How to Get More of the Right Stakeholders to Your Public Meeting [CASE STORY]

Here, we’ll share exactly how one project team used a combination of communication methods to attract 2-4x more stakeholders to a critical first public meeting.

When planning regional infrastructure projects, getting the right amount of engagement from the right people — and not just those in the immediate project area — can be challenging. Limited turnout to an initial meeting can not only cause roadblocks later on, but it can be disheartening to officials and organizers wanting broad public participation.

How do you get everyone affected by the project to participate in the planning process?

For this case story, we’ll look at how one county and three major metropolitan communities worked together, coordinating communications regarding solutions for improving a busy metro interchange that carries 20,000 daily users.

 With all of the hard work that goes into a large transportation project, we hope to attract a wide cross-section of stakeholders in order to gather input. On this project, we wanted to hear from area residents and businesses as well as commuters who drive the corridor several times a week.
Beth Engum, Ramsey County project manager

Though attendance to public meetings typically ranges in the 50-60-person range, the first public meeting for this project was attended by 230+ people.

Here’s how they did it. 

Project background

Identified as a priority for reconstruction by Ramsey County in Minnesota, the interchange at Rice Street (CSAH 49) and I-694 creates a congested bottleneck for an average of seven hours each day.  Not only is I-694 an important regional trucking route, but Rice Street is one of few north-south arterial corridors in the County. Rice Street crosses I-694 with only two lanes in each direction.

Since the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is constructing a third general-purpose lane in each direction by the end of 2017, the County, in cooperation with the cities of Shoreview, Little Canada and Vadnais Heights, is making plans to reconstruct the interchange.

The purpose of this project is to address the operational issues at the I-694/Rice Street Interchange. Studies show that by 2040, traffic operations within the existing interchange will fail. Addressing the issues will provide the opportunity to improve transportation efficiency and safety for multimodal and vulnerable users who navigate through the interchange.

Communications challenges

Challenges to the success of this initial public meeting for this project included:

  • Getting three cities, each with different goals and stakeholders, aligned to one solution.
  • Achieving equilibrium among cities so all voices were equally heard.
  • Attracting participation from travelers within the broader region who may live outside of the immediate area of the project, but who use the interchange regularly.

To solve these challenges, the project team developed a comprehensive communication strategy.

 We used a combination of the tried-and-true and a couple out-of-the-box tactics.
Kristin Petersen, SEH senior planner

Here’s what they did.

Communications: tried-and-true

To help make sure all three Cities had the tools they needed to communicate at the public meeting, SEH consultants created a base communication template that was used in a number of traditional tactics, and created a cohesive brand for the project.

Postcard

The communication template was used to create a direct mail postcard detailing the meeting information. The postcard was sent out to 908 properties surrounding the project area 12 days before the meeting. Each postcard cost roughly $1 to send.

image of postcard
Pictured is the invite announcing the meeting and highlighting project information. It also includes a link to more detailed information on the SEH website.

Flier/Newsletter

The newsletter was sent to the three Cities, the County and MnDOT to use at their discretion. Some sent the newsletter to their elected officials and internal email lists.

Newspaper

Publication in local newspapers was also at the discretion of each city. The City of Little Canada published the meeting notice in a local newspaper one week before the meeting. Local news agencies also picked up a story on the interchange.

Email

Each City and Ramsey County sent their own emails detailing the meeting notice.

Webpage

A dedicated webpage or website sharing information about your project is a great resource. You can provide links to it in all communications.

A webpage for the Interstate 694/Rice Street project detailed meeting notices and dates, background information, a short questionnaire, the proposed solutions and funding data. All of the tactics used directed people to visit the project website.

The website served as an important tool to engage people who could not attend the meeting. On the website, visitors were able to access project information, project manager contact information and to leave their opinions through an online survey (which was also present at the meeting).

For this project, organizers also opted for some out-of-the-box tactics that they hadn’t used before — and they were satisfied with the results.

map graphic
The map above shows the project area as it relates to the scope of communications outreach.

