Diane Bertolin & Malachi Hull
Many businesses today cannot escape dealing with a governmental department or agency in conducting their regular business affairs. From licensing to permits, a business at some time or another will need to deal with a political figure or a staff person, the ‘bureaucrat’ who administers the legislative regime affecting the business. Normally, it is to a business’s advantage to have positive relationships with these people.
The taxicab industry has been keenly aware of its relationship with government and bureaucrats since the 70s, if not earlier in some jurisdictions. The relationship between the two has been tenuous from time to time, but at no other time has the relationship been as strained as when Uber, Lyft, and other technology network companies (TNC’s) decided to enter the for-hire industry.
Taxicab companies were found flat-footed to compete with these TNC’s’ well-executed public relations/social media campaigns. Uber and Lyft became media darlings with their slick and sexy websites. To boot, they drew a picture of the taxicab industry as backwards, clunky, uncaring, and unaccountable. Uber specifically decided that name-calling would help its cause, and soon the taxicab industry had been painted as a nasty cartel not willing to change.
The media supported the efforts of the TNC’s, and there was pressure on politicians to get on board to permit these companies to operate. Soon, Uber was operating in over two hundred cities worldwide, with little oversight and few rules.
Taxicab companies, feeling abandoned by their government friends, were left to produce a robust response and regain ground against the TNC’s. And unfortunately, many companies are still far behind in developing a response, waiting for their associations to do the work instead of realizing that the for-hire industry landscape is changing, and they need to change with it. TNC’s are developing new standards of customer service, response times, marketing, and social relations. Most taxicab companies don’t even have Facebook pages.
So, what is important in changing or developing a robust public relations/social media marketing campaign?
Before TNC’s, consumers had been developing relationships with their favourite brands online via social media. The TNC’s understood this and exploited it to their advantage when breaking into the industry. However, this doesn’t mean that taxicab companies cannot catch up. Not only can they do so, but it is the position of the authors to believe that the taxicab companies can not only catch up but also dominate.
TNC’s also understood how to leverage their customers to lobby government officials and use influencers to sway their customers to campaign for them. So taxicabs companies can hope that TNC’s will go away, but they are not likely to do so, at least not in the short term -not with the billion dollar venture capital investments that seem to be easily flowing into these companies.
But all is not lost for taxicab companies. On the contrary – taxicab companies are the thought leaders of their industry. They understand why legislation exists and what its benefits are. The changes they need to make to compete with TNC’s and to be taken seriously by the politicians are tweaks to their business plans, not major changes to the entire industry.
Here are two strategies to consider:
- Strategy 1
Develop a formal campaign to move your agenda with government.
You may have had a great relationship with your regulator in the past, but there is a great deal of pressure on regulators to accommodate TNC’s. In some cases, they are given little choice by politicians. Therefore, a company needs to have a formal public policy campaign that clearly outlines its position.
Here are some tips:
1) Understand the differences between a politician and a bureaucrat.
Politicians are elected officials who develop legislation, set priorities for the government entities they oversee, and represent their constituents’ needs and desires. Politicians are excellent at having issues noted and responded to by the appropriate staffers. However, they cannot direct staff who work for the government. Bureaucrats (or staff) are accountable to a political body, not to a politician. On the other hand, staff are charged with implementing the political body’s legislative changes and priorities and having day-to-day contact with the citizens of the community to process their business needs.
Staff have to follow the legislative requirements set forth by the political body. Staff also have the ability to bring issues forward to the legislative body for change, but they can only recommend. The political body, of course, makes the final determination.
2) Before you approach a politician or bureaucrat, do your homework.
It is easy to use Google to develop an understanding of what issues are important to politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians in particular will have very specific stands on issues. Bureaucrats will tend to have written and spoken about policy documents that outline their professional opinions on certain subject matters. From reading their opinions, you should be able to get a good idea of their approaches to matters and whether they are pro-regulation.
3) When approaching a politician or bureaucrat for the first time, make sure it is an office meeting at the place of employment.
Furthermore, demonstrate your respect by being on time and organized. You should at least have a fact sheet listing your contact information, issues of concern, and preferred outcomes.
4) Don’t assume they understand your business issues.
Just because you come across either a politician or bureaucrat who has long-term experience in government does not mean they have a full understanding of how you operate your business. Make sure they understand why the particular legislation you wish to discuss hampers your ability to do business. It may be hard to believe, but politicians and bureaucrats actually want your business to succeed.
5) Be formal in your approach.
If you are dealing with politicians, refer to them appropriately (e.g., Mister Mayor, Councillor Smith, Honorable Minister, etc.) until such time that you are invited to refer to them by name. More than likely, staff will want to be called by their first names. If you (and this applies equally to men and women) are dealing with a female, do not refer to her as “hon,” “sweetheart,” or “babe.” She broke many glass ceilings to get to where she is, and she doesn’t need to be demeaned.
6) Lunch or dinner meetings or other such things.
