The ‘stakeholder handshake’, building a compelling story and a culture where you want (to want) to go beyond tick box engagement – what lessons can we learn about stakeholder engagement from industry leading figures.

Martin McCrink, Managing Partner at Copper interviewed two leaders from National Highways’ Complex Infrastructure Programme – Chris Taylor (Director) and Sarah Walker (Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Communications). We’ve set out some highlights.

All too often, stakeholder engagement and communications is seen as a ‘task’, a box to be ticked or a mechanism to show a board or client that one must be taking the public and stakeholders seriously, because there is a team that ‘manages’ the public. Or, signing off a communications strategy document at the start of a project and then expecting everything to be better simply because ‘a process’ was in place. These things are unlikely to benefit a project, a team, the client or customer unless stakeholder engagement is seen as a core tenet of project development. These are  often erroneous attempts to shortcut the thinking that’s needed.

Each company, board and project has a decision to make – is stakeholder engagement a chore or an opportunity?

To help examine this, Copper sat down with Chris Taylor and Sarah Walker from National Highways to talk about the benefits for the planning, construction, and ultimately the end use, of our infrastructure and wider built environment. You can watch the interview here.

The stakeholder handshake – lay the foundations to build an engagement strategy

Clients and developers face a common challenge – to articulate the need and justification for a given project or investment. That requires securing buy in from clients, funders, government or elected representatives. This matters because often sooner rather than later we have an ask of stakeholders – for a societal licence to operate or as part of the consenting regime.

Early work is required to understand what stakeholders can gain from a project, be it a primary, secondary or tertiary benefit. What’s important is to weave these benefits into a project’s purpose to create the opportunity for a ‘stakeholder handshake’ – a series of commitments or boundaries you can adhere, to go back to in tougher times and celebrate in easier periods.

With early mutual understanding, you can start to build trust – key principles of a project, show there are lines you won’t cross, benefits you’ll deliver and promises you can show you’ve kept.

Build an audience on your terms to join an already live conversation

Whether project teams like it, or even know it, or not, conversations are happening about infrastructure projects. And within these conversations, a range of views – support, misinformation, opposition – are formed. So how do we manage this?

Firstly, we need to understand and build our audiences. It is tempting to only talk to those who want to talk to a project team – usually with a motive to oppose. But this misses an opportunity to talk to everyone who a project is for, not those already motivated to have a view. This requires a smart communications strategy to engage these audiences, informed by concrete data and insight to understand how audiences consume information.

Secondly, we need to tell compelling narratives which take people with us. We need to bring projects to life to make them accessible, setting out the need, benefits, potential impacts, proposed mitigations, and ultimate opportunities. Without a clear and compelling narrative we create barriers for people to understand the complexity of projects. This creates a vacuum which misinformation and simplistic opposition explanations will fill.

Losing control of the public discourse in this way becomes as real material risk to the consentability or construction programme of projects. Decision makers can only make judgements on what they can see. So if we lose control of a project’s story, we inadvertently cloud the project reality in the minds of our key audiences.

We’ve learnt across our projects that you have to commit to repeating this narrative and keeping people informed because most infrastructure projects, from first concept to commissioning, can be years or even decades. The key audiences may remain the same but the individuals comprising these will change over time – just because you have communicated a vision once doesn’t guarantee it has been heard, understood and will remain unchallenged.

What’s communication got to do with social value?

Unlocking tangible social value is challenging without meaningful public engagement. Projects need to know that their efforts make a difference, but this value also needs to be celebrated and crystalised into a lasting and positive legacy. Communities need to understand projects and know and trust the teams delivering them in the first instance, if the community and social benefit outcomes are going to be of real value to them.

“You’ve got to want (to want) to deliver good engagement”

Project culture is critical. If stakeholder engagement, and therefore regard for stakeholders and the public is a bolt on, you cannot expect a strategy to meaningfully improve a project and for good relationships to form with communities without putting in the work to make it happen. Like with any professional or interpersonal relationship, there needs to be a healthy tension mitigated through reasonable give and take between project teams and their stakeholders. If a project team wants to enjoy the support of stakeholders, you’ve got to want to dig deep, work with those outside a project, and be seen to do so.

What have we learnt?

Both Chris and Sarah expressed the importance of ensuring engagement is embedded into the leadership, structure and culture of a project team. If a strategy is superficial, expect the results of your stakeholder engagement to be so too.