Utility companies invest time and budgets in building a positive relationship with their customers. In most cases, it takes years of hard work by a team of dedicated customer service and community relations professionals to earn the desired reputation — one of a concerned, involved and responsive member of the communities where the utility provides services that play a critical role in quality of life.
These hard-won reputations are on the line as electrical utilities embark on new and upgraded transmission lines that touch many customers right where they live and work. Managing the personal impact of construction projects is a difficult balancing act no matter the size of the project. For today's mega projects, it's an extreme challenge.
"The only sure thing is that the relationship will change. Our group is here to help make sure the change is for the better," says Chuck Bell, manager of stakeholder relations for Burns & McDonnell. "Many utilities' customer relations teams don't have the capacity to tackle multiyear, megascale programs. These efforts are a built-in, funded opportunity that can either improve or harm what a company has built over the years."
From permitting through construction and energization of the line, community relations (CR) initiatives can be the difference between success and shutdowns. On the Maine Power Reliability Project (MPRP), Burns & McDonnell has two dedicated professionals in the office and nine in the field.
"The CR group from Burns & McDonnell is instrumental in its efforts to keep the construction of MPRP moving forward and avoiding costly delays as a result of unhappy abutters. Their efforts on the MPRP have maintained a very positive image for Central Maine Power," says Doug Herling, vice president of special projects for CMP. "They took ownership of dealing directly with abutters and municipalities in the path of MPRP. As we moved into construction, the CR group effectively resolved several very complex abutter issues to the satisfaction of both parties while timely enough to avoid construction delays. The folks from Burns & McDonnell in the field are very professional and well-versed in their customer service skills."
Drew McMullin, the Burns & McDonnell community relations manager on the MPRP, has been the point person for CMP in working with the third-party ombudsman appointed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission to resolve the concerns of property owners.
"Less than 5 percent of the more than 3,000 abutting property owners have reached the ombudsman's consideration," McMullin says. "By presenting CMP's voice in these negotiations and maintaining a dialog with these abutters, we've cut the utility's risk of schedule delays and cost increases significantly."
After the negotiations, McMullin and the rest of the Burns & McDonnell team follow through on all agreements.
"Through this front-line role, we're developing a system of protocols and effective techniques that will apply to community relations initiatives in other regions and other industries," McMullin says.
Experience with Empowerment
When the U.S. power grid was built and improved to its current state, landholders overwhelmingly accepted the status quo. Easements were, for the most part, accepted without issue. Today's stakeholders are empowered to speak out and assert their will on public projects in ways that range from damaging company reputations to, ultimately, shutting down projects.
The good news: Implementing the right tools and processes can defuse conflict early and move projects forward with community support and understanding. That can mean a better customer relationship after the project.
"Getting involved during the project's planning phase is critical," says Patricia Bandzes, Burns & McDonnell's community relations manager on the New England East-West Solution (NEEWS) project for Northeast Utilities. "By building stakeholder contacts early, before the siting process begins, utilities have the ability to reach key opinion leaders who can affect the decisions. You also begin establishing those relationships and contacts with local officials and residents who will be involved down the road."
The Complete Package
Integrating community relations with a comprehensive program management approach puts the project team on the ground from the very beginning through closeout. Previous Burns & McDonnell experience on large, successfully managed projects — like Northeast Utilities' Middletown-Norwalk Project, completed in 2009 — honed the company's approach to community relations. Bandzes was involved in building that project's community relations efforts from the earliest stages of construction.
Experience has enabled the teams working on current projects to take a proactive approach to communications, instead of being reactive.
"Through a methodical analysis of the areas touched by a project, we can identify areas that are likely to spur challenges, based on the number of residents, necessary tree clearing, proximity to schools, day care centers or other high-visibility public areas," Bandzes says. "We can focus our resources on the highest needs and potentially avoid pitfalls."
The early involvement also puts more information in the hands of officials. "By keeping legislators, government agency staff and municipal leaders informed from the start, they are able to respond knowledgably to callers at every stage. They can demonstrate awareness and refer residents to the project team for resolution," Bandzes says.
The economic impact of transmission projects goes beyond construction jobs and electrical system reliability. These projects affect the daily life of the region, and they can wield an economic impact beyond construction jobs.
The Big E is an annual 17-day fair celebrating the agriculture, food and entertainment offerings of New England states. Attracting more than 1.2 million visitors to the grounds in West Springfield, Mass., each September, the fair organizers had a vested interest in the challenges presented by construction vehicles and potential road closures or restrictions in the area.
