As trains broke down, the MBTA’s million-dollar marketing campaign kept running
In 2019, a politically-connected state contractor laid out a series of messages and ideas for its Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority clients in what was dubbed their “MBTA Brand Creative Presentation.”
Large concepts like “Performance Improvement” and “Fiscal Discipline” were broken down by objectives, situations, and facts to channel into messaging opportunities for the T.
For “Fiscal Discipline,” the objective was to “make clear to [the] public we are not wasting the money.” While a situation in which the “perception” emerges that the “MBTA will waste money” on “hacks” could be met with facts via “data on [the agency’s] balanced budget.”
“Safety” was the first subject on the list. The objective in that category: “Be a very safe system.” The situation: “If we are not safe … nothing else matters … very safe system.”
For “Safety” facts, the presentation simply noted, “tbd.”
Safety doesn’t come up much beyond that line in the 2019 presentation from the Boathouse Group, a Waltham-based consulting firm that has received nearly $3 million to be the MBTA’s “marketing agency of record” over the past four years. After nearly a year without using Boathouse, the MBTA started cutting checks to the company in November 2021 and has since paid them more than $600,000, records show.
MBTA officials said Boathouse was tapped for a campaign to recruit bus riders and to support the agency’s “Take the T” marketing, which was designed to bring back passengers after the sharp drop in ridership brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those payments started up again after several months of high-profile crashes, derailments, malfunctions, and a death led to harsh criticism for the MBTA and Gov. Charlie Baker.
And now both the T and the governor who has promised to manage it are facing even harsher scrutiny, including a federal investigation following the dragging death of a passenger at a Red Line station earlier this year. All while the state lawmakers consider extending the T a massive line of credit to make much-needed improvements for safety.
But the T has also been willing to spend on improving its image, as opposed to its reality. Some transit advocates said they were in favor of better marketing, but others said the MBTA needs to spend on safety.
“As a daily transit rider, there is nothing more frustrating than feeling that my fare dollars and tax dollars aren’t being spent in ways that make the MBTA safer and more reliable,” said Chris Dempsey, a candidate for state auditor and the former director of Transportation for Massachusetts. “As state auditor, I will make sure each and every dollar the MBTA spends is put to good use so that my fellow commuters have a better experience tomorrow than they had today.”
The MBTA signed Boathouse to a contract with a maximum payment of $5.5 million in 2018. In their response to the bid for marketing services, Boathouse executives bragged about their work for Eversource and told T officials, “We respect and value your commitment to listen to riders and measure your success against the customer experience, all while navigating the intense pressures of operational maintenance, expansion, and growth. We understand the importance of nuances in tone and messaging to the public in this sector.”
Boathouse’s pitch to “humanize the brand” was one of many from area firms, but the Waltham-based agency had a connection others did not. Boathouse was co-founded and is run by CEO John Connors, the son of longtime Boston power broker, marketer, and Hill Holliday founder Jack Connors—who, while his son’s firm was bidding for the marketing gig, became chair of Baker’s reelection campaign. After his father took over running Baker’s campaign, John Connors gave the Baker campaign $1,000, as did Boathouse principal Robert Parks, while Boathouse co-founder and CFO Christopher Boland gave $5,000 to the Republican State Committee.
Boathouse began getting paid in 2019 “to develop and execute a comprehensive marketing and communications plan to support the Authority’s efforts to engage with our customers and stakeholders, as well as to support the MBTA’s brand development and major marketing initiatives,” among other things. When the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism initially wrote about Boathouse in 2020 and requested material describing marketing campaigns the agency had produced after a year of work, the MBTA sent over two things—the aforementioned brand creative presentation, and a series of proposed advertisements for the agency’s text alerts. At that point, Boathouse had been paid nearly $1.5 million.
The 14 proposed slogans included: “More ETA. Less WTF”; “The fastest way to learn why things are slow”; and, “Think of it as an ‘out-of-service’ service.” The creative presentation includes additional proposed marketing materials like posters and slogans highlighting investment in the T and “a brighter future for the MBTA and all the people and communities we serve.”
“We believe that providing the people of the commonwealth with a safe, reliable transit system is our core responsibility. And that reliability allows access to opportunity,” the presentation reads in part. “Our core marketing objective is to enhance the image of the MBTA, from both a credibility and favorability standpoint within the hearts and minds of the people we serve: riders, employees, elected officials, and the media. … We must take a position that is hard for people to oppose.”
Reopening the checkbook
The MBTA paid Boathouse more than $800,000 in 2020, according to public records. But for nearly all of 2021, the agency did not cut any checks to its marketing agency of record. That changed with eight payments totalling more than $200,000 at the end of last November, with a $160,000 payment following a few weeks later. The MBTA has paid Boathouse more than $620,000 since those payments, with the most recent check cut on March 31.
The payments to Boathouse resumed after derailments, an elevator malfunction, and a death at a T station led to increasing scrutiny of the agency’s safety over the past year. Last July, two Green Line trolleys crashed into each other near Boston University, sending more than 25 people to the hospital and prompting a criminal probe from the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office. A dozen more people were injured after an escalator at Back Bay Station malfunctioned and started running backwards in September.
A Red Line train derailed at Broadway Station in September, and in October, another Green Line trolley derailed. Also in September, BU professor David Jones died after falling through an unrepaired staircase at the JFK/UMass station.
At the time, Baker insisted “the MBTA is safe,” according to the State House News Service. But since then, the Federal Transit Administration has begun its own investigation into the T following the dragging death of Robinson Lalin after subway doors closed on his arm at Broadway Station in March, all coinciding with more derailments, collisions, and runaway trains.
MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battison said Boathouse continues to be the T’s marketing agency of record, and said the group was recently paid for providing marketing support and creative materials for the T’s campaign to recruit bus drivers. The company also worked on encouraging riders to begin riding the T again as COVID numbers decreased—and as T safety problems increased.
“In 2021, Boathouse provided support for the MBTA’s ‘Take the T’ campaign,” which both urged people to return to the MBTA as COVID waned, and which thanked and recognized those riders who used the T throughout the pandemic, including Boston’s frontline workforce. The campaign “encouraged people to get out of their cars and back on the T,” Battiston wrote in a statement. “Creative was featured at gas stations (because of rising gas prices), highway billboards, and radio. This effort was complemented by new fare products that provided hybrid workers with more choices when choosing how to pay their fare. This campaign also featured destinations people can visit by taking the T—Franklin Park, Revere Beach, the Aquarium, and Fenway were featured, among others.”
Stacy Thompson of LiveableStreets Alliance said the T should actually devote more money to its marketing as a way to give riders better information and encourage use.
“The T should be spending much, much more on communications. Compared to other transit authorities, the T spends significantly less on marketing,” Thompson said. “That’s probably why the public feels like they aren’t getting the information they need.”
The advocate added, “There’s a real role for marketing … you want to use marketing companies to demystify things for the public. It’s a fair question if Boathouse is the right company.”
Boathouse did not respond to a request for comment.