When it comes to large projects that affect a lot of people, a multi-pronged communications effort is the best way to bring stakeholders together.
When planning regional infrastructure projects, getting the right amount of engagement from the right people – and not just those in the immediate project area – can be challenging. Limited turnout to an initial meeting can not only cause future roadblocks. It can be disheartening for officials and organizers wanting broad public participation.
So how do you get everyone affected by the project to participate in the planning process?
For this case story out of Ramsey County, Minnesota, we’ll look at how one county and three major metropolitan communities worked together to coordinate communications tied to the improvement of a busy metro interchange that carries 20,000 daily users. Though attendance at public meetings typically ranges in the 50- to 60-person range, the first public meeting for this project was attended by more than 230 people.
Challenges to the success of this initial public meeting for this project included:
- Getting three cities, each with different goals and stakeholders, aligned to one solution.
- Achieving equilibrium among cities so all voices were equally heard.
- Attracting participation from travelers within the broader region who may live outside of the immediate area of the project, but who use the interchange regularly.
To solve these challenges, the project team developed a comprehensive communication strategy.
To help make sure all three cities had the tools they needed to communicate at the public meeting, SEH consultants created a base communication template that was used in a number of traditional tactics, and created a cohesive brand for the project.
- Postcard. The communication template was used to create a direct mail postcard detailing the meeting information. The post card was sent out to 908 properties surrounding the project area 12 days before the meeting. Each postcard cost roughly $1 to send.
- Flier/newsletter. The newsletter was sent to the three cities, the county, and MnDOT to use at their discretion. Some sent the newsletter to their elected officials and internal email lists.
- Newspaper. Publication in local newspapers was also at the discretion of each city. The city of Little Canada published the meeting notice in a local newspaper one week before the meeting. Local news agencies also picked up a story on the interchange.
- Email. Each city and Ramsey County sent their own emails detailing the meeting notice.
- Webpage. A dedicated webpage or website sharing information about your project is a great resource. You can provide links to it in all communications. A webpage for the Interstate 694/Rice Street project detailed meeting notices and dates, background information, a short questionnaire, the proposed solutions, and funding data. All of the tactics used directed people to visit the project website. The website served as an important tool to engage people who could not attend the meeting. On the website, visitors were able to access project information, project manager contact information, and to leave their opinions through an online survey (which was also present at the meeting).
For this project, organizers also opted for some tactics that they hadn’t used before – and they were satisfied with the results.
- Sponsored Facebook post. The SEH project team recognized that social media might provide the extended coverage necessary to reach beyond the project area. A Facebook post linking back to the project webpage was sponsored three days prior to the meeting. The sponsorship targeted people age 16 to 65 years and above who lived in the four area codes surrounding the project. The Facebook post cost only $50 and reached 3,200 people.
- Billboard. The city of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, used a Clear Channel electronic billboard located near a major freeway to highlight the meeting. The billboard displayed the meeting information for approximately 21 days.
- Signage on the bridge. A portable message sign (the type used to announce construction detours) was put up on the bridge itself to notify drivers of the meeting.
- Signage at the meeting space. A digital sign displayed meeting information at Vadnais Heights Commons, where the meeting took place. The notice ran for 21 days before the meeting.
- Attendance to the first public meeting impressed everyone involved. The meeting ended up attracting more than 230 people, two to four times more than the typical 40 to 60 people that show up for a session like this.
So, how did the combination of communication tools perform? During the public meeting, the project team used an online surveying tool to measure the effectiveness of each of their communication efforts. Each of the methods used played a role in generating turnout for the meeting. After “Other” (which included newspaper and newsletter, word of mouth, the sign at the Vadnais Heights Commons, Twitter, city government notifications, and the road sign on the bridge), the email, postcard, Facebook post, and the project webpage played the largest roles in drawing traffic.
What does this mean for your next public meeting? Three key takeaways:
- Use every appropriate channel. Participants learned about the meeting through a combination of methods. Even more, it’s likely that participants saw more than one of the announcements, further cementing the date in their mind.
- Be creative and open-minded. Every city doesn’t have access to a billboard, but applying a little creativity and trying new channels of communication can pay off.
- Social media is valuable. What’s really enlightening is how successful the Facebook post was. For only $50 we were able to reach more than 3,000 people who might not otherwise have known.
Getting stakeholders to public meetings is an important first step in the success of projects of all kinds. Using tried-and-true communication channels, in combination with new ones, is essential to reaching a diverse audience.
The mailed postcard and newsletter are important tools to reach people living in the designated target area, and are especially important to reach people without internet access. Social media and electronic messaging can be effective at reaching people outside of the immediate project area, and reaching a broader range of demographics.
Those who attend the public meetings, or participate by commenting through online communication channels, can greatly impact outcomes by sharing their concerns and bringing new ideas. Today, there are many ways to do that, each with their own levels of reach, effectiveness, and cost. This particular project meeting serves as one model for success.
Mark Benson, PE, is a senior professional engineer and SEH principal dedicated to seamless communication. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kristin Petersen, AICP, NCI, is a senior planner and community outreach specialist with SEH. Contact her at email@example.com.