Welcome back! In my last post, I addressed the uncomfortable reality that engagement is not public relations or social marketing – a fact that many communications professionals, including myself, have a tendency to overlook.
Remember: The key difference is the ability for stakeholders, or the public, to be involved or included in the decision-making process. Without this, any engagement activities will likely be perceived as lip service.
So how do you avoid being an engagement imposter?
The answer is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Engagement is an honest, sincere and methodical approach to bring well-represented concerns and groups together, in order to discuss and contribute to decisions that affect them. Whether it is raising awareness, collecting feedback or having conversations throughout the decision-making process, the honesty and sincerity behind it is demonstrated, and ultimately perceived, through evidence of proactive planning. It’s about taking steps to listen and consider input gathered through a series of actions deliberately designed to create opportunities for constructive exchange throughout the decision-making timeline.
To be perfectly clear:
|Public Relations + Social Marketing:||Authentic Engagement:|
|Telling stakeholders what should be important to them.||Asking stakeholders directly what is important to them.|
|Convincing them to change their thoughts and behaviours.||Trying to understand their thoughts and behaviours.|
|Molding stakeholders and the public to our decision or solution.||Asking stakeholders and the public to contribute to the decision or solution.|
|Orchestrating events and putting the organization front and centre.||Facilitating events in a way that allows the voice of stakeholders or public to be the main attraction.|
|Trying to control the outcome.||Capturing and qualifying outcomes to guide meaningful and sustainable action.|
|Trying to convey a message.||Having the message collectively conveyed to us.|
As my boss and mentor Richard says, “It’s an opportunity to let the healing process begin and creates environments where people can move from emotional to rational spaces, enabling mutual trust, respect and understanding to be built.”
Engagement is not public relations or social marketing. It is a different place where there is common ground between relationships and understanding – not always a common approach on how they are achieved.
Good engagement practices can lead ultimately to public relations and social marketing outcomes that might be similar, only without the coercion. Involving stakeholders and the public in a decision provides opportunities to gather information and to let you know where you stand with your stakeholders, while understanding their values, concerns, aspirations and needs. It provides a foundation of knowledge that we communicators can develop, nurture and draw on, in order to develop truly intelligent and strategic communications approaches that achieve better outcomes and more sustainable decisions.
On the other hand, bad engagement practices can turn into a public relations nightmare. Poorly timed consultations hosted to convince people you’ve listened adequately to them when a decision has already been made – this is not authentic engagement. And your stakeholders and the public know it! How is that going to impact your relationships with them? Let’s face it; nobody wants to be lied to.
Want to stop being an imposter? The key is to stop conducting your information gathering and dissemination activities in isolation and to see them as a part of the bigger picture. Accept the value that public relations have for your organization, but don’t be afraid to take it a step further when required.
Make an effort and a plan to listen to your stakeholders in a way that attempts to meet their needs. Go to them, instead of waiting for them to come to you. Meet them on their turf and on their terms. Be proactive; convey a spirit of honesty and a desire to understand their interests.
It’s not always easy. In many cases, it might feel counter-intuitive to give up total control of the narrative. But at the end of the day, all healthy relationships are based on trust, not control.