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Connected contractor seeks to spin the T

Dan Atkinson
Connected contractor seeks to spin the T
A passenger waits for an Orange Line shuttle bus on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury. BANNER PHOTO

Starting last Friday, the MBTA shut down the entire Orange Line for a month for maintenance and repair work. Riders were told two weeks in advance about the coming inconvenience; but a few months earlier, officials were ready to highlight the line along with the rest of the system as not just functional, but the best way to get around Boston for residents and commuters.

Ad copy proposed by the MBTA’s outside marketing contractor in April for the agency’s Take The T campaign included: “Take the Orange Line. It’s high time for some lo mein. Take the T to Chinatown.” An alternative tagline was also provided: “Take the Orange Line to find your one true soymate.”

The MBTA has paid millions of dollars to politically-connected consulting firm Boathouse Inc. to work as its in-house “marketing agency of record,” even as the T dealt with an ongoing string of derailments, runaway trains, and other problems — including a dragging death — that led to the federal government demanding improvements in safety and service. Newly-obtained emails and presentations show how Boathouse and T officials worked on campaigns over the past nine months to push T worker recruitment as the agency faces an employee shortage and to advertise a relaxed mask policy and encourage riders to return to the heavily criticized system.

One rejected ad read: “Take the Red Line to where brunch is perfected … Take the T to Southie.”

Connected contractor

As the Dig has reported, the MBTA hired Boathouse to handle marketing services and “humanize the brand” in 2018, with a maximum contract of $5.5 million. The company has worked on ad campaigns for the T as the agency has faced increasing scrutiny for safety and service issues, including the dragging death of Robinson Lalin at Broadway station in March. That prompted the Federal Transit Administration to start investigating the T and issue directives to improve safety and deal with maintenance issues or lose federal funding.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who took control of the MBTA seven years ago, has said the T is safe and that officials were meeting the FTA’s requirements. But the T has still seen major safety concerns, including an Orange Line train catching fire over the Mystic River in July. In the wake of that, Baker said the MBTA would close the entire Orange Line for a month, giving commuters only two-weeks’ notice before the shutdown. The governor and MBTA Manager Steve Poftak have made a habit of saying that despite the inconvenience, the project will accomplish five years’ worth of work in 30 days.

The ties between Baker and Boathouse go back. While the company was bidding for the marketing job, CEO John Connors’ father Jack — the founder of the Hill Holliday marketing firm and a major power player in Boston — became chair of Baker’s reelection campaign. Boathouse leaders have donated to Baker and state Republicans as well. And in an email to MBTA Chief Customer Officer Danny Levy in May, Connors plugged a Harvard Business Review podcast with Baker and his former Chief of Staff Steve Kadish, calling “Leadership Lessons From A Republican Governor In A Blue State” “worth a listen!”

Wrangling recruitment

The MBTA paid Boathouse more than $600,000 from last November through March of this year. For a deeper look at Boathouse’s work, we requested emails between Levy and Boathouse employees between November 2021 and June 2022, along with presentations and proposals for ad campaigns.

Boathouse worked on multiple campaigns during that time, with a major focus on recruitment for bus drivers and train operators via MBTA-owned billboards as well as print, mobile display, social media, and radio advertising. Baker’s office specified reaching out to 98.5 The SportsHub and 93.7 WEEI, as listeners of sports talk are the “target audience,” according to a November email from Levy. The agency created Spanish-language ads for JAMN 94.5 as well.

A Boathouse breakdown of the campaign from December to February showed 15 million impressions across various media led to 1,669 applications at a cost of $170,000. Applications increased with more concentrated advertisements, Boathouse said.

In its reporting on the MBTA, the FTA blasted the agency for not having enough workers, particularly dispatchers, leading to employees working lengthy shifts. In a May presentation, Boathouse said the T is still “facing a significant workforce shortage, and hiring has not been sufficient to keep up with attrition.” They referred to agency officials saying they need to hire 300 bus operators a year for the next five years.

In the presentation, the company recommended an “always-on” ad campaign with increased pressure before hiring events. A June presentation outlined estimated costs for campaigns over the next year—$1 million, with $250,000 in agency fees, for a broader careers campaign; and $965,000, including $310,000 in agency fees, for a bus operator recruitment campaign.

Emails between MBTA employees and Boathouse show some wrangling over bus driver recruitment. A January email from Boathouse principal Meredith Barron suggests ad copy for MBTA billboards, including, “Want to do something meaningful? We’re hiring bus and subway operators,” and, “Looking for a career with purpose? We’re hiring bus and subway operators.” MBTA senior communications consultant Richard Walsh liked the latter but not the former.

“Purpose spots are tough to envision on a billboard. Bus operator and meaningful don’t go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Do you see what I’m saying?” Walsh wrote in a response.

