Panelists Discuss Common Denominators for Successful Transportation Agency Public Engagement

AASHTO Journal, 25 October 2013

A track session at AASHTO’s 2013 annual meeting explored the major components of successful communications campaigns and public involvement programs within transportation agencies, finding that collaboration, vision, and creativity topped the list of requirements.

The discussion, “The Five Key Things that Must Exist to Ensure Your Agency Enjoys a Robust Public Involvement, Communications Program,” featured three panelists with transportation agency experience: Amy Ford of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Brock Barnhart of the¬†Arizona Department of Transportation, and Darrel Cole of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Ford kicked off the discussion by utilizing a pyramid to highlight items that must exist in project communications. First off, there must be a shared vision, Ford said.

“At CDOT, we use tested benefits messages that resonate with the public,” Ford said. “For us, those messages are typically safety, economic growth, and maintenance. Those are our top three.”

Next in the pyramid comes organizational structure (stressing the need to know the internal role of the agency, as well as the overall project management structure), which helps to establish tiers and specifications while also clarifying customer service expectations. Finally, Ford addressed collaborative partnerships and communication tools as the base of the pyramid, stressing the importance of working together to achieve a desirable end result.

Barnhart identified his top five elements of a successful communication campaign as cooperation, collaboration, communication, creativity, and partnerships. Much of his presentation used the example of ADOT’s experience with US 89, a highway destroyed by a landslide earlier this year, eliminating a vital roadway that created long detours around the damage in an area that had no alternative routes (see AASHTO Journal story on the completion of the roadway’s bypass, which eliminates the detour, here).

Barnhart said the work you do to build your partnerships and relationships on a daily basis will ultimately help you when problems inevitably occur.

“We are doing those little things that matter,” Barnhart said. “We are able to fall on our established relationships and our credibility that¬†we had built over time when crisis like this happens.”

Cole had seven things he thought helped to make communications campaigns successful: a seat at the table; messaging across divisions and operations; quality control/quality reviews; utilizing the entire toolbox; collaboration of all “customer-facing” efforts; leadership from the transportation CEO; and the ability to start somewhere.

“We have the ability now to reach our stakeholders directly through traditional, social, and other media,” Cole said. “The public now expects more. But more doesn’t always mean more in the traditional sense. Remember that content will always be king.”

Audience members were able to ask the panelists questions, one of which revolved around how state transportation departments were to balance the economic constraints they face with the needs of their department and the public.

“Just make sure you justify everything with data,” Ford said. “Communication is soft. We now need to quantify our return on investment, to demonstrate our benefits and our value.”

“Always begin with the benefits, and focus on investment early on,” Cole said. “And think like a news room. That’s where the traditional media really comes in handy.”

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