Empathy in action: Setting the groundwork for meaningful stakeholder engagement
By Sarah Bartlett
Empathy. It’s the secret to building an authentic relationship based on trust and understanding.
Empathy in the context of public participation, or stakeholder engagement, includes acknowledging, respecting and taking into consideration another person’s viewpoint and input.
“Public participation is a process that involves the public in problem-solving, or decision-making, and more importantly, actually uses public input to make decisions,” IAP2 Licensed Trainer Gay Robinson explains.
Robinson is the Principal Consultant of Gay Robinson Consulting. According to Robinson, meaningful stakeholder engagement requires a well thought out strategic and empathetic approach.
“What constituted meaningful engagement 10 years ago, 20 years ago, still is meaningful engagement. So, what is good engagement hasn’t changed,” she says. “What has changed are people’s awareness of what it means to engage in a meaningful way, the amount of organizations that are doing engagement and the stakeholders that are demanding it.”
With over 30 years of public consultation experience, Robinson is a seasoned practitioner with a deep understanding of initiating, building and sustaining successful stakeholder engagement.
Successful stakeholder engagement – regardless of the particular industry or project – comes down to the fundamentals of understanding your audience, setting engagement goals, choosing the appropriate communication channels to reach your audience, and listening to your audience’s needs and concerns.
Knowing your audience
Understanding your audience plays an integral role in shaping the overall engagement plan and communication strategy. Namely, knowing your audience through careful research informs your strategy and consequently, your communication tactics.
“You look at your communication planning: who is your audience? What do you know about your audience, your demographics, your psychographics? Where are they geographically? Then you’re also looking at the issues. What are the issues? What are people going to care about? What’s going to get people upset? What sort of risk communication might be required? Is there potential for outrage?” Robinson explains.
Setting project specific goals
Establishing engagement goals specifically for each project, also informs the engagement plan.
“You’re wanting to make sure that the people who are going to be affected are involved in the process, which means you want to figure out who needs to be involved, how they’re going to be involved and what they’re being involved in because depending on how you develop the scope of the decision, they may be involved in a number of different things,” she says.
“If you were to look at something like a sour gas field, you might be asking them where the wells should go, or you could be asking them how can we develop this field in an environmentally and socially accepted manner? So, it depends every time. That’s the trick; and that’s why a lot of effort has to go into planning your stakeholder engagement because your goals have to be specific to each project.”
Choosing the appropriate communication channels
Building trust with stakeholders is accomplished by initiating engagement early, developing a respectful discourse, and ultimately, collaborating with the community in making decisions. Trust is earned through transparent, informative and respectful communication. Being aware of how your audience likes to communicate and then choosing the appropriate communication tactics to reach your intended audience, is an essential step in the engagement process.
“I’ve always found that with projects, every community communicates amongst themselves in different ways,” Robinson says. “One community I worked in, if you wanted people to come to your event, you put a sandwich board on the corner at a particular intersection because pretty much everyone drove through that intersection at some point during the week.”
When it comes to stakeholder engagement, having a good grasp of the community calendar and how the community goes about their day-to-day lives is highly beneficial.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a big city or a small town, being where they already are is really important rather than making them make a special trip to become involved in your process,” Robinson says. “You don’t want to take away from the things that are important to the community by having your event conflict with theirs.”
Listening to stakeholder’s needs and concerns
Successful engagement, and more fundamentally successful communication, is also about being a good listener. That involves taking into consideration your audience’s views, opinions and concerns. Whether it’s at an open house or at the kitchen table, stakeholders want to be heard, and more importantly, they want to be understood.
“If you have a client that genuinely believes that we need to do engagement and we need to do it properly, then I think that you’re going to end up with a process that is more meaningful and it gives you better results,” she explains.
Researching the community, setting project specific goals, creating an engagement plan tailored to the community, listening to the community’s feedback, sets the tone not only for effective communication, but more importantly, meaningful stakeholder engagement.