Dealing with the public during a large infrastructure project

Article reprinted from the North Dakota Planning Association’s
Winter 2016 Newsletter

MINOT, NORTH DAKOTA. On November 12, 2015, the finished intersection at Central Avenue and Main Street in downtown featured concrete roads, new street lights, park benches, and pedestrian bump-outs. Photo courtesy of City of Minot.

MINOT, NORTH DAKOTA. On November 12, 2015, the finished intersection at Central Avenue and Main Street in downtown featured concrete roads, new street lights, park benches, and pedestrian bump-outs. Photo courtesy of City of Minot.

The challenges, pitfalls and ways to improve your communication skills

by Mark Lyman, Minot, North Dakota

When you put together a large project (really, anything that involves change in your community), nothing is ever as perfect as you would like it to be – or as bad as the naysayers say it is going to be. The reality is somewhere in the middle. Often, this reality includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet what matters to most leaders and the general public is less about what the “ugly” really is and more so about how people were communicated with and listened to during the project.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, the City of Minot has prepared for and started a three-year urban revitalization effort in our downtown. The highlights include replacing all water mains, sanitary sewer lines, storm water pipes, roads, sidewalks, street lights, and associated streetscape elements in the downtown. Pretty much everything within the public right-of-way will be new. This is no easy task, considering the 200+ businesses that would be impacted within the 26 city blocks that would be under the knife between 2015 to 2017. And, as with any large infrastructure upgrade, the rumors about the project started flying before the engineering team even had a chance to start design - not to mention the stories that would come during the first year of construction.

DOWNTOWN IMPROVEMENTS. On November 17, 2015, construction crews finish one of the final concrete placements to connect First Street SE to Central Avenue. In 2015 more than 32,500 square yards of concrete were used to form roads and sidewalks, the equivalent of 668 trucks. Photo courtesy of City of Minot.

DOWNTOWN IMPROVEMENTS. On November 17, 2015, construction crews finish one of the final concrete placements to connect First Street SE to Central Avenue. In 2015 more than 32,500 square yards of concrete were used to form roads and sidewalks, the equivalent of 668 trucks. Photo courtesy of City of Minot.

No joking, here is how one business owner within the project footprint described where they received their latest piece of news.

“I was speaking to a guy who was sitting in a electrical company truck in our back alley, and he was talking to a guy running a jackhammer (on a separate project not connected to this one!), who was talking to someone else on their job site, that they overheard someone at a morning safety meeting that the City Engineer told our employees that the team from the other project downtown was going to be moving to a different part of the project on the other side of downtown for the next two months and weren’t going to finish this year the part of the road that they already started on!”

Sounds like the game telephone we used to play when I was a kid! And it only takes one or two people sharing the “same” story for your message to get completely lost. Often, the message can be turned so far around that it would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact people tend to believe their neighbor’s third-hand piece of news versus what the city officials and public information officers are saying.

So, how do you combat the rumors? Dispel the half-truths? Defend against the ugly comments? How do you share the good news from a positive angle, without losing your credibility with the unsure majority in the middle of the love-it-versus-hate-it spectrum?

Let’s start with basic tips that can help you navigate through challenges and pitfalls, using the already mentioned Downtown Infrastructure Improvements Project in Minot as a case study.

Allow yourself plenty of time prior to the first shovel being turned or first road closure sign being placed to communicate directly and repeatedly with your key audiences.

This includes not just the people that already like the project, city leaders and the general public, but with those that you are more than likely going to disagree with, those who are on the fence about the project, and those who are in the heart of the upcoming project. As the public information officer for the Downtown Infrastructure project, Odney was hired as part of the engineering team, to work during the design phase in communicating key messages and project updates. This is one of the first times that a specific public information emphasis was placed on a large project in our region as early as the design phase. This proved to be widely successful in allowing constant communication with businesses and downtown leaders during the long process of design. This decision also set the stage for better communication in the first year of construction because the impacted parties already knew us and were appropriately prepared for the project.

Don’t assume that because you told one person the relevant news one time that they will remember and believe what you told them.

