I’ve been thinking quite a bit about public consultations lately. No surprise there as we were recently asked to be the PR partner for a bid to handle the public and media relations for a major consultation.
We have had the opportunity to work on a few consultations in the past. We helped the Fort Rouge Yards transit-oriented development with its successful consultation a few years ago. That one paved the way for a large in-fill residential development to take shape in Winnipeg.
Our staff have also advised and led a number of other consultations for a variety of organizations, so we know how daunting they can be.
Public consultations are a little bit like the monsters that frighten children from under a bed or in a closet. They are scariest at the start when they are not defined. We don’t know what we don’t know, but organizations can easily imagine the worst case scenario. Management may picture crowds of angry people showing up at a town hall meeting or carrying placards on the evening news. Some organizations fear the worst from going out and talking with people, canvassing for ideas and support on a big project. They’ve seen so many of these things go so badly awry that it’s natural to fear the same will happen to them.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Consultations can be a good thing. Even though they tend to be cumbersome, the end result of a well-run public outreach is often broad public support for a project that may otherwise have died on the drafting table.
The first rule of consultations is to actually consult. You need to be genuine in your approach. If you ask people for their opinions on a particular topic, then you need to show that you’re willing to listen to those opinions and have them influence your plans.
Consultations are usually called when it’s clear that a particular group of people or maybe several groups believe they will be affected by a decision. The typical scenario is where segments of the public at large feel they have a significant stake in the outcome of a project. They may feel a sense of ownership over the project – a natural sense of entitlement that comes from living close by to a public park that may be redeveloped, for example.
It’s this sense of entitlement that brings us to our second rule of consultations: make sure there are no surprises. When you surprise people who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have a stake in your project, you breed mistrust and hurt your credibility. Suddenly you can find yourself ‘fighting’ with stakeholders instead of talking with them.
Surprises can occur when you appear to be making significant decisions without input, or when you fail to keep people adequately informed of the process you’re following. Lack of ongoing communication can lead people to suspect that you’re doing everything behind closed doors. Rumours start to spread as stakeholders speculate what’s going on. They begin to imagine their own monsters hiding in the closet, except their monsters are images of project proponents drawn with horns and cloven hooves.
I like to think there are no monsters in these cases, only poor communications strategies. You can’t prevent people from acting monstrously, but with proper planning and forethought you can credibly seek public input and come out the other end with a better project that enjoys much broader support.