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Building Impactful Community Engagement Campaigns: Five Best Practices for Infrastructure Projects

When I tell people about my role at Stratacomm, I often get questions about our infrastructure practice. Sure, most people understand the breadth and value of our country’s infrastructure – highways, bridges, water and sewer systems, railways, etc. – but what isn’t immediately apparent is the deep role that strategic communications plays in building and maintaining these systems.

From lively commercial districts to quiet tree-lined neighborhoods, infrastructure projects support mobility, accessibility and the availability of essential services for all at home, work and play. But as anyone who works in infrastructure can tell you, these projects almost always have significant and direct impacts on communities – and powerful communications strategies are needed to address everything from noisy construction and traffic congestion to political resistance and NIMBYism. A thoughtful, strategic approach to public engagement can ultimately make or break the success of a project.

With Infrastructure Week upon us and a national focus on the importance of infrastructure investment, I thought now would be a perfect time to share a few strategies and best practices that illustrate Stratacomm’s approach to providing impactful community engagement that communicates project value, brings stakeholders together and puts communities at ease.

Treat Engagement as a Two-Way Street

Stop talking at people and start talking with people. The best outreach campaigns offer two-way communication and engagement. Build a feedback loop into your campaign, providing room for the community to feel heard throughout the process. There are lots of touch points where you can create interaction with the community. Websites, email, public meetings, project-designated social media channels, listservs, direct mailings and even something as simple as a person who can answer a telephone hotline are all ways to encourage and solicit public input. People want to be involved, and they are better prepared if you are willing to be transparent and up front from the beginning.

Find New Ways to Interact with Your Audiences

When I was communications director at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), we launched the now annual Potholepaloozaa campaign designed to address the proliferation of potholes in early spring. We introduced the use of Twitter and Facebook, which were new communications channels for DDOT when the campaign launched in 2009. Engaging with the community using these new tools created excitement and built a trust among the people we served because our audiences truly felt they were being encouraged to participate, be heard and be supported.

With a cornucopia of new communications tools, and most of the them digital, staying on top of the trends gives you even more opportunities to find ways to connect with your audiences. SnapChat, Instagram, mobile navigation tools like WAZE, real-time website chats or even apps using open-source data are all options to consider to engage and inform your audience.

Champions will Grow Grassroots

Big infrastructure projects can take years, if not decades, which means lengthy impacts for the communities involved. It is vitally important to identify supporters who can help champion the project for you. Often these champions can expand outreach by reaching into their own networks and communicating the project’s values in a more authentic way.

Reach out to your local officials, community advocates, local citizens or business associations and include them in the process. It’s important to involve the community since you will want them to not only reap the benefits, but also extol your professionalism and credibility long after the project is completed.

Bring in Communications Early

The magnitude of infrastructure projects means multiple organizations are at the table. Engineering firms, construction management firms, contractors, communication firms and so many more all work in a (mostly) cooperative synergy to bring a project to successful delivery. Working closely with these firms is critical to the success of your public-facing communication campaign. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard of an internal project team’s issues that led to external communications failures. Get your communications team onboard early. They can work to ensure the internal team is on the same page and understands the importance of communicating early, often and accurately. Early disciplined planning upfront also means you can clearly define roles and gain an understanding of team strengths and responsibilities. This will ultimately help the project team navigate challenges and celebrate success through planning, design, permitting, construction and of course, communications!

Check-in & Evaluate

A project kick-off is just the beginning. The most crucial part of communications over a long-term project is to check-in and evaluate progress. There will often be things that are going great, and things that aren’t, but allowing for this process gives you the ability to review, analyze and change course, if necessary. Change during a campaign is often a good thing, as it means you are paying attention in real time. Build a communications strategy that incorporates check-ins and check points which will allow you to identify and address potential pitfalls before they become too big to fix.

Incorporating these strategies will be useful as you design and develop your public engagement campaigns. So, let’s get busy – and don’t forget to support investment in infrastructure and powerful communications!

Karyn Le Blanc is a senior vice president and leads Stratacomm’s infrastructure and development practice. Looking for more community engagement tips? Be sure to read Karyn’s take on how to work with those people most affected by infrastructure projects in her previous post, “Being Stuck in Traffic Can Alter Your Perspective.”