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  • Ann-Christin Korsing

🇬🇧 Mind the Pay Gap: How to communicate the world's first women's transport ticket

15 questions for the BVG's* Press Officer Petra Nelken

*BVGBerliner Verkehrsbetriebe (German) stands for "Berlin Transport Company" and is the main public transport company in Berlin. It manages the underground railway (U-Bahn), tram, buses and ferrys. The company is known for its striking and cheeky communication on Twitter.

– For the German version please read the full article here 🇩🇪

This year, there are many efforts to stand up for women: Berlin has declared Women's Day a public holiday and Iceland has made it illegal to pay men more than women. On March 18, on Equal Pay Day, the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) sold the world’s first women's transport tickets at all subway ticket machines in Berlin at a 21% discount – the same percentage women still earn less on average (German Federal Statistical Office). I interviewed Petra Nelken, Press Spokeswoman and Head of the BVG's Media Board, with 15 questions on the following topics:

  • How the Equal Pay Day campaign worked behind the scenes,

  • Why the world's first women's ticket is actually illegal and unfair,

  • How the competition and the media reacted and

  • Which conclusions she draws from the "probably most inexpensive image campaign in the world" for future public relations.

What does the ratio of men and women look like in your company?

We are a typical men's company – actually like all transport companies worldwide. This has something to do with the history of transport companies. In West Germany, for example, women were not allowed to travel by tram or bus until the late 1960s, while in the East, in the German Democratic Republic, this was completely normal. Today we have a women's quota of about 28 percent. We are quite proud of the fact that we succeeded in doing so, with a total of 14,000 employees.

How many women do you have in your PR team compared to men?

Half - half, exactly.

"Of course, we've violated every law."

How did it come to the internal decision to do this campaign on Equal Pay Day?

We advertise for women a lot. There is extra special advertising for women and we do a Girls Day every year. In general, equality is an important issue for us. The Equal Pay comes every year, you can read about it somewhere, but it's forgotten after an hour. That's when we came up with the idea: We have to show people with an example what it means. The idea was to make this difference tangible with a ticket. Of course, we actually violated every law, because we have to treat all our customers equally. We discussed it for a long time, but came to the conclusion: "Let’s do it". At all our vending machines in the city, you could buy a women's ticket on that single day – we could program that very easily.

"Turn the anonymous term Equal Pay Day into something real."

It was really interesting to see how much it upset people. We were actually very happy that we made something real out of this rather anonymous term "Equal Pay Day".

Interview with Petra Nelken (Photo: BVG/ Oliver Lang)

As you said, of course you were not only praised for the campaign, but also criticized a lot. Was the criticism about this campaign a curse or a blessing?

In this particular campaign it was actually a blessing, because it was pretty easy to deal with. We wanted to show that it’s unfair. If someone said: "This is unfair", we answered: "You're absolutely right. That's unfair – just as unfair as paying women 21 percent less”. Of course it is unfair – that’s also what the legislaton says: We have to treat all people equally. We live in a democracy in which one cares for others.

"What we have really succeeded in doing is: We have all thought about it.”

How did the campaign upset your passengers and potential customers?

There has been a lot of kerfuffle, as well as a lot of positive reactions, but of course a lot of: "There are women who earn a lot of money and there are men who earn very little money". But we think, what we really succeeded in doing is that we all thought about, what 21% less salary means and that it's a lot of money. With the one-day ticket, you could show that particularly well. In this respect, we are very glad that we came to this conclusion to execute the campaign.

“It is incredibly important for a public transport company to communicate security and well-being”

What did the competition say about the Equal Pay Day campaign?

We are not the only transport company in Berlin. Our colleagues from the S-Bahn (German: suburban railway) accepted it and tolerated it. By the way, we weren't the only ones: there were hotels in Berlin that offered discounts for women on that day as well, but of course we are the biggest German public transport company and therefore, we have a corresponding public.

It simply wasn't a big loss-making business. The normal Berlin woman, who travels to work, to university or to school every day, has a monthly ticket – hence, doesn't buy such a ticket on that one day. It was also mainly symbolic.

How does the Equal Pay Day campaign fit to your business’ objectives?

Such a campaign, we also do other campaigns, gives customers a feeling of well-being. To have this feeling: I am respected, people take care of me and help me when I'm in need. It is incredibly important for a public transport company to communicate these aspects.

"If a campaign works well, it also radiates inwards.”

When you come home and your 14-year-old son says: "I thought it was pretty crazy what happened there". This makes you feel good. And then, of course, everyone wants to be a little bit like the campaign. You notice that, for example, assaults against our employees have decreased rapidly. That is a very important message as well. If such a campaign works well, it also radiates inwards.

The waiting room of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe is designed like the Berlin underground.

"It was probably one of the cheapest image campaigns in the world.”

We really felt the need to say: we want to attract women to our company. It is a purely selfish thought.

Berlin’s male bus drivers have a certain reputation. Female bus drivers also have a reputation: they are much, much friendlier than their male colleagues. The moment women are at the depot, the whole atmosphere changes.

Before you start any campaign, you have to agree to measurements and objectives. What were the measurements for the Equal Pay Day campaign?

Basically, we said: "What does the campaign cost me?" It cost about 50,000 euros. Then we said: If I rent big billboards in the city with the same amount: How many do I get for it? Not that many actually. And how many people do I reach? To put it quite profanely: It was the cheapest advertising campaign we could do. Even better: people also talk about us and additionally, there was this huge international media response.

