What are information materials?
Information materials are useful in any public involvement process as a supplement to personal interactions between an agency and affected communities. The materials are useful for communicating key ideas in the absence of agency staff; i.e., they can be made available in locations and at times that are relatively easily accessible such as a stack of leaflets at a grocery store or an ad in the local newspaper.
Information materials can summarize complex information and communicate an idea quickly. Some images or text contain a single item of information such as a logo for a metropolitan planning effort or a website address for more information. The substance of the words or pictures can be factual, present a point of view, present a future condition, or stimulate a reaction. They may be reproduced on items aimed at individual recipients or in media that reach out to a mass audience.
Visual images, such as pictures, maps, and simple graphs, are particularly effective at communicating. For example, data on demographics or economic impacts can be turned into visual images such as graphs or models, for participants to discuss. Visual images can present environmental and aesthetic impacts; for example, a drawing of a proposed project can be added to a photograph of an existing location, making its relationship to the existing site very clear. With an image at hand, discussion among members of the community and relevant public agencies moves beyond conjecture to more substantial issues and concerns. Pictures can also help surmount language barriers.
It is important for an agency to determine which media are actually used by the community it seeks to reach. Some people can only be reached by cell phone or email, while others have no access to or comfort with computers and other relatively recent technology. Some people or groups may resist any form of impersonal communication. These preferences cannot be assumed on the basis of age, economic status, or ethnic background; it is always necessary to learn about the community and its subgroups before developing materials.
Physical materials may be effective in delivering information to the public. As always, an agency must identify the affected community's characteristics and select media most likely to be noticed and understood by the target community, including:
Advertisements—display and legal notices;
Logo items (magnets, mugs, pencils, etc);
Newsletters and progress bulletins;
Newspaper inserts and articles;
Posters and display boards;
Public bulletin boards;
Public radio/television sponsorships;
Public service announcements (PSAs);
Summaries of reports;
Utility bill stuffers
Digital media for delivering information to the technology-savvy public are constantly evolving. As of 2008, useful media include:
Blogs, chat rooms, and RSS feeds;
CDs and DVDs;
Emails, text messages, and SMS blasts;
Groups on social networking websites;
Online videos and simulations;
Videos and podcasts; and
Why are information materials useful?
Information materials include basic information about a plan, process, project, or document in a fast, concise, and clear way. They often summarize or encapsulate the overall thrust of a process. They are the basis of most meeting presentations. They provide information on what to do to respond, comment, become more involved, or be added to a contact list for a project or planning study. (See Mailing/Contact Lists)
Information materials can be used to provide information periodically to people who are not actively involved in an issue but who are curious or interested about its status. Often this is a very large group with fewer information needs than those who are intensely involved and need information frequently and in more depth.
If chosen to meet the community's practices, information materials are an accessible source of basic information once people know that a plan or project has begun. Printed materials are widely distributed to many people for maximum effect. A project or transportation plan website includes all important information and has links to key documents. Public information materials increase the chances that people actually get the information, because distribution can be extensive and less reliance is placed on press releases, word of mouth, or memory.
Information can be presented in visual, non-technical, and non-verbal ways. Renderings, simplified diagrams, models, and cartoons communicate information in different ways. For example, an Idaho Department of Transportation (DOT) poster featured a cartoon map of a construction project. San Francisco's Municipal Transit System (MUNI) used models to show how key stations would be adapted to accommodate disabled people. Information materials can reach the public beyond those who attend meetings. They allow an agency to expand the number and geographic distribution of those who can become informed and participate. (See Media Strategies)The City of Worcester, Massachusetts distributed pin-on buttons saying "Route 146 and a Piker, too!" to promote a new turnpike interchange and highway expansion project; the pins were distributed throughout the region. As part of its "Open Market Plan," the Rochester, New York Telephone Company inserted information and a survey with a billing to all of its 340,000 residential customers.
