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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.C - Providing Substantive Information and Establishing Methods of Communication
1.C.a - Contact Lists
1.C.b - Information Materials
1.C.c - Key Person Interviews
1.C.d - Briefings
1.C.e - Video Techniques
1.C.f - Telephone Techniques
1.C.g - Media Strategies
1.C.h - Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers

1. Introduction
1.A
1.B
1.C
1.D

1.C.g - Media Strategies

What are media strategies?

Media strategies inform customers about projects and programs through newspapers, radio, television and videos, billboards, posters and variable message signs, mass mailings of brochures or newsletters, and distribution of fliers. Working with the media, an agency takes an active role in disseminating information. For example, the San Francisco area’s annual "Beat the Backup" program during California Rideshare Week promotes ridesharing in partnership with a full range of the media.

Media strategies take a variety of forms. The simplest examples are fliers about projects within a corridor (a targeted market area) or variable message signs on highways that inform motorists (a targeted market) of delays ahead or of alternate routes. (See Public Information Materials.) Promotional brochures are used in direct mail campaigns or—as in Portland, Maine—through a full-size newspaper supplement explaining the regional transportation plan. Briefing reporters and editorial boards of both newspaper and broadcast media with in-depth background on a project or program prepares them to analyze an agency’s approach and report on aspects of an issue in an even-handed way. (See Briefings.) In New Jersey, media executives were briefed on high-occupancy vehicle HOV lane proposals at the outset of planning for the project.

Why are they useful?

An agency proactively frames the message, rather than allowing the media to do it. Framing the message takes thought and attention about all aspects of a program or process. Media strategies are routinely incorporated into projects that need public focus, consensus, and understanding in order to move forward. In Idaho, the Department of Transportation uses video to introduce programs to the public and to provide news stories accompanying press releases.

Effective media strategies deliver a uniform message to alleviate the spread of misinformation that often becomes a barrier to understanding or implementation. Strategies can be styled to meet varying levels of interest. For Seattle’s regional transit plan, a detailed program of media coverage was integrated with other forms of community outreach.

Many people rely heavily on the media for information about events, plans, or projects that affect them. The media are an important resource for people who have little time to attend meetings or participate in public involvement activities.

Do they have special uses?

Media coverage helps generate interest in a project or program. In any program, the critical first step is to develop a central message addressing such questions as: What is the plan or project? What does the public need to know in order to participate effectively? Who is the audience? Once these questions have been addressed, the specific media to carry the message are defined—the kinds of media that will best serve the need of encouraging public participation.

The media disseminate information widely. This includes informing and educating the public via major articles and profiles on television and in print as well as eye-catching ads to supplement the more formal, required legal notices. Specific transportation projects typically reach out to community residents along the affected corridor, to interest groups, and to municipal officials. A media strategy for these kinds of projects involves many activities. For example, in Washington, D.C., a media program to encourage ridesharing ranges from mall banners and decals for shop windows to an education program in elementary schools called "It’s Cool to Pool."

Cable television is particularly useful as a tool for getting the word out. It is much cheaper than paid network advertising and has a more local flavor. Public access channels often videotape public meetings and other forums and play them repeatedly over a period of time. (See Video Techniques.) In addition, local cable channels have news programs, guest editorials, and interviews where project issues can be highlighted. For assurance of broad outreach to people who do not watch cable channels, programming on regular stations and networks is an effective alternative.

Who participates? And how?

Stakeholders and agencies often cooperate in a media program for a project. Civic advisory committees or other community representatives help identify the best way to get the word out. (See Civic Advisory Committees.) As individuals directly affected by a particular project or program, or through past experience, they may know the best way to reach the public. Agencies use community residents as part of speakers’ bureaus that send representatives out to promote a project at meetings of organizations such as Rotary or Lions’ Clubs and chambers of commerce.

How do agencies use the output?

Agencies monitor reactions to a media plan. Random surveys test market penetration and determine whether the message is meeting a targeted population.

A media plan elicits community responses. Mass mailings can include simple questionnaires to be returned to the agency. (See Public Opinion Surveys.) A television presentation can suggest that reactions be mailed to the agency. On two-way talk shows, agency staff interact with community callers to answer questions directly. As programs and projects evolve and progress, media activities are adjusted to reflect their status and to introduce new information.

The key is to put together a plan that informs and educates the public by delivering the central message, no matter which type or types of media strategies are identified.

Who leads media strategies?

