01 May 2020

It’s never too early to provide context, but it can soon become too late

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Gez Johns / gez@nwkcom.co.nz

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Waterview Connection and, with regards to PR, the importance of empathy in delivering effective engagement. I’ve always considered empathy to be one of two core pillars of engagement; its twin being context.

It’s amazing how easily and frequently both empathy and context are still overlooked by agencies in their rush to get going with projects big or small. And while consultation without context might still trigger the requisite statutory permissions for public works, I’ve found it very rarely delivers the social licence that projects rely on today to be considered a sustainable success.

To provide context is to relay a meaningful story; one which captures the interest and imagination of its audience. It's what allows stakeholders and communities to view projects through an objective lens, and ultimately form their own opinions from an informed position.

Without context, audiences are more likely to view impacts in isolation, rather than as a component of a much bigger picture; and perceive themselves as victims rather than as stakeholders. As a direct consequence, they are then far less likely to feel inclined to collaborate or advocate on your behalf, which will invariably lead to negative sentiment and, ultimately, someone up high sounding the claxon to bring in the PR ambulance to sort this mess out.

Context is not a story that can be told through a single channel. Rather it needs to be absorbed by its intended audience through a variety of media, much of it ambient, ahead of physical works beginning. This is the time to invest in PR: the loosely-related op-eds; engaging online and quirky social media content; structured media engagement; brand experience – all of this will set the scene and provide the best opportunity to control the narrative once direct community engagement begins. Not only is proactive advance PR more effective – it’s also invariably cheaper than the alternative in the long run.

I think the City Rail Link (CRL) project in Auckland is a great example of the power of context. The project has created headaches for a number of neighbouring stakeholders through construction. However, the prevailing sentiment towards it is positive as, thanks to a significant early investment in positioning the need, we’re all engaged in its purpose and benefits. But for every CRL I could (but won’t) name countless other projects which haven’t benefitted from the same social licence as people only got to see the what, not the why.

I’m a strong advocate for authentic community engagement, and its ability to create lasting benefit through collaboration and empowerment. But it’s important to acknowledge that in the wider project delivery scope, community engagement sits within a broader communications programme that also needs to consider political and corporate stakeholders, the wider public, influencers and media. It needs to be set up to succeed, not relied on for success – which first requires creating a shared understanding of the objectives. Otherwise known as context.