Route 35 Bridge, Kennebunk, Maine; Passaconway Bridge, Cape Neddick, Maine: Turning failure into positive PR
CHALLENGE: Create positive public feedback around two bridge failures along heavily traveled and highly visible state roads. The Route 35 Bridge in Kennebunk failed due to ground instability in July 2005; the Passaconway Bridge, crossing the Cape Neddick River on Shore Road in York, was washed out in the torrential rains of May 2006.
STRATEGY: Both bridge failures called for similar communications strategies, as in both cases the public needed to know MaineDOT’s immediate response tactics and the department needed quick feedback on their proposed replacement strategy.
Since both incidents attracted widespread media attention, Morris’ first step was to release a MaineDOT action plan, along with 24/7 contact information. The media alert stated that affected residents would soon be hearing directly from the department. This took place within 12 hours of bridge failure, with an invitation to call Morris anytime with questions or concerns. Many residents took advantage of this opportunity, allowing Morris to prevent rumors from spreading, get a heads-up on potential concerns and provide information and support before residents had a chance to become frustrated.
While public meetings were held in both projects, Morris asked the media and the town managers to encourage affected residents to comment directly to the town web sites to obtain broader feedback. The towns created project updates on the town sites. In Kennebunk, the site was used to gather quantitative feedback on which rebuilding option was favored, which gave the town and MaineDOT support in choosing a shorter, less expensive replacement option.
Morris also negotiated replacement design approval with the Kennebunk Historic Commission, which assumed local control over the area where the bridge was located. In York, Morris was the intermediary between the department and a conservation organization that opposed replacing the bridge at all.
RESULTS: The public process was completed to the satisfaction of MaineDOT, and to the accompaniment of positive press, particularly in Kennebunk, where the local paper ran an editorial praising the department’s commitment to action and to communication.