Communications for major development projects: Why successful communication during the pre-development stage will pay dividends as a project progresses

Paul Davison MD of Proteus Public Relations, a consultancy specialising in communications for development projects, advocates a proactive approach for long-term success.

History is littered with examples of where companies have underestimated both the need and scale of the communications required with their stakeholders.

One of the most famous was Shell's misjudgement of the communications need surrounding the company's decision to dispose of the Brent Spar oil platform.

While much of the public interest and involvement was fuelled by what turned out to be inaccurate claims of a high profile campaign group, Shell could have avoided many of the problems had it instigated a more proactive dialogue.

Shell's experience with the Brent Spar demonstrates the potential impact and disruption to both a company's immediate plans and long-term reputation that can be caused by not proactively communicating your plans to all stakeholders.

The same principles apply to smaller scale projects where effective communication at the pre-development stage will help to avoid many potential problems. It can also reduce the likelihood of issues developing, due to a stakeholders lack of knowledge.

Development projects, be they for new housing, the provision of a new runway or rail link, or changes to an existing minerals or waste management site will all impact on people in various ways.

It is important for companies to recognise this and communicate not only about the actual impacts of any development, but also address what are likely to be the perceived impacts.

Probably the most important lesson is to start early, not the week before the diggers move in.

Beyond this the following five steps should help avoid many of the common pitfalls.

Identify all your stakeholders and listen to them
Who are the key groups you need to communicate with? These can often be divided into two groups:

  • Those with a direct business relationship with your company such as your employees, investors and shareholders, customers and suppliers.
  • Those with which you have no direct business relationship such as the regulators (ie. planning authority, Environment Agency etc.) and your local community audiences within which there are likely to be a number of distinct groups with varying opinions of your plans.

    In most cases for development projects where expansion is the key aim, audiences with a direct business link to your company will be in favour of the project.

    Conversely, external audiences such as local communities, are often opposed to change and therefore require the majority of your attention. However, do not neglect your other stakeholders as they can be useful allies in helping to convince more skeptical groups.

    Once you know who your audiences are, ask them what they think about the development and listen to their answers.

    Don't assume you know what they will like and dislike about your plans and the rationale behind this. For example, it may not be the new development itself which is worrying a local community - but the construction phase and the additional HGVs in the area.

    Identify the rationale for their involvement
    Identify exactly why each group has an interest and involvement in your development and, most importantly, clearly define the key areas of support and conflict.

    Ask yourself why do they care and what do they care about? In relation to the development of a new civic amenity site, opinions of local residents can often be polarized.

    The division occurs between those who use such facilities on a regular basis, and are therefore happy to see a local more modern site develop, and those who are against 'all the region's waste being brought to their neighbourhood for processing'.

    Develop messages
    Define for yourself what it is you want the stakeholder groups to do, or think about your development? Are you trying to motivate them to act in a certain way (ie. visit or use a facility once development is complete) or do you just want to keep them informed of plans and progress?

    This will determine the actual messages you want to communicate to each of the audience groups. These will vary, but there are some general rules:

  • Tell people what your plans are - all of them! Be transparent, don't hide anything, but make sure the level of detail is suitable to be understood by a non-technical audience.
  • Explain why the development is necessary - make the 'need' argument clear.
  • Highlight any benefits of the development to the various stakeholder groups.
  • Identify the likely impacts and check you haven't missed any.
  • Detail what you will do to minimise the impacts.
  • Be accessible - make it easy for people to contact you to ask questions and voice concerns.
  • Demonstrate understanding and empathy towards their views.
  • Where reasonable and feasible, react to legitimate concerns by amending plans.

    Getting your message across
    Having defined what it is you want to communicate, you need to determine how best to get your message across. Do you need to speak to people personally? Could a briefing or group presentation work, or could you use newsletters or communicate via the media to reach a wider audience?

    For example, with a major new property development, it will be important to engage the area's existing residents. This could be done via direct briefings with bodies such as the Parish Council or local community groups, delivery of newsletters, a designated website or articles in the local media.

    Also, don't forget the importance of local centres such as the post office, pub, school or doctors surgery as areas where news and gossip is often traded.

    Listen again
    It is vital to keep listening to your stakeholders throughout the life of your development. After your first communication, go back to each of your audiences and listen again to their comments.

    Have their views developed or evolved or do they have the same opinion as before? Are your messages getting across? Alter your next communication accordingly.

    Finally, continue communication until after the development has finished - make your stakeholders proud of their involvement in the project.

    By doing so, they remain engaged and you will have a two-way dialogue which is the most valuable way of managing any problems later.

    In terms of getting 'approval' for a development, the unofficial consent from your stakeholders is as important in the long-term as your official planning consent.

    It is this unofficial approval which provides your ongoing 'licence to operate' and will determine the long-term success of the development and your business.

    By Paul Davison.
    Proteus Public Relations
    http://www.proteuspr.co.uk/


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