A deteriorating choke point at the mid-point of the East Coast’s busiest highway, replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was both a top national transportation priority and essential to addressing Washington, D.C.’s second-worst-in-the-nation traffic. After years of planning – which included legal disputes, protests and funding challenges – the then-controversial twin-bridge facility and landside improvements were poised for construction. At the start of work, major anxiety prevailed over whether the $2.5 billion project – by far the largest project ever undertaken in the region at the time – could be built in a way that did not gridlock the area, impose nightmarish impacts on local communities, or harm the environment and historic resources. Additional complications loomed due to the multi-jurisdictional nature of the project. Operating in this highly sensitive arena, communications could make or break the effort sponsored by federal, Maryland and Virginia departments of transportation, which turned to Stratacomm to lead all aspects of public communications.
Stratacomm worked with agency project managers and public information officers to devise a strategic communications plan that reached and resonated with key audiences. The plan had four primary objectives.
- No Surprises: Provide timely, accurate information about project activities to the public, officials and other audiences before changes occur.
- Condition Expectations: Be conservative in all communications (i.e., preparing the community for the worst so they are pleasantly surprised when disruption is a minor inconvenience). Proactively prepare the public for years of highly impactful construction. Prior to major work, intensively communicate anticipated impacts through a variety of channels.
- Highlight Innovation and Success: Spotlight noteworthy activities and milestones to build public momentum.
- Facilitate Partnership: Seek opportunities to engage the public. Be open and responsive to concerns, thereby building support and a sense of community ownership.
While each year brought unique challenges and opportunities, the project keyed communications off these four core planning priorities in devising individual plans for a wide variety of initiatives.
In 2013 for its work on the project, Stratacomm received a prestigious Thoth Award from the Public Relations Society of America for its work on the overall Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. In addition, we have included below some of the outcomes of the many communications initiatives that Stratacomm led for the project:
2004 “Mission Possible-Keeping You Moving” – With research showing major concern that the project might gridlock the region, the campaign was themed to reassure the public that major efforts would be taken to keep traffic moving. Parodying the “Mission Impossible” series, the ad campaign featured intentionally campy spots to creatively deliver messages. Stratacomm also created and promoted a “Bridge Bucks” ride-share incentive program that enabled commuters to apply $50/month toward whatever alternative worked best for their individual needs. A follow-up opinion survey showed a 44 percent increase in awareness of project efforts to encourage ridesharing and 20 percent of commuters said the campaign made them more likely to use alternatives. “Bridge Bucks” reached its participation ceiling in Maryland and approached its ceiling in Virginia. Website traffic doubled. Outreach to large employers enlisted 27 entities that cumulatively employed 60,000 commuters. Widespread news coverage included more than 75 television stories and several articles in the Washington Post.
2005, 2006, 2008 Major Traffic Mobilizations – On at least six occasions, construction required shrinking Interstate 95 to a single lane for entire weekends. With approximately 340,000 vehicles using the bridge on a typical weekend, traffic modeling revealed that if only 40 percent of drivers diverted, backups would reach 14 miles and delays would surpass four hours. Stratacomm carried out an integrated media campaign to reach travelers with a clear “Stay Away” message. All mobilizations were highly effective in reaching the traveling public. Results from the summer 2006 effort are reflective: a documented audience of 31 million. More than 300 TV placements and nine Washington Post stories/mentions. Most important: massive traffic diversion limited backups to never more than two miles, akin to a typical weekday.
2006 Eagle Love Triangle: George, Martha – and “Brangelina” – Profiling the project’s environmental program was an ongoing priority. A prominent facet of the program was protecting a pair of neighboring bald eagles, dubbed “George and Martha.” This focus reached an apex in 2006 when Martha was ferociously attacked by another female eagle. Watching the battle unfold, a project worker intervened, scaring off the intruding eagle. Hours later, the environmental team rescued the badly injured Martha. Stratacomm shared dramatic video with broadcast media, leveraging the concurrent “Brangelina” tabloid angle to gain enormous visibility. National coverage spotlighted the saga, including “CBS Early Show” and “Fox and Friends,” and an Associated Press story that was picked up in 74 news outlets and 143 TV stories across the U.S.
2006, 2008 and 2009 Dedication Ceremonies – Stratacomm planned and executed three dedication ceremonies commemorating the opening of the twin bridges and the bike/pedestrian path. The star-spangled events featured Woodrow Wilson’s own automobiles; Blue Angels flyovers; and notable attendees including governors, mayors, members of Congress, transportation secretaries and others. The events posed enormous logistical challenges, including transporting 1,500 guests from five off-site arrival locations, handling numerous VIPs and managing 200 volunteers and an army of more than 20 vendors. The events brought together the leadership of the region. The 2006 event produced 140 TV and radio stories and 45 print articles, including front page hits in the Washington Post, Times and Examiner.
2006 Toughest Commute Contest to Detonate the Old Bridge – With the original bridge coming down by explosive demolition, Stratacomm created a contest to give the person who had the toughest commute the right to personally blow up his/her bridge of torment. Among 318 entries, the winner was a 27-year bridge commuter, who had broken his hip in a crash. Atop an adjacent high-rise just after midnight, a throng of media saw the winner push a plunger to bring down his bridge of misery. No other project event captured more attention than the contest. Highlights included NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CBS’ “Early Show,” NPB, BBC and CNN. Coverage reached an estimated 95 million people via 511 broadcast and 167 print/online stories.
2008 Variable Speed Limit Pilot Program – Stratacomm promoted a test program to improve traffic flow, coordinating an extensive roll out to ensure the counter-intuitive concept – individual drivers should slow down for the greater good of traffic – was understood and favorably received by elected officials, the courts, law enforcement agencies, AAA and the media. Extensive outreach enabled the program to debut with broad support. More than 103 TV stories and 32 print pieces appeared, reaching an estimated audience of 19 million.