Your eyes, ears and mouth – the three most important communication tools for any infrastructure project

Local school children attending the Northern Spire community events

Eyes. Ears. Mouth. Preferably used in that order.

In this noisy age of social media and limited attention spans, it’s easy for teams running infrastructure projects to rely on clever digital tools and channels to communicate with stakeholders.

Don’t fall into the trap! The most important thing project directors can do to build and maintain the reputations of their schemes is to make sure their team gets out into local communities and listens to and engages with the public and stakeholders on the ground.

So where should you start? By using your eyes and ears first – so looking around and listening to people to really understand them, their interests and their concerns. And then build on that by asking questions. It’s really important to genuinely engage with real people who have an interest in your project. It can help you to knock down barriers, mitigate any potential problems, and share the benefits of the project.

Personal communication can bring significant benefits to all infrastructure schemes and can make a huge difference to the success of a project and the community buy-in, too. 

Here’s our eight simple principles to planning your approach to communications and engagement 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 clearly agreed plan to work to, but far too many organisations still leave communications as an ad hoc task. Start with research and insight to find out what people think about your project, the local area, and their aspirations, and be clear about what you actually want your communications to achieve. Use a framework like DTW’s Strategic Communications Model to guide you through the planning. 
  2. Think and act as though 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 the local community by engaging with people, but don’t try and pretend the difficult questions don’t exist. Nothing annoys people more than silence. Face the difficult issues early on and give lots of warning of any challenges that may impact on people.
  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. This is an investment in your company and personal reputation. It’s not an optional extra.
  4. No surprises – 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. You may get some valuable feedback to help you lessen the impact on people, or to help you build those bridges with stakeholders.
  5. Be open and proactive – explain and advocate for what you are doing. 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 are rarely helpful – 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 answers.
  6. Expect the unexpected – 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.
  7. Measure your success – decide what is important to you and measure it. Simple feedback surveys are really important and let you track issues and report back to colleagues.
  8. 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.

It’s all 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 Instagram feed and a dynamic Facebook presence might help you along the way (or not!), but to win hearts and minds, you need boots on the ground and a team who can engage with the public.