Never underestimate the power of PR!

Public Relations for Winter Operations

Alan L. Gesford, P.E.
Technology Transfer Specialist, Institute of State and Regional Affairs
Penn State University, Middletown, Pennsylvania

The following presentation was delivered at the North American Snow Conference in Peoria, Illinois on April 30, 2006.

The topic is "Winter Public Relations," but we can't talk about just PR. We need to discuss PPR! What is PPR? That depends on you! What kind of public relations do you have?

You say you have good public relations, but do you really? Or do you just accept what you consider to be inevitable?—some good, some bad, some just so. You know you do a good job as to snow operations and that is what matters. In that case you probably have PPR—Passive Public Relations.

Or maybe you say your public relations aren't too good. Why? Oh, because you get bad press and the public just doesn't understand. But are you doing anything about it? No! So you have PPR—Poor Public Relations.

Or maybe it's even gotten to the point that you don't care anymore, because you don't understand the public, and you know snow and good PR just don't mix. And if the public doesn't understand, well, Bah! Humbug! and let it snow on them! You then have PPR—Pathetic Public Relations.

If you fall within any one of these three categories, then you better tune in and listen up. Why? Because you don't need that type of frustration to carry around with you on the job, or carry home to the family, or carry to bed for a sleepless night. And not only don't you need it, you don't have to have it!

You should never underestimate the power or importance of public relations, and you definitely should be striving continually for good public relations. But how can you have good public relations when you are trying to manage uncontrollable winter weather?

Well, with a few simple suggestions, a relatively short amount of time, and relatively little cost, you can rid yourself of major public relations frustrations.

What you need is PPR—Planned Public Relations, and you are going to get the 3-2-1 Planned Public Relations Program, consisting of six items to be correspondingly implemented before, during, and after winter. But before we get into the 3-2-1 PPR Program, there are some other planning and preparation that you should already have in place.

Do You Have a Snow Plan?
A "Comprehensive Snow Plan" is the #1 priority in winter operations. This written "Comprehensive Snow Plan" should include all your policies, regulations and procedures regarding all responsibilities for your community for snow and ice control, including levels of service and a Snow Map. What are the key elements of this plan? Here's a starter list:

  • Level(s) of Service
  • Areas of Responsibility
  • Winter Organization Chart
  • Public Policies
  • Storm Warning System
  • Snow Map (Routes & Priorities)
  • Employee Training and Safety Programs
  • Material Policies
  • Equipment Policies
  • Operations Policies
  • Interdepartmental Cooperation
  • Intergovernmental Agreements
  • Use of Outside Contractors
  • Public/Media Relations

What Goes into a Public Relations Program?
Once you have your Comprehensive Snow Plan, what you need to do is get all that information to the public you serve so they understand; receive all their concerns and act accordingly; and solicit their help and support. Please re-read the prior statement, because a good planned public relations program will include all of this. A discussion of each point follows.

Get all the information to the public you serve. Don't you think it would help the public to understand if they knew:

  • Who is responsible for what?
  • What the municipal budget is for winter operations?
  • How many personnel and what equipment was available?
  • What kind of working hours your crew may have during snow storms?
  • What your policies and procedures are for plowing, for spreading salt and other materials, for snow removal?
  • Whether you are initiating something new like anti-icing?
  • Where and when you plan to pick up, load, haul and dispose of excess snow, like in downtowns, cul-de-sacs, parking lots, etc.?
  • What your street priorities are and why—emergency vehicles and facilities, school bus routes, transit routes, major traffic arteries?
  • What public policies are in effect regarding emergency snow routes, parking restrictions, towing of vehicles, sidewalk clearing, disposal of snow?
  • What emergency backup you may have—outside contractor help, intermunicipal agreements?
  • Whom to contact during the storm for a problem or concern?

Next you need to hear their problems and concerns. Don't you think it would help if you could hear their concerns and answer them accordingly before winter? You may even revise and improve your Comprehensive Snow Plan after consideration of their input.

Finally, you need to solicit their help and support by advising them about how they can do just that:

  • By complying with local laws and regulations.
  • By removing vehicles from the street during the storm where possible.
  • By waiting until after the street is plowed before cleaning driveway openings.
  • By clearing sidewalks and helping with crosswalks.
  • By not shoveling snow out into the streets—explaining the problems and concerns.
  • By making sure their vehicles are equipped for winter driving.
  • By reviewing their hazardous conditions driving habits.
  • By clearing fire hydrants.

A good planned public relations program will do all this. A 3-2-1 Planned Public Relations Program consists of three items to be implemented before winter, two items during winter, and one item after winter.

The 3-2-1 Planned Public Relations Program

The 3 Items Before Winter: Item #1 Before Winter—Meet with Concerned Groups
First you need to meet with your elected officials to review your plan, levels of service, and relationship to resources including personnel, equipment, materials and budget funding. Review the public policies and the importance of enforcement. They definitely have a concern and should know all about your operations to effectively answer calls and requests from residents (their constituency).

They say the two most important factors that influence the effectiveness of your snow regulations are public acceptance and public compliance. One of the greatest influences on these two factors is your first group—the police. You need the understanding, cooperation, and support of your local police department. So schedule a meeting with your crew and the police crew. Discuss problems and concerns and how you can mutually benefit from a team operation. You both really have the same goal—a safe transportation system.

Speaking of teams, don't forget your next group—the other emergency services: EMTs, ambulances, hospitals, and fire services. Again, meet and discuss priority routing, cooperation in emergency response, clearing of fire hydrants, etc.

