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Please Set Your Voice to “Silent” (JOUR 4460)

I’m a little late on hearing this news, but it intrigued me enough to write about it almost five months after it happened.

In August, the San Francisco public transit system, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), shut off all cell phone service at four of their stations in an effort to prevent a planned demonstration against their company.  A group of citizens, under the banner of “No Justice, No BART,” had planned to express their outrage over the fatal shooting of a man by BART police by protesting at various underground platforms.

Service providers like AT&T and Verizon weren’t notified about the shutdown until after it happened, which made the choice to cut off service seem ill-planned and impulsive.  The citizens were understandably outraged by BART officials’ rash decision, which in the end, only motivated the protesters more.  Numerous protests occurred in the following weeks, which clogged the train stations and delayed service.  In the end, BART shot themselves in the foot and caused far more problems than the initial group of protesters would have.

From an ethical public relations perspective, this whole fiasco was a nightmare.  BART officials never offered an apology for their actions, but the public outcry warranted one.  They were compared to Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, who also shut down cell phone service to prevent protesters from gathering.  That didn’t work out so well for him once the dust settled.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said, “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 stop them.  It’s outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

After the incident, BART officials issued a new rule, which only added insult to injury:

“No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”

The “expressive activities” wording is a ludicrous blanket statement that further illustrates BART’s piss-poor PR strategy.  Their public relations team, if they even have one, should have advised against shutting off cell service in the underground stations.  But beyond that, they needed to release a statement explaining their actions in a compassionate way and clarifying that they value and respect their customers’ right of free speech.  These protesters weren’t looking to start an “Occupy BART” movement; it was an isolated incident.  The original issue involving the man’s shooting death would have blown over in a matter of weeks, but instead this debacle has carried on into December.

Today, BART announced new cell phone shutdown rules, which states they’ll only cut off service in “extraordinary circumstances.”  The FCC gave BART some guidance in their wording of the new rules, but made a point to say they did not endorse the new policy.

Hopefully BART has learned a valuable lesson: there are few crises worse than the ones that are self-inflicted.

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