Gas and masks

T officials and Boathouse employees also worked over messaging for the agency lifting its mask mandate, emails show. They began discussing in-station digital billboard ads in March for a possible mid-May lifting of the mandate, before a federal judge struck down the mandate in mid-April. A proposed billboard triptych reading, “Just like wearing headphones on the T, masks aren’t required. But they are nice” didn’t meet with the chief customer officer’s approval.

“I am not sure it is ‘nice’ — technically we are (subtle) asking riders to wear a mask. Not sure if that’s going to be the T’s posture,” Levy wrote in an early April email. “The choice is yours (riders) to wear or not to wear (a mask). The T supports your decision. No judgment. While we respect your decision/choice. Respect the decision/choice of your fellow riders (and operators).”

Walsh, the senior consultant, had issues with a proposed billboard reading, “Safety is still a priority. Masks are optional.”

“The primary message is masks are optional, not safety. It’s to [sic] prominent, makes me wonder if we’re really not that safe,” Walsh wrote in a response.

“Respect. You do you. No judgment,” Levy summarized.

They also tried to find a balance with ads for the commuter-focused Take the T campaign. One aspect of the campaign’s messaging would include gas prices and traffic, but Levy said the agency should be careful as costs of gas rose following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We need to be careful not to come across insensitive. Our biggest problem is inflation and gas prices while Ukrainians are being bombed,” Levy wrote in a March email.

Time to Take the T?

Boathouse spent months working on the Take the T campaign, advertising using billboards, social media, gas station TVs, and radio designed to encourage people to return to the MBTA after massive ridership drops during the pandemic. Both MBTA officials and transit advocates have supported marketing as a way to bring in more riders — and more fares.

Boathouse proposals for next steps in the campaign described focusing on issues like traffic and parking, MBTA efficiency and convenience, and returning to work and travel as major talking points. Core messages included taking the T to jobs and restaurants and to specific events like the US Open or the Marathon, but also emphasizing emotional experiences like seeing a favorite aunt or a “friend you always rode the T with.”

“As the people of the commonwealth get excited for a more ‘normal’ everyday life, we want to get them excited to take the T again,” a February campaign proposal read. “It’s not just about avoiding traffic anymore, it’s about ease and convenience for everyday life, and access to all the things that bring them joy in their personal time.”

Levy wanted to dial things back.

“I am not sure people are ‘excited’ to take the T,” she wrote in a late February email. “I think we ought to be realistic — Take the T is convenient, safe, good for the environment and utilitarian – ‘in service of.’”

At the beginning of April, Boathouse had more specific proposals for the next phase of the campaign that were focused around neighborhoods, like the Chinatown and Southie ads. “Take the Green Line and visit your mummy,” one ad read alongside a photo of a sarcophagus. “Take the T to the Museum of Fine Arts.”

Other billboard and ad proposals emphasized the return to work, urging riders to “Take Your Line and finally see your coworkers in person.” A few emphasized commuting: “Gas prices are at an all-time high. Take Your Line to avoid them.” That copy was next to a picture of an Orange Line train. Gas prices and traffic were also the subject of proposed radio spots.

“Did you hear? Boston reached the top of the list for some of the worst traffic in the nation. It’s definitely time to Take the T. I just took the red line from Alewife to Park Street this weekend. No traffic, no looking for parking. Just a safe, super easy ride. If you ask me, it’s time to Take The T,” read one proposal.

By the end of April, Boathouse had a final proposal that simplified language and removed mentions to specific destinations in text, but emphasized the “Take the T” slogan. A shot of Fenway’s scoreboard remained while the text over it changed from “Take the Green Line to the start of a winning streak. Take the T to Fenway Park,” to “Spend the first inning cheering. Not stuck in traffic. Take the T.”

Barron sent the final proposal along with an email describing Boathouse’s efforts to create the campaign. Not everything came together as planned, she wrote: “after an exhaustive search — there was nothing that showed people, at a restaurant, eating brunch WITH a Boston skyline in the back so we chose to take a different approach but featuring a fabulous image of food that not only communicates brunch but diversity of food and neighborhood you can access via the T.” In the end, Barron added, she was excited about the campaign’s “great, happy, inviting vibe.”

The campaign was underway by June, but it was paused on June 14, according to MBTA documents. One day later, the FTA issued its directives requiring the T to take immediate steps to “improve safety for the Greater Boston Area’s rail transit system.”

The campaign has remained paused since then, with T riders now facing a month-long shutdown of the entire Orange Line. MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said the agency was responding to demand when it began the Take the T campaign in the spring.

“The timing of the campaign in the early spring was apropos,” Battiston wrote in a statement. “At that time, the MBTA heard from many stakeholders, business communities, and others to encourage folks to return to the T. Employers requested employees to return to the office and asked the MBTA what was being done to support those efforts.”

Battiston continued, “The campaign was paused given our staffing and safety issues in late spring. The MBTA had to pivot and return in market with a continued focus on our recruitment efforts. … The Take the T campaign has a longer shelf life as it is timeless. Take the T. When we decide it is appropriate to go back to that campaign, we will.”

This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.