Meet with the School District, the Parent/Teacher Association, and the school bus organization and again discuss potential problems and concerns. With these groups, priority routing will be a major topic.

Next you need to work with the business community. Meet with the Chamber of Commerce or with other business associations to present your program and address their concerns. You should tell them to remind their hired contractors not to push or dump snow out into the street when clearing parking lots.

There are several other groups to meet and share information and concerns. These groups include your local service organizations (Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks, Lions, etc.), and any Neighborhood Block (Watch) Groups. Service organizations are always looking for a lunch speaker.

As you meet with all these groups, you will leave your mark on many individuals; a mark of better understanding that will be transferable to others they meet. Thus, your public relations program begins to bloom.

If you feel skeptical about the success of these meetings, ask yourself why police and fire departments are so much more accepted and understood by the public than you and your public works operations. Ask them about their public relations program. Of course this is another important reason to have police and fire on your team.

Meeting with all these groups is listening to your customers. This can only promote understanding and lead to enhanced public relations.

Item #2 Before Winter—Distribute a Snow Brochure
Develop, print and distribute a little brochure to the public including all the little things they can do to help and any other pertinent information they may need. Maybe all you need is a separate section in your existing newsletter. In addition, all the information can also be put on a website. Invaluable!

Here we can include all the public policies and regulations, give them our routing priorities, ask for their cooperation, give them suggestions as to ways they can help, and give them a number to call. You may even want to include a little sketch like the following, showing them how to clean their driveway if they have to clean it before the plow comes down the street.

Item #3 Before Winter—Use the Media!
Use the media, don't let the media use you! Local newspapers, radio, and TV are all generally quite receptive to advance stories on winter operations. When you begin to mount snowplows and calibrate your spreaders, contact the media and invite them to your facility to take pictures and do an article. Don't miss this opportunity to explain your operating procedures. This will build public support and prepare a realistic expectation of your services. This will also show you have reasonable policies within the limits of the budget for personnel and materials, and that their municipality is prepared.

Pre-prepared news releases are also a good way to solicit the media's help, again covering your operations, regulations, and requesting cooperation and assistance. Larger governments may schedule a news conference.

Also ask the media people for a contact person and/or number for use in relaying emergency information during the winter. And don't forget to give them a contact person and number to call if they need information from you. Having this in place will reduce chances of haphazard misinformation being supplied by just anyone answering the phone.

Establishing a good working relationship with the media is important. With anything new and different—new policy or ordinance, new pieces of snow equipment—contact the media. Remember, use the media; don't let the media use you!

Let's move on to the second portion of our program.

The 2 Items During the Winter: Item #1 During Winter—Set Up a Snow Information Center
Maybe it's a "Snow Hotline" or a "Request for Services Center"—call it whatever you want. You will need a "Snow Center" telephone number to be distributed by your "3 Items Before." Your Snow Center also has to be operated by a courteous, patient employee who knows how to handle people on the telephone. The public is less tolerant of failure in ice and snow control than in many other street and road operations.

You should also have a formal procedure for incoming calls of a request nature:

  • Recording of the complaint or request.
  • Transmittal to the proper responsible person.
  • Evaluation and action by that person.
  • Replying back to requestor about the action taken or explanation of non-action.

Do not forget this last bullet item to enhance your public relations.

Item #2 During Winter—Use the Media!
Again take advantage of a resource; it definitely can be an advantage to you. Notify them of any emergency regarding winter operations. Radio is especially good for immediate transmittal of emergency situations or problems, and they are very receptive to public service announcements. Invite the media out during cleanup operations, again using the opportunity to explain your operations.

Prepare news releases on the past storm operations—when did you start, how much equipment and manpower was used, how many hours, how much material was spread, describe particular events, what problems occurred and if and how they hindered your operations. Use the media and use them effectively.

And we finally reach the #1 Item After Winter portion of our 3-2-1 PPR Program. When winter has finally released its hold and spring thaws are well underway, when snow equipment is being prepared for storage, go to:

The #1 Item After Winter—Use the Media!
Use the media to give credit and say "thank you" to all that helped make the winter operations more effective and tolerable to everyone.

At this time the media is the best way to transmit your message:

  • To publicly state the fantastic cooperation and support of your local police and fire personnel.
  • To publicly state the great cooperation and assistance by so many residents.
  • To publicly thank all your employees for a job well done.
  • To say "thank you" for the patience and understanding on everyone's part.
You can also include your final data for winter operations:

  • Total crew-hours.
  • Overtime hours.
  • Amount of salt used.
  • Major breakdowns or problem areas and their effect and solutions.

And don't forget to set the stage for the future budget hearings. Mention improvements or revisions to your plan that may be considered or new equipment that may be needed, all with associated actual costs and a budget/cost comparison.

If you tuned in and listened up, will take heed to what has been discussed herein, and will implement a 3-2-1 Planned Public Relations Program, I guarantee that the result will be a definite improvement to your public relations.

Whether you now have passive PR, poor PR, or pathetic PR, a 3-2-1 Planned Public Relations Program will result in more potent public relations than you ever had before. And as the winter wanes and turns into spring with the white stuff all gone and budding plants appearing, you will be thinking about just how precious good public relations really are.

Alan Gesford serves as a Technology Transfer Specialist for the Institute of State and Regional Affairs working on various projects with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation involving training and development. He can be reached at (717) 948-6182 or alg3@psu.edu.