As Congress debates how to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund, and perhaps consider a long-term reauthorization of the national surface transportation program, state DOT environmental professionals are asking some extremely challenging questions related to how well transportation departments communicate.
Every state transportation department — along with most county and city transportation departments — have environmental programs charged with ensuring that surface transportation programs meet a host of state and federal regulations from the Endangered Species Act to Cultural Resources. Take a closer look at most state budgets and you might find that the largest environmental organization is the transportation department, which depending on the state or program is probably investing in surface water mitigation, air quality, noise abatement, wildlife enhancements, open spaces, fish passages, litter control, archaeology surveys and cultural resources mitigation. That’s just scraping the survey of all that an environmental program might include.
The environment is a major theme and concern for DOTs. Yet, the environmental officials are asking themselves why the public, the media and special interest groups remain collectively skeptical about DOT priorities and motives when it comes to environmental issues?
I did a quick survey of state DOT communication directors last month and asked for examples of the kinds of communication and outreach they have underway related to their environmental programs. With 22 of the 50 states responding, it became clear that state DOTs certainly are talking about the environment. But this is probably a situation in which we can apply the old adage, “It’s not so much what you say that matters, but rather what they hear.”
The communication programs used a variety of strategies and tactics for their environmental outreach. Web sites, social sharing sites, blogs, news releases, video, photos, newsletters, and behavioral campaigns are all among the tools. There certainly is no shortage of output. Communication programs are churning out the content.
The states relied on roughly five core messages:
* Transportation department is doing the work due to permit/funding
* We’re being innovative and that is reducing costs and benefiting the environment
* It takes all of us doing our part to improve the environment
* Benefitting the environment (litter clean up) also benefits the system
* We’re doing our part to protect: Roadsides, air, water, wildlife, quality of life
An interesting aspect of the outreach efforts was the lack of clarity in audiences. Most of the strategies and tactics seemed intended for a broad, general audience that most likely included voters and the media. The states did not seem to target their efforts at special interest groups or elected officials. And, only one state seemed to focus primarily on an internal audience, where knowledge of environmental programs and priorities is probably most needed.
It is important that state DOT environmental programs find ways to connect and build relationships with their communication teams. While our nation wrestles with significant and challenging issues that include climate change, diminishing natural resources, water quality, shifting transportation preferences and land use patterns — the transportation department is usually at the table as a key stakeholder.
They will most effectively tell that story by reflecting the values and priorities of their elected officials, special interest groups and the general public. That, in turn, should result in increased credibility and trust, which is always the foundation for continued investment in a successful transportation agency and national surface transportation program.