Public Involvement Techniques

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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.C.c - Key Person Interviews

What is a key person interview?

A key person interview is a one-on-one talk about a specific topic or issue with an individual recognized or designated as a community leader. A key person might be an opinion leader, a spokesperson for the community, an elected official, the head of an organization, or a representative of local media.

The main purpose is to obtain information. While basic information is provided to set the stage for discussion, interviews are designed primarily to elicit the interviewee’s reactions and suggestions. The goal is to learn about the person’s views and constituency, and his/her perceptions of the agency, the planning or development process, and the political setting in which work is being done. Key individuals are likely to have knowledge, wisdom, and insight that can help an agency. In Texas, during the South Oak Cliff study by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), key person interviews led to a delineation of significant issues within the community. A bond issue that had major support was being implemented slowly. Though not directly related to DART’s work on the transit proposal, it was clearly identifiable as an issue.

Interviews start early in the process to learn about the area and the issues and concerns to be addressed. An agency may ask for names of other individuals who should be contacted for interviews or be involved in the participation process. It may want guidance on organizing a public involvement process that includes essential, interested people, and that reaches out and includes people traditionally underrepresented.

Key person interviews also are held just prior to decision-making. The Maryland Transit Administration found that positions evolved from beginning to end of a study and thus began to hold interviews near the end of a process but before decisions were made.

Customarily, interviews are face-to-face events. Frequently, a key person feels more comfortable if an interview takes place on "home turf" such as his/her office or neighborhood. Although usually conducted in person, key person interviews are also done on the telephone. (See Telephone Techniques.)

Why are such interviews useful?

Information is transmitted informally outside of a larger meeting that may be inhibiting. Key people often provide more detail on political or emotional aspects of an issue that are difficult to discuss in a public meeting. Liaison staff for a master plan study in Boston’s South End interviewed community and business leaders to learn about potential developments that would not have been revealed in a large public setting. Interviews also elicited input about ongoing concerns to help create a vision of the character of redevelopment for the area.

Interviews help identify issues, concerns, and desired agendas. They are helpful in rapidly getting details on the community and in understanding residents’ priorities. They also help establish points that must be covered in meetings.

Key person interviews help target potential participants in the process. They identify stakeholders who may be involved and interested in a project or proposal.

Interviews elicit ideas for structuring a public involvement program. They help set a framework for discussion by identifying potential members for an advisory committee or meeting places perceived as neutral. (See Civic Advisory Committees.) The Atlanta, Georgia, Regional Commission received advice on structuring its public involvement program from its key person interviews. For a Newark subway rehabilitation project, interviews led New Jersey Transit to set up several station task forces rather than a single advisory committee, as originally proposed. The Newark interviews also identified safety as the overwhelming issue of community concern, which led to changes in the work undertaken by consultants.

Key person interviews enhance an agency’s credibility. They show interest in the community and in understanding the concerns of a leader’s constituents. Conducting interviews sets a positive tone for subsequent public involvement activities.

Do they have special uses?

Key person interviews are useful when a project affects a small group in a unique way—for example, a block of businesses, a neighborhood, or a specific institution. The group may be concerned about impacts of a proposal and welcome early contact. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.)

Interviews are a good way to introduce agency personnel to the community before beginning a public participation process.

One-on-one interviews can defuse a potentially confrontational situation. Parties to disagreements want to be heard. Listening to key individuals’ views is rewarding to both parties, as well as to the larger community. This is particularly important if the key person has been antagonistic in the past, since it enhances an agency’s understanding of opposing viewpoints and gets them stated more clearly for the record.

Who participates? And how?

