Part 1 of a 3 Part Weekly Series

My thoughts on stakeholder engagement are quite simple – stakeholder engagement means really engaging, really communicating, with your stakeholders and not just going through a tick box exercise. It is very much two way, where each party, when communicating, imparts information and as importantly, also listens and hears.

I have dealt with many organisations who have undertaken stakeholder engagement for planning permission for developments such as wind farms, solar farms, anaerobic digester facilities, waste management facilities, and wastewater treatment plants. After many years advising and working with clients, the greatest piece of advice that I can give to my clients, is that communications and stakeholder engagement is more than a giving of facts, figures and information.

The word “communication” comes from the Latin – “communicare” which means “to share”. There are a number of English dictionary definitions of the word “communications”, but the one I like the best is the

the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings”.

This really defines communications for me, in that it states that communications is about sharing, and sharing is two way. It outlines also that communications is about conveying ideas. For example, if you are seeking planning permission for a renewable energy development, it could be conveying the idea behind the solar farm or wind farm and what that project might look like and its impact on its surrounds. Most importantly of all, the definition describes the fact that communications is about feelings – the sharing of ideas and feelings. This is where a lot of stakeholder engagement and stakeholder communications falls down.

Feelings and Empathy

I was asked by an organisation to look at the planning application that they had submitted for a project they were developing and give them feedback. I met them and discussed with them how they had engaged with their stakeholders and what processes that they had implemented. I was asked to give them some reasons why the planning permission was opposed so vehemently by local stakeholders and was not granted. The Directors I met were adamant that they had followed every “communications requirement” to the letter of the law.

Looking at their documents that they submitted to the planning office, I agreed with them that they had, in theory, done everything that was required. The company has ticked all the boxes, and there are many boxes that need to be ticked as regards relevant statutory legislation and guidelines, 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. All the boxes were ticked, all the stakeholders engaged with, all the documents disseminated, all the facts and figures correct. So why were there were so many objections and a subsequent refusal of their planning application? Why were millions of euros wasted on engineers, technical people and indeed PR people?

In digging further into their application and talking more with the senior people in the room I concluded that two important things were missing. Yes they did indeed engage with their stakeholders but they did so without real engagement and with not an ounce of empathy. The two items missing were

1.     Real two-way communications and engagement, where they not only told their stakeholders what they were about to do, but that they also listened to their stakeholders, their issues and concerns

2.     Empathy. Meeting the Directors, it brought it home to me that the senior people had not got an ounce of empathy between them and no amount of ticking boxes was going to get their project across the line.

Communications with stakeholders must involve feelings. A successful engagement is as much about understanding your stakeholder’s feelings and thoughts, as it is getting your ideas across to them. Without empathy, real two-way communications, is not possible. The company decided not to proceed further with this development.

In another 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 original planning permission. 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 for hands on, on the ground meeting and real engagement with people to find out their thoughts, concerns and feelings surrounding a project. There is no substitute to really communicating with people. Communications is a reciprocal process and empathy with your stakeholders can only be derived by real, two-way communications.

To summarise

Stakeholder engagement can really help a project. Not engaging with your stakeholders can really hinder a project. Please remember that stakeholder engagement is not just a tick box exercise but should be a real listening and sharing of information on behalf of your project. If it is, and you establish the need of your project and bring your stakeholders along with you on your journey, you should expect that you should find favour with a majority of your stakeholders.

If you need any advice on stakeholder engagent or any aspect of communications email Kieran at kobyrne@eccl.ie