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Update @2:50 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25: The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 13 to 5 today to kill the proposed beer and wine tax. The Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors Association and The White Space have done an excellent job using social media for public policy, the first such use I am aware of in Idaho.

Like every other communications specialist on Earth, I have been diving into social media, including Facebook and Twitter. I have set up a number of Facebook pages for myself and my clients (including Metro Express Car Wash, Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., and my own company) and gotten the word out on Twitter.

I’m especially interested in the public policy applications of social media, however, since that’s my area of focus as a PR practitioner. Marketing firm The White Space has done an amazing job rallying public attention around a proposed hike on the beer and wine tax, opposed by the Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors Association. As of this writing, nearly 1,200 people have joined a Facebook page and more than 800 people have registered their e-mail addresses on donttaxmybeer.com. I am one of about 240 people on a Twitter feed and the group hosted a Tweet Up on Thursday night. Did I mention they have a blog?

The White Space has done an excellent job using social media to raise public awareness (they’re also getting me and other bloggers to discuss the issue). But the results at this point are mixed: at the end of the day Tuesday, Feb. 24, 27 testifed in favor of the tax and 21 against, with one neutral. There’s plenty of mobilizing information on the Facebook page and Web site and dozens of Tweets have kept peopel abreast, yet only 21 people have spoken against the proposed tax. Of course, that’s going to change tomorrow, as the Legislature has had to extend hearings into Wednesday, because so many people wanted to testify. It wouldn’t surprise me if hearings went beyond Wednesday.

It’s easier to get people riled up about something than it is to get them to trudge to the Legislature in the middle of the day and wait an hour or more for the opportunity to speak their mind. The White Space and the beer and wine association have done a remarkable job in getting public support for their position. If they can translate that into large numbers of people testifying on their behalf – the most prized kind of public involvement – they will have shown that social media buzz can translate into serious clout in the public policy arena. PR wonks like me will be keeping close watch.

The White Space has blazed a trail for other Idaho PR firms and, at the very least, their work for their client is to be commended. While I support the tax, a little tiny part of me wants to see the effort to defeat the tax succeed, just to show that social media can be a potent force in the political process.

There’s been a lot of emotion but not enough light on the issue of a transit center in downtown Boise.

Hoping to get the project shovel-ready to take advantage of a federal grant that expires this year, officials from the Ada County Highway District, City of Boise and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho are putting the proposal on a fast track. It would bring pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and busses together in downtown Boise, and a rail system could someday hook up to it. More than just a bus stop, the idea is that people could switch between different transportation modes at the center.

I think it’s a great idea and should move forward.¬† But, as The Boise Guardian says, “…it looks to us like a recipe for disaster jamming passenger cars, buses, and pedestrians into a narrow side street.” Yes, possibly – or it could be a recipe for success, assuming that moving more people in and out of downtown is a good thing. It all depends on how it’s done.

As a public relations consultant, I have to say the agencies could be doing a better job at making their case, especially in the media. So far, print and broadcast media coverage has been your basic journalistic tale of people fighting some proposal with which they are unfamiliar.

My unsolicited  advice: local government PR people should be presenting examples of where these kinds of transit hubs have been successful, why they have been successful, and how they could be successfully adapted to downtown Boise. This is a great opportunity to invite the media into explanatory stories and show under what conditions transit hubs benefit the public and merchants in other cities.

Here are some good examples the folks at COMPASS have refererred me to:

  • The Bellevue Transit Center seems close to what is contemplated for Boise, maybe a bit longer, but it looks nice.
  • The Courthouse Square transit center in Salem, Oregon, is part of a larger project, including a 150,000 square-foot office complex, but it’s a good example of a transit center in an urban setting.
  • The Plaza is the hub for downtown Spokane’s transit system and is designed to host many arts, entertainment and holiday events.
  • Denver has proposed the Union Station, which would involve rehabbing an old transit station for the modern “multimodal center.”
  • Eugene, Oregon, has a very attractive transit center.

Some of these plans are much more than what we are propsing. But I include them to show that other similar cities have successfully pulled off ambitious and successful transit center plans.

Of course, questions about the public process will remain. Also, historical preservation needs will have to be accommodated. But for the time being, local governments could make their job easier, and improve public understanding, job giving their transit hub proposal some grounding and context.

Public relations people get so wrapped up in promoting our clients that we sometimes forget we can use your skills to help friends.

Last week, I got an email from David MacNeill, who recorded me last fall for a musical project. Our families have hung out together a few times and become friends.

David said he, his wife and daughter were being evicted from their BSU-area home and they were asking for any work or barter opportunities. A few days later, he sent another email to his social network asking for “micro-loans” from people to help buy a mobile home, an affordable alternative to living in a traditional home (I gave David $50 a few days later).

I forwarded the email to Dave Staats, a Statesman editor, asking if The Statesman could somehow help this family and suggesting there could be a larger story in the issue of people making a run on mobile homes in the current economy. I have asked Staats for coverage of my clients many times in the past and, as always, it all boils down to what extent my story idea serves the public interest.

Later that day, I got a call and some Tweets from reporter Brad Talbutt, saying he had already interviewed David MacNeill and was researching the larger trend.On Sunday, The Statesman published a well-researched story about how “The Valley’s RV parks are being filled up with working-age people who can’t afford to live in a house.”

I like to see my “clients” make the front page of the paper, but the stressful situation of this family just makes me wish the coverage leads to more micro-loans, donations and sales of David’s CDs.¬† Whatever your profession – law, medicine, sales, construction, development, Web design – consider how you can use your skills to help a friend who needs you.

The story also underscores the importance of newspapers and their ability to judge and define important trends. Without a daily newspaper or other large media, this family’s situation, and the larger trend they represent, would have a much harder time getting notice.