"Because we learned early on how important this is, Northeast Utilities and our project team were able to adjust the construction schedule and keep crews working in other areas during fair time," says Patty Maturo, Burns & McDonnell community relations specialist on the Greater Springfield
Similarly, CMP knew many of the transmission rights-of-way (ROWs) on the MPRP route are critical to winter snowmobiling traffic in the state. This popular winter activity in the heavily forested state brings an estimated $261 million to the state each year, according to the Maine Snowmobile Association. The cleared ROWs essentially become highways for snowmobiling and other outdoor enthusiasts.
"Closing rights-of-way was a major issue. By working with local clubs and the department of conservation, we helped develop alternate routes that would get people through to their weekend destinations," says Chris Marshall, Burns & McDonnell community relations specialist. "CMP is able to get its work done without damaging its reputation in the communities it serves."
Communities impacted by transmission construction vary from region to region. For the Greater Springfield Reliability Project, the work is in primarily urban areas. Regulatory bodies are at the state level, with informational involvement in affected towns. The project teams work with residents and businesses of all types along the route, often accommodating heavy traffic demands.
In Maine, the territory is more rural. One affected property was a teaching organic farm. The farm's plantings are planned years in advance, so the owners needed to know where construction will be taking place over the full project period.
"Maine also has a local permitting process," Marshall says. "We've received local permits from about 75 towns and held multiple meetings per town, in addition to five large, statewide meetings at the very beginning. We've put a community relations person in contact with every neighbor who has brought concerns to these meetings."
Throughout the life of a billion-dollar transmission program, a community relations team has a lot of conversations — thousands — with regulators, local officials, residents and business owners. The retention and utilization of the information gleaned from those conversations is a critical point in satisfying stakeholders.
Burns & McDonnell tracks the detail of regulatory and non-regulatory contacts through its OneTouchPM® system, which integrates seamlessly with the Primavera Contract Manager package. Real-time database access for construction and community relations crews means everyone is on the same page when work moves into a neighborhood.
By tracking such granular details as how to most effectively reach an abutting landowner to avoiding blockage of a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through entrance before 10 a.m. to protecting a resident's cherry tree, Burns & McDonnell helps maintain the utility company's credibility.
"Large transmission projects can be highly impactful to residents. Often, they feel unheard," says John Troiano, Burns & McDonnell community relations specialist. "The public needs to feel they have a liaison on the project. Our teams are out there every day, meeting with people, knocking on doors, addressing concerns. We learn about the wedding reception at their house that's coming up or their dog who gets nervous from seeing strangers.
We can work with contractors to protect our client's reputation with its customers."
The Final Stages
The end of construction isn't the end of the road for the community relations teams. They remain in the community when the project is complete, fulfilling the project owner's commitments to restore property for residents and communities.
"We're like the special forces — first in and last out," says Troiano. "These restoration efforts can take a year and a half or more, but they are critical in maintaining the hard-earned positive relationships utilities have built day in and day out."
For more information, contact Chuck Bell, 816-349-6615.
Greater Springfield Reliability Project
- One of four New England East-West Solution (NEEWS) projects
- 39 miles of new and reconstructed overhead transmission lines in Connecticut and Massachusetts, touching eight cities and 4,000 abutting properties
- Three major substation upgrades; additional work on five others
- Two new switching stations; additional work on two others
- October 2008: Filings with state siting agencies
- March 2010: Connecticut siting approval
- September 2010: Massachusetts siting approval
- Dec. 7, 2010: Substation construction began in Massachusetts
- February 2011: Transmission construction began in Massachusetts
- August 2011: Substation construction began in Connecticut
- October 2011: Transmission construction began in Connecticut
- Late 2013: Estimated in-service date
Maine Power Reliability Project
Central Maine Power
- 440 miles of new or rebuilt transmission line in Maine, touching 75 communities in 13 counties and 3,000 abutting properties
- Six new substations and major upgrades to six more, plus smaller upgrades to approximately 35 others
- The largest construction project in the state's history
- Mid-2008: Filing with state and federal agencies
- May 2010: Public Utilities Commission approval
- August 2010: Construction began
- Late 2014: Anticipated project completion
Tools of the Trade
Every organization involved in public communications has a toolbox full of techniques for reaching out. On megascale electrical transmission projects, Burns & McDonnell teams pull out all the stops. Among our tools:
- OneTouchPM®: Thorough tracking of all project communications within project management tools.
- Mailings: Newsletters and emails pushed out to mailing lists of direct and nearby abutters.
- Hotline: Answers incoming questions through a phone line, website and email account.
- Group settings: Public hearings, town hall meetings, open house information sessions.
- One-on-ones: Direct contact with those expressing concerns in group settings, in-home visits to address complaints, knocking on doors before construction begins, leaving notices for residents not at home.
For more information: