Engagement is an Attitude, Not a Box to Check Off

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Public affairs and marketing campaigns share a common trait – and sometimes a common fate. If campaigns fail to connect with their target audiences, they are compost.

Connecting with an audience can take a lot of forms. Ignoring an audience's interests or concerns isn’t one of them.

Public affairs professionals and marketers err by starting off with what they want to say rather than appealing to what their audience wants to hear. To make a connection, you need to acknowledge your audience’s perspective and pain points.

Establishing rapport doesn’t mean trimming your message. It does mean making a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes. Where are they coming from? What concerns them? What would alleviate their anxiety?

For example, the developer of a major housing development might begin his public affairs outreach by meeting one-on-one with some of the nearest neighbors to ask them to share their concerns and wishes if the development occurs. Later, at a neighborhood meeting or public hearing, the developer could begin his presentation by referencing his meetings, what he learned and how he tried allay concerns and accommodate wishes.

In the meantime, smart developers will absorb what they hear and translate it into modifications that respond to concerns and often enhance the development.

There should be no illusions that meeting and making compromises will satisfy all opponents or eliminate pitched opposition. It won’t. It will generate respect and mitigate opposition by some. It might even turn some opponents into proponents.

Community engagement is now an expectation of most public entities that approve land-use and construction plans. Public officials believe engagement can buff off the rough edges of development and provide a vent for frustration about more houses, more traffic and more kids in an already overcrowded school.

Demonstrating an ability to forge community connections also may prove important to convince public officials to allocate the necessary budget resources to review development plans and defend decisions that are appealed. A solid record of community outreach and good faith response in development plans can play a helpful role in winning final approval.

These same principles hold true in other public affairs spheres such as school bonds, major infrastructure projects and crisis response.

The best way to understand what you are up against is to talk with the people you are up against. They may be uncomfortable conversations, but they will be a lot more productive than shouting matches with people who feel, with justification, you have failed to listen to them.

Connecting with audiences is all about showing them you care about them and have their interests in mind. It is not a box to check off. It is an attitude. And if you practice it often and well enough, it can become a reputation.

Complementary Engagement Partners

Barney & Worth and CFM Strategic Communications have provided a range of clients with integrated community engagement and public affairs services to make quality connections that influence project outcomes.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.