Click and expand each step in the process for more information and to access useful resources.
The Big Picture
🅐 Understand your performance data and informationThe agency has a range of data to draw on: for example, statewide data on the total miles and hours traveled by the plow fleet and the total quantity of salt distributed are readily available. Other data – such as the time to bare pavement after a severe storm – may not yet be consistently reported statewide but could become available in the near-term.
🅑 Ascertain significant information to be communicatedIn this case, the agency needs to identify the information that will resonate with the traveling public - not necessarily the information that best aligns with strategic decision-making requirements. This can present a challenge if internal measures and targets are well-established.
🅒 Create the context for communicating informationThis is where the agency begins to move past the content of the data to the intent. For example, while some agencies may simply report tons of salt applied, a more meaningful performance measure would normalize this quantity by a measure of the environmental conditions (e.g. a winter severity index) in order to provide the necessary context. Indeed, such a measure is recommended in the Road Weather Management Performance Measures – 2012 Update document linked in this section. It's important to avoid the tendency toward adding more measures to address all aspects of performance; instead, it's best to focus on specific measures that are supported by quality data.
Step 1 Links:
A useful primer on the topic is provided by the FHWA ITS Joint Program Office publication: Road Weather Management Performance Measures – 2012 Update, linked below. Another technical document, Levels of Service in Winter Maintenance Operations: A Survey of State Practice Prepared for the Clear Roads Pooled Fund Study by CTC & Associates LLC and the WisDOT Research & Library Unit is also linked.
The Big Picture
🅐 Define Your Target AudienceSuccessful communications resemble a conversation with real person – it's not about addressing something impersonal. Turning abstracts like “the public” into “someone driving to work on the highway who is delayed because of winter weather” will help focus the effort.
🅑 Determine How Best to Engage the AudienceTake thinking personally one step further. Personalize the target audiences. Do they want a quick summary (probably) or do they have the time and inclination to study details (unlikely)? Thinking about how friends, family, and colleagues engage with information will help to define the best media for the job. This case calls for a clear graphical treatment that requires minimal explanatory text. The product can carry additional "layers" of information, but it should be intelligible at a glance.
🅒 Describe the Key MessageIn 15 words or less, what’s the main takeaway? The fact that the agency is responding to winter weather quickly and efficiently is great. But the bottom line is: getting winter travelers from point A to point B more reliably and safely.
🅓 Establish Clear, Measurable GoalsIt is important to assess whether a communication effort is working. This requires an understanding that communication is about reaching a target audience and being understood – not necessarily about management actions being taken. Consider metrics that would indicate that the effort provides meaningful information to the target audience – and can feasibly be measured in a consistent, timely, and accurate manner. If the primary means of distributing the final product is via the agency's website and social media channels, measures of audience engagement such as number of "shares" or "likes" (or the rate of "shares" or "likes") may be a good fit. If the final product is a PDF (for example a map), a basic download rate or count could do the trick. If the product includes a dynamic map, a count of user interaction "events" might be a candidate.
🅔 Compile the Communications PlanOnce the measures, context, audience, message, and media are established it is time to write up a plan. This will be the document that guides all that comes next so it's advisable to engage stakeholders as much as possible at this stage. A good communication plan can't be drafted in a vacuum. In drafting this plan, there are some important considerations to keep in mind: since the key information has a strong spatial component, a map-based treatment may be the best-suited. But the appropriate scale will depend on many factors; perhaps most important among these is the granularity of your performance data.
🅕 Write the Creative BriefUsing the communication plan, develop a one- to two-page document that provides the basis for evaluating creative concepts. What’s the feel? What style is appropriate? What limitations – words, colors, format, etc. – does the creative team need to know about? This product will not only carry important system performance information; it also has the potential to communicate public safety information. A clear informational hierarchy should reserve some means of adding the greatest emphasis to this critical content, if and when it is needed.
Step 2 Links:
The final report for NCHRP Project 6-17, Performance Measures for Snow and Ice Control Operations, while technical, includes valuable discussion of measures of public satisfaction. This document, along with a condensed summary, is linked below:
The Big Picture
🅐 Draft Text and Sketch Out Several Possible Visual Presentation IdeasBrainstorm alone or with a group. Think of ways to express the message. Let the ideas flow uncritically. Ideally at this point it is possible to draw up three treatments that would work. Because this effort is designed to develop a reporting template, it needs to reconcile the tension between spotlighting the most recent performance data without obscuring long-term trends or targets (benchmarks). It's not uncommon for the first drafts to suffer from "information overload." This process is all about paring back and simplifying.
