Building Consensus or Building a Bridge: Community engagement requires precision engineering

P3 Bulletin’s Sandra McQuain talks to some of the industry’s trailblazers about what the secret ingredient is to getting the public on side

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From industry conversations and the prominent placement of community engagement sessions at infrastructure conferences, there is little doubt that the role of the P3 communication advisor continues to grow in importance and influence in the US. In many respects, it has become the “fourth estate” alongside the technical, legal and financial advisors that are often the staple of P3 RFPs.

Earlier this year, P3 Bulletin published a story about the very successful community engagement program related to the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. But let’s be honest. Community engagement is not all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. Even with the best of intentions, engaging with the public and other stakeholders can open a Pandora’s Box of disbelief, skepticism and doubt.  

Ask public officials and project leaders about their most memorable community meetings and they’ll share some pretty funny anecdotes. Stories range from accusations about new infrastructure being utilized to spy on citizens, to suspicions about attempts to interrupt circadian rhythm, to outright accusations of plotting a mass murder. (Evidently, this latter group read about a new technology infrastructure on the internet and was convinced it was designed to kill them). 

One former official shared that he had a long conversation with a citizen attending a public meeting who could not understand why the government was not doing all the project work itself. The individual firmly believed the local government owned and operated a construction company.

With organizations like the Pew Research Center noting that trust in government remains low with only 21% of citizens trusting their government to do the right thing and a proliferation of social media outlets fanning the flames of misinformation, can situations like these be avoided or mitigated? Community and public relations experts, Ann Marie Sorrell, president and chief executive of the Mosaic Group, and Jason Parson, owner of Parson & Associates, believe there is.

Both Sorrell and Parson strongly emphasize the importance of initiating an engagement strategy the moment a project idea is conceived. Both caution that treating community engagement as an afterthought is a serious mistake, with Sorrell noting: “You must create project champions and not project challengers.”

Parson, whose firm led the community relations efforts for the Kansas City airport project, advises public officials to remember to meet people where they are and to allow the community time to catch-up and have ownership in the project. “Keep in mind that, in the end, the project belongs to the community – the people – and not the developers, elected officials, city staff or project team,” he states.  

Sorrell echoes his sentiments: “Residents must be priority number one. There must be a strategy put in place for constituent input, engagement and mobilization. Leave egos and what you think a neighborhood wants or needs at the door and go in with an open mind and ears. Know when to step back and rework the concept or plan if necessary.”

When asked about strategies to overcome misinformation, both Sorrell and Parson advise to have a strong message and stick with it. “Get ahead and stay ahead of the story. Make sure that everyone involved is on the same message,” Sorrell advises. “Place information where the constituency will be able to access it easily. It is important that you control the narrative.”

Parson adds: “It is not possible to manage the spread of misinformation through social media, but it is imperative for the project team to communicate early and often and to keep messaging consistent.”

In conversation with Sorrell and Parson it becomes abundantly clear that designing and implementing a successful community engagement strategy requires the same attention to detail necessary when one builds a bridge.

And like a bridge, the main components of a communication relations plan must include the foundation, the substructure and the superstructure. 

The Foundation: the message, which is unwavering and firm. The Substructure: the mediums through which communication and feedback are sent and received. And, the Superstructure: the advocacy, support and goodwill that results from an effectively managed and executed campaign.  

“Successful community engagement falls into a spectrum from providing basic information about the project, to empowering the community to participate in the decision-making process,” Parson concludes.

Sorrell adds: “Remember some/most elected officials will champion what their constituents champion. So be sure that everyone is clear and on the same page about the goals, benefits, and potential outcomes of the project. Education, awareness and buy-in are key.”