Ears, eyes, mouth – the building blocks of good community engagement

Photograph of group of school children overlooking bridge construction

In this fast-moving age of multi-faceted digital channels, the most important thing organisations can do to build and maintain their reputations is get out into local communities and talk and listen to the public and stakeholders on the ground.

Twitter. Facebook. SnapChat. Instagram. YouTube. Yammer.

They all have their place in 21stcentury communications, but here’s three better options for you when you are planning your engagement strategy.

Ears. Eyes. Mouth.

Starting by asking questions and listening is really important. I’ve not yet met anybody who likes being involved in a conversation where the other person just doesn’t listen to them.

Infrastructure projects usually get plenty of scrutiny from the public and the media. And quite right, too. In some ways, it’s easy to get people’s attention when you mention ‘£400m project’, ‘nuclear waste disposal’, ‘three years of traffic delays’ or ‘disturbing asbestos’, but it’s how you treat people that matters and, crucially, how you made people feel when you engaged with them.

The digital age gives us huge opportunity to talk (and just as importantly listen) to our stakeholders, but it’s no substitute for pro-active ‘on the ground’ engagement with real people about real issues.

Put simply, if you don’t invest the time and effort in pro-active community engagement, you’ll get the reputation that that approach deserves, and you won’t like it.

Here’s a tip. Flip it round, and genuinely engage with real people who have an interest in your project, and the benefits can be significant.

There are good examples all around.

The Queensferry Crossing open weekend and ballot generated huge excitement amongst communities right across the UK and beyond, and Mersey Gateway’s TimeBank scheme, where firms involved in delivering the project gave back thousands of hours of support on community initiatives, paved the way for new playgrounds, learning environments and opportunities for local people.

HS2’s Community and Environment Fund is creating visitor hubs and play areas already, and Crossrail’s wonderful Learning Legacy website has a whole suite of best practice materials you can ‘pinch with pride’.

In Sunderland, on the Northern Spire project, we’ve brought over 2,400 school kids on to site in the past year to help inspire them about future careers in engineering and construction, and to generate excitement about the project and educate about the benefits it will bring to the city.

For waste projects or others, where fear of the unknown is a big part of community concern, invest in taking community representatives to see another project you’ve delivered and talk to your stakeholders there.

So where do you start? Here’s seven simple principles to planning your approach to community engagement and public relations that any infrastructure project director should follow.

  1. Invest in communications planning just like you invest in design planning– nobody dreams of starting construction work without a plan in mind, but far too many people still leave communications as an ad hoc task. Start with research and insight to find out what people think about your project, and what you actually want your communications to achieve.
  2. Pretend you live around the corner– step outside the box and stop thinking like a construction team. What would you care about if you lived or worked close by? Inevitably, it’s the stuff that’s difficult to deal with – noise, disruption and delays, but often it’s also success, outcomes and local pride – tap into that by engaging with people, but don’t try and pretend the difficult questions don’t exist.
  3. Be prepared to ask questions, listen to the answers, and act accordingly – unless your actions back up your thoughtful words then you have no credibility. All the examples given here need time and resource, but this is investing in your reputation. It’s not an optional extra.
  4. Be open and pro-active– explain and advocate what you are doing, when and why. Sometimes that means walking into the unknown, but you are far better doing it on the front foot with a positive agenda. Go for public exhibitions and focus groups, rather than public meetings – public meetings very rarely do anything to inform the public and it is even less rare that they inform infrastructure developments. For most members of the audience they can be intimidating, rather than informative, and people rarely learn anything new. Drop-in sessions and exhibitions, on the other hand, give everyone (not just those with the loudest voices) a chance to ask their questions and understand the answer.
  5. Expect the unexpected –in the past twelve months we’ve had infrastructure projects with short notice visits (not all at once) from the Royal family, Jeremy Clarkson, Pete Waterman, coverage in Vanity Fair and even tip-offs of protests planned later that day by Fathers for Justice. The speed of communications gets faster every year, and reputation often depends on quick action – no project exists in a vacuum and you need to be nimble and agile.
  6. Measure your success– decide what is important to you and measure it. HS2’s community engagement strategy lists ten commitments that are the basis for measuring success. Simple feedback surveys are really important and let you track issues and report back to colleagues.
  7. Listen to your communications team– a plea on behalf of in-house communications people everywhere. They are employed as experts in their field – this is their profession – so let them guide you.

No-one likes surprises – so make sure you have a ‘no surprise strategy’ for your important stakeholders. If you’ve got good or bad news to share, think about when, how and where you share it, and who your key community influencers are that need a heads up before the information goes public.

It’s about building authentic relationships with real people – and with your key media – so you have a genuine trust and dialogue that will get you and your project credit in the bank. Let’s face it, at some point, somewhere, something is going to go wrong, and you’ll need to deal with that. Far better to do it from a position of strength with an informed audience that knows your name and face than it is with a group of strangers who have no affinity with you.

A snappy Twitter feed and a dynamic Facebook presence might help you along the way (or not!), but to win hearts and mind you need boots on the ground and a team who can engage with the public.

Chris Taylor is a Chartered PR Practitioner and a member of the national Council of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). He has provided community engagement and PR support to transport projects like Mersey Gateway, Northern Spire and numerous energy-from-waste and other treatment facilities. He will be part of the DTW team at the Infrastructure Show in Birmingham on 17 April.

This article first appeared on the UK Construction online website.