Public relations starts with the pursuit

May 2014 » Web Exclusive
Bernie Siben, CPSM

In the November 2013 issue of CE News, Editor Bob Drake wrote, “For civil engineers, the movement toward greater public communications and involvement in infrastructure projects is an opportunity to shine.” Today, this “opportunity to shine” is appearing more and more frequently, and no A/E firm can afford to downplay or ignore it.

Citizens want to have input — a place at the table, as it were — on decisions regarding a broad range of development projects within their cities and neighborhoods that are seeking approval. In increasing numbers, people look at both public works and private-sector projects and want to know what they will cost, how construction and operation of a facility will impact them, how long those impacts will last, and what will be done to prevent, manage- or mitigate those impacts.

And if they don’t like the answers they find, these individuals and neighborhood groups have learned how to stop an unwanted project, or at least delay it for so long that inflation increases its cost to prohibitive levels. So an engineer who can answer the public’s questions, in a way that satisfies their desire for information and calms whatever fears or anxieties might be present regarding impacts, costs, and timeframes, might find himself or herself becoming a “star” in the local firmament — someone who is quoted in the media and sought out as a speaker at city council and other local public meetings.

Many RFQs and RFPs include a scope element for some form of public involvement — perhaps a public hearing or a series of meetings. For example, a new municipal wastewater treatment plant or a maintenance facility for the city’s vehicle fleet would need acceptance by the neighborhood in which it is proposed to be built. Such acceptance might be achieved more quickly if the project team holds a few neighborhood meetings to explain the project and answer questions.

Private-sector projects might also require public involvement. A big box store with 250,000 square feet of space under roof and acres of parking, for example, is going to have a huge impact on its surrounding neighborhood. Such a project will also require neighborhood acceptance. Whether in city planning and zoning meetings or in neighborhood meetings hosted by the project owner, the public will want to know about the project and will have questions that need answers.

Without first finding out and addressing neighborhood concerns, the project could be delayed or totally stopped by a variety of NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups. So it might be wise to start the public relations process while site and facility planning are just beginning, and before actual design begins.

So public meetings, development of a project website that can be accessed by interested parties, and a project newsletter that is sent to all stakeholders and interested parties — especially if they include ways to get comments and questions back to the development team — are some of the public relations steps that can be taken very early in the project development process.

If the project team allows the concerns of neighborhood groups to inform the design process and the construction schedule, much potential opposition to the project can be mitigated or eliminated, and potential project adversaries can be turned into supporters.

For many kinds of projects, both public and private, a project’s public relations activities will not be limited to creating events to mark the turning of the first shovelful of dirt, topping off of the structure, or cutting the ribbon and opening the facility. So you can’t wait until the project is partially (or completely) designed, much less constructed, before thinking about its public relations requirements. The fact is, a project’s public relations requirements and value must be identified and considered in the go/no-go evaluation.

For example:

• If you think the project has the potential to be an award winner for the client and your firm, you will need pictures of the project site as it looks right now. Once you complete a project, it will be very difficult to get a “before” picture! These pictures will be very useful in creating displays and hand-outs for public hearings and meetings.

• If a project looks like it will have physical challenges (for example, topography, stream crossings, right-of-way issues, sensitive habitats, environmental permitting, etc.), you need pictures of the existing conditions to inform the “Project Approach” section of your proposal.

• Those same challenges might very well become the source of questions at a public meeting or hearing; once again, you will need to show both “without-project” (before) and “with-project” images to help garner support for the project from stakeholders, neighborhood groups, and other interested parties. For example, if part of the site experiences flooding, a picture of the site under flood conditions will help explain the challenge to neighborhood groups and help them understand why your proposed solution will be successful.

• If a project looks like it might be controversial for any reason, whether because of neighborhood opposition, permitting issues, or the possibility of a legal challenge, this might be a good reason to say “No go,” sit back, and watch some other consulting firm struggle to complete the project without tarnishing its reputation.

Once you identify the potential public relations issues, and assuming your decision is still to pursue the project, you should be thinking about how these issues can inform the various sections of your proposal. You will need to use these issues to craft a compelling story that explains the alternative solutions, why your chosen alternative is the best, and why your team will offer the best working relationship for the client.

When the project is defined in the RFP, existing site conditions are an important part of your project understanding. If part of the reason for the project involves specific challenges — for example, if flooding occurs during a 10-year or larger rain event, if a fair-sized stream crosses the site, if the site contains habitat for a threatened or endangered bird species — you will have to show how various solutions might impact the project and its surrounding neighborhood.

