Can California High Speed Rail Authority’s PR team save itself and its grand plan?

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Last week the CEO of California High Speed Rail Authority (@CaHSRA), Roelof van Ark, submitted his resignation, giving fodder to many proponents who are calling for the end of the state’s grand plan to build a fast and eco-friendly transportation medium that will connect the major metropolitan areas of the Golden State.

In addition to this news, @CaHRSRA has been plagued with ongoing criticism for its growing cost estimates, which now peg the statewide project at nearly $100 billion, as well as the ever-changing time projections it will take to actually complete the project.

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And let’s not forget about the farmers, who over 150 years ago complained about railroad tracks impeding their land, are back at it again with complaints about high speed rail lines going through their farm land. The challenges to this project are super-sized to say the least, especially in a state like California that took the brunt of our country’s housing collapse and subsequent recession, leaving behind excessive budget gaps that have taken their toll on state funded programs like college education, law enforcement, welfare, etc.

While these challenges have grown louder and louder, the Rail Authority’s PR program has been absent from the picture, allowing pundits free reign to continue their attacks. Essentially, it’s a Lincoln-Douglas debate scenario, but “Lincoln” is nowhere to be found.  The Rail Authority only has itself to blame for being missing in action, part of which is due to its indecision last year on the direction of its PR program that finally cost Oglivy Public Relations Worldwide its contract. In December, the Rail Authority chose to back out of its review of other PR agencies and instead pursue a course of hiring several full-time staff members that would be based in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Fresno (San Joaquin Valley) and southern California. Now, as the Authority begins selecting candidates to fill those positions, a new challenge remains that can quickly spell the end of not just the Authority’s PR program, but the organization itself. So what is this challenge?

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While California has a slew of qualified candidates to fill the needs of the Authority’s PR team, it doesn’t really have any candidates that appreciate and understand the complexities and needs of each part of the state that will benefit from high speed rail. Most of these candidates will be from the Bay Area, Sacramento and the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. But what about Fresno? As the fifth largest city in the state (pop. over 500,000 people), it is the least known (of the major cities) and traveled to by people who live in Northern and Southern California. While working in Silicon Valley after receiving my college degree I was asked by my colleagues countless times where Fresno was. Mind you, these were smart, well-educated PR professionals from both the Bay Area and LA, and no, their sense of geography wasn’t to blame either. Unless people from the Bay Area and southern California have relatives or good friends living in the Central Valley, they really have no other reason to visit Fresno, which is why the city (and the San Joaquin Valley) will be oblivious, including its intricacies, to so many qualified PR candidates seeking employment with the @CaHSRA.

For the rail authority to have any chance of growing public support and seeing its high speed rail plans come to fruition, it needs to be able to determine what the candidates’ views an d familiarity are of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley.  If the authority dismisses these valid points during the interview process then it risks creating a disjointed PR team (and effort) that has no compassion and understanding of Fresno and the greater San Joaquin Valley, and more importantly, how the two are an integral part of rail authority’s grand plan for high speed rail.

Note: These comments are strictly the opinion of its author, David Splivalo. Splivalo was born and raised in the towns of Visalia and Fresno and later worked in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles following receipt of his communications degree at Fresno State. Splivalo has also worked in Detroit, Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington D.C., where he founded Freestyle Public Relations in 2006. Follow Splivalo on Twitter at @dspliv or contact him at david@freestylepr.com.

 

 

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