Virginia Beach Community Engagement Campaign Receives Diamond Level Industry Award

Located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach is the most populous city in the state with just under half a million residents, 68% of whom (312k) are confirmed as registered voters.  A resort city with miles of beaches and hundreds of businesses catering to the oceanfront tourism that accounts for over $850 million spent in tourism related industries, Virginia Beach is also home to several United States Military bases. 

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Registered Voters

The Awareness Challenge

For many years, the City of Virginia Beach was aware of the need to increase its investment in stormwater infrastructure to keep up with maintenance, but after Hurricane Matthew caused severe damage to the community and its infrastructure, the issue came to a head.  

To address the most critical infrastructure needs, the City had to develop a program that identified priority areas. To ensure this effort received the maximum public attention, outreach kicked off almost immediately after the storm had passed. Ultimately, the program required more than $500m in funding, far exceeding the limits of what the City Council could authorize without first putting the issue before voters. 

The City faced the community engagement challenge of assessing resident awareness and developing an understanding of the sentiments surrounding the  proposed Flood  Protection Program.   The City hoped to identify and close gaps in resident awareness using relevant content and messaging that was informed by the engagement findings. 

Leveraging PublicInput to understand perceptions

Using PublicInput, the project team started by releasing a preliminary survey open only to Virginia Beach residents.  The survey focused on gaining an understanding of the resident awareness of flooding issues, perceptions of flood control as a priority, and the willingness to support rate increases associated with these issues.  Because of the timing and relevance of the survey, nearly 1,800 residents took time to contribute their thoughts.

The findings of the preliminary research survey showed that residents had neither accurate information nor a clear  understanding about the severity of flooding in the City of Virginia Beach. 

 –Valerie Myers, City of Virginia Beach

The initial survey’s results showed that registered voters were highly unlikely (50% or more) to support the bond referendum. Only 40% of respondents were willing to pay the required level of rate increase.  The majority (53%) believed existing funds were sufficient to manage flood control.  In addition to this, 49% of residents were misinformed about the severity of projected flood risks and trends in Virginia Beach.  

The insights collected from the survey and additional phone surveying highlighted the clear need for a targeted effort to communicate the facts about flooding.   

Armed with the information collected from the surveys, we realized the next priority action was to work to increase public knowledge and understanding about the facts about flooding so that our residents could make an informed decision come November.  

 –Valerie Myers, City of Virginia Beach

Addressing misperceptions about the proposed bond

To ensure voters had a clear understanding about the Flood Protection Program in advance of election day, the City’s Communications Office was tasked with developing the marketing and outreach program and a consultant firm, S.E. Wells Communications, LLC, was contracted to assist.

Using the survey data and an awareness of the fiscally conservative electorate, the project team implemented a multimodal communications approach that was designed to communicate with residents about the local flooding issues using a variety of tactics ranging from video informationals to paid media advertising.

Using community engagement to combat misperceptions and pass the biggest bond program in a generation, the team addressed the  awareness challenges presented in the initial research and developed the outcomes of the Ripple Effect  public outreach communication and marketing campaign not only to meet, but exceed the City’s objectives.

We surveyed residents and voters to learn what they understood about local flooding, available funding to address it, and its citywide impacts . . .We found huge disconnects then worked quickly to provide the facts and offer a feedback loop to hear and address concerns. That’s why the Flood Protection Program is a reality today. 

– Tiffany Russell, Virginia Beach Communications Director 

Translating outreach success into a passed referendum

In June 2021, the Virginia Beach City Council moved to put a Flood Protection Program bond referendum on the November 2nd general election ballot. The success of the outreach campaign resulted in the Flood Protection Program bond referendum receiving approval by over 72% of voters in November. 

In November 2021, a referendum for $567.5 million in General Obligation bonds was overwhelming approved by the citizens of Virginia Beach. As a result, the city was empowered to more aggressively address recurrent neighborhood flooding by providing appropriations to previously unfunded, or underfunded projects. This referendum is the first successful referendum since 1988, when voters approved the financing of the Lake Gaston Water Supply Pipeline.

 –Valerie Myers, City of Virginia Beach

National recognition and awards for Virginia Beach

In addition to the successful campaign, the City of Virginia Beach was recognized for industry best practice in community engagement both regionally and nationally.  

The team won the first place Savvy Award in the Communications or Marketing Plan category at the 2022 City-County Communications & Marketing Association (3CMA) Annual Conference and also received 3CMA’s highest honor, the Diamond Award, which is given to the best overall entry of more than 640 submitted across all categories. 

This Ripple Effect campaign also won the Communications Award from the Virginia Municipal League 2022 Innovation Awards in Local Government recognizing innovative problem-solving, excellence in management, citizen participation, and improved services to citizens.

“This is an amazing recognition by industry peers who understand the challenges to inform and engage the public on critical issues,”         

–Virginia Beach City Manager Patrick A. Duhaney. 

Want to learn more about the Virginia Beach community engagement case study?  Check out the webinar session by clicking the button below.

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