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Are you talking to me? Getting community consultation right the first time

Associate director Renee Wilkinson looks at how best to consult in an era of over-consultation.

Any project — a new mine, a wider road, an additional bridge or a bigger hospital — has stakeholders who expect to be kept informed.

Then there are those who want to be asked, those who would like to guide the process, and those who really want the power of veto.

And on the flipside, many projects benefit from input from the people and organisations that have an interest in them.

Community consultation is not necessarily difficult.

Most communications professionals have done it a thousand times — information packs, community meetings, surveys, workshops and community advisory groups.

It’s our bread and butter and we know the methods to use to connect with stakeholders for meaningful conversation.

The problem is that while the profession is now really good at community consultation, the community is starting to get bored with the same old methods.

This is especially true in small communities where there are several large projects nearby.
I have seen these communities experience what we call consultation-fatigue — and genuine engagement suffers as a result.

It becomes much easier for community members to sit behind a computer and complain on social media and via angry emails rather than connect.

That’s the community consultation paradox: stakeholders want – demand – to be consulted but often don’t have the time or inclination to be consulted in the way organisations like to engage.

So what’s the solution?

Communication professionals need to rise to the challenge and get creative.

It means being clever and creative enough that the busiest, most easily distracted or distant stakeholders are reached and decide to engage in the planned project.

There are different ways to do this, but here are three big trends to watch in the community consultation space.

1.       Gamification.

Clever communication professionals supported by good technical teams will increasingly come up with interactive ‘games’ as a way to seek out opinions and attitudes.  Providing feedback will become fun instead of a chore.  These games are digital tools that engage stakeholders and make it easy for them to gain and provide information on a project. With internet improving in regional areas, games will be more accessible than ever and will become a popular way of engagement.

2.       Events, not meetings.

Getting stakeholders to meetings or information sessions is hard.  Getting them to a free movie session or outdoor food truck is easier.  These ‘fun’ events have a far more important purpose: to engage with key stakeholders.  While attending these events, stakeholders will be engaged to provide their opinions and attitudes in more informal ways.

3.       Short, sharp surveys. 

Last year I was part of a community engagement program that required me to fill out several 20-minute surveys.  I didn’t complete many. Surveys remain an excellent way to gain insight into stakeholder views but the days of long surveys are numbered. Surveys with five or fewer questions have a far greater response rate and a series of short surveys is a more effective strategy than requesting the completion of one long one.

The principles of good engagement — clear communication, intelligent information architecture, appropriate communication tools and the provision of genuine channels for people to provide feedback — remain the same in 2017 as they did when I started in public relations in the 1990s.
But with stakeholders more time-strapped than ever, we need to be on our toes if we want to have a decent and valuable conversation with them.

Is there a project or plan on your horizon that could falter with poor consultation? Talk to us about how to engage more effectively with your stakeholders

Renee Wilkinson is an Associate Director in Cannings Purple’s Government Relations team and an expert in helping clients build relationships with government and the community. Email Renee.