On July 6, 2000, the world got its first look at the “new” Amtrak. In festive ceremonies in Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, the company unveiled a new Satisfaction Guarantee and a new brand identity to send the message that Amtrak has become a more guest-centered, service-oriented, commercial business. Working closely with Amtrak’s top executives, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates (CLS) developed the strategy and key messages, and we produced the rally-style event at Washington’s Union Station, which served as the model for the other events across the country. The rallies and the broader campaign resulted in massive, positive news media coverage for Amtrak; a more favorable environment for the company in Congress; higher morale among Amtrak employees; and a surge in its revenues and ridership, which set all-time records in 2000.
The July 6 events were the centerpiece of an ongoing effort to reposition Amtrak as a quality-conscious, service-oriented business that is phasing out federal operating subsidies and providing a better travel alternative to congested highways and airports.
OBJECTIVES, STRATEGIC APPROACH AND SPECIAL CHALLENGES
Our overriding objective was to take what could have been perceived as a pair of relatively unimportant commercial announcements by a struggling enterprise and turn them into widely noticed events that would help redefine Amtrak’s brand and reputation in a more favorable light. Prior to the July 6 events, news coverage about Amtrak generally focused on unflattering topics like poor infrastructure, service delays, and financial and political challenges.
The key elements of our strategy were to:
- Link the Satisfaction Guarantee and brand identity announcements as mutually reinforcing signals that Amtrak is today a more modern, quality-conscious, service-oriented business;
- Make the events festive and highly visual, to appeal to mass-market television and radio reporters and wire service photographers;
- Give front-line employees a key role in delivering the message. They were the most credible messengers because their efforts will make or break the Satisfaction Guarantee and the company’s reputation, and because their leadership is essential to changing the company’s culture.
Among the special challenges we faced were:
- Overcoming negative or indifferent attitudes about Amtrak’s service and its ability to achieve commercial success;
- Scripting and producing a high-energy event that included a relatively large number of speakers, plus video elements, live music and props;
- Selecting and training Amtrak employees from across the country to play key roles in the staged event and the video elements; and
- Coordinating the work of multiple vendors, consultants, Amtrak executives, board members, employees, and building managers in one of Washington’s busiest and most special public spaces (Union Station).
DESCRIPTION OF THE CAMPAIGN EXECUTION
CLS was asked to help with the Satisfaction Guarantee and brand identity announcements in early May, giving us about eight weeks to put the events together. Here is a step-by-step summary:
A highly visual, upbeat event: CLS recommended a rally-style event in the Great Hall of Union Station -- and similar spaces in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles -- for visual appeal. The script called for using front-line Amtrak employees to deliver the message as much as possible, keeping the number of executive speakers to a minimum. Our treatment also called for unfurling a giant banner on the front entrance of Union Station on cue; using a Jumbotron screen for dramatic closeups of the live event, video roll-ins, and a shot of the outdoor banner unfurling; and closing the rally with upbeat music, flag-waving and a T-shirt distribution.
Employee messengers and music: Amtrak recruited a pool of outstanding front-line employees, from which CLS interviewed, selected and trained 11 individuals for roles in the stage production and video elements. We were pleased to discover that one employee was a former member of the group Sister Sledge; she helped us secure the rights to use the song “We Are Family,” rewrote the lyrics as “Amtrak Family – Satisfaction Guaranteed!” and performed the song live at the end of the event.
Board member roles: To accommodate a request to give Amtrak board members a prominent role, we pre-recorded each of them delivering brief versions of the key messages and the refrain, “I guarantee it!” This task involved special challenges in scripting, scheduling, and directing the high-powered individuals involved.
Facilitating broadcast media coverage: To boost national TV and radio coverage, CLS worked with McCarthy Marcus Hennings of Washington to script and produce a VNR and ANR and distribute them via satellite just hours after the event. The VNR featured: highlights of the live event; pre-produced B-roll; and comments from Govs. Tommy Thompson and Mike Dukakis (Amtrak’s board chairman and vice chairman) and Mary Ann McInerney of the National Business Travelers Assn., a third-party endorser. A package of B-roll was offered to TV reporters who covered the actual event.
Media outreach: CLS produced a PowerPoint presentation that the Amtrak president used to brief top-tier transportation reporters in depth on the morning of the event. In addition, extensive media outreach was done to broadcast, wires, news services, print and photo outlets/editors.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
The results flowing from these events exceeded everyone’s expectations:
Widespread print coverage: Over the course of four days, 20 unique stories were published in 45 outlets, including 15 bylined pieces in such top-tier outlets as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, and five wire stories that appeared in dozens of additional newspapers across the country and around the world. A photo was run on the AP wire.
Huge broadcast coverage: The VNR was fed via satellite three times, resulting in 308 individual broadcast uses, 10 national network newsfeeds, and an estimated 60 million viewer impressions. The ANR was fed to more than 2,200 stations via the AP/Westwood One and Business News networks, resulting in an estimated 3.7 million listener impressions.
Improved tone of clips: Not only did we get massive media coverage; the tone of coverage shifted as well. From July 6 onward, news media coverage about Amtrak tended to mention the Satisfaction Guarantee, rising ridership and revenues, and Amtrak’s efforts to achieve commercial success.
Record ridership and revenues: The publicity surrounding the July 6 events contributed to relatively high levels of consumer awareness of the guarantee, a surge in visits to the Amtrak Web site, and record-breaking ridership and revenue figures for July 2000 and the entire year.
Better environment in Congress: The July 6 events helped focus news media attention on a key hearing in the House of Representatives on the High-Speed Rail Investment Act (HSRIA) on July 25. This in turn set the stage for an effort to enact the legislation in the fall. Spurred in part by the publicity surrounding the July 6 events, the number of cosponsors backing the HSRIA jumped from 47 to 67 in the Senate, and from 119 to 171 in the House.
Higher morale among Amtrak employees.