The San Diego Association of Governments knew it would have a tough task last year winning public support for its $200 billion spending plan to fund transportation needs over the next 35 years.
Four years earlier, when SANDAG approved its last transportation blueprint for the region, environmentalists panned it. They also sued the agency for not doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The environmentalists have won twice in the lower courts and the case is at the state Supreme Court.
So before the vote last fall on its latest transportation plan, SANDAG spent more than half a million dollars on outside media consultants to craft a message that said the plan balanced spending needs for roads and public transit. The money for outside consultants was in addition to more than $1 million a year in salaries for 12 SANDAG communication staff members, plus three interns.
Emails and other documents obtained by KPBS through public records requests show that the consultants and communication staff worked together to sell to the news media and the public that the new transportation blueprint was a good one and worthy of support.
Before October’s vote on the plan, SANDAG staff followed a media campaign crafted with the help of an outside public relations firm. It included a plan to pitch story ideas to reporters, including one that asked — “Is ‘Transit-First’ truly an option?”
SANDAG staffers also successfully pitched the same opinion piece to several newspapers in the county, naming different public officials and civic leaders as the authors.
Records also show that agency employees sometimes exchanged dozens of emails over multiple days on how to respond to negative tweets about SANDAG. They also made sure to coordinate SANDAG’s message about the plan with elected officials throughout the county and identified four local journalists to brief: Joshua Stewart with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Keatts with Voice of San Diego, Josh Emerson Smith, who at the time was with San Diego CityBeat, and me, Claire Trageser.