Heading out to Grand Rapids this morning for the annual Governors Highway Safety Association conference, where some 500 traffic safety people from the states and the Federal government will be sharing info and ideas. I'll be there representing a client, The National Road Safety Foundation.
I've been involved with traffic safety for more than 20 years, beginning with The World Traffic Safety Symposium, which I organized and publicized for my client The New York Auto Show. The Symposium is still held at the Auto Show. My involvement in the field continued with a contract from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
My charge for NHTSA was to develop and manage media outreach in the New York metro area, where the old way of simply sending out template news releases wasn't working. The old releases, which came from NHTSA's DC media office, pretty much issued warnings about the dangers of not buckling up or drinking and driving. But they had no local angle, and they were pretty dull. The media here had no interest.
I remember trying to juice the releases up by getting localized statistics, to make the releases relevant to media here. And we began making calls to editors and producers, and setting up backgrounder meetings for the local NHTSA people.
We made local people available for newspaper and radio interviews, and for TV coverage we looked for visual things to use, like the Seat Belt Convincer and Breathalizer demos to do live on camera. It worked, and what we did in New York became a model for many other areas where NHTSA had not been spending for a local PR agency.
Years ago, meetings like the GHSA conference gave little attention to PR. The main focus was on engineering, legislation and enforcement. Education, which included media outreach via PR, usually got nominal mention, at best.
Over the past few years, something changed. Traffic safety became newsworthy -- not like years ago when the only coverage was following a horrendous crash. But with the advent of cell phones and other handheld devices that keep us connected 24/7, the issue of distracted driving took hold and the media noticed. Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made distraction his personal issue, and he spoke about it a lot, including on his own blog. He convened the first Distracted Driving Summit in DC, and around the same time, two journalists with national reach began writing about distracted driving frequently. Matt Richtel of The New York Times and Larry Copeland of USA Today have done a lot to bring and keep the issue in the public eye.
Now media relations gets more attention in the traffic safety arena. It should, and it's about time.