Strategic Communicators’ Take on Congestion Pricing     

By Maddie Clair, Managing Director

This summer, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is set to roll out Congestion Pricing – a highly contentious policy that will charge commuters $15+ to drive into Manhattan’s business district during peak commuting hours.  

Proponents of the proposal applaud its potential to reduce traffic and fund much-needed improvements to public transit infrastructure, while others have expressed concerns about its immediate impacts on commuters and long-term consequences to the city’s economy. The proposal is even facing multiple legal battles, most notably a lawsuit from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.  

Those who have been following this issue closely know that implementing congestion pricing was always going to be controversial. As we look towards the launch of congestion pricing in June, our team at Issues Management Group reflected on the strategies implemented, and how the lessons learned can be applied to issues of any complexity or size. 

At IMG, we are skilled in messaging and managing these types of issues that span government, legal, and consumer landscapes. Whether it is building far-reaching support for policies like congestion pricing, mitigating the impacts of a highly-visible legal battle, or a managing an executive-level crisis, below are the guiding principles for effectively communicating during a highly publicized announcement or crisis: 

Adaptable Scenario Planning  

Strong communications strategies rarely happen by accident. No matter the announcement or issue an organization wants to communicate, a clear plan is invaluable in ensuring all team members and spokespeople execute their responsibilities in pursuit of an overarching organizational goal.  

That said, any seasoned leader knows that things rarely go exactly to plan. As communications professionals, it is our job to expect the unexpected and create contingency plans for all possibilities – no matter how unlikely they may seem.  

The time spent planning for all scenarios pays off in the long-run as it ensures communications strategies can be quickly and seamlessly adapted in the moment without opportunity for half-baked or knee-jerk reactions. This planning phase should include preparation for all potential responses, such as lawsuits, protests, or negative press. This in-depth planning is key in ensuring a well thought out communications response that protects the organization. 

Identifying Key Audiences    

Once a plan is in place for all scenarios, it is important to identify each audience that may be impacted. While this may seem like a straightforward exercise, it is crucial in ensuring there is an individualized communications strategy designed to resonate with each audience sector. For example, legislators, business leaders, and consumers may all speak a very different language when discussing the same issue. It is important to plan your communications strategy specific to each of these audiences, especially if you anticipate push-back.  

Organizations have an advantage in this step when making a proactive announcement, as they often have days, weeks, or even months to consider how they will reach their key stakeholders. That said, audience-specific communications are just as important—perhaps even more so—during an unforeseen crisis. Organizations that get ahead of crises to identify and continually review their key audiences have a leg-up when handling an issue, and this foresight might just be what protects their reputation. 

Effective Coalition Building  

When an organization seeks to enact a controversial policy or communicate about an unpopular decision, it is paramount to identify and leverage key supporters. These supportive voices act as critical third-party validators that lend credibility and authenticity to an organization’s cause.  

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to coalition building, and these validators can take the form of employees, grasstops community leaders, business leaders, community members or any other like-minded individual that matches an organization’s identified key audience type. Once identified, these supportive voices must be trained on the organization’s key messages and activated strategically throughout the communications process. This activation can be as small as peer-to-peer conversations, or as visible as opinion pieces in a local newspaper or speaking at a press event.  

When married in concert with effective planning and identification of key audiences, effective coalition building adds a level of control over the narrative, ensuring opponents’ arguments are matched with supportive commentary from trusted voices. 

In all situations, no matter the visibility or complexity, leaders must prepare their organizations for all outcomes – both predictable and unpredictable. Utilizing the guiding tenets above will ensure an organization is on a strong footing and able to pivot as necessary to protect their reputation, and reach their organizational goals. 

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