The success of a project often depends on more than its design and construction.
“I would make the argument that there are times when public involvement is the most important part of a project,” said Shannon McCord, Public Involvement Director for HNTB’s North Texas offices. “Infrastructure is one of the cornerstones of our communities. Involving and garnering input from the public throughout all stages of a project helps agencies discover challenges or constraints early on. It helps owners collaborate with stakeholders on the best solution for all parties. By engaging stakeholders up front, you greatly reduce the possibility of running into roadblocks later that can stall or ultimately kill a project.”
McCord and her team are currently working with the Texas Department of Transportation’s El Paso District on GO 10, a $158 million infrastructure reconstruction of Interstate 10, scheduled for completion next year. “One thing that has made this project so successful is that public involvement was put in place at the beginning of the process and implemented throughout,” she said. “Even more important was the insight and engagement of the project owner to take a different approach to public outreach. Successful projects are directly related to successful collaboration.”
McCord’s team also collaborated with the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) through the construction of multiple new tollways, the conversion to all-electronic tolling, and most recently, the widening projects of two major NTTA roadways. While working on improvements to the Dallas North Tollway, multiple full-weekend closures were needed – something that had never been done before.
“Creative brainstorming between the NTTA and HNTB public outreach teams led to a viral sensation named ‘Tenny,’” McCord related. “This ‘spokesgoat’ was created since the demolition of the Tennyson Parkway bridge necessitated the full closure of the tollway. Tenny is a goat that was used on all website banners and social media platforms to announce closures and ensure they stood out from normal traffic updates.” The effectiveness of the public outreach campaign led to recognition by various industry organizations.
McCord’s focus on public involvement strategies for infrastructure and urban planning projects began 13 years ago when she joined HNTB. Raised in a small Oklahoma town, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University in journalism/advertising, then went on to earn a Master of Liberal Arts degree and an MBA from Oklahoma City University. She worked in public relations and marketing for various firms before coming to HNTB in 2005. Now she leads a group of graphic designers, communications professionals, and public involvement specialists who provide support through all stages of transportation projects. She also serves as an Associate Vic President and Office Sales Manager, helping to drive annual sales and performance goals for HNTB. The firm provides a full range of infrastructure-related services including planning, design, and program and construction management.
In her interview with Texas Contractor, McCord talked about the lessons that shaped her approach to collaboration, public involvement, and project success.
How did you end up in the construction industry?
I was working in marketing for a telecommunications company and learned about a position with HNTB from a friend. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. I didn’t know much about the industry at the time and had a lot to learn. Over the last 13 years I’ve found that the basic principles of communication, public involvement, and client support cross over to all industries.
What lessons have you learned in your professional life?
Probably too many to list here, but to pick the top three, I’d say: listen, be objective, and proofread everything.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be brave enough to live your life by being true to yourself, not by what others expect.
What’s the most unique thing you bring to a construction project?
As a firm, HNTB recognized early on that public involvement is a critical part of the transportation planning and construction process. As a result, we’ve had a dedicated, full-service, in-house staff for decades. We provide a comprehensive suite of communications services, including graphics, social media strategy, crisis communications, social responsibility planning, 3-D simulation, and website design.
What are the keys to a successful public involvement program?
Listen to as many voices as you can during the planning of projects and reach as many people as possible in the construction phase. It’s critical to know your audience from the onset of a project and customize your communications plan to effectively reach them. We must make it easy for people to get information and provide input. Technology makes that a little easier through social media and the ability to host virtual public meetings and make the information available online 24/7.
How can owners make public involvement more successful?
Organizations should approach public involvement just as seriously as design and construction. No two projects are the same and neither is the approach to engaging the public. For each project, you need to identify demographics, research any previous project history, and be open to innovative ways of communicating. The days of sending out letters, holding meetings, and expecting everyone to show up are over. It’s imperative that project teams go where the people are and create easy-to-understand visuals that make complex information easily digestible.
What tools help the process?
New programs and software can save time and money. For example, HNTB developed PIMA – the Public Involvement Management Application – to help clients better manage their public outreach efforts and improve project decision-making. PIMA leverages stakeholder engagement to improve public satisfaction with how they interact with an agency. This satisfaction can strengthen the agency’s ability to undertake complex or difficult projects while gaining the public support they need to ultimately succeed. PIMA combines elements of geographical information systems, social media, and an agency’s own internal business processes and enterprise databases to give decision-makers the ability to collaborate on planning, communicating, and measuring the effectiveness of their stakeholder engagement.
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