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Article updated: 4/15/2013 1:18 PM

Do Metra photo ops require PR consultants?

Metra CEO Alex Clifford addresses board members during a discussion on fare increases in 2011. Some are questioning Metra's use of a public relations firm Clifford said was hired to help handle “crisis situations.”

Metra CEO Alex Clifford addresses board members during a discussion on fare increases in 2011. Some are questioning Metra's use of a public relations firm Clifford said was hired to help handle "crisis situations."

 

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Is Metra's leadership in flux again? The agency has been in perpetual motion since a 2010 financial scandal, and now it's unclear if the board will renew Executive Director Alex Clifford's contract.

Sounds like Metra needs a good public relations pro.

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Check first, then back up

You can't be too careful when reversing your car. About 228 deaths and 17,000 injuries occur in the U.S. as a result of vehicles backing into people. Many of the victims are children -- about 50 children a week are involved in such incidents, KidsAndCars.org reports. The data comes as safety advocates lobby the Obama administration to mandate rearview cameras in vehicles.

Oh, wait -- the agency got that in 2011 when directors OK'd a three-year, $500,000 contract with Mack Communications to handle what Clifford described as "crisis situations." As an example, he cited a 2005 train derailment that killed two passengers.

Flash forward to February 2013. At a ridership promotion news conference, PR consultant Gary Mack was in fine form -- herding officials for a photograph, tut-tutting over certain questions, offering rebuttals in a stage whisper and working the assembled media. For that, Mack Communications was paid $150 an hour.

But does a photo op constitute a "crisis?"

"'Crisis' in this industry is a hugely broad term," Mack said. "It can go from a management crisis to a pedestrian incident. Most crisis work is preparation for a crisis."

When it comes to crafting a public relations strategy, Metra already pays Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Robert Carlton $145,000 a year to do that. Carlton also heads up a communications department staffed with experienced public information officers, including former reporters.

A review of invoices from Mack Communications between Jun 1, 2012, and Jan. 21, 2013, indicates the consultants billed Metra more than $31,000. The six months of services include: training Metra employees on handling media, attending board meetings and strategizing on community outreach.

Here's a sampling of invoices from Mack Communications:

• $450 for research and a strategy meeting May 2, 2012, on the Englewood Flyover debacle. This railway bridge project angered the South Side community and Congressman Bobby Rush who complained minority contractors weren't getting jobs.

• $1,200 for two consultants to attend a board meeting and news conference about the NATO summit May 11.

• $1,987 to develop an outreach strategy for handling Englewood Flyover flak.

• $975 to prepare and hold a meeting with Carlton and other communications staff Aug. 8, 2012.

• $4,575 to research, prepare, review and present a media training seminar at Metra in September 2012.

• About $3,500 for more media training, including mock interviews in October.

• $900 for Mack and an associate to attend a board meeting and converse with reporters, Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and others Dec. 14, 2012. The board approved an 11-percent rate hike on 10-ride passes.

Angering congressmen and raising fares certainly aren't good news. But is a PR train wreck the same as a real train wreck?

"I think the staff should be able to do most of that," Metra board Director and former Kane County Chairman Mike McCoy said. "(The expenditures) do not all appear to be for emergency-type situations."

The Englewood Flyer was "at least a PR emergency," McCoy said, but he noted that as Metra faces a $5 billion shortfall in capital funding over the next decade, "you need to save every penny."

Asked if the spending met the criteria of a crisis, Carlton said, "I think Alex was consistent with what he said and what the request for proposals and the contract said."

Mack explained, "We've done what Metra asked us to do within the scope of the contract and followed their direction."

The firm was awarded the contract as part of a competitive process and fully vetted, Mack added. "We gave them a full presentation so they would know our capabilities -- from media relations to event planning to crisis communications."

What do you think? Drop me an email at

A little local trivia: Beckett is played by actress Stana Katic, who grew up in Aurora.

Gridlock alert

The lanes they are a-changing on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90). As the tollway starts widening work between I-39 in Rockford and the Elgin Toll Plaza, all eastbound traffic will be shifted into the westbound lanes.

Two lanes of traffic will be maintained in each direction except near Belvidere, where it's going to be one lane westbound.

The configuration will stay in place until fall. Stay strong road warriors.

Upcoming

Join in the Ridesharing Challenge this month by encouraging your fellow workers to carpool and vanpool in honor of Earth Day. The challenge runs through April 22 and is sponsored by the Regional Transportation Authority and Active Transportation Alliance. To learn more, go to ">mpyke@dailyherald.comdrivelesslivemore.org/index.html;[URL].[/URL]

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