Light rail is coming to Canberra – whether the people want it or not. And many do not, despite having little knowledge about the project and its benefits. Can their perception be shifted with content?
The Capital Metro Agency was established in 2013 to plan and implement the first stage of Canberra’s light rail network – a 12km route between Gungahlin and the City. The project is part of the ACT Government’s vision to create a truly sustainable city. Its aim is to assist population growth in outer Canberra and make it easier for residents accessing the city for work while reducing the number of cars on the road.
However, in June 2015, more Canberra residents opposed the project than supported it. A survey commissioned by Unions ACT polled 1,446 Canberrans on their opinion of the Capital Metro project.
Just over 46% opposed the light rail, around 39% supported it and 15% were undecided. Conservative voters are the most resistant.
The ACT Government is expected to make a capital contribution of $375 million towards the light rail. Many opponents to the project feel this money would be better channeled to hospitals and healthcare. Others propose the money could be utilised to improve existing bus services instead of forking out for an entirely new transport system.
A post entitled ‘Government to spend $375 million on light rail’ on The-RiotACT, a Canberra grassroots news and views website, attracted more than 153 comments including:
“I’m not massively against light rail on the whole for forward thinking growing (and most likely densely populated) cities, but still not convinced the case stacked up compared to doing something better with the bus services.”
“In theory, light rail makes absolute perfect sense. It is a great idea, I agree with you! But in practice, in Canberra, I’m not so sure.”
“What disturbs me most is that it is not working on overall need, and no pre-planning has gone into this solitary and, to my view, lower priority route.”
In addition to demonstrating resistance to the project, comments such as this highlight a lack of knowledge about the proposed works. For example, the comment about the “low priority route” with “no pre-planning” is wide of the mark with the first stage of the light rail set for an area where nine of Canberra’s 10 most densely populated suburbs are located.
The government clearly has some work to do to educate the public as well as winning their support, particularly given 2016 is an election year for the territory.
There has been much discussion in the media around what will happen to the project if the Liberal government wins the forthcoming election. In June 2015, Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson and his deputy Alistair Coe wrote to the companies shortlisted for the Capital Metro project to let them know a change in government would put an end to light rail construction. The letter read: "A future Liberal ACT government elected to stop the project will honour the will of the people."
Canning a project of this scale is not without precedent. Last year, the newly-elected Labor Government in Victoria cancelled a contract to build Melbourne's East West link, a move that cost the State Government $339 million in compensation.
Getting the public onside will pay dividends for international consortium Canberra Metro, the company tasked with building the project as well as the government given the ACT Government is running the largest ever budget deficit in ACT history and can ill afford a costly compensation payout.
Content drives opinion
To tackle the public perception issue, a strategy was developed using content to clearly define and tell the Capital Metro story.
The approach called on content marketing strategic planning, social media community management, production of content including videos, infographics and blog pieces.
The Capital Metro Website shares numerous blog posts on topics such as benefits for the community, the business case for the light rail and why the transport system puts people first. The design is conservative, in line with the most resistant segment of the public.
Using this platform in conjunction with media outreach, the Capital Metro story has been amplified.
For example, one of the story angles for the project is the health benefits of installing the light rail.
According to the Minister for Health, Simon Corbell, almost two-thirds of ACT adults are overweight and one in four is obese. For children, 25% fall into the overweight or obese category.
Studies have shown people are willing to walk up to 1km to get to a light rail, a much larger distance than for buses where people are only willing to walk an average 400m. A study in Salt Lake City, Utah, found light rail commuters use their cars less and have healthier walking habits as well as lower rates of obesity.
This story was seeded to the media but also showcased on the Capital Metro website where it could be expanded on.
The website also presents cases of other countries where light rail has been successful.
In addition, Infographics have been employed to help to argue the case for the light rail:
The strategy was to try and explain the project instead of selling it.
The value of video
Capital Metro opted to show as well as tell using video to share the story of the light rail. A series of short and punchy videos uploaded to YouTube and hosted on the Capital Metro website give the project context. The video series includes:
Amplifying through social media
The Capital Metro project has a social media presence on both Twitter and Facebook where the message is amplified.
On Facebook, text-heavy posts share information about the project and its progression. One could argue a lighter, image-based strategy would make the content more shareable but again, the tone is conservative which dovetails nicely with the style of the Capital Metro website. The page has almost 3,000 likes.
While on Twitter, more than 1,000 followers engage with links to reports and share quotes in favour of the Capital Metro.
The result of all this is an Increased level of awareness and support from the local community who are now better placed to make their mind up about the Capital Metro project.
By September 2015, The Canberra Times was reporting union polling showing support for light rail.
A survey of 1014 Canberrans, commissioned by Unions ACT, found 55% of respondents were strongly in favour of the project with 27% strongly opposed.
That’s a major increase from 39% supporting the light rail to 55% in just three short months.
And while these concentrated efforts to explain the project look to be paying off, the team behind the content strategy will be working right up until the election later this year to ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing back in the other direction.
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