When getting ready to engage with your stakeholders, it’s common to start calculating all the time you’ll need to spend on engagement activities.
Face-to-face community information sessions, workshops and meetings all take significant time to set-up, promote, run, record, pack-up and debrief. Combine these with other tools such as online engagement and surveys and your mental tally of hours ‘doing engagement’ can quickly add up.
In a time of increasing scrutiny on projects and programs, there is often a rush to get out there and start engaging. However, you run the risk of last-minute issues popping up that may not have appeared if you spent more time planning. Also, if you haven’t understood the needs of your stakeholders, they may not be aware or able to participate in your engagement activities.
One of my favourite quotes is by Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States who led his country through the American Civil War:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
While a quote from a leader who nearly 150 years ago may seem slightly out of date, I think it is an eloquent way of describing the importance of planning. To put it another way, the key to a successful engagement program is to spend less overall time ‘doing’ engagement and more time ‘planning’ engagement.
Through working on a range of local, regional and national projects, I have learned it’s often the simple things that can sharpen up your engagement planning.
Understand who you are engaging with
If you don’t take the time to understand the people you want to engage with, they may not participate in your engagement. One method of understanding your stakeholders is to put yourself in their shoes. What is important to them? How do they spend most of their time? What groups are they part of? Where do they look for information? How can you make your communication relevant to their needs or interests? If you can, go one step further and meet with one or more of your stakeholders to ask them these questions directly.
Communicate, before you engage
It sounds like a no-brainer, but your stakeholders need to know about your engagement activities before they can participate. Use the information you’ve gathered about where your stakeholders look for information to plan your communications.
In regional areas, think about grassroots methods of spreading your message. Posters on the local shopping centre or pub noticeboard, an article in the community newsletter or announcement on local radio are all great ways of promoting engagement. Posting on Facebook pages of community groups in a local town can grab people’s attention. Also, don’t underestimate the power of the local grapevine. Make sure the local community opinion leaders know the basic details of your engagement, such as dates and locations of information sessions and ways that people can provide feedback. They may be willing to spread the word to interested community members.
Get the timing right
You may need to adjust the timing of your engagement activities to take account of your stakeholder’s needs. Trying to meet with the owner of a café? Scheduling a meeting during their busy Saturday brunch rush probably isn’t going to work for them. Want to hear the opinions of parents with young children? A community workshop at 6pm in the evening, when they are trying to feed and bathe their kids is usually a no-go. If you’re unsure of the most convenient times to engage with your stakeholders, ask them, rather than assuming they can fit into your schedule.
Map it out in a schedule
Whether it’s a basic spreadsheet or online interactive tool, develop a schedule to map out the planning, implementation and evaluation phases of your engagement program. Think about each task needed to set up your engagement activities for success. Do you need graphic design or web development? Have you booked and paid for venues you need for face-to-face engagement? Have you considered who needs to approve your communication materials and how long they need to approve them? And don’t forget the nitty gritty details like checking that an online engagement page works across different devices. Use your schedule to guide your planning and seek s support of other colleagues you need to support your engagement.
If you take the time to incorporate these steps into your planning, you’ll be well on your way to implementing an engagement program where your stakeholders actively participate and help shape decision-making.