We’ve studied different approaches taken to stakeholder engagement and found three fails that are common to most ‘controversial’ infrastructure projects.
Firstly, there’s a tendency to not communicate enough, if at all.
Secondly, the communications approach relies too heavily on traditional PR.
And, thirdly, it’s too rigid with little done to modify plans in accordance with local feedback.
Let’s look at these in turn.
The lack of communication, where it exists, often stems from a fear of saying things that will be twisted in the media by organised opposition campaigns. This is totally understandable, but organised campaigners are the vocal minority in any population - by allowing them to close down your communications efforts, you do three things: you make it hard for everyone else to get the facts; you look shifty and as though you’re hiding something; and so you hand your opponents a victory.
Where developers in ‘third rail’ infrastructure projects do communicate, it can be overly dependent on PR - hosting town hall meetings with information display boards, and trying to secure positive media coverage. There’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches, but they must be part of a broader communications thrust and that has to be two-way to make it meaningful.
Which brings us to that third fail: not really listening to people’s genuine concerns and trying to address them where possible. If your communications are all outbound, with no proper feedback channels and only cursory consideration given to local representations, you’ll quickly give people the impression that you just don’t care and are going to drive your plans through at any cost.
Ever heard of the Swiss Cheese Model as it relates to safety management? In it, an organisation's defences against failure are modelled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices. The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting "a trajectory of accident opportunity", so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the slices, leading to a failure.
We can apply this in stakeholder engagement too. Each of the fails we’ve addressed here are bad enough on their own, but should all three become aligned, then the communications challenges of your venture suddenly become epic, necessitating a total re-think and entirely new approaches altogether - where you spend most of your time on the back foot rather than in the lead.
Avoid these fails by communicating openly and often, using methods that go beyond just PR, and demonstrate that you’re really listening to the stakeholders you might affect.