Averting a Crisis with Strategic Communications

Prior to the total closure of I-64 in St. Louis, the largest highway improvement in Missouri history, headlines screamed “Apocalypse Now!” and “Traffic Nightmare!” Over the course of one year, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and its contractor conducted more than 175 public appearances to nearly 15,000 people at regional businesses, community groups and hospitals. Weekly television interviews and newspaper articles covered the project schedule. MoDOT suggested tools to help survive the closure including using transit, carpooling and flextime.  The people listened.  The headlines immediately after the January 2, 2008 closure read “Region’s Traffic Nightmare a No-Show,” and “Preparation Pays Off.”

Closing the Interstate
So how do you prepare a metropolitan region of 2.5 million people for the closure of one of the major interstates for two years? What did MoDOT do to inform and raise a call to action to make this effort successful? It takes strategic crisis communication at its finest, even if it is an expected crisis. 

Interstate 64/US Route 40 is the oldest highway in St. Louis dating back to the 1930s.  Originally designed for cars going 30 mph, the interstate had more of a parkway feel as it meandered east and west through the heart of St. Louis. Now more than 150,000 vehicles use the highway each day at speeds in excess of 60 mph. Unfortunately, this old highway and its 30 bridges, had become so deteriorated, it had to be replaced.  Limited funds, limited space and a need to complete the project quickly to limit the impact of construction complicated the plan for how to rebuild it.

In 2006, two teams competed to win the half million-dollar contract. In November 2006, MoDOT hired Gateway Constructors to complete the reconstruction project. The project includes 0 miles of roadway plus replacing six cross street bridges and 12 interchanges including a new interchange at Interstate 170. The construction would take just three and half years with two years of complete closure of I-64, compared to 6-8 years keeping lanes open. 

Re-Routing Motorists
Construction began in March 2007 with minimal disruption to traffic, but the closure of I-64 was looming for January 2008. Where would 150,000 plus cars go every day? 

The public relations staff for MoDOT and Gateway Constructors was co-located at the project office to develop and implement an extensive communications and community outreach effort. The communications had to address the concerns of regional mobility, hospital and emergency access, large businesses and employers, mom and pop operations, public and private schools, regional attractions and everyday commuters and shoppers.

As a government agency with a very tight budget, there were minimal funds available for community outreach.  Communications efforts had to focus on free public relations and face-to-face on the ground efforts.

The St. Louis radio, television and print media covered the project extensively.  The announcement of the construction plan in late 2006 made headlines and by spring 2007, all media were providing weekly project updates.  MoDOT and Gateway Constructors spokespersons were available to all media requests anytime day or night.  The television stations offered a weekly Friday update, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided a construction map and updates in Monday’s edition.  The team also participated in several dozen live call-in radio shows throughout the year leading up to the January 2008 closure.

Convening Public Forums
Gateway Constructors held public meetings in late January 2007 to show the public their plans for construction.  More than 500 people attended the meetings. Another round of public meetings was held in November 2007 providing more details on the 2008 closure to the 150 people who attended.  Local media also provided coverage of these meetings.

As the media attention grew, the speaking engagements grew as well. Speeches focused on informing people of the construction schedule, how they could stay informed, what improvements MoDOT was making to the alternate routes and what options they had for getting around.  On average, the team gave three speeches every week of 2007 and on some days there were three in one day. 

Outreach activities also included transit fairs. Large employers would host the transit fair in their cafeteria over the lunch hour.  MoDOT, the local transit option and local rideshare program set up informational booths.  The team attended 13 transit fairs involving eight different groups/employers reaching a total of 2,295 people.

Using the Web as a Major Resource
The Web site has been a major part of the information dissemination.  The I-64 project Web site, www.thenewi64.org, has on average 12,000 visits per week.  During the last week leading up to the closure, visits peaked at 42,000 visits.  The Web site is promoted in all materials and is featured as a link on the Web sites of every media outlet, chamber of commerce, city, county and major attraction in St. Louis.  A construction e-mail was sent out every Friday to an e-mail distribution list of nearly 3,500. 

The final strategic communications plan was to include the media in MoDOT’s 24/7 Incident Command Center. Beginning the first day of the closure, MoDOT organized an incident command center to monitor traffic involving the city, county, state patrol and contractor.  Following the morning rush and the evening rush, the group discussed the results of that rush period and how to improve things for the next rush period. The information was summarized in a news release and presented onsite in a news conference. All local media covered the news conference.  Space was made available at the command center for the media to have editing equipment and do live reports from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. Details on how traffic was flowing were immediately conveyed to the public by all the news media.

One month after the closure, MoDOT received a complimentary letter cosigned by the region’s top three business associations that summarizes the success. “In addition to excellent engineering and construction work, the outstanding communication from you and your staff, the resources made available to workers in the area via news media, the Web, and direct communications with local businesses – all have ensured a smooth transition for commuters.” 

This article was written by Linda Wilson, who has spent the last 16 years managing public relations for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s St. Louis office. It is currently being featured in PR News' 2008 Crisis Management Guidebook. To order a copy, visit https://www.prnewsonline.com/store/12.html