Community Relations: 'Talk Truck' gives Utah community a stronger voice

The rapid population growth of the west side of Salt Lake City has outpaced and snarled transportation in the area.

The rapid population growth of the west side of Salt Lake City has outpaced and snarled transportation in the area.

To ease the congestion, hundreds of homes might have to be torn down.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) had proposed several initiatives - including new roadways, mass-transit facilities, and bike trails - in its Mountain View Corridor Environmental Impact Statement, but enforcing them would affect the current city layout.

The UDOT wanted residents who could be impacted by the eight proposals to have ample time to voice their concerns. The department also needed to be sure it didn't overlook important details, such as historic landmarks that might prevent access to a particular area.

Strategy

For past initiatives, the UDOT had relied on town-hall meetings to solicit public opinion. But these gatherings were usually sparsely attended and poorly publicized.

"If we [would] get 25 people there, that was a major success," says Nile Easton, public information officer at the UDOT.

Part of the problem was convenience: The transportation initiatives covered two counties, and the town-hall meetings required residents to travel considerable distances on week- nights. Because attendance was critical, the UDOT and the PR team at Penna Powers Brian Haynes (PPBH) decided to bring the meetings to residents.

"You're talking about potentially taking out people's homes," says Amee Walker Rock, PR account manager at PPBH. "Because it's such a personal thing to so many people ... face to face communication is critical. You don't want them to find out by press release."

Tactics

PPBH created the "Talk Truck," a three-dimensional, triangular billboard that became the meeting place for nine gatherings, each one held in a public place, like outside a shopping center.

"The biggest challenge is getting people involved in the process," Easton says. "We held [meetings] at communal sites, so we had a lot of walk-up, as well."

The PR team distributed fliers and reached out to the media to promote the events. But word-of-mouth also drove attendance, Rock notes.

During the meeting, PPBH handed out maps that illustrated the plans. The team also had project representatives clear up misconceptions and outline the lengthy time period over which the work would occur.

"People have a lot of fears about how states' imminent domains work," Easton says, adding that people were concerned that the state would seize their homes without compensating them or giving them enough notice. "By getting information in people's hands now, we can stop the rumor mill."

For residents who could not attend the meeting, the UDOT also established a website and comment line.

Results

The 11-day campaign drew 750 people to the "Talk Truck." The addition of the website helped bring the total number of comments to 1,000.

"People panic," Rock says. "They are coming to these meetings and are obviously upset. [But] a lot of it is that people just want to be understood."

To address concerns, the PR team responded in an honest, non-defensive manner, she adds. PPBH also stressed that even though it was vital for residents to speak up now, the actual plan would not be implemented for perhaps five to 15 years.

Future

PPBH and the UDOT first partnered together to address transportation issues surrounding the 2002 Winter Olympics. Easton notes that the partnership between his department and PPBH is likely to be a "growing trend," and that, increasingly, city planners are as likely to include PR agencies as contractors on the team.

PPBH also will continue to involve the public in the planning process, Rock notes. The PR team expects to go back into the communities early next year, and will also introduce the public to the full proposal next fall.

PR team: Penna Powers Brian Haynes and the Utah Dept. of Transportation (Salt Lake City)

Campaign: "Talk Truck"

Time frame: July 20 to 31, 2004

Budget: $30,000

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