[This article was first published in the Synergy2014 conference magazine.]
The importance of communications and engagement in the built environment industry cannot be understated.
Built environment projects bring change, challenge, conflict and opportunity to people’s surroundings, the perspective simply depends on who you talk to.
Regardless of scale, projects are always surrounded by opinions, conversation, debate, criticism, accolade… conflict. This ‘noise’ needs to be engaged with transparently and strategically, and it’s not just the domain of large enterprises with deeper pockets.
Small to medium businesses in this industry need to think about how easy it is for people to raise their voice, agitate and engage with the things that affect them.
JBA is an organisation that understands the importance of communication to the extent that they recently appointed a full communications team. Leading the team is communications director Liam McKay. A noteworthy career as a journalist and communicator — in both public and private sectors of infrastructure and built environment — means Liam has highly informed views on the importance of communication.
The built environment industry is drawn together around a common element – people.
The thing about people – especially digitally empowered people facing change to their surrounding world – is that they have a voice and are increasingly happy to share their point-of-view. All over the place. With pictures.
The prospect of agitated, vociferous people in communities can make businesses or projects adopt an ostrich strategy and bury their heads firmly in the sand – if you can’t see it or hear it, it mustn’t be happening.
This is simply the worst possible course of action.
What people perceive something to be is ultimately what it is until they learn otherwise. If not managed, this perception can cause irreparable damage to projects and reputations.
Speed of change
Communication is fundamental to the way we get on as human beings, according to JBA communications director Liam McKay.
“I can understand why [AEC] SMEs baulk a bit at PR, brand management or engagement… they don’t see it as their core business,” Liam says.
“Projects can be improved by engaging with and listening to communities and I think SME businesses specialising in architecture and engineering quite often miss the full scope of their jobs by not doing this.
“Strategic communications doesn’t have to be overly expensive, it’s just about understanding the stakeholders, the basic tools and how to use them well.”
JBA formed its full communications team towards the end of 2013 with a broad function to work both in support of its own projects and development services, and as a standalone service within the industry.
“JBA had begun diversifying into urban design and strategic planning and needed to communicate a higher level of thinking before progressing to the development application phase,” Liam says.
“[Working in the urban design and strategic planning phase] you’re far more likely to deal with local authorities like councils and state government agencies which are far more incumbent to community engagement.
“There is perhaps a more ingrained culture about the need for engagement in government agencies as they’re democratically elected and accountable, which represents an opportunity.”
In analysing the need for integrated communications, JBA realised the value in having its own communications team.
“The same skill set you deploy to undertake those tasks – getting communities involved, giving them an array of channels to engage with, listening and feeding back the final outcome, and showing you’ve listened – is not that different to many other areas of the communications chain,” Liam says.
“The objective is engagement across stakeholder groups so everyone understands what’s going on and have an opportunity to engage.”
Does this mean the objective is also about controlling that engagement?
“It depends where on the wheel engagement is required,” Liam says.
“In some cases it’s simply informing a community a decision has been made so there’s awareness of changes that may occur…. it extends right through to empowering a community to make decisions themselves.
“We’ve identified that clients need us to work across that whole spectrum.”
Inside and out
Strategic communication should be based on detailed stakeholder analysis. Stakeholders –internal and external – are usually prioritised on their interest in influencing, and power to influence, decisions.
A corporate culture of communications has to start on the inside. Internal communications can help set the foundations of project communications as well being critical to the ongoing reputation and growth of a business. This is priority number one, according to Liam McKay.
“We’re coaching our team to think of communications as a vital component of everything we do,” he says.
“Engagement can’t be an afterthought… it’s important for everyone to know, inside and out, that it’s not just about letting some people make noise, but more to understand and alleviate some of the noise and emotional reactions that come from a lack of information and engagement.”
Thinking of stakeholder engagement can seem like a bit of a ‘corporate’ concept, out of reach of smaller businesses and projects. This isn’t the case – stakeholder engagement is the responsibility of the project team no matter the scale of the project. Stakeholders, after all, are simply people with an interest in your project.
“You don’t want to find out who an influential stakeholder is after they’ve knifed your project,” Liam says.
“[Stakeholder engagement] is increasingly important for smaller projects… We’ve had three or four smaller residential jobs recently where we’ve suggested a communications programme in the fee proposal to engage with the neighbours – though the response is often along the lines of ‘we don’t talk to neighbours, it’s 2014!’.
“Something that seems small to you [like an increase in height] is not necessarily seen as a small disruption to your neighbours. Reaching out and telling the key people early, rather than springing it on them when it goes on exhibition, will go along way.
“This process can help identify where the noise and objection may come from, as well as the people who may have been sitting on the fence who may have concerns. Often the fence-sitters just need to be engaged by a skilled communications person who can listen and address their concerns with information.”
Lines of communications
Regardless of business size, strategic communications should be based on accurate targeting using researched channels, not simply volume across as many as possible.
For SME’s it’s rare to have the resources to manage multiple lines of communication, but they can achieve results using select channels well.
So what are the best channels of communications for SME’s in the built environment industry?
Liam McKay says face-to-face remains highly important.
“Increasingly, because of time in front of a screen, face to face is going be even more important,” he says.
“This doesn’t take away from other interactions, but in years of communication on both sides of the fence [journalist and in-house], I always to go back to the value of talking to people, and allowing people to talk.”
It’s also important not to ignore PR, he says.
“If you think PR is light and fluffy, parties and product launches, then you’re missing the point… I don’t really care what anyone calls it, the PR processes are very important,” Liam says.
It’s the digital channels that are always front of mind – important in this age of information.
McKay says digital communications can’t replace human contact, but there are valuable resources.
“It’s important not to think tools like social media are an end in themselves,” he says.
“It’s frustrating when ‘baby boomer’, or older ‘gen-X’, business owners demand a Facebook page, or that they should be on Twitter.
“The question should always start with ‘why?’. What are the objectives, how much time will you invest, who is the target audience, who will manage it…
“This last point is critical – social media requires someone to manage it who can comfortably speak for the company, not a nine-to-five junior role with no authority or experience. Social media is about conversation, something that needs to be monitored regularly. Social media without engagement and conversation is not social media. A Facebook page with comments turned off is just a website.”
Liam also highlights the importance of events as a communications channel. These offer an opportunity to represent the brand face-to-face, generate engagement and networking opportunities.
“The food’s important,” Liam says. “And never serve shit wine.”
In it together
The built environment industry is becoming more globalised on a daily basis. Collaboration is an important trend with digital tools emerging to facilitate these opportunities.
Communications will be critical in a collaborative environment.
“We’re very conscious of these changes at JBA,” Liam says.
“In order to meet clients’ desires, or envision ones they’ve not even had yet, we need to be able to collaborate with people offering the right tools and skills to help build these visions and communicate them into reality.”
The built environment is built for and around people. We connect, engage, collaborate and communicate because of it, about it, in it.
Can you afford to ignore the importance of communications?