By Mike Gray and Andrew Ryan
The public sector—whether at the federal, state, or municipal level—provides great sources of revenue for businesses in the A/E/C sector. However, as many companies have learned the hard way, public projects offer a unique set of complexities, especially when a crisis arises. These projects often require delicate relationship management, because companies must not only answer to their clients, but when public funds are involved, they end up answering to the general tax-paying population as well.
The increase in public scrutiny is borne from two societal shifts. The first is the continued growth of digital transparency through social media and blogs, which makes public information more easily accessible and provides a larger public platform. Additionally, the Great Recession has changed much of the public’s opinion about the use of tax dollars.
Citizens are more attuned to spending choices and costs, particularly as governments work with tighter budgets. Potential disputes and crises can arise with any project, whether labor disputes, design flaws, mismanagement, inaccurate budgets, etc. However, with a public project, involving public monies, the dispute is often magnified and receives a great deal of attention.
Examples abound from across the country. In the Maryland suburbs near DC, the Silver Spring Transit Center has come under intense scrutiny for expensive delays and overruns (now costing almost quadruple the initial estimates). The backlash from local officials and the public against the general contractor, architects, and inspector has been fierce as the ongoing crisis continues to damage the reputation of the firms involved.
In Cincinnati, OH, there has been a firestorm of criticism from unions about the labor used by developers and construction companies on a public private partnership to help revitalize part of the city’s downtown.
A construction company based in Richmond, VA, received bad press when a miscommunication between the city and the public led to the removal of trees from the construction site of the new Washington Redskins’ summer training facility.
In these examples and countless others over the years, A/E/C firms have been directly or indirectly affected by the public criticism. Sustained and mounting controversies can quickly and easily damage a business reputation.
These challenges have become more prevalent with the rise in spending on public construction. The U.S. Commerce Department reported that public construction spending has risen each month thus far in 2013 and more spending is expected, especially as the economy recovers.
As public spending on construction and public-private partnerships continues to increase, it is imperative that A/E/C firms prepare for questions and potential public backlash about projects on which they are working, because elected officials can be quick to point the blame at a third party when their reputation is on the line. Creating a comprehensive communications strategy can decrease the likelihood of miscommunication, protect the company’s reputation, and produce public goodwill..
In any crisis situation involving a project with clients, especially one that includes public money, companies should be prepared to protect their name and reputation and be ready to help their client (developer, local government entity, etc.) address questions and concerns about a project.
This second point is especially important. Professional services firms are on the front line of a project and have on-the-ground expertise. Their experience is an added benefit that they can offer to clients, particularly those in the public sector. When questions about the project arise, offer to help answer them. Be visible at public hearings, as needed, to discuss why particular decisions are made and how those decisions benefit a project.
Build relationships with current clients by offering to help develop talking points about a project. The goal of any project is to be done well, on time, and under budget. You should help your clients explain why decisions are made or changes are needed. Frame these explanations as what is in the best interest of the project and, ultimately, the locality.
Offering to provide these services and following through proactively sends a powerful message to clients. Assisting clients by helping them respond to criticism is the hallmark of a true and loyal partner. It also showcases additional value to your business. There are a number of ways to handle public criticism and crises, and five key rules to follow:
1. Be Prepared: Don’t wait until an issue arises before creating a plan. Create a plan as soon as a contract is signed.
2. Act Quickly: Hesitating to respond can be costly. News organizations and the general public are often quick to point the blame at an entity if no one responds. Have prepared remarks ready and don’t hesitate to use them.
3. Be Honest: Honesty is always the best policy. The public is actually a lot more forgiving than most companies think.
4. Be Accessible: You must be available to talk to reporters and be present at public meetings. Also, make sure your statements are understandable and not weighed down by technical language. Speak to the public in language it understands.
5. Defer, but Defend: It’s OK to defer questions to your client, and some clients may prefer to handle certain inquiries. However, make sure you are ready to defend your company when needed. There is no easy answer for handling backlash against a project, especially one involving public criticism. Whether it is pushback from a client or a full-blown crisis, developing a proactive and comprehensive communications strategy ahead of time is essential to navigating the criticism. With any project, planning ahead for unforeseen problems is simply good business.
About the Authors
Mike Gray and Andrew Ryan are partners with Commonwealth Partnerships Group, a diverse holding company that includes a full-service marketing, public relations, and government relations firm; the Virginia Real Estate Blog (www.virginiareblog.com); and a real estate investment fund. Based in Virginia, they work with businesses in the commercial and residential real estate industry. Mike can be contacted at email@example.com and Andrew firstname.lastname@example.org. This is their first contribution to Marketer.
This article originally appeared in the SMPS Marketer and is reprinted with permission of SMPS.The Society for Marketing Professional Services (www.smps.org) is the only marketing association dedicated to the A/E/C industry. SMPS represents 6,000 marketing and business development professionals working in architectural, engineering, planning, interior design, construction, and specialty consulting firms located throughout the United States and Canada. SMPS and its 55+ chapters benefit from the support of 3,700 design and building firms, encompassing 80% of the Engineering News–Record Top 500 Design Firms and Top 400 Contractors.
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