Key people are individuals who work with or represent other people. They are crucial in understanding a constituency. Key people include community group presidents, officers, former officers, and representatives. They can be elected officials, respected people involved in community activities, and officers or active members of clubs, agencies, organizations, and interest groups. Key people can be active business people and practicing professionals, or representatives of professional societies, such as chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Public Transportation Association. The Metropolitan Council in Minnesota interviewed the Minority Media Coalition by telephone to find out key issues in the minority community prior to a larger meeting to discuss overall media strategy. It is important to note, however, that in some areas such as minority communities, American Indian areas, small towns, and rural settings, opinion leaders are likely not to be office-holders. In these areas, an agency should pay special attention to finding out who the real leaders are. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.)

A key person meets with an interviewer via telephone or face-to-face.

Usually, the key person chooses the interview site. This may be a home or office, or the location may be neutral to both parties. Informal interviews can be held over coffee or lunch. The choice of setting should reflect potential issues of security and confidentiality.

An on-site interview helps people point out specific issues. In the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Replacement/Transit Improvement Study, agency staff talked with key community people on-site in Dudley Square, a busy transit node and the focal point of the study. Community leaders pointed out specific locations of concern about traffic, pedestrian crossings, and land development. (See Site Visits.)

How do agencies use these interviews?

Interviews demonstrate that an agency wants to learn about the issues. This is particularly true if an agency seeks out key people early in a process. Credibility is also enhanced if an agency seeks advice on design of a public involvement program. For the State Route 15 Vision Study in San Diego, California, the City Heights Community Development Corporation conducted interviews with agency officials, opinion leaders, residents, and others to help plan the highway’s future. The interviews were useful not only for finding out about the issues but also for broadening the list of potential contacts.

Key person interviews are a quick, personal way to learn a neighborhood’s concerns. They help identify players such as elected officials, other agencies, opinion leaders, and other groups, as well as revealing issues and interests in a project or plan.

Interviews help identify the "real" actors in a process. Often, they are the fastest way to find out who in the community is perceived as credible, who is difficult to communicate with, and who is a potential ally.

Through interviews, an agency finds out what key people think of its policies. The Little Rock, Arkansas, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) used interviews to discover the degree to which past policies were out of favor. As a result, its Vision 2020 plan reflected the need to replace past policies with proposed new strategies.

Key people help develop a list of contacts who can distribute information. Interviews help build a network of critical people to contact. (See Mailing Lists.) They even assist in locating the best bulletin boards for advertising meetings and opportunities for participation.

Interviews with key people establish lines of communication between community members and agencies. Local people contact their leaders to obtain information or to register opinions, concerns, and complaints. This may fit with traditional methods of quick and easy communication. (See Improving Meeting Attendance.)

Making one-to-one contact helps break down barriers that might prevent sharing information and opinions. The Dane County Regional Planning Agency in Madison, Wisconsin, learned about the concerns of many groups through individual key person interviews.

Who conducts key person interviews?

Staff members usually conduct key person interviews. The staff person conducting a meeting should be comfortable with one-on-one contact, personable, open, a good listener, good at probing for details, and able to respond to key questions.

Sometimes senior staff are more appropriate. On certain occasions, senior agency personnel need to meet with key people. For example, it might be more appropriate and effective for a senior official rather than a junior-level staffer to meet with the vice president of a major corporation. The head of the Atlanta, Georgia, Regional Commission talks with key business leaders on a regular basis. The director of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, MPO holds regular visits with key people in the media.

Sometimes a well-briefed outsider is the appropriate person to contact ethnic or minority members or polarized groups. The interviewer must be well-briefed on issues important to the community and to the person being interviewed. (See Ethnic, Minority, & Low-income Groups; Negotiation & Mediation.)

What do they cost?

Costs vary, but interviews can be relatively cheap if the work is local. Staff time is intensive and the most expensive item. It is particularly significant if a large number of key people from various locations are involved and travel is extensive. Also, long-distance telephone calls add quickly to the costs.

Costs are closely tied to the number of interviews conducted. A sampling of 10–20 leaders is effective for certain purposes, while a more broad-based outreach may necessitate 100 or more interviews.

How are they organized?

