Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love engagement
I’ve been involved in Government communications for a bit over 20 years. During that time there has been a lot of change, and like all communication professionals, I’ve needed to learn a lot of new things. But there’s one thing – one ‘ah-ha’ moment – that stands out above all others.
This was the moment when I saw that the discipline of communications that I’d been so absorbed in had some strict limitations, and that there were problems that a traditional comms mindset couldn’t solve. I didn’t lose my faith in comms altogether, but I did take on a second, complementary system of belief.
Early on in my comms career, I became aware of a group of people elsewhere in my department involved in talking to communities and running public meetings. In this department they were called the community engagement team. While they were communicating with the public, like us in comms, we had very little to do with them in an operational sense.
I was fine with that! My comms colleagues and I liked to see ourselves as pragmatic, hard-nosed and strategic. We reckoned we understood the organisation and the political context and had the skills to craft messages and design programs that influenced what our target audiences thought, felt and did in ways beneficial to our great State.
From my (unenlightened) viewpoint at that time, it seemed that the engagement people were spending way too much time meeting with and talking to the public – including some of our department’s harshest critics. Worse, they were even giving them influence over decision-making!
My epiphany came about as a result of doing some fairly desperate issues management. One program in particular received so much pushback from the community, and criticism by the media that it became an election issue (albeit a low level one).
Now, it’s a much remarked thing that, for both individuals and organisations, it often takes a shock – like the failure of a tried and true way of doing things – to make you review your approach and adopt new ways of doing things. And that’s what happened to me.
In this case, we had to beat a hasty public relations retreat, bunker down and regroup. When we returned to the fray we had a new approach and had taken on board community engagement expertise.
Working with engagement methodologies supported by communications, we began to win back ground by rebuilding trust, stakeholder by stakeholder.
Success didn’t come overnight, but it did come.
The key thing I learned was that communications is a powerful tool for educating and influencing audiences, but it has its limits – and specifically in this case, it cannot by itself rebuild trust when trust has been lost. For that, engagement is the way to go – and probably the only way!
I’m still trying to figure out why it had been so hard for me as a communicator to grasp this earlier. I think it’s got to do with the different mindsets that communications and engagement represent – but that’s a subject for another time!