Eight ways public affairs pros can achieve genuine community engagement during COVID-19

This week Homes for Lambeth sacked its public affairs agency for measuring the success of its stakeholder engagement programme by counting the number of IP addresses visiting its website.

Don't approach community engagement as a tick-box exercised, warns Sarah Stone
Don't approach community engagement as a tick-box exercised, warns Sarah Stone

The news is a reminder that COVID-19 has made public consultation and community engagement more complicated – but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to do it badly.

Here are eight things you can do to make your community engagement programme more effective:

  1. Collaborate as opposed to convince. Too often what is called public consultation is actually just badly disguised marketing. Get stakeholders involved from the start and give them ownership of the project.
  2. Stop talking and start listening. If you see public consultation as a tick-in-the-box exercise you will never allow yourself time to really listen. This is an opportunity to get important feedback that might make your product better. Be prepared to consider that you might be wrong; allow time to act on this information and change your plans.
  3. Level the playing field. To start a proper conversation you need to be able to talk informally and in plain English so that everyone can exchange their views and opinions.
  4. Own the relationship. PR and public affairs agencies can co-ordinate stakeholder liaison activity, but the conversation itself has to happen directly – sending a proxy is probably the worst thing you can do.
  5. You can’t build relationships with a crowd. Even before COVID-19, public meetings were a terrible way of engaging with public opinion. Make an effort to identify the mavens in the community and invest in your personal relationships with them.
  6. Be creative. COVID-19 is not an excuse for bad public consultation. Invest the money you would have spent on physical events on excellent digital tools like Give My View, virtual exhibitions and virtual reality simulations.
  7. Invest in outreach. Don’t rely on the community council/parish council/community groups to engage on your behalf. They don’t represent people. You need to invest time and money in reaching them yourself. There’s a reason why general elections are still lost or won on the strength of grassroots networks. Leafleting, door-knocking and canvassing are powerful tools that you should be using.
  8. Embrace diversity. Recognise that a place-based community just means a group of people who are bound together because they live in the same place. It doesn’t mean they will all think the same or can be engaged with in the same way. Use different communication channels to reach them and tailor your message for different groups.

Sarah Stone is director at Samtaler and a former No. 10 external relations adviser

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