Talking preservation? New report offers clues on how to improve outreach programs

Paving machine

Photo courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation

A new report from the Transportation Research Board‘s National Cooperative Research Program finds that, “Bringing about a change in attitudes toward highway maintenance and preservation actions will require thoughtful and ongoing communications campaigns by DOTs.”

“Communicating the Value of Preservation: A Playbook” is a well-written primer that state DOTs can use to develop outreach campaigns around the concept of preserving infrastructure.

The report recommends a basic approach to developing a campaign built around four key strategies:

  • Show that preservation matters;
  • Get the preservation noticed;
  • Develop a network of preservation supporters; and,
  • Orchestrate a call to action.

While this sounds simple enough, it is clear based on this report that preservation as an issue remains a top priority for DOTs, but not a top communication topic. A survey conducted by the report’s authors found that most DOTs indeed communicate externally on a regular basis about infrastructure preservation needs but their messages are not always focused on the right things. They often emphasize the cost effectiveness of a strong program and the importance of protecting past investments. “Most agencies — if they are communicating about this topic at all — tend to rely on infrequent and haphazard distribution of overly technical messages,” the report states.

And, the report’s survey found that many DOTs remain skeptical about the value of communications in helping to ensure strong infrastructure preservation programs.

The report asserts, “the hard truth is that the DOT community does not forcefully press the preservation case.” And, that “many DOTs still communicate much as they did in the pre-digital era: sending out one-size-fits-all, factual information through narrow channels in stand-alone blocks, with little regard for stakeholders’ differing perspectives or the need for concerted, comprehensive, and continuous messaging.”

Ouch. Those words hit me, as a former communication director, in a soft spot. But, while the words might seem like quite a condemnation for my colleagues and friends at state DOTs who are battling day-in, and day-out, to share the latest information about everything from current road conditions to the intricacies of how cable guard rails save lives, it is important to note that the report’s focus is solely on the topic of communicating about preservation. And, honestly, preservation as a hot topic … just isn’t.

I encourage those in the transportation communications community to download this report and consider its advice. While much of its content rehashes basic communications theory and practice – always a good read and a good reminder to see these ideas in print – the report’s greatest value is in highlighting our industry’s lack of focus around preservation messages that resonate with the public.

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