Communication Lessons Learned From Closing, Rebuilding An Interstate Highway In Two Years

Linda Wilson learned five communication lessons during the last two years. As the director of community relations for the Missouri Department of Transportation, she was a key player in developing and executing the communications for the I-64/40 project. She spoke during the Community Service Public Relations Council’s December luncheon meeting.

  1. Communicate a simple schedule: “We had a simple message to communicate,” Wilson said. “We were going to have minor closures the first year, we were closing the first half the first year and the second half during the second year. It was a simple way to communicate a complex project.”
  2. Empower people: “There was such a sense of panic in St. Louis,” she said. “People were thinking they were the victim. What was MODOT going to do to them?” Wilson and her staff made 200 speeches in 2007. They emphasized what individuals could do to have a sense of control as they traveled the new routes during these presentations. Teams of engineers were constantly examining how people were going to travel once the highway was closed. 
  3. Use existing communications tools: “We knew as a team that there was no way that the five of us could communicate with 2 million people,” Wilson said. “We tried to team up with major employers. If we could get them information, they could get it to their employees.” A key organization was the BJC hospital system, which employs 20,000 people and has hundreds of thousands visit the hospital complex each year. They also worked closely with all cities that had newsletters and websites and constantly provided updated text. “We knew the elected officials get a ton of questions from their constituents and the more they were informed, the better they could answer questions.” Wilson said.
  4. Be accessible and responsive: “Dan Galvin (communications director for Gateway Constructors) and I answered our cell phones at all hours of the day and night,” Wilson said. “So many times I heard people say that they didn’t expect to actually talk to somebody or get an e-mail returned. But there are real people in government and they do answer their phone.”
  5. Publish and promote progress: “We had a ribbon cutting for everything that we could,” Wilson said. “It was to a point where the construction guys were dreading us wanting us to do another ribbon cutting. But we needed to let people know their pain and suffering was almost over and we were moving ahead. We were checking things off the list and we would be done soon.”
  6. Celebrate and thank people: MODOT had approximately 20,000 attend both celebrations marking the opening of the east and west sections of the highway. “We couldn’t have done this without the public,” Wilson said. “It came down to motorists making the decisions where to go.” 

Wilson acknowledged that Americans are naturally suspect of government and big construction projects. But the success of this project brought more praise than criticism.
“It’s been so wonderful to be out on the road and have people come up to anyone in a vest and ask to shake their hand and thank them,” Wilson said. “Our workers–who rarely get a compliment–don’t know how to accept that. They are so used to having people criticize them when they are out there fixing the roads.”

The project also produced a new spirit of cooperation in the community.

“One of the lasting benefits beyond the concrete and steel that we built is that we have developed a new regional cooperative process,” Wilson said. “St. Louis tends to segregate themselves to all of the municipalities and this project pulled us all together. We are such a great team now. Mayor (Francis) Slay and County Executive (Charlie) Dooley have been leaders with us and have pledged to work together into the future.”

You can view her entire presentation at the MediaWatch website.

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2 responses

  1. Gregg Shields, APR | Reply

    A great post, especially Point 4, "Be accessible." As the national spokesman for the Boy Scouts, I often got the same response, "Oh…I didn't think I'd actually get to talk with you!" It's a disarming way to start a conversation that could be developed to everyone's advantage.

  2. Nonprofit Marketing Communications | Reply

    Gregg,A digital high five from me to you on this and for all your great work for the BSA over the years. I hope the BSA and other organizations continue to be responsible and accessible. There are very few situations where an organization shouldn't, at least, return a phone call.Happy New Year!-joe

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