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On Jan. 12, Metro faced yet another crisis. Smoke flooding a stopped train on the Yellow Line had left one passenger dead and dozens of others in the hospital. So the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency did what any other huge institution does went it has a disaster: They hired some spin doctors.
As the public and media fumed at another fatality on the transit line, Metro contracted with two crisis firms, O’Neill and Associates and Hill + Knowlton Strategies. Documents obtained by LL through an open records request show the agency and its consultants scrambling to respond to the January smoke incident—and, for some reason, keeping tabs on a critical Twitter account along the way.
The work didn’t come cheap. In March, for example, Hill + Knowlton’s work alone cost more than $60,000. WMATA spokeswoman Sherri Ly says that the firms cost Metro roughly $250,000, all of which was paid out of the transit agency’s insurance policy.
WMATA staff didn’t intend to provide LL with all this information. Earlier this month, the agency mailed LL a CD that held some files that were redacted and open, along many more that were password-protected. After WMATA staff gave LL the passwords for the restricted files, they realized too late that they contained unredacted files.
Earlier this week, WMATA asked LL to return the CD in exchange for redacted copies of the files. No thanks, said LL.
The unredacted files provide a look at how the agency struggled to recover from the smoke death while also not violating National Transportation Safety Board rules about discussing details of the accident while the investigation was ongoing.
That limited WMATA’s ability to push back on the bad news. As Hill + Knowlton’s presentation to the agency noted in fluent PR-speak, news about WMATA “continues to progress unfettered into negative spaces.”
It didn’t help, the firm noted, that Metro had such a bad reputation even before the smoke fatality. Or that, just as the system had killed one of its passengers, WMATA was ready to raise fares and reduce service for the rest. The presentation noted that the smoke incident wasn’t so abnormal in passengers’ estimations, just “what many have come to expect from Metro.”
In response, Hill + Knowlton offered a plan where “media volume and negative tone [would be] reduced.” That meant “daily monitoring” of social media and “media and competitor analysis,” plus establishing interim WMATA General Manager Jack Requa as “a leader in control.”
O’Neill and Associates, which tried to win WMATA’s business by showing how it had previously helped spin for a Chinatown bus line that had been shut down by the Department of Transportation, offered its own form of Internet pushback for the embattled agency. The firm could, according to its presentation, help WMATA with “adverse search results” and follow Metro discussion on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and, uh, Google+. (WMATA might want its insurance money back on that last one.)
O’Neill and Associates had something else to offer: Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the NTSB, works there. At an hourly rate of $350, Goelz helped WMATA staff navigate the NTSB investigation.
Most curiously, the crisis response involved taking an interest in at least one individual Twitter user. One of Hill + Knowlton’s staffer, compiling her work on a time sheet, noted that she had “researched and provided analysis on @fixmetro blogger.”
That’d be Chris Barnes, the prolific Metro watcher who tweets as @fixmetro. When LL reached Barnes, he was surprised to learn he earned personal notice from WMATA’s spinmeisters.
“What a fricking waste of money,” Barnes says.
Barnes is puzzled that the transit agency would have to spend money analyzing him, given that he says he regularly exchanges emails with Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. In other words, he says, figuring him out didn’t exactly require extensive research.
“I’m happy to sit down and answer whatever questions they’ve got,” Barnes says. “And that’ll be free.”
O’Neill and Associates’ Proposal:
File photo by Darrow Montgomery