Troubled San Francisco BART System Takes Another Hit

San Francisco’s underground train system, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has become the public agency that can do no right. Its own PR department got a black eye this week after it was leaked that its communications head “coached” riders to defend it at an August press conference.

It was revealed that BART spokesman Linton Johnson sent a memo to BART employees, outlining “talking points” for BART customers to use at a press conference intended to coincide with a protest, taking place to express outrage over a passenger shooting in July. BART was meant to provide $800 in private transportation for the media-trained participants to get to the media event.

Hey! Why didn’t they ride BART to the presser? Didn’t Johnson learn anything from the automaker CEOs taking private jets to testify before Congress and beg for bailout money?

This press conference was held after a string of image disasters this summer: that previously mentioned July shooting of a homeless man; protests organized by Anonymous, the hacker collective; and BART’s decision to cut wireless service in four of its stations, to hamper those protests. And after Johnson took credit for the cell phone idea, Anonymous retaliated by posting partially nude, private photos of the spokesman – with other men – on the Internet. Gay and lesbian activists were so outraged that they threatened to protest the protests.

Even the ACLU got involved after the cell phone incident, when it declared the transit agency was stripping away free speech.

“BART’s actions must be seen in the context of today’ s events,” the ACLU wrote to BART chief of police Kenton Rainey. “All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to silence them.”

BART’s president of the board of trustees, Bob Franklin, has said he does not support shutting down the cell phone towers or writing talking points for customers to read at press conferences. Johnson is on leave.

All this has transpired after the 2009 New Year’s Day fatal shooting of BART patron Oscar Grant by BART police. BART has been under a media microscope since that time.

It seems BART can’t do anything to improve its public image, especially when those in charge of corporate communications don’t get it right.