For Alicia Trost, SJND ’95, COVID-19 did not signal a retreat into a home office and a marathon of Zoom calls. Instead, the chief communications officer of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)continued to ride the train to the headquarters in Downtown Oakland, which, as she put it, had become a war room to manage the crisis brought on by the pandemic.
“All of the BART executives continued to come into our headquarters,” she said, “We were in a very serious crisis, a fiscal emergency crisis, as well as the pandemic and protecting our employees and our riders.”
Even before the pandemic, Alicia kept a fast-paced schedule. In the world of communications and media, there is no such thing as a nine-to-five workday, and she is always on call to respond to events.
“Because the media operates 27/7, I'm on 24/7,” she said. “If we have an early morning service problem or incident at BART, I have to be ready to jump out of bed at any hour to help get the information out to the public and to the media.”
Despite the chaos and grim prognosis at the beginning of the pandemic, Alicia and her team were prepared, and she abided by the rule of looking for opportunities instead of allowing negativity to overwhelm them.
“Even during the pandemic, we still have a lot of projects that we're working on that we want to continue to launch,” she said. “We can't have everything come to a halt. So I'm continuing to move those projects through. And then just this idea of a bigger vision of how can we improve BART. How can we improve the rider experience? How do we welcome people back?”
To successfully steer BART through shelter-in-place orders and shutdowns, Alicia ensured that from the beginning the organization was communicating with its stakeholders in a clear, direct manner. A top priority was transparency, ensuring that BART kept its audience informed about the immediate crisis and longer-term consequences, as well as building advocacy to position itself to receive emergency government relief. Because they were able to secure government aid, BART was able to avoid layoffs.
“My team and I immediately put together a plan to make sure that the public felt that they were getting all the information they needed from Bart, in a very easy-to-understand way,” Alicia said. “For example, when the first shelter in place orders happened, a lot of people just shared the county orders. Well, the county orders were 14-page PDFs of government-speak. We went through it line by line and broke down what it meant [for our audience].”
Another key strategy was being intentional with storytelling, crafting communications that conveyed reality versus what the public was assuming about BART. For Alicia, it was important to highlight that during the pandemic, BART was still very much operational and serving riders, as opposed to the belief that the trains were empty.
“Every day there were doctors on our trains, grocery store workers, people needing to go to their medical appointments,” she shared. “We wanted to tell the story of those riders that were still taking transit because they had no other option or because that was their personal preference.”
Above all, BART’s communication strategy was about building trust and combating the public’s fear that there wasn’t a plan in place. “If you are constantly feeding the public information, they'll begin to trust you and go to you as opposed to maybe the news to get information about your agency,” Alicia said.
It was also about staying true to BART’s voice to convey the gravity of the situation, as opposed to trying to make things, like wearing a mask, light-hearted or fun.
“We also saw...how controversial masks and communicating masks were,” she said. “I saw a lot of agencies try to be cute with their mask communication. And I just didn't think that was a good fit for BART. Especially because the pandemic is extremely serious, people are dying, people are getting laid off, people are scared. We wanted to be very straightforward to show people, this is how you wear a mask.”
Inevitably, with the stress that the pandemic brings, it is easy to fall into panic. However, just as she embraced possibility in the face of potential disaster for BART, Alicia also showed up for her team, guiding them through and ensuring they remained inspired to keep up the work.
“Someone has to remain calm through the crisis,” she said, “So I really tried to take that on as much as I could.”