An initial step is identifying the key people in a community. It is important to undertake a wide range of efforts to learn who the real leaders are, particularly in minority and ethnic communities. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.) One approach is to use indirect methods; for example,

  • Review old and current mailing lists;
  • Review newspaper clippings;
  • Review meeting notes from related projects or earlier planning processes;
  • Review impact reports, environmental documents, and project-related testimony;
  • Get copies of sign-in sheets from meetings held by others;
  • Observe neighborhood meetings for other issues/projects;
  • Talk to people knowledgeable about local leadership; and
  • Ask around at professional association meetings.

A more direct means to build a list of names is linked-chain research or personal contact and networking. In this approach, people are asked to name leaders, and the process continues until nominations repeat earlier names and the agency is reasonably confident most key participants have been found. Some initial ways to do this by telephone include:

  • Contacting local officials;
  • Asking action groups and churches who the respected leaders are;
  • Asking neighborhood groups and agencies who the respected community leaders are;
  • Contacting friends who live in the area or consultants who have done work in the area; and
  • Sending out a "community audit" survey that includes a question on community leadership.

Interviews are arranged in several ways. To set up an interview, an agency staffer can establish initial contact by telephone. Ideally, an interview is face-to-face and at a time convenient to the person. This may be after work hours, since many people find it difficult to meet during the normal work day. In Dallas, DART always conducts key person interviews as informally as possible so that the person feels comfortable. A letter of invitation may be sent if someone is particularly difficult to reach or if a formal tone is desired. Often, a follow-up confirmation call is useful and courteous.

It is often important to meet key people in their own community. Frequently, key people view their neighborhoods as neutral, comfortable, and non-threatening places. (See Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events.) The Portland, Maine, Area Comprehensive Transportation Study (PACTS) conducted interviews in key people’s offices on the impacts of a proposed connector on a school and county jail along the alignment.

Many interviews are conducted by telephone. Phone interviews are very informal and immediate, but less personal. They sometimes are done while the key person is at work and can be very focused. (See Telephone Techniques.) Although phone interviews lack the personal contact of face-to-face talk, they are easier to do impromptu. They are often revealing, because the call seems more casual, immediate, and unrehearsed. A face-to-face meeting encourages better preparation, perhaps by consulting with others. During project development on the I–93/Route 1 interchange in Charlestown, Massachusetts, agency staff regularly called key people in the community to report project events, then to converse about their activities and reactions to the highway project’s current status.

The purpose and topic of the interview is communicated in advance. The general topic is introduced immediately. The interviewer stresses the importance and goal of the interview and states that several key people are being interviewed. This lets the interviewee know that his/her ideas will be considered along with others. It is useful to explain that the agency wants to listen and learn rather than lecture on the proposed project or process. A short description of the planning effort with maps, drawings, or photos is useful, along with brief written materials.

An interview begins with stating a specific proposal or issue. Details should be available in case the interviewee requests them. A series of questions prepared by the agency might be the next step. An interview may be informal and free-form, with a brief statement of a proposal, followed by questions and answers that guide the interview. The interviewer makes it clear that the opinions expressed are primarily for the agency’s internal use in planning and project development.

An interviewer should be able to piece together connections and links that make up the mosaic of relationships within the community. An agency should avoid alienating potential participants or people who have views that might not be fully understood.

The interviewer documents the interview in writing. Documentation frequently maintains the anonymity of the interviewee. At times, it is important to be able to cite the interview as authoritative, but permission should be obtained before quoting people who have been interviewed. To maintain anonymity, individual interviews can be summarized with other interviews. In summaries, the key people’s names may be listed, but most comments are not attributed to specific individuals. Interviews for the Portland, Maine, I–295 Connector were summarized according to several themes: comments on transportation issues in general and pros and cons about the proposed connector. Only when it was essential to identify the person who made a statement—such as a concern about the alignment’s effect on a specific property—were ideas attributed to individuals.

