From Tech Transfer Newsletter, Summer 2010 » printer-friendly

Crafting a Communications Plan that Works
Tips for Writing a Strategic Communications Plan

The funding is in place, design work is complete and your project is finally on track. Before you break ground, it’s essential that you think strategically about how you’re going to communicate about the project, particularly to the local residents and businesses that construction will affect. It’s not a one-size-fits-all exercise. Strategies and tactics that may have worked for other projects may not be appropriate for this project. Again and again, we see the enormous benefit that comes from taking the time upfront to develop a strategic communications plan that is tailored to a specific project before the construction begins.

A good strategic communications plan starts with the thorough identification of who your audience is and what their issues and concerns are. This helps you anticipate potential stumbling blocks so you can avoid or minimize them before they occur. Putting a plan in place means key stakeholders, like elected officials and staff, are never caught unaware of new activities and developments. Residents are kept informed and have an outlet for their complaints. Reporters and bloggers understand the project and help you communicate about it. Having a plan propels you out of reactive mode and puts you in control of telling your story.

How to get started? Below are some key considerations that will help you develop an effective strategic plan for communications before, during and after construction.

Set yourself up for success

  • Who is “the public?” Look for the individuals—especially community leaders—in the sea of faces and understand their distinct needs, fears, issues and opinions. Before construction begins, it is important to identify and understand not just the issues, but the values of your stakeholders. To get an accurate picture, this may involve meeting with stakeholders to discuss their concerns, such as noise impacts, traffic congestion or safety issues.
  • What do they want to know? Understanding who you’re talking to will inform development of key messages, which are the most important things you want people to understand about the project. Key messages should address the community’s concerns.
  • How do they want to receive the information? Once you know who you need to inform and what you want to tell them, identify the best tools to use to communicate. Do you need to set up a Twitter feed? Contact the media? Write a fact sheet? Develop a speakers’ bureau or hold public meetings?
  • Determine how your team will work together. When several partners are involved, the communication protocols can become obscured. Often, when things get busy on a project, internal communications can break down, which can affect the timeliness or clarity of your external communications. Defining roles and responsibilities and establishing a review/approval process and timeline ahead of time keeps the team working together smoothly.
  • Be prepared for a crisis. Plan for worst-case scenarios. Establish the communications framework for dealing with a crisis. Designate a communications command center to centralize information both internally and externally. Hold a few drills to practice and evaluate if your system will work. See “Best Practices for Communicating During a Crisis” for additional crisis communication tips.

Communicate effectively during construction

  • Establish and maintain credibility. You want to be who the public and the media turn to first for information. This requires that you bend over backwards to be available, respond to issues in a timely manner, thoroughly understand everything about the project (including the technical aspects) and always do what you say you’re going to do.
  • Proactively tell your story. In addition to keeping the media up to date, Web and social media technology enable you to communicate directly with the public. Ways to further bring the project to life may include showcasing interesting engineering accomplishments, innovative equipment, or project history; posting photos, video, real-time data and blog entries to the project website; or providing real-time updates via Twitter.
  • Balance the benefits with the inconvenience. While it’s important to acknowledge the inevitable inconveniences, positioning the project in terms of its ultimate benefits to the community goes a long way to building project support and trust.
  • Stay flexible and try to prepare for the unexpected. Construction projects are dynamic by their very nature. Reacting to issues like weather delays and anticipating where problems might occur requires that you constantly adapt your communications strategy throughout the life of the project.
  • Make the media your ally. Help reporters help you by educating them about the project through presentations, site tours, and informational materials. When they accurately understand the project, they can help the public understand the project.

Celebrate project completion

  • Reinforce why it was all worthwhile. The team put in a lot of hard work. The community put up with a lot of inconvenience. You’ve completed a great project that improves the area’s mobility. It’s okay to celebrate a little bit.
  • Hold an event. A press conference/community event can be an appropriate way to celebrate and thank the public for their patience and cooperation. Provide key messages and develop talking points to help keep speakers on track to make the project’s legacy clear.

To learn about how one agency implemented a successful strategic communications plan, please see the companion case study that documents the closure of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during reconstruction in September of 2009.

About the Author

Ben Strumwasser has more than 22 years of experience developing and managing strategic communications for infrastructure projects. CirclePoint has managed communications for infrastructure projects including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Seismic Retrofit, Presidio Parkway, and Caldecott Fourth Bore.

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