In the Spotlight: Mantill Williams
Mantill Williams is the Director of Advocacy Communications at theAmerican Public Transportation Association (APTA). Prior to his current position, Mantill served as the Manager of Public Affairs for the American Automobile Association (AAA) Mid-Atlantic, and then as the Director of Public Relations of AAA National. In addition, he was the Executive Director of DC Trucking and Member Services at the American Trucking Association (ATA).
Mantill has an MS in Public Administration and Public Policy, and a BA in English from West Virginia University. He is a member of the Surface Transportation Communicators of DC, and an alumnus of Eno’s Transit Senior Executive (TSE) Program.
Tell us how you ended up in transportation.
I have always been interested in promoting causes, so I was attracted to the world of associations and nonprofits. My first jobs out of college were with professional trade associations in the accounting and fundraising professions. After those experiences I worked for my first transportation association, the ATA Safety Management Council where I worked in the marketing area promoting the truck driver safety program. I discovered that traffic safety was the most important area for those in surface transportation and thought it was a place where I could make a difference. In addition, ATA introduced me to how transportation really is a driver of the economy. Everything we eat, consume, or buy is transported by a truck at some point.
What’s the biggest thing that’s kept you in transportation?
I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of modes. I started in trucking, and then I did work on land use issues with the local Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. At AAA, I represented motorists at the local and national level. What’s kept me in transportation is the realization that it impacts everyone from all walks of life – the business owner, the consumer, the student – everyone. Transportation is a catalyst for people to have freedom of mobility, and has the capacity to improve local development and quality of life.
You’ve received a lot of awards for your marketing and communications abilities. What skills make for a successful communicator?
A few things: 1) first, it’s very important to think strategically about your mission, goals, and objectives. You ultimately want to have a sense of how to measure your effectiveness; 2) you really need to know your audience. Depending on who you’re speaking to, you have to shape the message accordingly and deliver it in a particular way or through a particular medium; 3) make sure that before you engage in any form of communication that you have your messages down; and finally, 4) if you have the resources and the time, conduct research to make sure your messages are truly reaching your audience and that the issues you’re advocating resonates with them.
What do you think communicators in transportation specifically need to be aware of? What will make us successful?
It all comes down to the transportation users and constituents. It’s important to have a two-way conversation with them, especially now that we have so many more ways to communicate through social media and otherwise, it’s absolutely essential.
At APTA, for example, our communications team has created the Voices for Public Transit. We recruited people who might be interested in improving public transit in their communities. There are now more than 150,000 advocates that are a part of this group. We keep in touch with this group through email outreach, Facebook and Twitter. At key times, they have been effective in reaching out to their elected officials about the importance of public transit investment. I think most transportation communicators are aware that the scenario has changed – we can go directly to the constituents who are supportive and who want to play a role, and give them the opportunity to do just that. Elected officials want to know what’s important to their constituents, and as communicators we are able to help facilitate that.
What’s been – in your opinion – your biggest career success?
When I was at ATA, we were able to work with the city council to get the 20-minute loading and unloading zone approved so that our member companies that were delivering packages were able to do so without getting tickets. That helped customers and business.
At AAA locally, we were able to get a graduated drivers licensing law passed that required teenagers to go through certain steps to before getting their licenses. This helped to save lots of lives.
At AAA National, I continued promoting traffic safety issues on the national level but we also worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a more accurate way to estimate an automobile miles per gallon. We were able to work with EPA representatives to more accurately measure vehicles in real-world situations.
Most recently at APTA, I was fortunate to work on Stand Up for Transportation Day, which was held this past April 9. The association led a nationwide effort to encourage Congress to enact a long-term transportation bill. Nationwide, there were 360 organizations, 71 mayors, 50 House members, nine U.S. senators, and six governors participating in local events. They spoke with constituents about the need and urgency surrounding transportation funding. We garnered more than 266 million impressions through print, online and broadcast media with more than 10.5 million through social media channels with our hashtag trending third highest during the day. Our Twitter “Thunderclap” reached 915,689 people. This effort combined with our outreach during National Infrastructure Week in May resulted in more than 22,000 letters sent from constituents to every congressional office regarding the urgent need to invest long-term in the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
What’s been a big challenge, and how have you embraced or overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges we’re all facing in the transportation sector is securing a long-term funding source for transportation infrastructure in this country. The challenge has been that elected officials often believe that raising the federal gas tax to improve our transportation infrastructure is something constituents will not support. However, over the last five years, we’ve found that when we asked people to tax themselves on the local and state level to improve local public transportation, 72 percent of these ballot initiatives have passed. There is bipartisan desire to increase the gas tax when constituents know the money will go toward investing in our local public transit and road infrastructure. So I believe it’s a misnomer to believe that there’s no support from the public for increasing the motor fuels tax. That’s probably the biggest challenge, and it’s frustrating, because in reality, investing more in the nation’s transportation infrastructure will increase economic productivity which will lower the deficit, help encourage private investment, and ultimately result in lowering the overall tax burden of all Americans.
You are an alumnus of Eno’s 2014 Transit Senior Executive Program. What were your biggest takeaways?
The course was a great reminder of the power and importance of collaboration. Being able to collaborate with people on all levels is essential. I had the opportunity to also take an assessment of my emotional intelligence. It led me to the conclusion that emotional intelligence is just as important – and sometimes more important – than straight-up IQ. Developing your emotional intelligence is crucial because it helps you to achieve at higher levels. You directly benefit from the ability to work with people from all walks of life. It changes your focus to aspire to lead groups to achieve results that can have long-term transformational change in your organization or industry.
In a couple months, we will host the next TSE class. What advice do you have for them?
I would say to definitely take advantage of lessons on how to manage up, down and across; being able to work among colleagues at various levels is an invaluable skill. And take advantage of the opportunity to network. Embrace getting to know the people in your class. These will be colleagues you can turn to for advice as you encounter issues and challenges in your job. You can be a mentor to them, and they, too, can be mentors to you for a lifetime.
Finally, what do you think the biggest priority should be for transportation communicators right now, and how do you think it should be tackled?
I think transportation communicators should continue to remind the public and our elected officials that we need to look at investment in transportation on the local, state, and federal level as a way to improve safety on our roads and rails; create jobs and generate profits in the private sector; and improve the quality of life in our communities. That’s the key that will take us forward.