One the most fulfilling parts of our work with public servants is helping a client communicate the improvements they’ve made in a community. However, as PR professionals, sometimes we have to look beyond our standard messaging formulas to shape the strongest narrative and branch out into our most uncomfortable territory: not talking.
The ROI on some public service projects can’t be measured in dollars: a community group that fundraises for a new playground isn’t looking for a return in the traditional sense. The same can be said of a recent project in Missoula, where the Montana Department of Transportation made sidewalks ramps across the city accessible for everyone, regardless of ability.
There were lots of ramps being improved, but most able-bodied people couldn’t connect with the reasoning behind tearing up sidewalk corners, closing off a driving lane and slowing traffic - all to improve accessibility. Unlike, say, fixing potholes, improving grade and slope on a sidewalk ramp is less clear enhancement to the general public.
Moreover, all of the project representatives (including me) were able-bodied. MDT was filling a crucial transportation gap in the community, but unlike other big roadway projects, we weren’t able to give a personal, human connection to the story- because few of us tangibly experienced the project benefits.
To offer this perspective and give this story additional credibility, we invited a local disability rights advocate, Travis, to share the impacts accessibility has on his ability to get to work, get to lunch and make it to meetings on time. Travis uses a wheelchair and has been an active proponent of access in Montana for over 15 years.
The story we pitched steered away from words like inspiration, bravery, or perseverance. We didn’t sell a story about an impressive journey in the face of inaccessibility. Travis simply demonstrated the ways in which an inaccessible corner impeded people with disabilities.
His perspective on the Missoula ADA project gave dimension to the project. He demonstrated how inaccessible corners impeded community access, and he spoke to the small details that able-bodied people might not pick up on (you’ve heard the signals say “Walk!” but did you know that some pedestrian buttons at intersections can vibrate, or tell you which cross-streets you’re standing at?).
Travis was the best person to explain the upgrades – not because he uses a wheelchair, but because he holds a nuanced understanding of accessibility in the community. He was the right person to tell the story because his history and experience makes him an authority.
As public relations practitioners, we want to shape and animate the story, but often the best thing we can do is stop talking. If we find the right person to tell the story, we should step into the background and let them do the talking.