Controlling the Narrative


Our recent post HSR drew many visits. It is probably therefore worth continuing the line of thinking that it engendered.

The Project Frame

Large, industrial projects are costly, time-consuming and risky. Hence it is vital that the project managers carefully define the ‘Project Frame’, i.e., what’s in the project and what’s excluded. The Frame also provides the criteria for failure and success.

Currently the HSR Project is framed in a traditional cost/benefit manner. To a business person or resident of central Virginia the benefits are:

  • A comfortable, fast ride to D.C. from Richmond.
  • Less hassle fighting I-95 traffic.
  • Doing my bit for the environment.

The costs are:

  • Financial — that number is not known but it will probably be lost somewhere in the government deficit.
  • Some valuable parts of our culture (old homes, grave sites, the second oldest grocery store in the United States) will be damaged or have to be relocated.
  • Some bucolic farmland will be lost.

The Current Narrative

Let us imagine a business woman who makes regular trips to D.C. from Richmond. Her response to this Frame is likely to be, “Go ahead – it’s worth it. There’s always a cost to progress. ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know.’ ”

She sees the words “High Speed Rail” on the sign shown below.


She might respond by saying,

H’m: High Speed Rail — that sounds good. I hear that the High Speed Train will take me from Richmond to D.C. in less than an hour. That means that I can take the early morning train, enjoy a cup of coffee on the ride, visit my client or project, and be back in time for dinner. And I won’t have to struggle with traffic. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me. It’s a shame that some of these people, none of whom I actually know, will lose their property. But ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs’, you know.

In other words, it is possible that the sign will achieve the opposite purpose from that intended.

The sign’s language cedes the project narrative

Redefining the Frame

But what if the Frame is structured in a different manner?

Opposition to the project so far has been presented in terms of the people who live on or near the tracks. By talking about their concerns they have done little to change the mind of our business woman who looks forward to a fast and comfortable trip to Washington.

An alternative frame would be one that focuses on the potential travelers and the community in general — obviously a much larger group of people than those directly affected by the project. In other words, think in terms of the customer.

Journey Time

Currently the project is defined by three words: “High Speed Rail”. But if, as suggested in the earlier post, the actual journey time does not change significantly then our business woman may say to herself,

The project doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of benefits, and the costs are high and government deficits seem to be never-ending. And we really do need to be doing more to preserve our way of life instead of pouring concrete everywhere. And it turns out that, instead of offering us a smooth, slick new train, Amtrak will continue to use their somewhat scruffy old carriages. I was hoping that I could make the round-trip journey in less than two hours, but it looks as if it’s going to be at least four hours. That’s too long.

You know, I am not sure that I do support this project after all. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.



Our traveler may also wonder about the cost. Currently a non-discounted coach seat is $136 round trip. The IRS 2016 rate is $0.54 / mile. Hence the cost of driving would be $82.40.


If the above analysis is accurate then those who oppose the HSR Project should challenge the use of the phrase “High Speed Rail” at every opportunity. For example, if a newspaper runs an article on the topic then multiple letters to the editor should dispute the editor’s choice of words. Even in normal conversation, if someone uses the words “High Speed Rail” it should be politely pointed out that a different phrase is needed. If it can be shown that the project offers few benefits but many costs then the project’s opponents will gain a much broader base of support.

In other words,

Control the project narrative

5 thoughts on “Controlling the Narrative

  1. Ian…. this is actually brilliant and, obviously, nobody else has thought about these signs this way. But, HOW CAN I SHARE THIS with the groups: Ashland Residents, and others. You have SO much information and have spent so much time researching all of this. And, so many, for some reason, can’t join this (next.door) . So I’m frustrated trying to share this with everyone. My email is Thank you!


    1. I am puzzled as to why people are having trouble linking to the post. This blog site is no different from the millions (billions?) of other sites out there: blogs, web pages and social media. To link to the site you simply paste the following link into your site or email:

      Or embed it to make it look prettier.

      If you wish to be receive notices when a new blog is posted click on the Comment button. It is rather difficult to find but I’m afraid I can’t change that — handles the back office stuff.

      Incidentally, are people bothered by advertisements at this site? Because I am the blogger I don’t see what others are seeing.


      1. IDK either and I don’t see any ads at all?? Some say when they try to join, they’re directed to an admin site. I tried deleting my email address and it won’t let me.


  2. Barb – in the email you get for the new post, look at the bottom just above the large blue COMMENT button, see where is says URL: ? Right click on that and say COPY LINK LOCATION. Then you can paste it on a Facebook!


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