Engage early and often: Why a strong communications strategy is vital to P3

Sandra McQuain gets the lowdown from the P3 Airport Summit on why “community capital” may be the most important equity investment in the US P3 market

P3 Airport Summit

In the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, the captain utters one of the most famous lines in American cinema: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Presenters at the P3 Airport Summit almost unanimously encouraged public owners to avoid that mistake and rethink when and how to deploy their outreach strategies.

During a session entitled, “Kansas City: The Importance of Community Feedback to Advance a P3 Megaproject”, the team discussed how a professionally executed communications plan not only saw 76% of Kansas City residents vote to approve the referendum to build the new $1.5bn terminal, which was 100% debt financed, but also led to an ongoing campaign which ensured the new facility aligned with community goals and expectations. The presenters noted that over 600 individuals participated in community briefings after the vote.

Jason Parson, president and chief executive of communications Parson + Associates, the communication advisor to the project, shared: “A project of this magnitude, a transformative type of project, you know everyone has their idea of what it should be and how we should move forward with it. So bringing the community along step-by-step and not getting out in front of the community was totally the right way to go and ultimately by doing that we found a great deal of success along the way.”

Due to the referendum required for the project, one could easily draw a conclusion that maybe Kansas City’s airport had no choice but to engage the community early on and that this approach is not necessary for a typical P3 project. But conference speakers would challenge you to rethink that position by arguing that public engagement has moved beyond a “box checking” exercise and that building “community capital” is the name of the game for a successful P3.

“Public engagement from a nice-to-have to a business imperative has been a really big shift,” noted Adrienne Lindgren, head of city aviation at Supernal, who spoke on the topic of Advanced Air Mobility.

Panellist Stephen Hill, the managing director of infrastructure and P3 at KeyBank Capital Markets, highlighted the importance of picking the right advisors, equating the role of communications guidance with that of technical, legal and financial advice: “Typically, in the past, that was something that kind of got pushed to the side but I think we’re seeing public authorities start to engage stakeholders more formally through external advisors.”

It will be interesting to watch the growing influence of the communication advisor in the coming months. Will more pre-procurement RFPs include these services? Will advisory firms build in-house capabilities? Will we see a rise in boutique firms specializing in P3 communication strategies? 

Regardless of where this new breed of advisor comes from, “finding ways to make sure you’re envisioning a future that people want to participate in, the human point of view” as Lindgren noted, will be integral to the future success of US P3 and infrastructure projects.