I was running with a friend the other day and we were talking transportation. I do that a lot.
Run and talk transportation.
But this time, my friend and I were specifically discussing the unique nature of being a communications professional in an engineering world. Some times, the engineers just do not understand what we do. They, generally speaking, do not always value what communications professionals offer in a transportation organization.
And, in the midst of the conversation in which was trying to describe living with such challenges, I came to a realization.
It’s all about the data.
Let me explain. And, if you are an engineer, please just follow my logic here. This is NOT an engineer bashing column.
I have learned through the years that engineers work in data. They use calculations involving hundreds, even thousands of inputs to determine how to build things, or how to make things operate more efficiently. The engineer wants data to make good decisions about how much material to use in a bridge, how many traffic signals to install on a busy corridor and where to site the rest stops along the interstate.
Seems reasonable, right? Making decisions – sound decisions that might involve hundreds of millions of dollars and a person’s professional future – requires good data. That means information and hopefully information in which the engineer has a high degree of confidence.
Public involvement, meanwhile, is this very messy process of engaging taxpayers and other various stakeholders in a formal dance during which each side explains a little about their like or dislike of certain ideas. At least, that is how it might seem to people who live in numbers, and materials and flow dynamics. After all, the engineer knows where the road should go because she studied it, she has the numbers and she has the data to prove she is right.
But, if we finally realize that public involvement — this strange act of engaging the public in our process of managing our transportation system — is another form of data collection, then the whole equation is changed. There are tremendous ramifications for how communications, public involvement and affiliated processes are perceived, not only by our engineering partners but also by those of us in the business.
The process of public dialogue is a process of data gathering. The engineer who already knows where the road should be built has jumped to conclusions. She is not finished with her work until she considers ALL the data available, which means figuring out how to factor in the concerns of the various stakeholders — who is going to use the road and who is going to live near it?
For communications people, that means we have to craft strategically sound, well thought out and executed communication programs that can deliver for the engineer more than just public opinion. We have to deliver data.
We need to understand that the “product” for which we are responsible is not the campaign or the communication plan. The product for which we strive should be good, sound, dependable data upon which good, sound, fiscally responsible decisions can be made.
Until we can figure out how to do that, communications will continue to be one of the more misunderstood parts of the transportation process. And our engineering colleagues will be left making decisions without all the information they need.