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DISCUSSION FORUM Winning back trust in Amsterdam metro Sep 2012
Armand van Wijck, TunnelTalk European Correspondent
The Amsterdam North-South Metro line is the fifth and latest metro line to be built for the Dutch capital city. Since its beginning in 2003 the project has been a story of setbacks, budget overruns and broken trust. The line became a national symbol representing everything that can go wrong for underground construction in the soft soils of Holland. But with public perception at its all time low, Head Communications Officer Alex Sheerazi managed to turn the tide. He shares his experiences with TunnelTalk.
Alex Sheerazi

Alex Sheerazi

If we are to believe Alex Sheerazi, the new North-South Metro line for Amsterdam had it coming. All the anger, criticism and distrust surrounding the project was inevitable. "Basically it came down to four broken promises," explained Sheerazi, the project's Head Communication Officer since 2009. "First of all, the budget exploded from €1.46 billion to €3.1 billion, the delivery date then ran over dramatically from 2011 to 2017. On top of all this, citizens were told the impact on the city would be reduced to a minimum and that everything was under control from an engineering point of view. Nothing could possibly go wrong."
But in the summer of 2008 cracks appeared in a building adjacent to the Rokin Station access excavation when water and soil began flowing into the open-cut station box area through a breach in the sheet piled support wall. A much more serious situation occurred at the Vijzelgracht Station box excavation in June and by September large volumes of ground had been lost through failures in the slurry diaphragm support walls. Several seriously damaged buildings adjacent to the station box failures had to be evacuated. Construction work at both trouble-hit stations was put on a hold for almost a year in order to investigate how to proceed.
"After all the other problems, these incidents at the Vijzelgracht Station area are what marked the deep crisis of the metro line," remembers Sheerazi. "Underground construction had become a national disgrace."
Rokin station

Rokin station

Reputation mattress
As work restarted in the summer of 2009, Sheerazi was hired as Head Communication Officer. His first mission was to try and fix the project's reputation. "A very strong reputation is like a mattress, a cushion which can soften a blow. Small incidents then have a negligible impact," explained Sheerazi. "But right here our reputation was down the drain. Every small incident was blown out of proportion. People were rightfully frustrated and trust was nowhere to be found. We needed to get some air into our reputation mattress again."
Sheerazi saw transparency as key. The project and its construction had appeared secretive; journalists would wait endlessly for answers that did not satisfy their questions. "I wanted to show the media everything. Let them come!" said Sheerazi. "My strategy was, and still is, to be as realistic as possible and first of all admit that the project had turned out badly on a lot of levels. But positive and interesting things are worth showing to the media, and to the public as well. By placing these positive images next to the negative ones, you create more balance."
  • Vijzelgracht Station

    Vijzelgracht Station

  • Settlement damage at the Vijzelgracht Station box

    Settlement damage at the Vijzelgracht Station box

By involving the media in every event, public opinion gradually came round; slowly the project gained a better reputation. When the first caisson was sunk underneath Amsterdam Central Station in 2010, an extraordinary engineering achievement, Amsterdam citizens watched events with pride. Most of the sarcasm and criticism was gone.
Underground tour at Rokin Station

Underground tour at Rokin Station

Connecting with the city
After the project owner explained in detail how everything had gone wrong, Sheerazi initiated step two of his communication plan: connecting the project with the city by getting the citizens much more involved. The excavation boxes were opened regularly for public tours and an underground lookout point was established close to Amsterdam Central Station.
"Those who visit the lookout point get a feeling for the enormous underground space and the complexity of the environment we are working in," said Sheerazi. "Everything is very sensory. You don't have to communicate with words anymore. The subliminal message we want to get across is of course that we have nothing to hide. People can watch us work there 24/7." The lookout point became a quick success. Since opening two years ago, it has had almost 200,000 visitors.
But what about the people who live in the direct surroundings of the metro line? Project Bureau North-South Line placed supervisors around the construction sites to interact with the neighbourhood on a daily basis. Like community activists the supervisors know what is going on in the streets and who lives where. They listen to personal questions and problems and try to take care of situations.
More than 200,000 have visited the lookout point

More than 200,000 have visited the lookout point

"Communication workers often think in terms of websites and brochures, but most of the time smaller problems - like a loose fence or a broken boardwalk - are neglected. There is nothing more frustrating then a small problem that can be quickly fixed but remains untouched for weeks," said Sheerazi. "As an organisation it all comes down to your behaviour. Let the people see that you want to take immediate action to solve problems. After all, these are people who have been looking at the fence of a construction site now for more than ten years!"
Financial compensation packages followed, and advertising was paid for, for local shopkeepers whose stores were hard to reach during construction periods. Project management and engineers also had to change their way of communicating. "With our new strategy we involved citizens and created co-ownership of the project. By discussing our dilemmas, problems and setbacks, we gave them space to pose their own ideas and solutions. This led to much less resistance during construction."
  • Construction workers help advertise local shops

    Construction workers help advertise local shops

  • Newspapers now hail underground workers as heroes

    Newspapers now hail underground workers as heroes

Underground heroes
One of the most successful projects of the communication team was a campaign highlighting the underground construction workers. "As a concerned citizen, who do you need to trust most: the engineer who designed the metro line or the man operating the TBM?" asked Sheerazi. "We placed the workers in front of their machines. Who, and where are they? What and how are they doing?" By placing huge poster images of the underground workers around town, on the website and on YouTube, the public got to identify itself with the workers and empathise even more with the project. It did not take long before national newspapers printed the headline 'Underground Heroes' on their front pages.
Street art: Red arrow points to TBM location underground

Street art: Red arrow points to TBM location underground

Social media and street art also played a role in the public relations offensive to win back trust. "If you want to create a good online community of followers, key elements are transparency and being receptive to criticism," explained Sheerazi. "You have to be willing to make conversation, not just be a static public relations website. We try to respond to every comment on Twitter and on our website, and we will never delete a comment, no matter how harsh."
Following the turnaround in fortunes of the North-South Metro Line, owners of the Stuttgart Central Station project and the A2 double deck highway tunnel in Maastricht have also showed their interest. "We had several delegations of the people of Maastricht coming over to Amsterdam," said Sheerazi. He concludes: "Transparent and realistic communication and actively communicating risks really is the key to public acceptance of large infrastructural projects. The public attitude is now in a positive, upward trend. Furthermore we regained the trust of important stakeholders like the city's council and politicians."
References
TBM completes first Amsterdam Metro drive - TunnelTalk, July 2010
TBM underway for Amsterdam Metro - TunnelTalk, April 2010
Building Holland's first double-deck tunnel - TunnelTalk, June 2012
Striking out towards zero settlement in Amsterdam - TunnelTalk, June 2007

           

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