Talk the Walk
WALLACE MLYNIEC, A professor of clinical legal studies at Georgetown University, learned the art of communicating about campus construction out of sheer necessity. When the Hotung International Law Building and the Georgetown Sport and Fitness Center were constructed a few years ago next to two student residences and a classroom building at the Law School campus, "the notion of not letting people know in advance what was going on very quickly became an issue for us," says Mlyniec, who was appointed chair of the project committee. "We were driving pile right next to buildings where students sleep until 10 a.m. ... And this is the group we depend on 10 years down the road for sizeable contributions to build the next project."
So Mlyniec became a one-man clearinghouse of information, holding faculty and staff briefings and hosting public forums. He made house calls for any administrative office expressing curiosity about the project's status. He started a newsletter that also included area history and fun facts about construction that built such a readership nationwide that he eventually published them as the book Construction Notes (On the Spot Productions, 2006).
Today, he has a second career as a liaison who helps bridge the vocabulary between college representatives and architects.
Audiences today demand this level of communication detail, thanks to the internet, says Paul Hartwig, senior vice president of St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Companies. Webcams provide the draw, and once there, visitors want to find out about schedules, road closings, and other ways these stacks of steel will impact their lives.
Hartwig adds, "It used to be top-down information. Now everyone expects to get in on the act."
ANTICIPATED GRAND OPENING: October 2008
THE CHALLENGE: The building site is surrounded by residential neighborhoods with a mixture of senior citizens, families, and students. Noise and equipment-induced earthquakes tend to fire up complaints, admits Allison Newman, assistant vice president for government and community relations at RPI.
THE AUDIENCE: Besides neighbors, the mayor and city council needed frequent updates, as they were also on the hot seat to field phone calls from annoyed constituents.
TOOLS: At first, monthly "open mike" meetings allowed the public an outlet to address concerns. The meetings became quarterly once RPI "got better at sharing the information and they got better at asking questions," says Newman. She also printed a one-page information sheet every month and paid a distribution service to deliver it to every mailbox within a one-mile radius of the construction site. Finally, she gave out her business card to everyone she met, and forwarded the office phone to her cell phone in order to be available 24/7. The university also established a hotline that featured an updated recording of what to expect at the site that day, including street closings, alternative routes, even unusual sounds. The hotline number rang through to a phone on Newman's desk. The one vehicle that didn't work? A public access television announcement, which Newman says wasn't targeted enough. "The people who care are the ones sweeping dump truck dust out of their houses."
ANTICIPATED GRAND OPENING: August 2008
THE CHALLENGE: Through a fee, students are funding $60 million of the $86 million needed to renovate the student union. The project has taken place over four years, so many student government members don't know what it's like to have this kind of facility on campus. "We've spent a fair amount of time trying to educate newcomers about the project, explain where we stand, the decisions left to make, and how they can get involved," says project manager Jeff Lannigan.
THE AUDIENCE: WSU needs to stay in regular contact with students, as well as the 10 commercial and retail tenants who will occupy the space. Faculty, Lannigan says, haven't seemed as interested, but the local chamber of commerce has, and the WSU team has met twice with this group at its request.
TOOLS: With most of the work taking place inside, a live webcam-originally set up outside and now showing internal views-has proven to be rather boring, in Lannigan's estimation. He's had far better results in building excitement and answering questions with escorted tours. He'll also eavesdrop a bit while walking by. "I've heard a couple of students say, 'Well, they spent $86 million and it looks basically the same-what did they do?' So it's been very important to get people in the building," he explains. Of course, the school could easily overwhelm contractors with tours, so Lannigan is selective with the groups he invites. Primary targets are student groups that will have offices in the union and folks enrolled in associated majors, such as interior design. Lannigan's department also tries to accommodate all legitimate requests. He also maintains a close working relationship with the student newspaper, inviting even reporters to attend steering committee meetings. "We really haven't had anything come back and bite us. They are pretty good about staying in tune and getting the word out," he says.
CONSTRUCTION COMMUNICATION DOESN'T have to focus solely on road closings. Here's how some clever professionals have used the opportunity for positive PR:
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.) officials invited a renowned artist to work her magic on the construction site by turning it into a nightly light sculpture in January 2008. They kicked off the three-week event with a hot cider and chestnuts reception. Even those living across the Hudson River could see the results during the festivities.
Lisa Albert in Texas Christian University's communications office creates a Facebook group for construction projects. It then becomes the perfect place to announce the grand opening plans. "The viral nature of this tool is amazing," she says. She also takes digital footage of construction and posts it online to accompany update stories.
Duke University's architect was invited to attend Coach Krzyzewski's businessman basketball camp-whose participants tend to be influential and affluent-to give a tour/update on the new 50,000 square-foot practice facility under way.
When officials at Muhlenberg College (Pa.) discovered students weren't renting space in the new dorm being built off-site through modular construction, they arranged for a factory tour for an in-progress look. When the dorm was completed, the construction company sponsored a pizza party for 165 students and administrators. Dorm applications are no longer a problem.
NEED TO COMMUNICATE THE PROGRESS on a construction project to constituents? Consider using:
A daily update hotline.
E-mail blast updates.
A Facebook group.
An online countdown clock to completion.
Site tours and events.
Strategic invites to committee meetings.
Student newspaper interviews.