Information materials can be used in surveys. Survey materials describe facts and include a response form to be sent to an agency, either as a tear-off sheet from a print document or as a response sent from a website or email. They may list a telephone number or website to contact with comments to encourage immediate response. (See Public Opinion Surveys; Media Strategies) The Little Rock, Arkansas metropolitan planning organization (MPO), Metroplan, issued its report summary as a newspaper insert and included a tear-off form for reactions and comments through phone, mail, or fax. The Dallas, Texas Area Rapid Transit (DART) mails comment cards to people in the community to solicit input on how DART is doing in a number of areas. Information materials can be tailored to a specific aspect of a project or plan. They can be focused on a geographic area, a particular mode of transportation, or one element of a plan such as evaluation criteria. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota Council of Governments produced brochures on specific transportation modes, including one on bicycle access.
Information materials can gain attention by being fun and interesting. They can engage people casually. Under its "One Percent for the Arts" program, the Regional Transit Project in Seattle, Washington used a host of amusing, non-technical materials during its planning process, including posters, badges; PSAs based on interesting conversations, transit music, and video art performances. TV and newspaper ads highlighted the transit planning activities underway by using a character called "avoidance man," an everyday citizen who attempted to ignore messages about the worsening state of transportation in the Puget Sound Region.
Do information materials have special uses?
Information materials tell people how to seek out more information and help them decide to participate. The design of an item can attract attention and encourage questioning. It can become a symbol of a transportation plan or project. Attractive, well-illustrated, easy-to-understand materials make it easy for people to comprehend a process or a proposal. If the materials focus on ways for people to participate, community members may decide to get involved.
Public information materials get children involved. Games, placemats, and posters have been used to attract children to transportation projects. The Denver, Colorado, Regional Transit District created coloring books to teach children about light rail and safety. Amtrak and the Chicago Rapid Transit Authority prepared paper engineer’s hats for children. Amtrak distributed placemats with drawings that challenged children to find an engineer and other rail personnel hidden in a crowd. The Federal Aviation Administration prepared a connect-the-dots game and an activities book highlighting the life of the first black airplane captain, August Martin. For Portland, Maine, Comprehensive Transportation Study, materials were sent home with elementary and junior high school children.
Visual images facilitate discussion of details. People respond quickly to pictures of a proposed change to a place that they know. Various visual images can clearly show specific impacts and visual characteristics and can facilitate discussions about:
Information materials can be multilingual or targeted to low English proficiency individuals. Extensive or even moderate use of multilingual materials can create goodwill and demonstrate that an agency is trying to reach out to all groups. In Denver, Colorado, billboards in English and Spanish were used to inform people about an upcoming light rail project.
Who uses information materials? How and why?
Nearly everyone can use information materials and understand them. An emphasis on visual images keeps a message concise, making it more possible to get the attention of people who have only a few moments to catch the message. Visual images also make it possible to communicate to people who have difficulty reading, including the elderly, children, and people with low English proficiency. Of course, different materials should be created to reach those with sight impairments.
Technical and planning staff can benefit from the brevity of materials intended for reaching the public. In the New England Transportation Initiative (NETI) regional study, the Policy Committee often cited a brief newsletter as a good description of alternative investment scenarios. Although the full document of the scenarios was relatively short, the two-page description had icons for visual cues, making it easy to comprehend.
People can view the information in a variety of locations. They hear information on television or the radio, see it on YouTube, or receive it as a text message. They review brochures or other printed material at home, after receiving a physical copy or downloading it from the Internet. They view physical or digital displays in public buildings or at meetings. Libraries, state DOT offices, transit stations, or city halls are good locations to share DVDs, provide summaries of reports, and distribute other public information materials. In San Francisco, California, information on transit service and joint development activities was placed at prominent locations on turnstiles.
People may see the information at unofficial locations, such as at restaurants and stores. Restaurant or fast-food placemats with information about a plan or project may be seen by people who may not read news articles about transportation planning projects or listen to public service announcements. The Portland, Oregon Tri-Met combined grocery shopping with information about transit. Working with a grocery vendor, Tri-Met printed messages on grocery bags, printed its logo on grocery advertisements, stuffed a flier in each grocery bag, and handed out magnets printed with a logo at the cash register.
People may request information materials. In instances where wide distribution of hard copies is impractical, agencies can make materials available on request. This is particularly true of reports and report summaries. For example, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) produced several videotapes to lend to residents on request. (See Video Techniques) Community residents can participate in preparing information materials. Members of the Citizen Planning Committee of the San Francisco, California Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) wrote articles for a newsletter for a joint development planning study newsletter.
