When you're bringing forward plans for controversial yet critical infrastructure, your stakeholder engagement events need to be exceptional. Here's how.
Before we get into the detail of how, let's quickly look at the why - because having clear objectives is key to delivering stakeholder engagement events that work.
There are lots of reasons you might want to run events for project stakeholders, and the the types of events will usually differ according to who you're targeting. For instance, you might want to set out details of your plans to local residents and solicit their opinions, or you might want to get in front of local councillors so that they can hear about your plans from you directly and not just from constituents. You might want to inform groups of local journalists so that, when they cover stories about your plans as they advance, they are armed with the facts and not speculation. Or you may wish to start laying the ground for the recruitment of local contractors to join your future supply chain.
For the purposes of this blog, we're going to look in detail at the first: events aimed at engaging with local residents.
First of all, decide why you are going to host some stakeholder engagement events, and what it is you're hoping to accomplish. Clearly defined objectives are a must. In most cases, you should be looking to achieve three key aims: firstly, to give local people access to your team so that you can establish authentic and positive relationships (you want them to feel that they can approach you and you'll listen); secondly, to share the facts about your proposals so that residents hear all about your plans from you, and not on the grapevine - it is especially important to have a full and frank discussion of any known risks at this stage, because people will be grateful for your honesty and genuine concern for minimising risks; and, thirdly, to get feedback from local people that you can use to shape your plans before you submit a planning application - remembering that they know the area better than you, and will have valuable insights they can share.
You'll want to engage with potentially affected communities as soon as possible, when you're at the pre-application consultation stage of your development. If you get the timing right (and the content - more on that below) you can really help to make sure that your relationship with locals gets off to a good start. Remember, in a lot of cases, some residents will very quickly and instinctively decide to set themselves against your plans as soon as they hear about them, and so the sooner you can get in front of them the better. If there's a lengthy gap between news of your plans entering the public domain and your first stakeholder engagement events being held, there's a good chance that the facts about your development will already be obscured by speculation. Make sure you advertise your events properly so that people know when they are taking place and you can maximise attendance.
Make sure you pick a location that is easy for your nearest stakeholders to get to, or you risk standing accused of making it difficult for people to attend - which will all help to confirm people's views that you are the bad guys. Choose a welcoming venue, where people will feel at ease and comfortable.
Once you've secured your venue and picked your dates, it's time to work out the structure. There are a number of different ways you can do this, but it works best if you have the right mixture of 'transmitting' and 'receiving', which means dedicating a proportion of your event to telling people all about your plans but also ensuring there is time for people to tell you what they think and why. It helps if some of this is structured (more formal) and also unstructured (less formal) so that you maximise your chances of authentic interactions. So, you may want to start with a short presentation about your proposals first, with an open Q&A afterwards, before then having your team mix with people in a more relaxed manner for a period afterwards. To stimulate discussion, you could consider positioning information points around the room, each with a different focus and staffed by team members with appropriate knowledge, and then guiding visitors to them in turn. At each one, it will be useful to provide people with a means of registering their satisfaction with what they've heard and also giving them an easy way to leave their comments - for example posting written notes into a suggestion box.
Local residents will want to know that you've listened. So make sure that, after each stakeholder engagement event you host, you very quickly communicate with people to thank them for attending and for their views. After careful consideration, answer their questions about any concerns they might have and, where suggestions have been made about how you could adapt your proposals to make them more acceptable, be sure to let people know if they've been adopted and give honest reasons when you've considered them but have been unable to agree to them for legitimate reasons - people will appreciate the fact that you took their opinions into account in your decision-making, even if you weren't able to use their suggestions. Be sure to also tell them what to expect in terms of the timeline for your planning application and how they can engage with the public consultation it will involve, as well as how they can keep in touch with you and the intervals at which you plan to communicate to them directly.
Be genuine and authentic
Be upfront about potential impacts and risks
Staff your event entirely with PR pros
Be patronising or condescending
Make promises you can't keep
If you want help designing and running great stakeholder events, check this out.