Lunch or dinner meetings are commonly great ways to begin to develop more open dialogue, but you should still keep the conversation primarily about business. Furthermore, all government agencies and departments have standards concerning whether they can accept items such as a free lunch or tickets to a football game.
These standards are often found in conflict-of-interest documents, which, more often than not, will be formal pieces of legislation. Normally, you can easily find them on government websites. Please make an effort to understand these documents! You do not want to offer something that could be interpreted as a test or a bribe. It will just make your relationship very awkward.
7) Don’t be a bully.
If you perceive that you could easily move parties by demanding action or pounding a desk, you can expect them to listen to you silently, but you can also expect that they will put your file at the bottom of the pile when they leave the meeting. And if you succeed in bullying them into giving you your way, be assured that if they have the authority to say no without consequence, they will do so. Remember, politicians and bureaucrats tend to have long careers in public service and equally long memories.
8) Be clear and realistic about your time expectations.
Be clear with them about your expectations of timing if you need to have something move forward quickly; however, make sure those expectations are realistic and understand that there are always conflicting priorities. Your business will not be the only one consulted on the issue. Consultations will take place internally with numerous people and other external stakeholders who may have interests in a matter. Further, meetings before any legislative body will have multiple items for review and include other persons or businesses with just as much concern for their issues as you have for yours.
9) Be honest and follow through.
Do not leave details out when discussing your issues, such as upset neighbours or an opposing business, because these matters will come forward in any public meeting on the matter. Follow through with any commitments you have made to the staff members and politicians to move your file forward.
10) Don’t flaunt your relationship once you have it established.
It is best to check your ego at the door if you have managed to sway a decision or piece of legislation to your advantage. Be humble about your victory. You want to keep this goodwill going, and one way to kill it is to act as if you control politicians or bureaucrats or forced them into the position they took.
Now, all this is not to say that these relationships always go perfectly; there are difficult people everywhere, and that is also true in government. However, your initial and continued positive approach will ensure that, at a minimum, you achieve a listening ear, and that is half the battle.
- Strategy Two
Develop a social presence
As a company owner, you cannot avoid having a social presence. As you go forward with your campaign with government, you are going to want to develop a social presence that is a mixture of outlining your position, customer service, and marketing. Yes, taxicab companies need to market. And you have a great deal to brag about – from your community and charity work to heroic drivers; there is little that you don’t have to talk about.
Your greatest advantage, which you need to exploit, is that you have all the expertise of being in the for-hire industry. TNC’s have only been in existence for four years, and they are showing their amateur status daily.
Here are some tips:
1) Define your objectives.
Why exactly are you on social media? Do you just want to create awareness regarding your struggle with TNC’s, or offer customer service through social media, or sell your services as a taxicab company? Or do you want a combination of any of the aforementioned? It is important to understand and define your objectives for social media marketing in a concise manner at the very start.
2) Analyze your target audience.
As a part of your social media marketing plan, if you focus solely and relentlessly on mass marketing to your audience, you will end up losing them. Understand your audience and their preferences, and tailor your efforts to meet the needs of your target audience. You are trying to develop a relationship with your customers. Remember, this is social media, and you need to be social.
3) Be relevant and informative.
If you spam your target audience with pitches and mass marketing efforts, you will only irritate them. Once you have defined your objectives and understand the needs of your audience, you have to start creating relevant and informative content that will add value to the lives of your target audience. Content is truly king when it comes to social media.
Chances are that you will achieve a click-through increase by a large margin when your content is informative and answers the customers’ question of “What is in it for me?” Content is a fantastic tool to drive conversation and engagement – use it effectively to establish your credibility and authority in your field.
4) Use metrics.
Social media may still be a new field in marketing, but measuring your effect remains important, too. By using metrics that outline your progress in terms of conversion and click-through rates, you will be able to understand whether your current campaign for social media marketing is adding to your Return On Investment (ROI). Use the available tools to measure your progress and influence on ROI by measuring reputation, polarity, and more. This will also help you shape your future campaigns.
5) Be dynamic.
Social media platforms are driven by real-time efforts because information becomes outdated quickly on social media. If you want your social media marketing campaigns to succeed, you have to be effective and active at all times. Furthermore, you have to be flexible enough to accept that your current social media marketing strategy needs to be changed.
Rework your strategies, implement new ideas, and focus on the ideas that are working to create a dynamic yet effective social media marketing plan that maximizes your ROI. If you keep backing a dead horse, you will simply eat into your investment and have nothing to show for it.
Social media marketing has to be customer-centric. It takes time and effort, but when done right, you will see your ROI reach its maximum potential.
Diane Bertolin is a former taxicab & FHV regulator for the City of Windsor (Ontario, Canada). From 1999 to 2000 she was President of the International Association of Transportation Regulators (IATR). She now runs her own social media marketing and consultancy business and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Malachi Hull worked as regulator of the taxicab and FHV-industry for the City of Atlanta (USA). After that he worked for the City of New Orleans as taxicab and FHV regulator until 2014. For the past years he has been a board member of the International Association of Transportation Regulators (IATR). He can be contacted at info@DYImage.com