🅑 Review and Select Criteria Treatment that Best Meets Creative Brief CriteriaNow review the three best ideas against the creative brief. Which one meets all the criteria? Using the creative brief, circle back to stakeholders and make sure there is alignment on the concept. Because of the close connection to traveler safety, it's especially important to maintain an appropriate tone and to avoid lighthearted concepts that might not sit well with key stakeholders.
Step 3 Links:
Examples from three states – Rhode Island (with two sites), Virginia, and Colorado – are shown here to illustrate the variety of approaches agencies take in presenting winter maintenance performance information, ranging from near real-time traveler information to high-level retrospective snapshots. A behind-the-scenes look at Iowa DOT is also included here, with two web-based presentations.
The Big Picture
🅐 Begin Creative ProcessThis is where concepts turn into products – and it's just as important to be technically accurate as it is to have creative flair. To achieve this, technical staff (e.g. engineers, planners) and creative staff (communications, designers, developers) need a shared vision and common objectives. This is why the creative brief is so important. It provides a foundation for this collaboration. In this case, your GIS team is likely to be involved, bringing additional stakeholders to the table (along with opinions on composition, format, and layout!)
🅑 Finalize Communications ProductsThis is final critical QA/QC step. Be sure your information is accurate. Check that it is correctly produced. Then go back and look at that creative brief and communication plan once again – and make sure it's still on target. Because this effort is designed to develop a reporting template it not only involves designing a finished product, it also involves designing a workflow for effectively utilizing that product. This means considering how the design will adapt going forward as targets, timeframes, responsible parties, data formats, software packages, and media platforms change.
🅒 Prepare Materials for Different Usage and MediaNow it's time to complete the technical steps to prepare the creative product for dissemination. Check and double check file sizes, colors, permission to use images, and anything else that needs to be in order. One advantage of digital production and distribution is that corrections and edits can be made on an ongoing basis. The corresponding challenge is that these products must be planned and maintained for a much longer lifecycle.
Step 4 Links:
Despite the availability of powerful graphics applications, producing professional art files is more challenging than ever simply due to the proliferation of media platforms, screen dimensions, specs, and standards that designers and marketers must respect. One marketer's media cheat sheet helps make sense of this complex landscape. Also linked, a page from Iowa DOT that demonstrates how an agency can provide easy access to high-quality art files – in this case images developed through the Clear Roads Pooled Fund.
The Big Picture
🅐 Schedule the Distribution of Your Communications ProductsExecute your media plan. Coordinate distribution, making sure you have the right materials for the right medium. Double check run dates with publications, launch dates with your team, and calendar dates with yourself! Will the printer deliver your materials in time? Is your webmaster ready to go live as soon as the board meeting is over? It's important to remember that communications products take on a life of their own once they're published! Comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn that were never anticipated when the products were drafted. It pays to remember that framing appropriate apples-to-apples comparisons is a key responsibility of managing and executing a communications campaign.
🅑 Implement Your DistributionYou’ve launched. Congratulations! Is there time-sensitive information? Make sure you’re updating it. Will the information be around for a while? Perhaps you want to consider freshening it to keep it relevant. Failing to anticipate the requirements of long-term maintenance can severely limit the value of the finished product (for example, if the resources needed to keep data up-to-date are lacking).
Step 5 Links:
The link below is a U.S. map published by Washington State DOT showing the average road salt use of many state DOTs. It provides a reminder of the unanticipated (and perhaps unwelcome) comparisons that will so often be made.
🅐 Check-In throughout Communication ProgramAs you begin getting feedback, check it against your plan. Is it working the way you had intended? Then maybe just a tweak or two is needed. Is your audience missing the key message? A more major overhaul might be necessary. This involves assessing your performance against the measures and objectives you established for the effort back in step 2. But beyond that, it also means assessing whether those were the right measures in the first place.
🅑 Review and Assess CommunicationsFinishing your effort is really the start of the next one. What are the lessons learned? Do you have the data you need? Have you defined the right target audience? Is your message clear? Were your goals appropriate? Did the visuals serve to enhance communication? How well did the team work together? Where were the problems? This information helps you plan better for the next round.
The Big Picture
Step 6 Links:
The first link is to a contractor's final report, Developing and Evaluating Safe Winter Driving Messages. This research, conducted through the Clear Roads Pooled Fund, provides an easy-to-understand example of using customer surveys to refine and develop new collateral. The second link highlights the importance of presenting defensible performance measurement information (and also contains some noteworthy data displays). The third link below, to a behind-the-scenes look at Chicago's "Plow Tracker" app and the many comments it has accrued, reveals both the benefits and risks associated with a robust communications plan that engages the public around issues that can be emotionally charged.
Example communications resources:
February 2, 2021 / MDOT
January 6, 2010 / Iowa DOT
January 11, 2016 / Vermont Agency of Transportation
January 1, 2014 / Michigan DOT