Communications Guide Helps State Transportation Agencies

A research study led by WSP USA is recommending ways that state transportation agencies can structure communication teams and functions to more effectively communicate with stakeholders, customers and the public.

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The two-year research study was completed in December and conducted on behalf of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), which is administered by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. The findings have now been revealed in the Communications Guide for State Departments of Transportation, which is available free through research sponsor the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and from WSP.

“Transportation agencies, as well as public agencies in general, can pull useful strategies and tactics from the guide,” said Darrel W. Cole of WSP, principal investigator for the research project. “Many communicators in public agency roles encounter similar challenges related to staffing, skill sets, having a seat at the table and organizational structure.”

WSP was responsible for the research, writing, providing technical memos, a final technical memo, graphic design and releasing a final communications guide. It was completed on budget, and on time.

“We had a lot of new territory to cover and worked closely with the NCHRP panel that oversaw our work and progress,” Cole said. “Because the panel included communications professionals, we were all able to move in the direction that helped us get to our final product.”

The result was a 50-page guide that provides a wide range of helpful tools, including recommended organizational charts, templates, graphics, important skill sets, recommendations for social media use and performance measures. It also includes the role, purpose, and importance of communications functions and how they should be organizationally structured, coordinated and aligned with agency leadership and goals.

“If fellow communicators and CEOs wish to elevate some aspects of their communications functions and operations, they now have a guide to help them get there,” Cole said. “While targeted to state DOTs, the study findings and the guide itself is relevant for most public agencies.”

©2017 WSP USA

The Communications Guide for State Departments of Transportation provides a wide range of helpful tools.

Core Principles

Research for the study included surveys; personal interviews with communicators, outside experts, public agency CEOs, and other leaders in state departments of transportation; as well as a review of effective communications practices in the public and private sector.

“While every department of transportation is different, several core principles emerged in research for the guide that apply in most situations,” Cole said. “These ‘first principles’ for DOT communications are present in successful and effective communications.”

Cole identified six core principles that are the focus of the report:

  • Leader-Driven: Success is driven by leadership rather than structure. Leadership is responsible for establishing the direction of a DOT by clearly communicating the organization’s mission, objectives and goals. Externally, strong leaders can establish and advance messaging that supports DOT goals. Internally, strong leaders can foster trust, credibility and openness.
  • Proactive: DOTs that show a commitment to proactive communications are more successful at keeping the public informed and driving positive public perceptions of the agency, and actively distribute information through the news media and directly to the public.
  • Strategic: Effective communications programs are typically based on goals, defined through a planning process, and evaluated and improved over time through data gathering and performance measurement. Having these initiatives in place is consistent with high-achieving communications at DOTs.
  • Consistent: Achieving a relevant approach to DOT communications goes beyond the brand and involves efforts to achieve an integrated approach across diverse regions, as well as new thinking about integrating public interactions across DOT divisions so everyone “speaks with one voice.”
  • Responsive: DOTs need to establish two-way dialogues on social media and other communications channels, which requires a customer service approach and new skills beyond those required in traditional public information.
  • Engaging: Along with accuracy and timeliness, the public expects information to be engaging. DOTs are responding with a stronger graphic focus, greater use of video and content marketing that tells a story.

‘Here’s What I Would Like to Do’

Cole’s research and production team included Shane Peck, lead author; Pamela Lebeaux, lead researcher; Patrick Kresl, graphic designer; Paula Hammond and Eric Roecks, senior advisors; and Kevin Alvarado, Genevieve Rubrecht, Joshua Palmer, Menasvi Menon, Robin Christians and Angela Starr, researchers.

“Several members of our research team have intimate knowledge of what it’s like to work inside a DOT,” Cole said. “The communicators and CEOs we surveyed, talked with and got to know were already doing tremendous work under incredible circumstances. The guide provides them more tools to do their jobs better and more efficiently. For communicators, this guide gives them something to put in front of DOT leaders to say, ‘Here’s what I would like to do.’”

Early reviews of the report have been favorable.

“It’s been well-received and accepted so far,” Cole said. “We’ve received several contacts already from DOTs that want us to present our findings to their agency and help them enhance their communications functions.”

As the manager of WSP’s national communications and public involvement practice and a former communications director for a state DOT, Cole said he understands the challenges that public agency communicators face, and was honored to have an opportunity to provide them with support through the guide.

“It’s the ultimate professional accomplishment for me to have led this effort,” Cole said.