Here at Letterbox Media we often are asked by our customers to get involved in their community consultations. Construction works and transport infrastructure improvements are often areas in which the Local Authority or the project managing company have to ask for the views of the local community before they go ahead and start work.
But what exactly is a consultation? And what does it involve?
Often, businesses think they’re consulting on a scheme when in fact what they’re doing is announcing their plans. ‘Consultations’ such as this generally consist of little more than telling people about what the plans are and when they are happening.
One of the first, and biggest mistakes in community relations is for a small group of dedicated people to go about establishing a project before they have carried out any consultation with the community.
A good process of consultation can make the difference between a project going ahead happily or failing at the first hurdle. Good consultation can help to raise the profile of your the business or organisations involved, and is likely to garner more support, than a scheme that goes ahead without asking people how they feel. Getting the process right is essential for any project which will have a big impact on the local community – anything very visible, controversial, disruptive or requiring people to change their behaviour.
Listen, and be flexible
Simply announcing a well-developed plan isn’t a consultation.
Consultation is the process by which you give local people the chance to have their say and help shape the plans; accepting or rejecting it. This can automatically set up a position of conflict, putting people into opposing camps of ‘for’ and ‘against’. You may then have to alter your plans as a result of a potentially aggressive ‘anti’ campaign, and those who are against you will feel they have no option but to ‘fight their corner’. In the end someone will ‘win’ and someone will ‘lose’.
You want to try to avoid such a win-lose outcome, and instead achieve a win-win outcome, which is only possible if you are flexible from the outset.
If you are running the works scheme or the project on which you need to consult, then you are likely the one with the facts, and most of the passion. Be prepared to be as open and inclusive as possible, because it will be normal for others to be, at least initially, suspicious, doubtful of your intentions or even fearful of the outcome, and they may adopt an adversarial or questioning approach.
In a nutshell:
• Make sure the community is involved
• Identify and manage your stakeholders
• Consult widely
• Develop a sense of common purpose
• Have a plan but be prepared to change it