community engagement

Claiming the Early-Start Advantage

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

Those who launch big projects or campaigns have one advantage – an early start. After that, the advantage slides over to opponents, who have become more organized, clever and dedicated. 

Starting early allows project proponents to listen and adapt their project to counter, eliminate or minimize opposition claims. It also allows proponents to create the first, positive impression of a project.

One of the key rules of marketing is being first to market. That principle holds true in public affairs, as well. Telling your story first is better than trying to tell your story through a tangled opposition narrative.

Despite the obvious advantage of starting early, many proponents dilly dally, usually to perfect “their plan.” However, rolling out a “perfect plan” is often the wrong strategy because it says you have the answers, regardless of the questions. 

People like to be heard, even if their comments don’t result in massive changes in already engineered plans. Many times, though, citizen questions and concerns – and even sharp barbs by opponents – can expose weaknesses or oversights in a plan. The worst kind of oversight is a small adjustment or addition that could accomplish a longstanding community goal, which would be a large selling point.

Instead of concentrating on your project plan, devote energy first to project benefits. Speaking in terms of benefits sends a different vibe than listing all the marvelous features contained in the plan. It signals the community you have considered their needs and interests. The actual plan may not be much different, but community members will have the chance to see the project through a different, bigger lens.

Engaging neighbors, community leaders and opponents takes time, so an early start is essential to carrying out an engagement process. Careful, active listening is required to hear concerns and tease out opportunities for common ground, then translate that common ground into a revised plan that neutralizes the main core of opposition. 

The fear that community engagement would slow down a project is understandable, but it overlooks the delays that can occur later when angry people look for and find procedural means to waylay a project, disrupting time-sensitive schedules, frequently with protracted legal action.

The most sensitive community engagement can’t guarantee to rout all opposition or prevent barricades to project progress. But it can invest a project with goodwill, brighter ideas and, if done imaginatively, unexpected allies.

A late start on community engagement, likewise, doesn’t guarantee failure or rancor. However, it usually sets up a win-lose scenario, rather than a win-win possibility.

Engaging Community Partners

Wired and empowered citizenries demand more authentic and ongoing engagement than can come from sparsely attended meetings in public libraries or school auditoriums.Public involvement has become a staple of review processes for major public projects. However, public expectations for genuine engagement have outstripped the techniques most commonly used to collect public input.

Typically, project sponsors schedule meetings in a public library or school auditorium to present their idea and solicit opinions. Just as typically, about a dozen or so people show up. The exception is when the project is highly controversial. That can draw hundreds of people, some to listen and others to protest loudly. Neither scenario equates to engagement.

Engaging affected publics means affording them an opportunity to participate at the ground floor of a project. This could involve a poll to measure support for relative project sizes, locations or costs. It also could involve in-person or online focus groups to understand how respective publics view different project options.

Your Audience Knows Best

Let your audience do the talking to come up with winning ideas, messages and strategies to public affairs challenges.Managing an issue is sometimes seen as a battle of who can talk the loudest. With the advent of social media, the winning public affairs strategy now involves who can listen the best.

Bill Lee, a consultant writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, recounts the experience of anti-tobacco warriors in Florida who used a variety of unsuccessful tactics to dissuade teens from smoking.

Out of despair, they called a summit on teen smoking. Some 600 Florida teenagers attended. When asked why past ads with dire warnings of the dangers of smoking had failed to work, teen attendees said they were unimpressed.

Don’t “Waste” Naming Opportunities

When Clackamas County’s Solid Waste and Recycling department changed its name to the Office of Sustainability, Sustainability Analyst Susan Terry added a cheerful, unofficial tagline: “We’re not just garbage anymore!”

It gets the point across. There’s more here than regulating trash collection.

Naming or renaming a government or business unit is a great way to educate the public about an organization’s mission. But be careful, there are right and wrong ways to go about the job. Asking for suggestions from the community can be effective public engagement if the ground rules are clear.