Telephone numbers are exchanged. The key person should be made aware of the desirability of frequent contact and an agency’s willingness to respond to calls. To enhance contact, an agency can compile a list of interviewees’ work and home phone numbers and FAX numbers, if available and if people are willing to take calls at home. The goal is to demonstrate accessibility and the need for key people to call when they want to deliver opinions and comments.

Follow-up is essential. Depending on the intensity of the planning process and schedule, weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly follow-up contacts, either by telephone or face-to-face, are critical. Follow-up keeps key people and agency staff up-to-date on what is happening. Follow-up can be based on initial interviews early in the process to create and maintain a channel of communication. In Dallas, the DART community affairs staff regularly contacts key people—by visiting, telephoning, or sending information—to keep them up-to-date and knowledgeable about the agency’s work.

How are they used with other techniques?

Key person interviews help identify participants. Interviews with leaders help identify potential members of a neighborhood planning council. They help increase and improve outreach to traditionally underserved groups, ethnic groups, minorities, elderly, and children. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.) A civic advisory committee or task force can grow from suggestions made in leader interviews. (See Civic Advisory Committees; Collaborative Task Forces.) In a transit study in Burlington, Vermont, representatives of a new civic advisory committee were identified through interviews.

Interviews can help set goals and objectives for a task. A civic planning committee working with San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) on a joint development project conducted interviews with the heads of newly-formed groups to help determine the extent and goals of the organization and its constituency.

What are the drawbacks?

Key people may not represent the total range of community values. Interviews must be used with other techniques that help validate the information gleaned from the interviews. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

A variety of methods to reach people are essential to obtain a full range of opinions. Heavy reliance on meeting notes and sign-in sheets from public meetings tell an agency who the visible public leaders are, but key people who work behind the scenes are easily missed.

Key person interviews do not replace direct talks with interested or affected groups. Such interviews do not substitute for direct public involvement.

Community members may be alienated if their key people are not interviewed. If some people are misidentified as key people, community residents may accuse the agency of ignorance or malice. In Portland, Maine, a school principal identified as a key person turned out not to be as knowledgeable and helpful as had been anticipated. In Dallas, certain community groups felt that the transit agency gave equal credence to comments from individuals and from their organizations. DART then encouraged the individuals who were outspoken to join others in forming a new organization or to join an existing group.

Interviews should include a full range of people, including opponents. The Sioux City, Iowa, MPO used its district directors to help identify people to interview. It was careful to include people who in the past had been critical of some of its activities or policies.

Many agencies interview only public officials such as the town manager, aldermen, or planners. Although these interviews represent one segment of key people to contact, they must be done in combination with interviews and talks with representatives of interest groups, opinion leaders, neighborhood associations, individual residents, users, and more.

Are key person interviews flexible?

Timing and structure of key person interviews are flexible. They can take place at any time, cover a variety of topics, and be structured or open-ended. However, it is best to do interviews before negative news gets out. Staffing is flexible, but interviewers must be good listeners, open rather than defensive, and knowledgeable about whom to probe and how.

When are they used most effectively?

Key person interviews are useful both at the start of a process and just prior to decision-making. Of course, it may be necessary and desirable to continue the contacts throughout the process. Follow-up interviews are done in the same manner as initial interviews. To save time and staff resources, follow-up may be done by phone. If an agency does not follow up the interviews or maintain contact with key people, credibility suffers.

Interviews help evaluate projects or proposals or the process itself. In many cases, key people are well aware of a former process that went awry. Their willingness to discuss it saves an agency many steps. In addition, they have a sense of how a project or proposal will be received within their community. This information aids an agency in modifying plans to be more responsive to community concerns and to present to the public.

For further information:

Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia (404) 364-2575
City Heights Community Development Corporation (619) 584-1535
Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority, Dallas, Texas (214) 749-2581
Little Rock Metroplan, Little Rock, Arkansas (501) 372-3300
Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Study, Portland, Maine (207) 774-9891
Sioux City Planning Department, Sioux City, Iowa (712) 279-6344

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