In building a communication strategy, both for infrastructure projects and other initiatives, it is imperative that business objectives, approaches organisational leadership aspires to take with the project and the organisational culture are considered. In fact, they should drive the communication and engagement approach – bearing in mind that any communication leader has a responsibility to counsel leadership on what approaches are likely to lead to best-possible outcomes.

Public relations must help organisations listen

Business objectives may be influenced by political (and other) stakeholders wanting to bask in the glory and avoid any conflict – a strategy for conflict prioritisation, avoidance and minimisation needs to be developed. One dimension of this will be a crisis management strategy being in place but, equally, there should be an issues management approach inherent within the ongoing communication strategy.

[This is the second of a six-part ‘case study’ series on devising communication strategy for an infrastructure project, but can also be applied to non-infrastructure-related initiatives.].

Effective communication/public relations (I use the terms interchangeably) when operating at its optimum, incorporates and applies corporate social responsibility. This is two-way symmetrical communication encapsulated. In the case of infrastructure development, the project is almost entirely inherently socially responsible, due to the community benefits it provides.

Because of this, probably the most appropriate CSR characteristic that can be applied is listening and communicating to, once again, evolve the way the infrastructure is delivered, its final design and communication surrounding and supporting the project. So it is still significant, but not on the same level of a corporate that believes it only needs to pay heed to its bottom line and the needs and wants of its shareholders.

Communication strategy themes

Approaches that should be integrated into the strategy include:

  • Ideally, the community’s views and then incorporating them into the structural elements of the infrastructure. This refers to issues surrounding both the construction of the line and its actual design elements (e.g. the route it takes, the way in which it impacts on the lived-in/man-made and natural environment it travels through etc)
  • Whenever possible, proactively providing information useful and relevant to stakeholders about the project before being asked
  • Being proactive is likely to be intensely important when it comes to key political stakeholders. Politicians do not like to be surprised and their staff can be fierce in regard to demanding the ‘heads up’ at lightning speed
  • It is imperative that the organisation ensures comms is always in the loop with engineering plans and issues, including problematic ones which have the potential to impact negatively on the reputation of the organisation. If this does not occur, relationships with key stakeholders will quickly become compromised

Adapting communication to stakeholders

Where feasible (with human and financial resources being critical in this regard) adapt the comms to the differing demographics the infrastructure (e.g. a road) exists in. This may lead to, for instance, social media being relied upon more extensively in AB demographic areas but in lower income areas it may be more face-to-face, either through forums or door knocking. Then again, the preference of the latter groups of community stakeholders may be purely for media, letter drops or, simply, nothing at all.

There will be a lot of people who simply don’t care and aren’t likely to care. Not that this is sufficient reason to ignore these people. In this context, we are talking about an enterprise funded by taxpayers, so there still needs to be communication with even those who are not interested, though the investment may be comparably minimal.

In cases such as those above, political imperatives will certainly influence the messaging that is used. For instance, should the rail link messaging focus on job opportunities, ability to make money through new employment opportunities, more time being available to be spent with families?

Conversation and listening for effective public relations

‘Listening’ – even without adaptation from the organisation based on what it hears, provides ongoing informal market research and can at the very least lead to communication strategy tweaking. It also provides a PR 101 approach to crisis management: listen then respond/react as appropriate.

Social media is ideal for organisations that want to ‘socialise’ with large numbers of stakeholders, with the upshot, as always, being that organisations need to be able to compromise and/or negotiate to give stakeholders something of what they want.

If an organisation wants to be an uncompromising edifice – distant from its stakeholders – then there is little point in engaging with social media as it will only lead to tears. The exception being that social media can still be used to monitor for mentions to help with jumping on issues and addressing them – what is the infrastructure organisation’s approach?

Using social media for just soft communication issues and programs only will not work in the case of a large infrastructure development. It is too predictable that issues will arise and conflict will be generated. This conflict and animosity will almost certainly play out on social media platforms to some degree. There needs to be give and take for it to used effectively (i.e. without leading to lots of pain for little gain).

Can you provide any tips on the prioritisation of stakeholders and addressing the issue of how to deal with those who, in theory, should be impacted on by a topic but, frankly my dear, couldn’t give a damn?

The next post in this six-part series talks about the ‘holy trinity’ of public relations – thought leadership, 3rd party credibility and strategic alliances – and other strategic approaches to business communication. The previous post talked about overarching approaches to public relations, market research and target audiences.