People expect more transparent, timely and useful information, especially from government. Make no mistake that if government doesn’t provide it, the public will find it somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important the construction industry understands it has the ability to engage the public using the latest non-traditional media tools. Already, many of the largest federal and state agencies are creating their own newsrooms; they are not only pushing out information but engaging in what is being called the Open Government Movement or Government 2.0.
In addition to offering traditional outreach via meetings, handouts and newsletters, public-relations professionals for infrastructure projects today must be able to use social media, video simulations and interactive websites. With this combination, governments at the local, state and federal level can provide the public news in the government’s own words. Media technology is an incredible strategic opportunity that is overlooked too often.
I recently worked on the widening of the Huey P. Long Bridge, a project that is part of the Louisiana Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development (TIMED) program; TIMED is managed by a joint venture of Parsons Brinckerhoff, GEC Inc. and The LPA Group Inc. The project was going to affect many people, and, early on, the client and the project team understood we would need a comprehensive public-relations strategy and a strong social-media component.
In late June, we faced a major public-relations issue. This important Mississippi River bridge near New Orleans would have to close for 48 hours to allow the project team to place a football-field-sized steel span that would have to be moved 200 feet. For two days, 80,000 vehicles would need another way to cross the river.
Already in place was a communications program that included a designated spokeswoman, Indira Parrales, who was responsible for all communications including the maintenance of social-media sites as well as regular public presentations, business and community advisory group meetings and interaction with key stakeholders about project progress. None of these tools would work adequately by themselves, but, combined, they helped the community to feel a part of this project.
Parrales made sure the social- media “community” was no stranger to the bridge project. While providing timely traffic impact information, she also engaged the public on Facebook and Twitter by posing questions and providing a forum for people tell their stories about the historic bridge.
As for the bridge closure itself, several efforts were undertaken to ensure the project was communicated frequently, early and directly to all who would be affected. To do this, we developed a detailed public-relations strategy, a crisis communication plan and a staffing plan. We handed out printed information to businesses and residents nearest the bridge. We used videos, websites, advertising and phone calls to key community leaders and organizations. None of this would have been as effective had we not had the cooperation of many project partners and the Louisiana Dept. of Transportation & Development (DOTD).
On the day the bridge was closed, two communications staffers—one from PB and one from DOTD—concentrated exclusively on engaging the public in real time on Facebook and Twitter. Hundreds of people commented on the fascinating technical work and shared photos they had taken of the work; then, the photos were shared with and viewed by thousands of others (including ENR’s own staff on Twitter). Communications staff responded by providing more facts or simply by saying thanks.
Making it all work was the contracting crew from Massman-Traylor-IHI, the venture in charge of the big lift. It opened the bridge nine hours ahead of schedule.
We received only one complaint, which came via Facebook. Before we could even acknowledge it, several members of the public came to the project team’s defense. The complainer went away.
If you are committed to using social media, the lessons are plain: Have a plan, know what you want to get out of it and provide know-ledgeable staff to implement it.