With developments increasingly needing to attract advocacy as much as reduce objection, Copper Consultancy’s Fiona Woolston and Ben Heatley joined Peter Brett Associates to stress the importance of going beyond the basics of community consultation.

The development sector’s conventional approach to community consultation has long struggled to bring value. Traditional consultation events held in parish halls, for example, generally encourage the attendance of the ‘usual suspects’ who will object to development schemes outright, regardless of the communications tactics you employ. So, how can we go about communicating with groups or individuals who might become advocates for our schemes?

Presenting alongside PBA’s Phil Lines last month, Copper explored how the psychology of habit and opinion forming can help the sector transform community consultation. For decades, theorists have debated the level of control we have over our thoughts and actions; from none at all to complete rationality and everything inbetween. Lewin’s Change Model provides a proactive approach to how we can modify the opinions and decisions of others.

Commonly used as a change management technique within business, Lewin’s theory outlines three steps to altering people’s behaviour: unfreeze, change and refreeze. First, determine what needs to change. Second, you then need to communicate this often to dispel rumours and empower action. Finally, to anchor that change, you have to provide those people with support and celebrate success. This process offers the foundation for delivering an effective engagement and communications campaign for any development scheme.

Moving from mitigation to advocacy

Building advocacy for a project is indispensable, which is why traditional community consultation falls short. The question is, how do we engage communities, organisations, businesses and individuals we are unfamiliar with? Currently, too much engagement focuses on groups with the most to lose, rather than those with the most to gain. As a result, positive voices are drowned out and negative rumours can spread quickly among the public and the media.

What Lewin’s theory brings to light is that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to engagement and communications. Whatever opinion you need to change, and what is needed to achieve that, will differ project to project. To make your stakeholders feel that a scheme is happening with them and for them – rather than simply happening to them – communication needs to be unique. People always know when they are being sold something second-hand and, generally, it is not welcomed positively.

Providing meaningful engagement

Thorough stakeholder research, a tailored engagement strategy and a targeted content plan are all necessary prerequisites to a successful communications campaign which builds lasting advocacy. If a project is to develop and maintain a positive profile, the crucial role that stakeholder understanding plays in building support for schemes must not be underestimated. As Lewin suggests, to refreeze a new opinion or habit, you need to say it once, twice and thrice – and the way you say it must suit your audience.

There are countless communication tools at your disposal. Establishing a detailed knowledge of stakeholders will ensure that you pick the channels which will reach them, and speak to them in a way that makes them feel valued and included. If you want a young, modern-minded, tech savvy audience to buy into your scheme, a drop-in event in a parish hall just won’t cut it. The more the sector proactively goes out to reach new audiences on their turf, the greater the success and legacy our schemes will achieve.

For further information on what Copper Consultancy can offer developers looking to progress contentious projects, please contact Fiona.Woolston@copperconsultancy.com