Information materials show that an agency understands and values communication. For the Central Artery North Area project in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood, the Massachusetts Highway Department produced a two-sided color poster, "Charlestown in 1999." The poster described community development goals, illustrated by an artist's view of neighborhood development after the highway was depressed. This poster touched lightly upon the engineering feats needed to depress the highway, reflecting the interests and concerns of the community about the future.
How is production organized?
Information materials are conceived at the beginning of a plan or project. They can be oriented to support key goals and milestones of the participation and technical planning processes. A time line for production and distribution is prepared. Materials are planned to coincide with major events and give periodic updates throughout the program. It is often a good idea to schedule periodic communication throughout the process for general updating or "keeping in touch" with people in the community. Scheduled dissemination helps remind agencies of activities that should be communicated to the public.
The target audience is identified. In most cases, the general public will be the recipient. However, an agency may need to target and customize materials to different groups. A local community heavily affected by a new plan or proposed project may need special publications or explanations to address its concerns. Soliciting funding for specific purposes requires materials targeted to business or industrial interests.
The timeline is identified. Some materials are developed to be useful throughout the public involvement process. Other materials highlight an event or milestone such as the start-up of a planning process, a major meeting, the release of a report, the start of a new phase, or the conclusion of a project. Examples include: Pennsylvania DOT shows videos explaining the planning process at meetings, providing background information to newcomers before they are introduced to project details. The Wisconsin DOT's first newsletter at the start of long-range planning introduced the in-depth study process and the people involved. The Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle, Washington mails a newsletter several times a year to review events and announce upcoming dates of meetings.
Updates and progress bulletins can be disseminated periodically. Examples include: The Little Rock, Arkansas Metroplan used progress bulletins to keep people informed of current issues. San Francisco's BART periodically sent faxes to 500 to 600 businesses to keep them abreast of happenings in its joint development planning process. The Orange County, California transit district sent "fast faxes" to 100 companies for immediate information. New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments updates information in an annual report it distributes to the public.
Press releases serve as input to future media coverage. Reporters who are following the process may use new details of a proposal as the basis of a story. Basic facts are provided to help reporters assemble accurate articles and avoid mistakes or misleading information that could cause difficulty or awkwardness for an agency. (See Media Strategies)
Who leads production of information materials?
Experienced staff lead content decisions. Staff needs thorough knowledge of community issues as well as project content. Policy staff members review material for consistency with an agency's mission and other activities. Experienced staff with communication, public involvement, video, graphics, and writing skills lead the production process. Technical information must be translated into visuals and words that are effective and that lay people can easily understand. Denver, Colorado’s, transit district uses non-engineering personnel to direct the public information process to be certain that technical issues are stated in simple, easy-to-understand language.
Private companies and institutions can assist in the production process. This may involve donating server space, billboard or exhibit space, paying for design or printing, producing PSAs, or helping get editorials printed or aired. During the development of the Atlanta Regional Commission's Vision 2020, local business and civic leaders wrote seven guest editorials for the area's biggest newspaper.
How do agencies use information materials?
Information materials invite the public into the planning process. They provide information on how to get involved. The Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation updates people on the North Central Expressway reconstruction project through a quarterly newsletter.
Information materials can test concepts or policies for agencies. A fact sheet on a proposed policy position generates comments and objections. Agencies use public information materials to explain a policy position or invite public comments. By presenting information in an uncluttered way, without a great deal of detail and technical information about options and alternatives, an agency's message becomes clearer. The NETI Policy Committee issued a newsletter asking people to comment on potential policy shifts in transportation infrastructure investment, airport planning, and growth management planning, among other issues, before it voted to adopt any new policies.
Information materials can focus on issues that affect a given area or subarea, highlighting concerns about alignment, noise, travel time, etc. For Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project, a project-wide newsletter included neighborhood-specific news bulletins to keep people informed about local happenings. Information materials offer opportunities for private-sector involvement. Public-private partnerships are forged through donations of server space, billboard spaces, newspaper inserts, or utility bill stuffers to help reach more people with information about a process.
