I was asked to advise an organisation recently that failed to get planning permission for a specific project they were developing. I was asked to meet them to discuss their stakeholder engagement plans and processes that they had implemented and give them the reason that it did not succeed. I met the team and they seemed to have ticked all the boxes but I was concerned about one thing. I was concerned about the attitude of some of the team.

From An Bord Pleanala’s and a legal point of view, the company had done all that was required. All the boxes were ticked, all the stakeholders engaged with, all the documents disseminated, all the facts and figures correct. So why weren’t they successful? Why were millions of euros wasted on engineers, technical people and indeed PR people? In a word, the client was perceived to have no “EMPATHY” with the stakeholders and they failed because of that.

The project reminded me of other similar projects that I have worked on, where the client has ticked all the boxes, and there are many boxes that need to be ticked as regards relevant statutory legislation including; Aarhaus Convention; Freedom of Information; Planning and Development; Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) and myriad other “ways of doing business” that we, in the communications business, follow.

In a project I was involved with some time ago, my client was looking for new planning permission on a site, after being through the courts for over 20 years because of a single protagonist objecting to the site being used. I organised for my client to meet with the “protagonist” and his opening words were, “it’s great to meet you both. This is the first time I have ever met anyone from this project in the 20 or more years that I have been against it”. There is no substitute to hands on, on the ground meeting and real engagement with people. to find out their thoughts and concerns surrounding the project. There is no substitute to really communicating with people – not just ticking the box. Communications is a two-way process and empathy with your stakeholders can only be derived by real two way communications.

A client of mine who was developing a large scale project once said to me that he had “never been asked to go to mass before” by his communications advisor. “I go to two masses every week now because of Kieran”. He lived in the community in which he was planning to develop a very large project. He knew the people. He knew the countryside, the schools, the doctors, priests, farmers, residents. He met them twice a week at mass in the two parishes surrounding the earmarked site. They called into the office occasionally. He knew them and they knew him. Critically, he had developed an understanding about the locality and the people. He developed a real empathy with them. Imagine how much easier it was for him to get that project over the line when the stakeholders knew and trusted him.