Celebrating a Classic Case Study: ‘Building the New Lodge’

No one popped champagne corks in Lansing to celebrate it. And had I not contacted Jack Pyle, the 20th anniversary of the “New Lodge” might have passed without note. This classic public relations case deserves a retrospective. So here you go.

This isn’t the lodge where you gather after a day on the slopes. It’s the John C. Lodge Freeway (M-10), a major artery that connects downtown Detroit with its northwest suburbs. In the mid-1980s, the Lodge was a real mess, in need of regrading, resurfacing and new drainage. But when the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) proposed closing alternate sides of the highway over two years, many protested.

Closing completely the 9-mile stretch of highway would displace 120,000 motorists daily, forcing them onto surface streets or alternate highways. It happens all the time where you live, right? But thanks MDOT’s campaign called “Lodge-ability,” your highway department and mine have learned the value of public relations to support major road projects.

“Lodge-ablilty” earned PRSA’s Silver Anvil award in 1988. A year later, we at Kent State began using MDOT’s 32-minute documentary, “Building the New Lodge,” to show students PR process done right. We’re still using it.

Closing the Lodge freeway concerned commuters, but it also affected employers and threatened the bottom line of such organizations as the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings — even the Detroit Symphony. If the Lodge became a major hassle, would people (and their money) opt to stay home?

Hearing these concerns early on, MDOT budgeted $700,000 for a communications effort aimed at minimizing the impact on all key publics. The campaign follows the R-A-C-E formula to the letter — almost.*  MDOT did formal research prior to and midway through the campaign, polling a sample of 800 Detroit-area motorists likely to be affected by the project. The plan also included fact-finding forums with public safety agencies, major employers, event planners and the hospitality industry.

Simply put, MDOT’s PR professionals put their ears on then incorporated what they learned into the plan. Communication elements grabbed your attention using bold visuals in print messages and slapstick humor in TV spots. But the plan called for more than communication. It included alternatives like park-and-ride lots, ride-sharing networks, and a special bus fleet dubbed the “Motor Lodge.”

Meticulous evaluation during and after the campaign demonstrated where it worked and where it didn’t. But this headline in the Free Press sums it up: Detroit gave a traffic jam, but nobody came.

I’ve extracted a dozen PR lessons from the Lodge-ability campaign, and when I teach the PR Principles class, we spend two sessions discussing them. I was tempted to plug those lessons in here, but you really don’t want another of my 1,800-word posts, do you?

Whether you’re a PR student, educator or practitioner, I urge you to invest a half hour and watch “Building the New Lodge.” The conversion from VHS to digital isn’t exactly a BluRay production, but it stands the test of time in terms of PR practice. Educators, feel free to use the film in your classes, but be sure you warn students about the monochrome computer monitors, the 80s fashions and the “antique” cars.  And remember that it was 1987, so the campaign has no Web component.

Back in ’88, Detroit Councilman Leon Atchison called Lodge-ability “a model for the nation.” It works pretty well in the classroom, too.

Watch “Building the New Lodge” (Requires Windows Media Player or Flip4Mac)

Download the Silver Anvil summary (pdf): lodgeability

***************

Thanks to Jack Pyle and Brenda Peek for their work on the Lodge-ability campaign, but also for their help with this post.  Jack was director of communication at MDOT in 1988; Brenda was an MDOT newbie in 1988 and is still with the department working on the next generation of Lodge projects. It’s called Gateway.

* I know that Jim Hoggan‘s RACE acronym doesn’t match the original. But I like Jim’s better, since it subs “analysis” for “action.”  Tell me you care.

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