Agencies form useful links with the media. Newspapers, especially those in local communities, are not as constrained for space as radio and television and are thus more likely to print articles, graphics, newspaper inserts, and calendar listings. Progress bulletins and press releases give reporters ideas and factual information for articles about a new plan or project. (See Media Strategies) In Boston, Massachusetts, a neighborhood newspaper periodically printed articles and graphics submitted by the Massachusetts Highway Department to prepare people for upcoming meetings.
What do information materials cost?
Costs are closely related to the visual quality of the materials, but quality is crucial. A piece that is visually bland, cluttered, dull to read, or otherwise unattractive obscures the message. As in advertising, attracting people and getting them to read or look at materials requires eye-catching, good-looking designs. The Arizona DOT's Mt. Lemmon highway reconstruction project in Tucson used the slogan "Lemmon Aid" in bright yellow on black in its eye-catching brochures and posters.
Costs are incurred for staff time spent in creation and production. Written items, such as PSAs and news articles, take time to structure and produce. Designing and developing effective visual images can be expensive, and the process from concept to development and production can be lengthy. Outside consultants are sometimes needed for major items such as displays or models.
Digital distribution can reduce the costs, compared to printing and mailing. The same documents prepared for print can be posted on a website in portable document format (.pdf) or distributed by email for the cost of a few hours of skilled labor. However, this technique may not be appropriate for the target community.
The cost to print materials varies widely, depending on complexity and volume. Small items, such as brochures, fliers, or newsletters, are relatively inexpensive to produce, even on a large scale. Small volumes may be printed in-house on an agency's routine office or graphics printers. Materials are expensive to produce if they require four-color printing, large display panels, models, or billboards. Costs are less per unit in volume printings. Use of color grabs attention and enhances the attractiveness of a public information piece but also increases the costs to produce it. Costs are incurred in distributing print materials. Bulk rates are available to help reduce mailing costs. An alternative is door-to-door distribution by volunteers. (See Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers; Drop-in Centers) The Houston, Texas transit agency reaches apartment dwellers by hanging materials on their doorknobs.
Private-sector donations cut printing and distribution costs, as do cooperative efforts with other agencies. Private organizations may be willing to distribute printed information materials in grocery bags or utility bill inserts. Media organizations may run meeting notices and PSAs at no cost. Transit agencies may display free advertisements in transit vehicles. Literature might be distributed at toll booths. Billing agencies might include information materials with their mailings.
How are information materials used with other techniques?
Information Materials can be used with almost any other technique of public involvement. They give basic information for open houses and open hearings, media strategies, online services, drop-in centers, and briefings. (See Open Houses/Open Forum Hearings; Media Strategies; Websites, Drop-in Centers; Briefings) They are used to announce meetings, charrettes, conferences, workshops, and retreats. (See Charrettes; Public Meetings/Hearings; Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats) They contribute names for contact lists by soliciting interest from community residents. The Seattle area's Puget Sound Regional Council produced a videotape that was made into a public service announcement and shown repeatedly. (See Video Techniques)
Transportation fairs are excellent places to distribute public information materials, particularly fun items such as buttons, magnets, posters, and literature. (See Transportation Fairs) A Washington, D.C. ridesharing organization supplied many giveaways at its transportation fair.
Games and contests mesh with public information in creative ways. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held an art contest for children on the theme of "Flying Saves Lives." The FAA also published a bilingual book, "A Visit to the Airport-\—Un Viaje al Aeropuerto," that included several games, some also in two languages. (See Games and Contests)
What are the drawbacks of using information materials?
Finding ways to get information to the target community takes creativity. Demand on staff time and resources can be intensive. Staff members must know who will be affected and the ways those people and groups obtain information. They should be skilled in examining needs and producing appropriate materials to meet them.
Information materials require wide distribution to reach a maximum number of people. They are an essential part of any public-involvement program. Failure to provide periodic basic information to a constituency can severely hurt a public-involvement program and could cripple a transportation plan or project.
Non-digital information materials are not usually interactive. Information materials cannot substitute for other forms of public involvement, because they are one-way communication, unless a mail-back coupon is included. People who see them must take further, individualized steps to get more information or to participate. An agency should make follow-up steps for the public simple to take, and should respond promptly when community people call. (See Websites; Visualization; Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks)
Events can overtake printed materials. Needs can be determined by default, even with prior planning. An agency might have to prepare public information materials to respond to editorial criticism, counter negative publicity, address incorrect rumors, compensate for difficult-to-read technical reports, or respond to issues that have arisen naturally during the plan or project. In Denver, Colorado, the transit agency broke its long-standing rule of not allowing advertising on shuttle buses in order to promote businesses affected by the transit line construction and inform people about the project.