Media strategies are led by agency staff, either the staff members most closely identified with the project or the public affairs officer. The involvement of local people is particularly important to a successful media campaign. Community input and feedback help to "take the pulse" of a program to be sure the media chosen are appropriate and effective.

What do media strategies cost?

Because media strategies are often expensive, they must be used carefully and efficiently. A minimum strategy includes a central message, perhaps contained in a basic press kit with maps, fact sheets, and other background information, supplemented by a media tour of the project site. Complex projects call for a more elaborate strategy. For example, in New Jersey a strategic media plan was developed for outreach to print and electronic media to support the long-range transportation plan.

Time involved is often substantial over the life of a project or program. Some strategies are relatively low-cost. Briefings with editorial boards of both print and electronic media, as well as regular low-key contact with reporters and other media staff, are low-cost ways to deliver a message. (See Briefings.) A public service announcement is usually a low-cost activity.

Costs rise with the kind of media used. A television/radio or newspaper campaign can be costly, involving air time and production/printing costs. Costs vary by project complexity and length. There are low, moderate, and high levels of investment for utilizing the media. Depending on the needs of the project, a media strategy ranges from relatively simple placards or videos to a high-profile media campaign involving radio and television ads in prime time.

Although costs of a paid media campaign are high, the investment pays off, particularly when:

  • An agency wants to guarantee that an announcement, information, or meeting date is published or broadcast;
  • An audience probably will not be reached in any other way, or maximum exposure is needed;
  • An agency wants a say in the placement of the material; for example, requesting a certain page location for a paid ad or a certain time slot for radio/television;
  • A map, graphic, logo, slogan, or written material needs to be shown in a certain format or with a certain design that identifies the project or plan;
  • An agency wants to assure that its message goes out exactly as written—paid advertising is not edited;
  • The media are likely to give an agency better free coverage if it is already known as a paying client.

How are they organized?

Media strategies should be comprehensive. Strategies need to be evaluated as they are being assembled and after implementation. Questions to ask include:

  • Breadth of techniques to use—How many and what kind of techniques are appropriate?
  • Effectiveness—How many people were reached and how did they react to particular media?
  • Ease of implementation—How easy or difficult is it for the agency to implement the various elements? Is an outside consultant needed? and
  • Cost—What are the cost-effective benefits in view of constrained resources?

How do they relate to other techniques?

Media strategies are used in conjunction with other techniques. For example, televising civic advisory committee meetings enhances the participation process by giving it a wider audience. (See Civic Advisory Committees.) Results of brainstorming, visioning, charrettes, and community surveys can be reported in the media. (See Brainstorming; Visioning; Charrettes; Public Opinion Surveys.) News stories can promote a telephone hot line for answering questions. (See Hotlines.) A visioning process in Atlanta included televised town hall meetings, newspaper editorials, and a six-newspaper survey of public opinion that produced 10,000 responses.

Are they flexible?

Media strategies are extremely flexible. A wide range of techniques is used, depending on the project, its budget, and the complexity of the message. In Los Angeles, a commuter newsletter bulletin was prepared for widespread distribution to inform commuters about ride options and programs.

Preparation and monitoring is crucial. Advance work is essential for staff to prepare the overall program and central message and to identify the targeted audience. In New York, for example, a range of media has been designed to promote the new HOV lane on the Long Island Expressway: a video on ridesharing for businesses to use at their companies; posters in the workplace on carpools and vanpools; local cable channels for advertising spots; and variable message signs along the corridor. All these target a specific audience—either residents or employers in the corridor or daily expressway users.

What are the drawbacks?

Media outlets may outpace an agency by looking for a scoop and framing the message without agency or community input. Public agencies have little control over stories before publication or broadcast. Agencies frequently spend valuable resources to explain a message or to try to reshape public opinion rather than framing the message in the first place.

Media strategies take a high level of commitment sustained over time to be successful. Strategic planning starts at the outset of a project with the development of a detailed central message.

When are they most effective?

Media strategies should be developed early and sustained over time. In this way, the public is well-informed and aware from the beginning, thus enhancing the public participation process and creating greater opportunity for successful implementation of the project or program.

For further information:

Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington (206) 684-1730
Idaho Department of Transportation (208) 334-4444
New Jersey Department of Transportation, Communications (609) 530-4280
Rides (Commuter Services), San Francisco, California (415) 861-7665
Washington, D.C., Council of Governments Ride-finders Network (202) 962-3327

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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