Some of the strongest proponents of Minot’s downtown revitalization are the Downtown Business and Professional Association board members (for full disclosure, I am one of those board members, trust me when I say we are a diverse group with our own opinions!). That’s not to say the board always agrees with every aspect of the project, but they do support and understand the “why” behind the project and are willing to take the short-term pain in order to have the long-term gain. This trust and understanding was gained, and continues to be nurtured and cultivated, by Odney’s presence at board meetings and downtown membership meetings, as well as participation in downtown-wide events like the annual Wine Walk, the lighting of the Christmas tree, and others. Remember the marketing rule of thumb; people need to see it or hear it 7 to 10 times before they start to remember what you are sharing with them. Hardly a week goes by, even during non-construction months, where I am not sitting down with a board member reviewing the latest information and emphasizing the important, positive aspects of the finished product.

Take the time to write down and understand your key talking points.

The basic responses to the frequently-asked-questions should roll off your tongue. You, the organization you represent, your co-workers and others within your circle should all know these key answers and should answer them in much the same way. This eliminates confusion and allows you to go back to a person who asks the same question more than once and give the same answer. In Minot’s downtown there are a number of newer businesses and many who have been downtown for 20+ years. They all deserve to hear the answer to their basic questions in the same manner. Repeating these key messages in the same fashion will make your job easier in the long run.

Celebrate, appropriately, your successes and milestones during the project.

With approximately fifteen city blocks to finish completely upgrading in one construction season, there was plenty of work to get done in downtown Minot in 2015. About three months into the project we saw the first completion milestone being attained on Central Avenue. And even though the construction for the entire year was only about halfway done, we needed to show the public that the project was reaching milestones. An appropriate response was made, in the form of an informal news conference, or media availability on-site, near the recently completed portion. It would have been too much to do a ribbon cutting for just a few blocks of new road, but to do nothing at all would miss the chance to share an important milestone, reiterate key messages, and reassure the public that the project was continuing forward. Think of this as applying a Goldilocks theory to celebrating milestones; not too big, not too small, but just right. The type of milestone, within the context of the greater project, should determine the type of celebration associated with this success.

Telling the truth doesn’t mean sharing everything, and it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be happy.

This can be a touchy one. I am not advocating that a communicator should ever lie to the public, just that there are times when you don’t have to share every detail with everyone. Within the footprint of the downtown revitalization project there is a local meat processing plant. This one-man shop handles a variety of requests, including turning meat into sausage links. The old saying of “laws are like sausage, it’s better not to see them being made” can apply here. Construction is like sausage, and most people aren’t concerned about the nitty gritty details. They simply want to see you working hard and feel confident that you will hit key milestones. Don’t feel like you have to share specific details just because you have the information, and don’t expect everyone to automatically like the realities of how hard and unpredictable construction can become when you tell them about a delay or a problem.

Respond evenly to your critics, with facts and basic information to share about the project.

You are never going to get through a project the size of a downtown revitalization without having some serious critics of your efforts. And while it would be “easier” in the minds of some to simply ignore the naysayers, don’t get caught in the trap of pushing them aside as the vocal minority and dismissing completely the chance to share your key messages. There is still benefit in keeping the flow of information going to people you feel are constantly sour about your project. You likely won’t walk away from this conversation having won over their hearts, but you will have continued to maintain their respect in your attempt. Many times during our downtown Minot overhaul, businesses and community members simply needed to vent for a few minutes. Be a good listener and realize that while they may be your critic now perhaps over time the constant positive message you share, based on basic information regarding the efforts and key milestones, will bring them into the neutral camp. Regardless of what is said by someone who is critical, don’t take it personally and don’t allow it to skew the likely reality that there are far more people who support your project, and are simply less vocal about their opinions, than there are people in the more vocal minority who have a hard time finding something to like about the project.

To recap, there are lots of opportunities to improve how large-scale projects are viewed by the public and community leaders. Take advantage of these chances to share your key messages, stay above the fray when it comes to conversing with your critics, and remember the power of repetition. I hope these tips and reminders come in handy, and remember to support your local downtown!

FINAL PRODUCT. An artist rendering of what the Main Street and Second Avenue South intersection could look like when finished. Graphic courtesy of City of Minot.

FINAL PRODUCT. An artist rendering of what the Main Street and Second Avenue South intersection could look like when finished. Graphic courtesy of City of Minot.

Mark Lyman is a marketing consultant and public relations specialist with Odney in their Minot office. He is the public information lead for the on-going Downtown Infrastructure Improvements Project in the Magic City. Odney is a full-service communications consulting company headquartered in Bismarck, with additional offices in Fargo and Minot, as well as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. 
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