Bring them along
Change is coming to your community and your way of life, whether you like it or not. As the adage goes, the only constant in life is that things always change. Many local leaders are desperately trying to prepare their communities for the future. They are creating plans that anticipate what is coming, and address strategies to prosper from it. That is why I often write about how, and how much, things are going to change, as well as how to prepare.
Elected and administrative leaders and leadership are developing strategic, economic, recreational, social, tourism, or business plans that will guide their decisions over the next several years. Good plans are not just filled with dreamy vision statements and endless objectives. Good plans are action-oriented documents that outline who is responsible for those actions and how to measure results. Really good municipal planning documents should also outline a clear and valuable public communications strategy. Yet that is exactly what most are missing, and that is why those plans fail.
We tend to assume everyone else knows what we know. We forget others are not aware of all the bits of information and data we read, all the thought processes we went through, and all the analyses we did that led us to our decisions and conclusions. The result is usually the presentation of a plan for the community, but the public doesn’t see what it means to them, how they fit into the picture, or why anything must change at all. That is usually when resistance arises, and the plan falls apart. If you want to succeed, you have to bring the public along with you through a meaningful communications strategy.
The public isn’t usually privy to all the information and analysis you possess, but most communications strategies don’t address that issue. They often focus on town halls and “sticky note exercises” that gather opinions from people who don’t have the information required to make decisions about complex issues requiring creative solutions. Simply gathering public opinions about issues is tough enough. Remember, it was public consultations that led to naming Cleveland’s football team the Browns, and a state-of-the-art research vessel Boaty McBoatface. Neither of those were very creative.
Complex issues that require creative solutions require research, analysis, and most importantly, an investment of time the public often doesn’t have available. That doesn’t mean you don’t engage the public or that you don’t provide them with information. It simply means you need to engage the public in a more efficient and meaningful way by telling them the story of what you are doing, so they understand why you are doing it and what it means to them. Those types of communications strategy recognize that education is at least as important as gathering opinions.
Without an education about what the problem is, what challenges are created by the existence of the problem, what opportunities exist if the problem is resolved, and then what solutions or options are available, the public won’t understand why something is being proposed. The story process educates and informs the public, and gets you closer to getting support and buy-in for the plan. Consider that when we are impatient, we tend to tell our kids to do something without explaining why it needs to be done. That is when we get resistance. Yet, explaining why something needs to be done is exactly what ensures they understand what we are proposing.
The public should never be treated like a child, yet so many public consultation strategies treat them as such, because they are nothing more than fruitless opinion-gathering exercises. Have you ever asked your kids what they want to eat, only to realize what they ask for isn’t available, isn’t healthy enough, or just impossible to produce? What was the point in asking? You know what range of options are available, so a smart strategy would be to educate them before you get their opinions. It is the foundation of what a valuable communication strategy is built upon.
Crafting a valuable communications strategy isn’t particularly difficult. The challenge arises with the time it takes to properly implement it. We tend to want to act immediately when we know the way to go, but bringing the public along with a course or strategy takes time, patience, and leadership. Leaders that get too far out in front of the crowd tend to get mistaken for the enemy and shot. Bringing the public along with you lowers the risk of resistance, and raises the chance of success when an entire community buys in and gets behind you.