Original site photographs and any sketches you make of potential solutions to a challenge will also be valuable components of your public meetings. People will need to understand the “why” of the project.

Obviously, existing site conditions inform the development of your project approach. You must identify the challenges and present the possibilities before you can explain how you are going to solve them. The existing site conditions will help you explain and support the specific choices you make as to solutions and their implementation. The existing conditions demonstrate recognition and understanding of the project’s challenges. The original sketches might be used to show your preliminary thoughts on potential solutions.

Existing conditions, project scope, and approach will govern the projects you choose as relevant experience. For example, if the site has potential environmental constraints, you might choose projects with environmental permitting in the scope. If the project site has extreme topography, you might show projects involving structures built into hillsides or up on piles. Descriptions of these projects could be relevant at a public hearing when someone questions your chosen solution.

Finally, your project staffing will respond to the scope and its challenges. You will need staff members who have dealt with their technical specialties on similar projects located on similar sites with similar constraints.

Assuming your proposal has a compelling story and demonstrates all the required qualifications to complete the work, the same challenges, solutions, and images will inform your short-list presentation and interview. And the engineers who are part of that presentation will have a first project-related opportunity to shine — this time for the limited audience of the selection committee.

The client may insist that the project manager lead the short-list interview, in which case he or she will need technical, management, and communication skills. He or she must be comfortable speaking to six or eight selection committee members, must have good command of the English language, and speak in a way that can be understood. If your proposed project manager’s speech is heavily accented, you might need to reconsider how you assign that role.

When you win, your project manager may need to speak to the city council, planning and zoning agency, other stakeholders, and neighborhood groups, so it helps to start with a project manager who can fill all these speaking roles. Nobody shines in a public speaking opportunity if their speech cannot be understood.

So your team is selected, you refine the scope of work, you get approval for your schedule and budget, your fee proposal is accepted, a contract is signed, and you receive Notice to Proceed.

Now your engineers get more opportunities to shine — this time in front of a broader and more public audience. In a neighborhood meeting, you get to explain the reason for the project, the reason for selection of the specific site, the challenges and impacts of design and construction, and the continuing impacts of the facility’s operations. Public meetings should be led by the project manager or principal. Both should be experienced and comfortable standing in front of a potentially antagonistic group.

Typically, a project engineer will speak about a topic he or she knows well. Structural issues are addressed by a structural engineer, utility or pavement issues by a civil engineer, electrical issues by an electrical engineer, and so on. This is a great opportunity for engineers to shine because they only have to speak about their specific area of technical expertise, the discipline that holds their passion. There should be no panic when an engineer has to speak about the topic he or she knows best and cares about most.

Project websites and electronic newsletters are also places for engineers to shine, and they may get help from other technical or marketing staff in creating the message. Any posted video can help get the engineer’s personality and passion across to the target audience, along with the information he or she is providing. Any written answer to a posted question, or a quote from a public meeting, will come with attribution, and maybe a headshot. A photo from a meeting will be captioned and speakers identified. People who read an item will know who said it and be reminded of what they look like. If a good writer has helped craft the website or newsletter message into “people-friendly” language, even the engineer who feels awkward can be made to shine.

Other places where an engineer can step up and shine include:

• groundbreaking events, where the first shovel of dirt is turned — perhaps an opportunity to talk about the design challenges and solutions, and invite people to watch the construction and comment on the project website;

• construction milestones such as topping out, when the last beam is placed at the top of the building — an opportunity to talk about design and construction challenges and solutions, and invite people to watch the ongoing construction and comment on the project website; and

• the final ribbon cutting that marks completion of construction and finish-out — possibly including a tour of the facility.

Engineers are rather notorious for lacking speaking skills or the desire to stand up in front of an audience. So there is a good chance that any engineer who shows such skills and desire could be called on by the media when a comment or explanation of technical detail is needed. An engineer who can make technical information understandable to a non-technical audience, and do so personably and looking like he or she is comfortable in front of a microphone and camera, will find that many more opportunities to do so come his or her way.

And that’s a good thing for the engineer, for the firm that employs him or her, for the client that engages that firm, and for the public who wants to understand what is happening in and to their neighborhoods.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559-901-9596; through his website, www.sibenconsult.com; or at bernie@sibenconsult.com.


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