Creation and Benefits of Positive Public Relations

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Title: Creation and Benefits of Positive Public Relations

Phase(s): Pre-Preliminary Engineering, Preliminary Engineering, Final Design, Construction and Start-Up

Category: Management

Date: February 5, 1996

1. Background

In 1988 Tri-Met, the transit agency in metropolitan Portland, Oregon, embarked on planning for an extension of its existing MAX LRT system. The initial expansion was 11.5 miles to 185th Avenue in suburban Washington County. A second extension later added 6.2 miles to the project. Final design commenced in 1992 with construction beginning the following year.  The light rail extension runs through three cities, three counties, a regional government and land controlled by the State of Oregon. All had to cooperate in choosing the route, raising local funding, and setting land use requirements. The elected leaders of each jurisdiction presented a potential forum for politicizing citizens' concerns. In response, the project established multi-jurisdictional coordination committees and made sure the ethic of community service permeated the project from top management to field inspectors.

Equally important as this political geography was the influence of the actual geography of the route. The Westside project includes two parallel three mile tunnels in faulted basalt rock 80 to 300 feet below the surface. Twenty four hour tunnel construction in residential neighborhoods presented the project's greatest public relations challenges.

2. The Lesson

Several important lessons regarding positive public relations have been learned during the course of this project.  These lessons include:

  • Open, accessible approach builds trust
    - Trust between government and citizen, contractor and neighbor, is the primary ingredient in the recipe for good community relations. In Tri-Met's case trust has been gained gradually, through an open and accessible approach to working with citizens, starting with planning and continuing through construction.
    - Route and station location decisions reflect intensive public outreach utilizing the region's strong network of neighborhood organizations and civic groups. The tradition of consensus-building that distinguishes Portland area governments, elected officials, and the citizens they represent, has also been helpful.
  • Position in the organizational structure underscores importance of community relations
    Organizationally, community relations have relatively high standing within the Westside project hierarchy. The community relations director is one of five individuals who report to the project director. In the field, each major contract has its own resident engineer and community relations specialist. Community relations staff members are hired for technical savvy as well as communications skill. They become the bridge between neighbors and engineers, translating the needs of each to the other and mediating the inevitable differences.
  • Involving community in setting rules of construction has benefits
    On the Westside project, community relations staff plays a vital role in preparing residents and businesses for the construction phase. Well before start of construction, the community relations specialist spearheads the development of rules for conduct of construction in an interactive process with local jurisdictions and neighborhood groups. The rules must conform to local codes and the project's environmental impact statement. The final conduct of construction plan is summarized and referenced in contract specifications.
  • Plans need monitoring to be effective
    While construction is underway, community relations staff helps monitor the contractor's performance with respect to the conduct of construction plan, the terms of special permits, and other prior agreements affecting community.
  • Quick response is key to resolving daily crises
    In spite of plans and good intentions, contractors violate noise permits, track mud, break water lines, close driveways and in myriad other ways cause problems for neighbors. Tri-Met has a 24 hour quick response hotline for handling complaints that has worked fairly well. During work hours, hotline calls are answered by staff in the central office and referred to the appropriate community relations specialist for resolution. At night, an answering service pages the appropriate specialist at their home. In most cases, issues can be resolved quickly, and neighbors appreciate the personalized attention to their concerns even when issues may take longer to get resolved.
  • Neighbors can accept disruption more easily when prepared in advance
    This lesson was learned the hard way. Based on information from engineers and noise consultants, community relations staff, prior to the start of tunnel blasting, assured nearby residents they would not be disturbed by tunnel blasting. Vibration and noise levels would not exceed permitted levels, would not cause damage, and, most importantly, would not keep residents awake at night. After blasting started, Tri-Met learned to appreciate the enormous differences in individual sensitivities and perceptions. Some residents were profoundly disturbed by nighttime blasting, while their neighbors slept soundly through the night. Faced with angry and sleep-deprived citizens, Tri-Met had to temporarily halt blasting at night until effective noise controls could be put in place.
  • Creativity with "mitigation" can be helpful
    For the next group of residents in the path of the tunnel, Tri-Met was up-front about the temporary but potentially unpleasant impacts and offered each household a choice of programs to "mitigate" the inconvenience. Residents could retreat to a nearby hotel when noise was unbearable, or rent a one-room apartment just for sleeping. Most residents chose to enter into a "construction agreement" with Tri-Met in exchange for a small payment to cover the mitigation option of their own choosing.
  • Maintaining a good data base is time consuming but essential
    In order to quickly inform affected neighbors about construction activities, the project keeps an updated data base with name and address of every resident along the 18 mile alignment, and other interested persons, subdivided into groups geographically and by issue. This effort requires constant maintenance and has required the equivalent of one full-time staff person to keep up the nearly 15,000 entry data base.
  • Media relations require careful attention
    The project and the agency are targets of attention from the local news media. Television stations, in particular, enjoy spotlighting setbacks and controversy, even when a rational examination would fail to find any. This necessitates proactive strategies about how and when to release information that could be construed negatively. In addition, Tri-Met works hard to build relationships with reporters characterized by mutual trust and respect. Although the project's community affairs director is responsible for media relations, other key project personnel are regularly made available to reporters in order to underscore the openness and trustworthiness of project management.

3. Applicability

Almost any public works project can benefit from a well planned and well organized public relations program. Commitment to the program by all levels of management is essential for its success.

4. References

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