fairness. By building support among elected officials, interest groups and the general public, ODOT has created a fertile ground upon which wider public acceptance can grow and perhaps spread across the rest of the United States.

Article taken from the April 2015 issue of RUC Magazine