We achieved a media equivalent value of 3 million euro – which means that we would have had to place ads with the same value to get the same attention in Germany.

To sum up, you took AVE as a tool to measure the success and the advertising idea turned into a PR campaign. However, you are also a state-owned company, which belongs to the state of Berlin. How did the government react?

We expected that someone in parliament would complain and ask questions: "How much money are you throwing out the window?” Obviously, these questions came promptly – they always are, but in the end we could say: "That was a campaign, which enhanced our image. It was probably one of the cheapest image campaigns in the world.”

"The Guardian - the princess of all newspapers - interviewed me."

You gained a great deal of qualitative clippings during the campaign: in Germany the campaign was covered by SPIEGEL ONLINE, by Berliner Zeitung (German: Berlin Newspaper) and internationally in the New York Times and on the BBC. How did you react along the media coverage?

That was an echo...! I remember, when we sat together before the campaign had even started and discussed: “Are we doing it or are we not doing it?” We then said: "Oh come on! Yes, we'll do it". We expected some people to get excited as well as upset, but I have to say honestly: we didn't expect that at all. I gave the BBC three interviews that day – live on the air. We called it "Mind the Pay Gap". Before the interview started, I could hear the famous "Mind the gap" – they thought it was funny. The Guardian, the princess of all newspapers, interviewed me and I thought: "That cannot be true!"

"The New York Times has a weakness for Berlin."

The New York Times, okay, we've been covered by the medium before. The New York Times has a weakness for Berlin – you can tell. Berlin topics can get into the paper quite fast.

"We won't repeat it next year."

We have been covered by the SZ as well as by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (prestigious German newspapers). Basically, this confirmed that we hit the nerve. You can't repeat this campaign either. We will not repeat it next year.

"There's a competition for good drivers."

So the campaign was about saving money and attracting new employees...

It's also about the image. The brand’s image is very important, because it brings you passengers and employees.

There’s a competition for good drivers. When you drive on the motorway in Germany today, you can read on every truck: "Drivers wanted". Our big advantage over everyone else is that we can say: "If you work for me, then you are in Berlin". Since Berlin already has a brand value in Germany as well, you'll probably be more likely to get a bus driver from Essen to Berlin than the other way round. You don't just do that through payment, you also do it through the atmosphere. Added value is also when you can present yourself as a company, which says: "I live in this city. If you work for me, then you’ll become a part of this city, just like me, and you can even give something back.” We notice that, for example in the number of apprentices – there is also a fight for apprentices.

That's true.

We get our apprentices together, because we have a good reputation. Obviously, the success of a transport company also plays an important role. Last year, the Rheinbahn in Düsseldorf lost passengers in the double-digit millions. Well, we must not forget that Düsseldorf is a completely different place – the car is still a prestige object. The mentality that only poor people have to travel with by underground is no longer an issue in Berlin.

"We thought we could get Berlin a little excited. We really didn't expect such a big echo."

How did you prepare yourself internally for the campaign?

Not at all.

Not prepared at all?

No. The original public relations plan was to get into the newspaper and the “Abendschau” (regional news programme on TV by the Berlin-Brandenburg Broadcasting Corporation). We thought we could get Berlin a little excited. We really, really didn't expect such a big response.

If you didn't expect such a big response, what did you do?

We arranged a press event. At Alexanderplatz we showed how the machine works, which was very funny, because an attendee was really surprised when the machine suddenly recognized that he was a man.

We prepared this joke and claimed one of the machines at Alexanderplatz could recognize whether you are a man or a woman. At this one machine in Berlin you could buy a day ticket, a monthly ticket and an annual women ticket. With an annual ticket (Berlin AB) you are already talking about 160 euro savings. We had this machine built especially for us and of course it couldn't tell whether you were a man or a woman. None of the journalists present saw that there was someone at the corner who controlled the machine remotely at the push of a button.

"We told our inspectors: If anyone has a full beard to the knee, walk away."

Were there also men lining up?

No. Not there, but of course a man could draw the women’s ticket at any other machine. The reporter from the BBC also asked me: what happens, if he tries to buy a Frauenticket (German: women’s ticket) there? I told him, the he will cheat twice. We also said to the inspectors: "If anyone has bought such a ticket and has a full beard up to the knee, walk away. We don't want to cause stress at all that day.” As far as I heard, it didn't happen at all.

What conclusion do you draw for PR work in general from this campaign?

  • That you have to cover topics that really interest people or hit a nerve.

  • Never forget that you are a transport company. If it was a fashion brand, it would be different.

  • You always have to stay on the ground and think: "I am constantly measured against my competitors". I can proclaim a hundred times: "I have the most beautiful underground in the world" – When someone comes down the stairs and sees the old carriage, then says: "Huh?". You have to know that you live with your own reality.

  • In our press work we have always noticed that no issue can be whitewashed and nothing should be played down, which can really, really annoy the individual. Rather say: "Yes, I annoy you and I am really sorry that I annoy you, but I have good reasons". Thus, you will get much more acceptance and understanding from your customers.

  • If you can also make people laugh and sometimes make them laugh a little about themselves, you’re almost there.

A big thank you goes to Petra Nelken. To learn more about ThoughtsAboutPR, visit my Twitter account @ThoughtsAboutPR and follow me on Instagram @Thoughts_About_PR.

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