19 August 2020

Engaging around public works: Three things I know

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Gez Johns / gez@nwkcom.co.nz

While any firm with a PPE contract will be gleefully anticipating the start of our promised post-COVID infrastructure spend, it won’t just be those on the tools that will find gainful employment on public works. Before they set to work, the country will be awash with a new model army of communications and engagement apparatchiks, whose job will be made that much tougher by the expectation to expedite the start of physical works.

For any new cannon fodder – sorry communications and engagement personnel – out there, here are three things I’ve learned from years in the suburban trenches which should at least prepare you for some of what lies ahead…

1. Never underestimate the strength of community spirit

I know hate’s a strong word, but seriously, I totally hate it when agencies refer to communities as stakeholders. This implies a belief that community members are somehow beholden unto them, rather than vice-versa, which as a philosophy is immediately self-defeating.

It’s become fashionable today to bemoan the loss of community spirit as a bi-product of modern communication. But in my experience it’s never really gone away – and it’s a fool who thinks he can pursue a preconceived delivery plan by means of divide and conquer.

Sustainable success through public works requires genuine collaboration and co-creation with communities. I’ve found that working with communities is one of the greatest challenges but also one of the greatest privileges we get in this line of work. It’s also something that requires a thick skin and a long-term view.

To begin with you’ll be simultaneously disliked by both the community (who think you’re protecting your agency’s agenda) and your project director (who’s pegged you as some sort of community infiltrator), but ultimately if you do your job well, you’ll end up being respected and even liked by both.

2. Everyone else in the project team thinks they can do your job too … after all it’s only talking and writing!

What we do may not be rocket science – a fact gleefully pounced upon by those who feel their callings are – but it requires nuance, an appreciation of context and, from a technical perspective, more than a passing acquaintance with syntax and grammar. 

I have to confess that, the occasional smug glow at missed nuance aside, I found my formative experiences working as a project communications manager intensely frustrating.  To me, the evil power of the pen was never mightier than when wielded unto draft correspondence by a project-managing engineer.

In fact the nadir was reached with a review so nonsensical that I was left with no option but to erect (yes the engineers’ language got me in the end) some wayfinding signage in the office, advising colleagues to head one way for civil construction matters and my way for guidance on sentence construction. Alas it was taken down for a breach of COPTTM.

However, as well as providing the nadir, this moment also provided an epiphany as it made me realise that by failing to find a common ground I was actually the one failing in one of the core tenets of my job: namely my ability to communicate effectively. Acknowledging this enabled me to approach these situations differently - and encouraged me to put the same energy into proving my worth and building relationships within the team, as I did with our neighbours and stakeholders.

3. Enjoy silence and repetition. And embrace awkward.


                                                                                               Awkward isn’t it.

But gloriously effective too!

The ultimate rookie mistake, whether talking to the media or stakeholders is to try to fill the void on the fly. Because if you’re scrambling for something to say, then the chances are it’s not worth saying and it will only come back to haunt you.

I’m not suggesting you go full Tony Abbott – indeed when talking to live media, repetition is a far more effective strategy – but if you’ve prepared correctly and know your key messages, there’s no need for you to embellish the script. Just make sure you’ve got your nods and smiles nicely synchronised.

And if you only have the one key message, that’s fine too. You can still say this five different ways. I learned this the hard way years ago when I interviewed then Auckland Mayor John Banks for a magazine. Perhaps slightly distracted by having to conduct half of it while he was in rapidly darkening grey sweats on the mayoral treadmill (yes, really), I left confident that I’d nailed some zingers through my questioning. It was only when I played back the recording that I realised that while I may have posed a dozen different questions, he really only had the one answer. 

So to all the newbies out there, good luck. Embrace the communications challenges that will come from without and within. And if you want to avoid becoming cannon fodder, make love not war. Metaphorically speaking of course.