Management & Operations

Belted in the court of public opinion

Posted on November 19, 2007 by Jack Burkert

In the midst of a devastating financial depression, the newly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt took action. To begin an economic recovery, Roosevelt saw that he needed to give the public confidence that a better future lie ahead. His New Deal programs appealed first to public opinion, then ultimately reversed a three-year downward spiral in America’s economy.

What Roosevelt knew in 1933, and what we in the motorcoach industry might learn, is that public opinion drives much of what occurs in our country. What Americans want, business and government work to deliver.

Of the many axioms of product marketing, the wise marketing manager knows with public opinion on his or her side, selling is a snap; without it, it is impossible.

You might ask, what all of this has to do with motorcoaches? A reality of the motorcoach business is that it is market-driven, competing with multiple modes of transport, mostly seeking discretionary spending dollars. Simply said, the fortunes of motorcoach operators are dependent on favorable public opinion.

Public opinion is relevant
Public opinion is a relevant issue in the continuing seatbelt debate. Today, the seatbelt battleground swirls about the yellow school bus. Arguments abound about the value of seatbelts, both in safety and economics. Inconclusive study and research seem to have fallen victim to the court of public opinion. Where school buses are concerned, it appears to many observers that large blocks of public opinion have moved on to that place where emotion, publicity and politics merge to produce legislation and regulation to add seatbelts.

Motorcoach seatbelt arguments generally lack the emotion of the school bus debate, but the forces at work are just as potent. And, the coach industry simply cannot risk falling behind the court of public opinion. To many, science and study may appropriately be critical to making decisions regarding belts, but to a parent wondering how she is going to fasten a child seat in a motorcoach, it is pretty irrelevant. When that belabored coach driver begins to fasten the safety belt around a disabled rider, the right of that rider to refuse its use has the force of law until everyone on board buckles up. When news accounts describe seriously injured passengers ejected from their coach, or individuals who stayed inside but were tossed about a careening coach, how will we as an industry manage the questions that follow?

Less study, more action
The coach industry is justifiably proud of its safety record. But there is much at stake here. The court of public opinion is not always just, nor is it consistent, but it is always important. Seat belts on buses are an issue that may need a bit less study and much more action before the next crash headline. The tipping point of public opinion may not be as far off as we may think. Consider that a strong push for legislation, federal and state, which protects current buses and operators as a seatbelt transition occurs, being a plus. Legislation that funds that transition, much like ADA grants and incentives, would earn well deserved kudos from an industry that needs public opinion on its side. That’s my opinion, how about yours? (Send your opinion to [email protected])

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