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It Isn't Everything, but at MTA, a New Image Can't Hurt

July 26, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Agency is spending $30,000 to boost its image, including teaching its staff not to frown so much when talking about the agency's troubles.

The media training--the kind of coaching that corporate executives receive before they appear on "Nightline" and "Oprah"--is supposed to make MTA bureaucrats look and sound more poised and personable.

"Generally, have a pleasant expression on your face" is one of the tips in a handbook distributed to participants who took the course voluntarily, though encouraged to do so by their bosses. "By using the resonance and register of your voice, you can signal honesty and believability."

The training is designed to help the MTA "begin a process of reestablishing credibility," the handbook said.

It is part of a broader public relations counteroffensive mounted in response to media coverage that has threatened public support and millions of dollars in federal funds for subway tunneling.

"Any time we can communicate better what we're trying to do, it benefits the public," said Rae James, MTA's executive officer for communications.

Sometimes staff members "did not appear to have a feeling of confidence" when they spoke, James said. They sometimes left the appearance that they were hiding something when in fact they were just trying to be careful, she said.

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A siege mentality pervades the MTA, where you often find more police guarding the board than the City Council or county Board of Supervisors and where citizens who come with grievances about poor bus service or damage to their property are restricted to one minute at the podium.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky once griped that the agency treated the public like the enemy.

But a changing attitude has emerged under new transit chief Joe Drew--one that appears more image conscious.

The MTA, for example, is considering free tours of subway tunnels under construction to answer neighbors' questions and allay their worries. And it has installed TVs in subway stations to play reassuring messages about the progress of Metro Rail construction and the subway's safety.

The media training was prompted by a meeting earlier this year in which the Police Commission excoriated an MTA engineer for his apparent steamroller attitude toward residents forced to endure months of noisy Metro Rail construction.

Officials decided that it was time to teach their staff the meaning of the sound bite--and to show "compassion and human warmth in crisis situations." They hired Ambit Communications, whose team included former journalists, public relations consultants and a behavioral psychologist.

During all-day sessions, officials sat before cameras for mock interviews. Then the videos were played back to show them how their responses looked to the public.

"It's not just what you say, but how," says the media training guide. "You can offer [listeners] good information and leave them with a negative impression. Or you can take negative information and leave them with a good impression."

Karl Fleming, a former TV correspondent who conducts media training but was not involved in the MTA sessions, sees a public benefit to the program.

"If we can teach them to transmit information in a language we can understand and get to the point quickly, and teach them the importance of being nice to [the public], then it's money well spent," he said. "If the purpose is to mislead, control and manipulate, that's not a good thing."

Whether the MTA will take the lessons to heart is unclear.

And will the agency be forthcoming with the bad as well as the good news?

The training guide states its goals with a quote from Winston Churchill:

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

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