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Utah road-project publicists finding job's full of potholes

In this state at this time in history, no two words can evoke as strong and hostile an emotion from the public as these: road construction.

In a day and age when road rage is a household term, state politicians scramble annually to find creative ways to fund road projects and asphalt and the Salt Lake Valley is being consumed by a menacing orange-cone fungus, it may not be a wise career move to enter the field of transportation public relations.That's not an option for hundreds of city and town employees across Utah.

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," Duchesne Mayor Kim Hamlin said Wednesday. He said tempering public reaction to the city's $1.1 million Main Street beautification project, which will restrict traffic on U.S. 40 for most of the summer, is not easy.

About 75 municipal employees - mostly public works supervisors and staffers with rural Utah addresses - were told Wednesday, they must become part-time public relations specialists and improve customer service if they are to survive even the smallest of road projects without endangering their organization's reputation.

"Construction, almost by definition, is a difficult situation that you have to deal with one way or another," Utah State University economics professor Marion Bentley said during the Utah League of Cities and Town's annual road school convention at Dixie College.

"The public thinks of us as an inconvenience store. That's the message, that when we roll our trucks out there's going to be some kind of obstacle."

Bentley said public works departments need to change public perception by letting the public know something positive will happen - better mobility.

"Short-term problems for long-term solutions. It seems to me that's what we ought to be telling people," Bentley told the group.

That approach is being used by the Utah Department of Transportation - admitting construction is no fun but emphasizing how much better life will be when 17 miles of I-15 in Salt Lake County are widened and rebuilt.

Bentley said trying to hide the fact that construction projects are inconvenient makes people angry.The goal is to make them feel better without belittling their intelligence or making them more upset.

Bentley suggested asking those with complaints to help solve the problem. Don't promise more than you can deliver and focus on what you can do, not what you can't do, he said. If people call attention to one particular problem, take note and work to resolve it. And always keep the public informed through the media and through direct contacts, Bentley said.

Bentley advised against manipulating news. He cited Wasatch Contractor's (the I-15 contractor) recent press release touting its efforts to assist flooding victims in Midvale while failing to mention one of its subcontractors may have caused the flooding by severing a drainage pipe, as an example.

Public relations, Bentley said, is "everything you do to create a positive, hospitable environment for your message to get through to your audience."

In Duchesne, Hamlin's administration holds a weekly meeting for the public and media to discuss the latest activity on the mile-long Main Street project. That's gone a long way toward calming fears in the business community, Hamlin said.

Glade Allred, Vernal's streets superintendent, said conversing with the public and media is important and pays big dividents.

Allred said residents complained for years about snowplows blowing snow into just shoveled driveways. His initial response was to tell residents it would be costly and possibly raise taxes to simply haul away the snow.

As the complaints persisted, Allred and his staff looked for solutions. They found that manually operated restricters could prevent dumping snow back into driveways. Most of the city's plows have been retrofitted and Allred doesn't get as many calls anymore.

"They know we're trying and that's what I find, if people know that you're trying to do what they want," they're satisfied, Allred said.

That's the kind of genuine public relations Bentley is talking about.