For a few moments Wednesday, Satch was back.
You remember your ol' buddy Satch, the spirit of Utah's roads? You know, the bearded, hobo-like mascot of the I-15 reconstruction project who materialized in your living room on those pre-construction TV commercials last year?Public reaction to Satch and the Utah Department of Transportation's attempt at using humor to soften the blow of massive freeway restrictions was so overwhelmingly negative that poor Satch was quickly and unceremoniously banished from the airwaves and any future affiliation with the project.
It was a cruel fate for a friendly ghost who only wanted to help Utahns prepare for the inevitable.
Wednesday, Satch was reborn during a national transportation workshop being held this week at the Olympus Hotel. He resurfaced briefly in a UDOT seminar as an example of how "not" to do public relations on a major road construction project.
UDOT communications consultant Lindsey Ferrari told about 60 participants in the nonprofit Transportation Research Board's workshop that the Satch campaign was "one of the most well known horror stories in Salt Lake."
She admitted the apparition's well-intended message - that Utahns could survive I-15 reconstruction if they were just patient and had a good attitude - was poorly timed. Satch was introduced in February 1997 in the middle of a Legislative session in which lawmakers were discussing how to tap taxpayers' wallets to pay the project's hefty price tag.
Complaints started rolling in as soon as the first TV spots from the $400,000 campaign aired in early March last year. The ethereal road sage confused people more than he calmed them, and critics resented the idea that they would somehow accept reconstruction because of what some actor on TV said. But at least people knew about the project.
"We changed directions like that," Ferrari said, snapping her fingers. "We let the non-paid media do the bulk of the communication."
That, and most other strategies UDOT and its contractor have employed, have worked well. Last month alone, Ferarri said, more than 240 stories about I-15 appeared in the local media - newspapers, radio and TV - without costing UDOT a dime.
That was one of the lessons Ferrari offered her audience, made up of both public and private employees who may be conducting similar outreach campaigns in the future. Local media have been so in tune with the project that a symbol and campaign like the Satch debacle just isn't needed, Ferrari said.
Planning and preparation are key too, she said. UDOT's efforts to assess how the public would react to major freeway reconstruction, and what information it needed, began two years before the project's April '97 start, she said.
Also critical, she said, was UDOT's decision to create a separate staff to handle public involvement just for the I-15 project and requiring the bidding contractors to include specific public communication strategies in their proposals.
UDOT's communicators have tried to be honest, factual and empathetic while keeping the "surprises" to a minimum, Ferrari said. Direct and ongoing communication with core groups - like truckers, government officials, businesses and the travel industry - has been essential, she added.
The $1.59 billion project is still three years from completion, but Ferrari characterized the I-15 public outreach effort as a successful one.
"What we're saying is that we've made mistakes, we've had challenges, but at this point things are going about as well as could be expected," she told her peers. "No one's yelling, `Throw the bums out!' "
Not since Satch's demise, anyway.