5 Tactics to Strengthen Transportation Stakeholder Outreach
A well-planned, organized approach to stakeholder outreach is critical to the success of any transportation project or program. It can be the difference between winning or losing funding or public support. By applying five simple tactics, says CDM Smith’s Casey Grigsby, “Project teams can bridge the gap between their technical experts and stakeholders to achieve their goals.”
Identify Your Audiences and Goals. Are you mainly focused on educating the public about a project’s effects on local mobility? Or do you need to persuade decision-makers at upper levels in your own agency or other stakeholders, such as legislators, about the operational inefficiencies your project solves? Figuring out who you need to speak to and what message you need to convey is often one of the most challenging steps, says Grigsby, a transportation planner with 10 years of experience in professional communications, public affairs, government relations and planning who supports the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) Freight Logistics and Passenger Operations division. “What may seem important to a planner or engineer isn’t necessarily important to an agency director, legislator or the public,” she says. Setting clear objectives will make it easier to develop tailored communication strategies for each of your sub-audiences.
It's important to frame issues through each audience's unique lens, so they can easily understand how changes affect them or how they may need to take action.
Match Your Message to Each of Your Audiences. “Knowing your audiences will help inform your tone, style and the content of your messages,” says Grigsby. According to her, a big misconception many transportation planners and managers have is that their stakeholders already have a good understanding about what it takes to build a road, modify a transit system or implement any type of project. “It’s important to frame issues through each audience’s unique lens, so they can easily understand how changes affect them or how they may need to take action.” Grigsby cites her experience with FDOT’s Offices of Systems and Policy Planning as an example of strong messaging: “They were trying to better engage with the Florida legislature to demonstrate the importance of funding the agency.” Grigsby and the CDM Smith team helped FDOT produce 160 annual legislative briefing brochures to illustrate to each legislator how proposed freight projects would benefit their districts. “We showed legislators the eight most important projects for their districts,” she says. “We took each communication down to a very personal level, even using their nicknames to address them. When a strawberry farmer who was elected to the legislature had the brochures in hand, he could see the impact the department was having on his region, and more importantly, he was able to relay the importance of the work being done by the department to others.”
Select Effective Channels. Another important piece of stakeholder outreach is channel selection—the mediums you use to get your messages across. “If we’re working with the trucking association for example,” says Grigsby, “we’ve found emails or social media posts won’t resonate.” Grigsby says that when the Florida governor’s office called for the lifting of highway tolls and weight restrictions during Hurricane Irma in 2017, her and her team issued alerts within 20 minutes on FDOT’s Freight Moves Florida website, which she manages. “Each of the state’s freight district coordinators sent their trucking partners to the website to have these alerts relayed to the truck drivers, so they could more effectively plan their routes. Because of the positive feedback we received, we continued to push alerts through the website throughout the hurricane.”
Nail Down Your Budget and Schedule. Though seemingly straightforward, Grigsby recommends that you set your budget and schedule early in the process of building your stakeholder outreach plan. Determine if your budget will restrict your resources or the communication channels you use, and bear your timeline in mind so you can develop a plan that is practical with goals that can feasibly be met.
Be Aware of Legal Limitations. Grigsby emphasizes the importance of knowing how laws affect your ability to communicate. “In Florida, for example, the Sunshine Law makes all government communications public record.” In other words, she says, private stakeholder communication is off the table. Other states and localities have laws that restrict mass print mailings to limit the misuse of public funds, though they may consider mass emails acceptable. “Understanding what’s acceptable and applying that knowledge will help you avoid disruptions to your schedule and budgetary issues.
Each transportation project has its own unique challenges, stakeholders and objectives. By applying these simple tactics though, agencies can create a two-way dialogue between them and their audiences, helping them achieve their communication goals—from policy and funding persuasion to public support and approval to emergency management.