News Analysis: Metronet builds London relations

Even the smallest development can turn up an opponent or two, but when it's one that will affect the lives of thousands or even millions, external communications support becomes vital, as Richard Cann discovers. Anticipating the rancour that can be stirred by through-the-night drilling, Metronet Rail has drafted in PR support from CSR expert Corporate Culture as it prepares to drag London Underground into the 21st century with £17bn of infrastructure work.

Over the next 30 years Metronet Rail will invest about £2.5m for every working day into upgrading, replacing and maintaining two-thirds of the London tube network. It has acknowledged the impact this will have on local communities by developing its own comms programmes.

Developing relationships

Although commuters will continue to blame London Underground when tubes are hit by delays or engineering works, Metronet recognises the need to develop its own relationship with Londoners. 'Based on complaints we have received, people have started to know who we are,' says Metronet external comms manager Amanda Claassen. 'This initiative is not about explaining the impact of our work on the Underground's daily service, but more about showing the community what they will receive in return.'

CSR activity has the ability to deliver short-term benefits to a community undergoing long-term disruption. Claassen says involvement in schools, residential associations and local groups will be essential to keep community eyes on the overall benefits during long periods of work.

'The aim is to embed this approach into the way we do business and build it into our processes,' says Claassen. 'It's not only something our PR team will run with for a couple of years. It will give our project managers more awareness of the impact they are having.'

Park Royal Partnership (PRP) chair Alan Coates agrees about the internal comms benefits of CSR programmes for major infrastructure projects. He says CSR can 'concentrate (a firm's) mind financially', save on resources such as paper and make it think creatively.

Most importantly, an organisation's community schemes have a positive impact on staff morale, helping staff feel positive about working on unpopular or controversial projects.

Coates says it is vital to identify the levers that will be attractive to a project's various stakeholders.

PRP, funded jointly by the private and public sectors to redevelop and promote the north-west London business region, experienced a wave of protest when Guinness announced plans to transform its 80-acre Park Royal site into its global HQ in 1999.

Confronted with concerns about the environmental impact of the £350m development, Guinness emphasised the economic and employment benefits for the local community, which suffers from high levels of unemployment, particularly among ethnic minorities.

'It's a mitigation. On its own CSR does not solve people's concerns. An outright environmentalist is not going to be placated by the creation of jobs,' he explains.

BAA head of PA Liz Tooke says a lot of time and money can be saved if the community comms kick off at the earliest possible stage. When BAA looked to grow Gatwick Airport's capacity to serve 40 million passengers a year, it conducted a three-year consultation consisting of meetings and roadshows with residents groups, local government and stakeholders before it had any proposals written down.

Tooke says it has been easier to win over the community by complying with 150 pre-agreed commitments than had locals gained no influence at the planning stage.

Essex CC head of media Chris Palmer warns against a reliance on surveys and statistical analysis. 'Statistics give you the headline, while focus groups tease out the real story. You can often find some very simple solutions.'

Deciding just how far an organisation needs to go to connect with the community is often the biggest problem, with best-practice case studies sometimes proving of limited use because of the unique nature of the localised impact of developments.

BAA Heathrow stakeholder communications manager Julie King says that when BAA developed its comms strategy for the construction of a fifth terminal at Heathrow, rather than implement initiatives that proved successful in other projects, it turned to the local community to find out what would be most effective on the ground.

For Terminal 5, she says, BAA started with a blank sheet of paper, identified must-haves such as a dedicated community liaison officer and a 24-hour community hotline, before embarking on a consultation process to build up a range of other community and CSR activities.

This allowed BAA to build a relationship with the various interest groups before problems arose. 'Projects that affect such large numbers of people always attract some hostility,' says King, who adds that this can be minimised by taking away the element of surprise: 'Once you engage people they start to take ownership of the project and accept inconvenience.'

Although engagement is recognised as the essential challenge, unlike most PR activity, the consensus is that the form it should take must be decided only through consultation with the target of the communications.

HOW THREE CONTROVERSIAL DEVELOPMENTS HAVE SOUGHT A DIALOGUE

Metronet Rail Developing a community comms programme for a pilot scheme in three areas - Bow Road, Oxford Circus and the western end of the Central Line - to support £17bn of investment on London Underground infrastructure over 30 years. It will target schools and residents groups.

Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport More than ten years after applying for planning permission, BAA continues its consultation over the fifth terminal, due to open in 2008. T5 has a dedicated community liaison officer and a quarterly community newsletter, and conducts site tours and exhibitions.

Birmingham International Airport Runs visits and presentations for local residents, and distributes the biannual The Airport to the 60,000 households most affected by aircraft noise.

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