Five rules every project manager should understand (& practice!) for effective community relations.
It is difficult to put a dollar figure on the true value of good community relations; but the cost of getting it wrong can mean big dollars in delays, design changes, mediation and damaged reputations. But what happens if you don’t have the luxury of your own dedicated “comms team”?
We’ve put together a simple cheat sheet for project managers and construction professionals to build a foundation for good community relations, even if they find themselves flying solo in the realm of comms. Bonus: most of these tips can also be used to improve internal communication with your project team too. #winning
What is good community relations?
Good community relations is exactly that: good relationships with the community.
There is no 'one size fits all' approach to community relations in construction, which is both exciting and annoying. I say exciting because I love the thrill of immersing myself in a new project and community; getting to know their unique challenges and coming up with creative ways to solve them together. I say annoying because construction can be such a fast-paced and contractual beast that we end up spending so much of our time trying to meet our regulatory obligations or responding to complaints, questions and media enquiries instead of really getting to know the people we’re impacting. That’s where a blanket ‘best practice’ approach starts to sound mighty appealing.
With that in mind, there are a couple of golden rules that can help to put you in good stead with the impacted community and your key project stakeholders.
Note: this is a guide for community relations in practice, and assumes that a level of stakeholder mapping and analysis has already been done and you have a solid engagement strategy in place.
First up: Listen (properly)
This is the simplest, most important and hardest rule of all.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with someone to address a complaint which has stemmed from that person feeling like no one is really listening. And it’s so frustrating, because often the original issue was relatively minor, but has escalated because they’ve been fobbed off or ignored or someone has given them an answer to a question they never asked. The worst part is, it is so avoidable.
It’s like getting your quality control sorted on a concrete pour; if you don’t do things properly the first time, you’ll end up wasting time and money on rework. If you don’t listen properly the first time, you’ll end up wasting time and money responding to community complaints or explaining yourself to your client or the media later.
Here’s how to do it: stop assuming, anticipating and thinking about what you want to say and try to really understand what the person is saying to you. Then (here’s the kicker) check with them that you heard it right. Then, and preferably only then, respond to their question and/or come up with solutions, together if possible. Even if the answer is not what they want to hear, I promise you that if you’ve invested the time to really listen and understand their question or concerns, you’ll be light years ahead and on the road to a better, stronger, more meaningful relationship with the community.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” - S Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
Two: Be Honest
Chances are if you tell porkies to avoid conflict or cover your ass, the truth will come back and bite you, so you might as well be upfront about it. Good relationships are built on trust and respect and those two things are not possible without a good measure of honesty.
Bonus tip: apologise when you're in the wrong. Making mistakes is what makes us gloriously human and there is immense power in admitting when we are wrong. Worst case scenario, you look like a bit of a goose and need to spend some time fixing your mistake (which you would likely have to do anyway). Best case, you gain more street cred as a decent human being and get to hit the reset button on a relationship or situation.
On a side note: contrary to popular belief, saying sorry does not equal admission of liability. Even in criminal law, an actual confession doesn’t automatically create guilt. So if you’ve done something wrong or made a mistake, own it, apologise and move on.
Three: Follow Through
Question: Is there anything more frustrating than when someone says they are going to do something, and then they don't?
Answer: No. It’s this simple: if you say you’re going to do something, then do it.
Four: Pick your Battles
Sometimes arguing for the sake of making a point or getting all defensive (yes, even when you KNOW you're right) can make a bad situation an absolute nightmare. I’m not suggesting that it is ok for a community member to abuse or accuse you of something when they don’t have all the facts, but trying to provide facts to an irate person is futile. Facts don’t matter to a person who has just been woken up at 2am by one of your workers throwing metal plates onto the back of a truck outside their bedroom window at the end of an already loud and long night shift. They don’t care if you have approval to be there or that your asphalt is looking slick.
In this kind of scenario, you’re best to just cop an angry phone call on the chin, don’t argue, then refer to steps one, two and three above.
Last but not least: Stay Flexible
Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't mean it's the right way or the only way. Every project is different, every community has different priorities and every person in the community experiences impacts differently. Learn from your mistakes and from lessons other people share with you - soak it all in and always be ready to adapt. That doesn’t mean you have to get on board the latest, most innovative and expensive communications tools either. It could be as simple as trying a new format for a community event that removes the opportunity for grand-standing and allows everyone to have a voice. Or it might mean asking the community how they would prefer to be contacted instead of sending out the same old paper notifications that never get read. The key takeaway here: if something isn’t working, try something different.
Don’t assume. Ask questions, keep an open mind and have fun. Or just bring in a professional to help you out.
Amanda is a senior communication and stakeholder engagement consultant at Becscomm. With almost 10 years of experience in the civil construction and mining industries and a previous 6 years in finance and investment banking, Amanda draws on a variety of experience to deliver high-level communications and stakeholder engagement support for major projects and tender submissions.