Communications: out-of-the-box

Sponsored Facebook post

The project team recognized that social media might provide the extended coverage necessary to reach beyond the project area. A Facebook post linking back to the project webpage was sponsored three days prior to the meeting. The sponsorship targeted people age 16 to 65 years and above who lived in the four area codes surrounding the project. The Facebook post cost only $50 and reached 3,200 people.

social media post
This sponsored Facebook post targeted people from surrounding area codes to attend the community engagement meeting about a large interchange project.

Billboard

The City of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, used a Clear Channel electronic billboard located near a major freeway to highlight the meeting. The billboard displayed the meeting information for approximately 21 days.

Signage on the bridge

A portable message sign (the type used to announce construction detours) was put up on the bridge itself to notify drivers of the meeting.

Signage at the meeting space

A digital sign displayed meeting information at Vadnais Heights Commons, where the meeting took place. The notice ran for 21 says before the meeting.

electronic sign
A sign at the Vadnais Heights Commons event center displaying information about the community engagement meeting.

The results

Attendance at the first public meeting impressed everyone involved.

According to Mark, the meeting ended up attracting 230+ people, two to four-times more than the typical 40-60 people that show up for a session like this.

 Clearly it worked. It was an impressive turnout for such an isolated project.
Mark Benson, SEH project manager
meeting photo
meeting photo
A public meeting for an interchange project in Ramsey County, Minnesota, attracted nearly four times as many stakeholders as usual, due in part to the variety of tactics used to notify the public.

How did the combination of communication tools perform?

During the public meeting, the project team used an online surveying tool to measure the effectiveness of each of their communication efforts.

As you can see, each of the methods used played a role in generating turnout for the meeting. After “Other” (which included newspaper and newsletter, word of mouth, the sign at the Vadnais Heights Commons, Twitter, city government notifications and the road sign on the bridge), the email, postcard, Facebook post and the project webpage played the largest roles in drawing traffic.

Notably, we can look at web traffic to the project web page to see how these digital efforts performed.

Increases in traffic to the project website can be attributed to three key communications efforts.

In the graph above, which shows traffic to the project website, the first bump occurred after two of the involved Cities posted a link to the project website on their  websites. The second bump occurs after residents received a postcard about the project. The last and largest bump occurs as a result of the Facebook sponsorship.

Three key takeaways

What does this mean for your next public meeting? Mark and Kristin share their insight.

  1. Use every appropriate channel. As the graph shows, participants learned about the meeting through a combination of methods. Even more, it’s likely that participants saw more than one of the announcements, further cementing the date in their mind.
  2. Be creative and open minded. “Every City doesn’t have access to a billboard, but applying a little creativity and trying new channels of communication can pay off,” says Kristin.
  3. Social media is valuable. “What’s really enlightening is how successful the Facebook post was,” says Mark. “For only $50 we were able to reach more than 3,000 people that might not otherwise have known.”

Bringing it all together

Getting stakeholders to public meetings is an important first step in the success of projects of all kinds. Using tried-and-true communication channels, in combination with new out-of-the-box ideas, is essential to reaching a diverse audience.

The mailed postcard and newsletter are important tools to reach people living in the designated target area, and are especially important to reach people without internet access.

Social media and electronic messaging can be effective at reaching people outside of the immediate project area, and reaching a broader range of demographics.

Those who attend the public meetings, or participate by commenting through online communication channels, can greatly impact outcomes by sharing their concerns and bringing new ideas. Today, there are many ways to do that, each with their own levels of reach, effectiveness and cost. This particular project meeting serves as one model for success.

 The variety of outreach used to get the word out on this project will be used as a model for future regionally-significant projects.
Beth Engum, Ramsey County project manager

About the Experts

>Mark Benson

Mark Benson, PE, is a senior professional engineer and SEH Principal dedicated to seamless communication. Contact Mark

Kristin Petersen

Kristin Petersen, AICP, NCI, is a senior planner and community outreach specialist. Contact Kristin

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