Production time is significant if materials are to be done well. For both printed and digital distribution, design and production can be labor intensive, depending on level of detail and sophistication. Increased volume of printed matter also raises costs, but per-unit costs diminish as volume increases. Producing a small number of customized materials is expensive and labor-intensive.
Materials may be perceived as public relations and not public involvement. Materials that are too general and add no new substantial information are often regarded negatively or ignored. Public suspicions may also result from high-end advertising agency slickness. Many people feel it is inappropriate for public agencies to spend a lot of money on fancy public information material when other efforts or programs are being cut back. To gain optimal response, materials should be straightforward in design and content, especially if input from participants is desired and if it needs to be made clear that plans or projects are not yet finished.
Materials may fail if the information is too technical and difficult for people to grasp. Where possible, agencies should avoid intimidating or technical language and formats. If materials are not comprehensible to an average person, good will is lost and potential participants may become suspicions about an agency's motives. An outside person, such as a teenager, can be asked to review the piece to make sure it is understandable to the average person and not too technical or obscure.
Materials may not be noticed by the target audience. Press releases might not reach the intended audience because they have been placed in an inappropriate section of a newspaper or relegated to a "lame duck" spot on a newscast. Emails may be filtered as junk mail, if they are sent to a huge distribution list. Pamphlets containing technical material may not be read by local residents. Brochures or flyers that are discarded as litter could have a negative effect on the community's perception of an agency. To counter these problems, an agency designs materials for specific uses and audiences and chooses an appropriate distribution technique.
Are information materials flexible?
Public information materials can be sent through the mail to a project mailing list or an acquired list, or be inserted in another group’s mailing. They can be included in bills sent out by public or private organizations. (See Mailing Lists) Information materials can be put on a website, emailed, or sent by U.S. mail to a contact list or an acquired list, or be inserted in another group's mailing. They can be included in bills sent out by public or private organizations. (See Contact Lists) PSAs provide information via radio or television. They can include announcements of meetings, due dates for comments, recent activities, upcoming events, and more. (See Media Strategies) The Atlanta Regional Commission's Vision 2020 process used PSAs to inform people of the opportunity to voice their opinions through questionnaires inserted in Sunday newspapers.
Information materials can be used in displays. They can be positioned to be seen from a sidewalk, highway, or rail line. For example, information can be displayed on a billboard, illustrated on a window cards, or posted in interiors of transit vehicles on car cards. The Houston, Texas Transit Authority uses cards in its buses to announce upcoming events.
Information materials can be distributed at meetings. They help get a meeting started or as a basis for a presentation or discussion. They can be exhibits, videos, fact sheets, slides and overheads, models, or progress bulletins. (See Video Techniques; Visualization Techniques)
Timing is flexible for most materials, except meeting notices, newspaper deadlines, and materials relevant to public hearings and official comment periods, where exact timing is crucial. Staff commitments for producing materials are flexible except for deadlines for production, printing, mailing, or presentation.
The format for producing information is flexible. Options relate to individual budgets, information dissemination needs, topics, and audiences. Various types of public information material can be selected. Many public involvement programs mix and match materials.
When are information materials used most effectively?
An overall strategy should be developed early in a process, before beginning to involve community members. An agency can identify and strategize about the community(s) to be targeted, the types of material that will be most effective with that community, and the timing that will be most effective. For instance, general materials on the nature of the plan or project serve as background information that remains relevant throughout the process. Materials can highlight important events or decisions. Timing must be carefully considered, and materials scheduled so they are available in advance of an event, meeting, close of comment period, or articles in the media. (See Media Strategies) Above all, the materials must be accurate, or must be immediately removed from circulation if inaccuracies are discovered.
For further information:
Arizona Department of Transportation, Phoenix, Arizona
Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia
Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project, Boston, Massachusetts
Denver Transit Authority, Denver, Colorado
Iowa Department of Transportation, Ames, Iowa
Maryland Department of Transportation, Baltimore, Maryland
Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle, Washington
Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania