Public consultations, the open events where projects are presented and discussed with the community and other stakeholders, have become a central milestone for the approval of certain projects and investments. As a matter of fact, many public and private investors have chosen to recognize the public consultation process as an essential corporate policy requirement, regardless of whether it is a local regulatory obligation.
In a context where arguably any project has direct or indirect social implications, it makes perfect sense to keep the public well engaged and informed. Furthermore, early input coming straight from the public as “final users”, could represent a crucial source of data for effective project design. This kind of input can be particularly enriching considering that among the community members we can find individuals with a deep and well-informed understanding of the local context, or even subject-matter experts, such as academics and local entrepreneurs.
Despite the benefits described above, the relevance of the public consultation process is sometimes overlooked and may even encounter opposition from project promoters and developers.
Public consultations: risks and opportunities
I would argue that a degree of resistance and opposition against public consultation originates from the perceived risk of exposing the project to unfavorable feedback. This perception is somehow justified: during consultation processes, the project gets “publicly exposed”, most likely for the very first time, and public engagement entails an interchange with interlocutors that do not necessarily endorse the project.
In some cases, the community may feel a univocal resentment against project development and will oppose any kind of initiative on principle, regardless of what is being put on the table. Others may demand unreasonable and speculative requests. Even when the project may be endorsed by the government, political opponents may opt for undivided and unidirectional obstructionism. Non-governmental organizations, in turn, may provide some excellent input to project proponents, but they could also be fierce observers and critical if their views are dismissed or ignored.
Therefore, public engagement does entail some risks that, if not appropriately managed, can turn into a systematic lack of social endorsement, reputational threat, or even worse into an operational and financial risk for the project development. However, it goes without saying that it is easier to handle and address risks if these are identified and investigated sooner rather than later in the project development process and ideally during the design stage, when modifications are still relatively easy to implement.
On the flip side, a favorable social environment limits these kinds of risks and its associated financial and non-financial costs: a sound and healthy consultation process can be the occasion to gain political momentum, to ensure that the community stands by the developer, and to enjoy increased visibility and social perception that can help push the project ahead through execution and operation.
To conclude this concept, public consultation events should revolve around three pillars:
- They should be designed as a means to provide the community with a sense of ownership of the project and thus earn broad community support for the project or operation.
- They should be aimed at collecting and interpreting community feedback and effectively reflecting this into project design and implementation.
- In order to maximize their success and impact, public consultations should not be viewed as an event but as the initiation of a process. Consultation should lead to long-term community engagement to maintain public trust and buy-in throughout the project cycle.
How to nurture public perception
In my experience, there are several steps that are typically considered by project managers to preserve and nurture public opinions and communication.
- Build a strong and consistent project reputation and “branding” from the outset. There are a number of effective ways to build a positive reputation through communication and marketing strategies, and these should consider creating a positive perception of the project’s proponents and of the project itself.
- Know your project’s stakeholders. It is crucial to have a clear understanding of who the stakeholders (the parties that are somehow directly or indirectly interested in or affected by the development of the project) are; that is usually done by preparing a comprehensive inventory of the operation’s stakeholders. It is useful to map stakeholders based on the potential impact or contribution that they may receive or cause to the development of the project, and by their level of influence and interest for the project.
- Gauge community perception and develop a tailored communication strategy. It is important to understand the community’s perception of the project to depict a baseline. Monitoring local press, media and social media is key to check the pulse of the community towards the operation. Conducting focused interviews and workshops may also help to get a more reliable and precise outlook. Developing a communication strategy can help the delivery of an effective, powerful, and consistent message to stakeholders. Communication and engagement strategies should be tailored to the type and level of influence and interest of each group of stakeholders. These strategies should be dynamic and adaptable to various steps of project development. Some key stakeholders that have a strategic influence for the project may deserve an ad-hoc and well-thought communication plan.
- Set up effective communication mechanisms to help capture and address potential discontent and complaints before they escalate; these are commonly known as grievance mechanisms.
- Roles and responsibilities for communication management should be clearly assigned within the project organization. Anyone managing communications and serving as a liaison with stakeholders should have full endorsement from the project’s team, outstanding communication skills, local awareness and proper resources in order to engage and respond promptly and effectively to communication needs.
A consultation is indeed a very delicate step for project development, it is an activity with strategic effect on the reputational status of the projects. Appropriate planning and a thought-through approach may prevent the risks associated with this process, amplifying the benefits of having the community on the project’s side.