Good will gained during a project's approval process can evaporate quickly once the nuisances of construction set in. If community frustrations are not addressed quickly during all stages of a construction project, complaints from nearby residents and businesses will filter up to elected officials or the media, creating a negative perception of the developer and the project.
Nurturing relationships with the community during construction will minimize complaints and even prevent lawsuits, which have the potential to cause delays and budget overruns. The following tips are designed to help smooth the way for construction projects in populated areas:
The time to plan for community relations is before construction begins. Look at the entire work schedule and anticipate potential community impacts, such as traffic, dust, bright lights at night and noise. If these impacts cannot be avoided, give the community plenty of notice so they can prepare for a temporary change in routine.
Use this time to also build a relationship with the contractors through partnering sessions and ongoing discussions. Projects often last for several months so it is important to work effectively together.
Be an ambassador for the community, acting quickly to address community inquiries and complaints. Establish a central phone number community members can call to express concerns and ask questions about the project. Staff answering phones should be empathetic, familiar with the project and return calls quickly with the information needed. Keep a record of who called and needed follow up. Make sure to follow up!
Be open to accommodation
Offering free car washes, pool cleaning or window cleaning to residents might seem extravagant. However, compared to the total project budget, these small gestures are a small price to pay for a smooth construction process. Be creative and put yourself in the shoes of local residents.
Going to make a lot of noise into the evening? Offer gift certificates to the local movie theater so residents can take a break. Or, buy white noise machines and air filters for nearby houses. These thoughtful acts will more than pay for themselves in the end.
Explain the project
Too often, this important step is skipped when communicating about the construction project. Tell the public what the project is, why it is important and, most importantly, how it will benefit the public. Let residents know when the project has advanced to a new stage of construction and what type of impacts they should expect.
This will minimize inquiries and complaints. Determine the best way to get these messages to the affected publics, such as e-mail, direct mail, signage, door hangers, telephone calls or a combination of these approaches, but remember to let them know in advance, during and even after the project is completed. Saying "thank you" to those that have been inconvenienced can go a long way.
Get the community involved
When community members have a say in project decisions, they are more likely to support the project. Seek feedback from the community before the construction begins, during construction and soon after construction has been completed. Project opponents have been known to become project supporters as a result of their participation in outreach efforts. Even vocal opponents near the construction area may end up praising the project team for its efforts to communicate openly and work with the community to minimize construction impacts.
Taking a community into consideration from start to finish will help to establish trust and maintain positive perceptions of the developer and the project. The result will be a project completed on time and within budget and the developer and project team can feel proud of their accomplishments.
Katz is the founder and owner of Katz & Associates, a full-service communications firm based in San Diego with offices in Las Vegas and Sacramento.