The Safest Generation?

On Monday, November 14, we unveiled the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 2017–2018 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, our “road map from lessons learned to lives saved.” We know that these vital safety improvements will need continuing, concerted effort among industry, government, and the public; possibly for years to come. So, on the morning of the announcement, we arranged to talk with students from the American Studies Program (ASP) about how the NTSB communicates and advocates for these top 10 transportation safety issues.

ASP offers college students from across the country the opportunity to study and intern in Washington, DC, for a semester. The students serve as interns in various institutions, from congressional offices and federal agencies to think tanks and nonprofit agencies. Today, they are the best and brightest young millennials interested in public policy; tomorrow, some of them might be making public policy.

Giving the ASP interns a sneak peak of what went into unveiling the Most Wanted List offered them a case study in communications. NTSB Chief of Media Relations Chris O’Neil explained that many communication and advocacy efforts fail because they fail to define what success looks like. He stressed that not all goals require the same tactics, and that different organizations and groups envision communication success very differently.

“The Most Wanted List is a key part of our implementation phase, but implementation isn’t enough by itself,” said O’Neil. “You need to do your homework and come up with a plan.”

Board Member Robert Sumwalt continued the theme of making plans and setting goals, but also gave his view of leadership. Member Sumwalt explained to the interns that, when he was their age, his dream was to become an NTSB Board Member. Recounting the story of how his dream eventually came to pass, Member Sumwalt urged students to persevere and to think big. Turning to the topic of leadership, Sumwalt told them what they should look for, and what they should one day embody.

“Good leaders create a vision and truly live by those values,” Member Sumwalt said. “Good leaders are ‘servant leaders’ who care, support, and nurture those who work for them. Good leaders are willing to make the tough decisions that are not always popular.”

Finally, the students heard from Advocacy Chief Nicholas Worrell, who was an ASP student in 1994. Worrell interned at the NTSB, beginning a (thus far) 22-year journey with the organization. He explained to the students that knowing how to organize a campaign is key to public policy. He encouraged the students to set goals and make strategic plans for themselves, treating their own career paths as they would a successful advocacy campaign.

“All of you guys came here to DC with potential,” he said. “Success boils down to 10 percent performance, 30 percent image, 60 percent exposure. The more exposure you get, the better your chances will be in life.” Worrell closed by inviting the students to the 2017­–2018 Most Wanted List press event that afternoon, and many took him up on the offer, including Derek Ross, a communications major from Simpson University in California. “I felt that the NTSB did a great job in portraying their message and promoting the safety and well-being of others,” Ross said. “The quality of work produced by the NTSB showed a great deal of thoughtfulness and dedication, with the health and safety of all Americans in mind.”

Because we develop our Most Wanted List from specific lessons learned in accidents, it would be very difficult to add a safety improvement such as “reach out to future generations of leaders.” However, we are keenly aware that transportation safety not only disproportionately affects the young, but that future progress depends on today’s young adults, who will be tomorrow’s safety leaders.

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