Following Highways UK last week, strategy director Pippa Gibbs Joubert shares lessons on successful engagement for major infrastructure projects.
Another year, another fantastic Highways UK. Traveling back, I had a moment of reflection about the people I’d met, the questions they asked, and the biggest challenges highways projects face through planning and delivery.
For many, Copper was a new face on an established scene – so it was a real pleasure to talk to so many new people, as well as some familiar ones. There was one question I was asked repeatedly: How do you secure public and political buy-in to projects?
There is no silver bullet, but I will outline the key lessons and principles which give the greatest chance of success in promoting your project, generating the input you need to shape a project that reflects the needs of your customers, and ultimately securing buy-in to your project.
Before talking about how we engage, it’s important to remember why we engage. There are many challenges that engagement and communications can help you meet – but key for pre-application projects are:
- Reduced programme risk: If you identify issues early, these can be designed out, minimising the chances of proposed alternatives, opposition or information requests that can all cause post-submission delays.
- Legacy and reputation: Building good relationships with stakeholders and the public is a great way of creating advocacy both at political and ‘grass-roots’. This creates a positive narrative around the project and frames you as a ‘good neighbour’ with respect for local needs and priorities.
- Speed of consenting: Creating a good story and strong relationships makes it easier for the Secretary of State to get behind and consent schemes. Early and continuous engagement can significantly reduce issue specific hearings at examination.
Principles of engagement
There are three principles that Copper consultants live by:
All engagement is complex
Stakeholder relationships are always complex. Human beings have reactions and emotions that you can’t predict and can be linked to circumstances outside your project. Developing insight is critical in giving yourself the highest chance of responding to stakeholder needs.
The human element of engagement can also be positive if it is built on foundations of trust. People understand that life is rarely perfect. Discussion, compromise, and agreement is almost always possible if they understand the need and benefits of a project and recognise your willingness to accommodate their needs.
2. Strategy informs the programme
Your communications and engagement strategy should respond to a set of objectives that are based on the project’s unique set of challenges and opportunities. There don’t need to be many – in fact, some of the clearest strategies I’ve seen have no more than three. Far more important is that these objectives are:
- Relevant to the stakeholder landscape
- Targeted to meet local communities’ biggest issues
- Realistic and achievable.
The approach and delivery programme should directly respond to these objectives and take political insight, community events, and local consultations and issues into account.
After research and insight gathering, communications and engagement strategies should come first, so that programmes are built with communities and stakeholders in mind – instead of expecting them to fall in line with an arbitrary programme.
3. Engagement is not linear
What I really mean by that is that relationships are not tick-box exercises. They are based on trust, ongoing check-ins, and conversations. This is even more important if stakeholders are opposed to or uncertain about the scheme.
Through these relationships you can educate and inform stakeholders to take them from a place of outright opposition based on hearsay and assumptions to an understanding of specific or localised issues that provide the basis of constructive conversation.
Showing willing to fit your engagement around the community and stakeholder environments you operate in gives you the credibility to progress with the scheme – even if you can’t reach an agreement. The Planning Inspectorate looks for evidence meaningful, specific and constructive engagement – not unanimous approval ratings.
The process: a virtuous circle
So how do these principles work in practice? The process we follow is a cycle of engagement that enables insight-led strategy, activity tailored to stakeholder needs, and delivery that captures deeper insight to create better-tailored solutions.
Before any specific or formal engagement takes place, the whole project team needs a baseline of understanding about the stakeholder environment.
Our bespoke data dashboard, Communify, helps map your target audience along political and socio-economic lines to give you clues about the local area and the stakeholders and customers that the scheme will impact. Of course, digital tools need to be supported by desk research, historic documents, customer surveys and informal engagement to form a full picture of the environment you’re working in – but its insight provides a strong foundation and enables deeper research into the things that are important to you.
Gathering a wide range of information – including demographic and geopolitical – auditing social media and sweeping local press for likely issues provides qualitative and quantitative baseline insight to understand the unique challenges and opportunities your project faces.
Using this, we agree project aims and objectives to develop strategies which focuses on achieving those. An engagement strategy will not only be different for every scheme, but tailored to different audiences, about different issues and at different points in time.
Programme of activity
Strategies inform a programme of activity. Whilst there will be key dates the project has committed to, a detailed programme should be informed by a strategy for successful delivery and measured against key objectives and desired outcomes. It should consider the needs of the project, stakeholders, customers and communities, and be adaptive enough to pivot and flex in response to evolving circumstances.
“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail” – Benjamin Franklin
Detail and sufficient preparation time is critical to delivering smooth, meaningful, and professional engagement. It should always be underpinned by targeted briefings to ensure everyone knows not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but also the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ (more on this later). Confidence comes not only from knowing what you’re doing and how, but also who you’re talking to, what drives them and why they’re meeting you.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey
A common misconception about engagement is that you’re here to tell your story and make your case. While that’s certainly important to discuss, of equal or even greater significance is to listen to your stakeholders’ comments, concerns, and priorities.
Listening is important for two reasons:
- It provides critical insight into both design opportunities and better ways of engagement for communities
- Making people feel truly heard demonstrates your willingness to work with them. That goes a long way to building the trust that will form the bedrock of a relationship you need to secure consent and deliver the project.
The ‘who’ and the ‘why’
Everything you do and say should be governed by these two considerations; but too often it is the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. To decide the latter without consulting the former is to expect communities to wrap themselves around your needs and priorities – not the other way round. If you do this you shouldn’t be surprised if the response is bemused, confused, hostile – or even non-existent. A good strategy should ask ‘who’ and ‘why’ to arrive at ‘what’ and ‘how’.
These questions inform two of the most visible parts of your communications and engagement: messaging, and tactics.
The story you tell is critical to securing buy-in. Stakeholders and communities need to understand what your project will mean for them. Our research on public attitudes to infrastructure shows that while people theoretically support macro-economic benefits, this does not translate at a local level; they need to know if their personal needs will be met.
This is not to say we should not talk about wider benefits, but we need to attach those to meaning – what the project means for local people and stakeholders. For most road projects, there is usually a local good news story: access to jobs, time saved, wellbeing, education – but when the news is less desirable, it is important to own that story too. Ask yourself whether you would prefer to be able to control a narrative, or whether you’d like papers, pundits, or opponents to tell it for you.
Crafting this narrative requires your communications team to work closely with everyone on the project. They need to establish the facts to create the right narrative for your audience – but there are often good-news stories in unexpected places that can balance out negative media narratives.
The nature of infrastructure projects means they are rarely waved through without challenge. Early, tailored engagement about the proposals helps to build trust, but it is equally important to demonstrate you are a good neighbour, build advocacy, and use social, press and community engagement to boost your reputation.
The list of creative engagement solutions is almost endless, but if you ask yourself, honestly, ‘why am I doing this’ and ‘who am I doing it for’, you put yourself in a strong position to choose targeted communications that will resonate with your audience.
If you would like to discuss communication and engagement questions around your project, please email email@example.com