“Why I do PI” guest post

20 01 2011

With a construction notification flier in my hand, I take a deep breath before walking into a business.

I am wearing a safety vest which makes me look bright and shiny. It’s a medium, but it looks more like an extra-large on my body. I don’t like it, but I wear it because it makes me look more professional when delivering construction updates to the public. It gives me more credibility talking to strangers.

The front desk ladies immediately turn their attention to me as soon as I step in, even before I open my mouth.

“What can I do for you?” one of them asks. Her tone was calm, but I could tell from her eyes that my presence had her worried. I’ve noticed that people behind desks sometimes are more nervous than I am because they don’t know what to expect from me.

I politely inform them that a construction project will soon occur in their area and encourage them to stay informed by joining our email update list.

“So are you part of the construction crew?” the other lady asks.  “Because if you are, they are really upgrading their people.” This time, she has a big grin on her face.

“I’m not a construction worker,” I reply, smiling. “I am a public involvement coordinator on this job, in charge of notifying the public of project progress, impacts and building bridges between my client and the stakeholders.”

“Oh, so you are the one that gets yelled at when people go crazy because of construction.” Was this a statement or question?

I chuckle and say, “Well, when that happens, I usually just stay calm, smile and tell them not to kill the messenger.”

They both laugh.

This kind of light-hearted conversation happens every once in awhile at my job as a public involvement coordinator in the civil engineering/transportation industry. Most people don’t know much about what our responsibilities are; some don’t even know that we exist. Often times, people think that taking complaints is all we do. I admit that’s part of my job, but there are many interesting elements in my role that make me enjoy what I do, so I can overlook the parts that are not so enjoyable.

I do public involvement (PI) because I can help people and make a difference in society.

When a transportation project is being studied, it means changes will happen. Not everyone enjoys change or knows how to deal with it. The public doesn’t always understand the need for a transportation project, and when it disrupts their daily life, the government becomes the culprit in their eyes. They often don’t realize their opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

If the Department of Transportation (DOT) is planning on reconstructing the roadway in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to know why, what their plans are, and tell them how you think they can do it right? After all, you’ve been driving through it all your life whereas the design engineers may live in a different county. However, notification letters or fliers go unnoticed sometimes; the majority of the public don’t realize a transportation project is underway until they see barrels and flashing arrows on the street! Part of our responsibility as PI coordinators is to communicate complex but accurate information to stakeholders (you know, engineers can’t speak simple English) and design messages in a meaningful way so that they can be alerted early on, clearly understand the need and purpose of the transportation project, and be encouraged to submit their input to make a difference. In return, we actively listen to their concerns and try to incorporate them into the project development.

PI is more than public education. Rather, it is a two-way communication. We advocate for the public by striving to do what is right for them; and also advocate for our client by changing the public’s opinion and behavior toward the project from negative to positive. This is exactly what I love doing.

From PI, I learn something new every day and get to polish my skills as a communicator.

I remember when I first started this job, I often got lost in meetings because of my lack of knowledge of this industry. What is NEPA? What does EIS mean? What is FHWA’s role on this project? What do LOS, ROW, or MOT stand for? What is the difference between roadway excavation and rotomilling? What kind of impact does pile driving bring to the public? Is it something I have to tell the surrounding residents and businesses? Gradually I began to understand. I learn more every day, little by little, including but not limited to: environmental studies, engineering designs, and construction activities. It is a continuously stimulating experience for my curious mind. I also get to do research, write, design graphics, organize public meetings, and interact with interesting people. It is the diversity of my job that makes me enjoy what I do.

With a degree in public relations, I could have applied for a job in a PR agency; but I chose PI instead. At this job, our focus is on the roads that thousands of people drive every day and impacts to homes in which people raise their families, not promoting a product that we could live without. It gives me satisfaction to know that my contribution to transportation projects is not only beneficial for the present moment, but it will be used for generations to come.

Annie Wong joined PB Americas, Inc. following the completion of her bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Brigham Young University in 2009. She has public involvement experience in a variety of transportation related projects and currently serves as the IAP2 Intermountain Chapter secretary.