Friday, October 30, 2009

10 Steps To Engaging Communities

In recent weeks I have been working on a major conservation project which is in response to climate change. It is as much about people and communities as it is about science and data.

No matter how compelling or frightening the data may be, governments still need to convince people they need to act in the face of challenging circumstances. This means consulting them, getting their input and then fashioning a response individuals, communities, business, government and others can act on.

Often community consultation involves a series of inter-locking steps:
  • Identifying stakeholders and individuals who wield influence
  • Identifying local attitudes, aspirations and concerns
  • Helping those affected understand what it is proposed, how it will improve things and when things begin to happen
  • Providing opportunities for community feedback and involvement throughout the project
  • Keeping people, especially key people, continually informed
  • Incorporating feedback into planning and subsequent actions and, as importantly, telling people you have done so
  • Communicating milestones and outcomes
  • Simplifying communications yet providing access to detailed data if people want it
  • Frankly acknowledging setbacks and disappointments
  • If people have to change behaviours, providing information when they need it and how they need it and offering ongoing encouragement
Above all build flexibility and persistence into your own mental mindset.

Things rarely go to plan 100% of the time in community consultation, coalition building and communications. After all we're dealing with people - just like us - and that's just the way it is.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wanted - Visionaries Who Can Communicate: Apply Within

The world community faces tough challenges.

Issues like the global financial crisis, climate change and international terrorism are enormously complex. The threats in each are real and pressing. There are no easy answers and what is needed is a sustained, perhaps even a multi-generational approach to tackling these challenges which cut right across borders.

These problems impact us all , so it is good to remember the simplest way through complexity is clear vision and simple communications.

This past week two visionary communicators have been notable.

On Friday President Obama received the Noble Peace Prize. The award was probably more in recognition for his ability to inspire people and give them hope than for any one achievement this early in his Presidency. Obama is a communicator in his very own class and the power and persuasion of his words resonates beyond Americans to people around the world.

In this past week I came across leading Canadian environmentalist Harvey Locke who talks about the need to think and act on the grandest of scales to protect and strengthen the earth's fragile environment in the face of climate change.

Locke is currently in Australia talking about about his experiences in helping to establish the Yellowstone to Yukon conservation corridor in North America. At 3200km long Yellowstone to Yukon is the largest conservation undertaking of its kind in the world. It literally links landscapes in the western United States and Canada to preserve animals and vegetation. It is shifting conventional thinking beyond saving "small isolated islands" of threatened environments.

Locke speaks simply, persuasively and peppers his views with anecdotes and stories. In his efforts to encourage Canadians and Americans he underpins the conversation with basic but compelling messages:

  • Firstly the problems of climate change are so significant, no one person or organisation has the solution. Organisations should stop pretending they have a monopoly on the way ahead. They must paint the grand vision of what could be and allow the rest of us to define our own contribution on how this can be achieved.
  • Locke believes in personalising the story. Or in his case "animalising the story." He talks freely why large a North American conservation corridor is so important to the long term survival of buffalo, grizzly bears and other animals iconic to North America. He has chosen his case studies well to tug at the heartstrings of his listeners.
  • He stresses the need for simple conversations. You can't reasonably expect people to support what they don't understand so he cautions governments and scientists to stop over-complicating the information they provide to the rest of us.
Obama and Locke are people with vision and who communicate it simply and consistently. In their own ways they are powerful examples for the rest of us.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't Applaud the Death of the Newspaper Just Yet

A few days ago I downloaded some songs from ITunes. It was a quick and cheap transaction and within minutes I was playing selected songs from the 60s. My transaction was easy: in fact probably similar to thousands of other ITunes downloads made each day.

I precisely identified my preferences for music and the Internet delivered exactly what I wanted. And that got me thinking - there may be a downside to all this.

While the Internet is great at delivering information to suit our needs it is not so great at delivering other information which we either should know or possibly might want to know. And that's what makes the Internet so different from newspapers.

By and large our daily or weekly newspapers do a creditable job of sourcing, sifting and presenting a broad selection of news from our communities, states or from around the world. It could be information on politics, business, sports, health or a whole host of other topics. Newspapers lay out a vast array of information and each edition offers us the opportunity to learn something either we did not know or really need to know. And all the time we retain the right to skim straight past anything we don't not fancy.

The Internet on the other hand delivers only what you we ask for. That is its great strength and at the same time a fundamental weakness. By its very specificity it just might fail to introduce us to other material we could benefit from.

Some call this the echo chamber effect. Unless we take very deliberate steps to expose ourselves to contending voices, we stand in danger of seeking out only the information from the Net that supports our opinions and own world view.

This phenomen is nothing new. Research shows many of us choose to get information only from those media outlets that agree with and give voice to our opinions. Perhaps this is just part of the human condition: to hear what we want to hear. But the troubling thing about the Internet is it can silo our information with such cold efficiency.

Some social media commentators delight in predicting the demise of the newspaper. The evidence certainly seems powerful particularly in the USA and more recently here in Australia with the shrinking of Fairfax newsrooms and the iconic Trading Post disappearing from our news stands to morph into an online version.

I am more cautious about whether the predicted death of the newspaper is such a good thing. True they have their shortcomings but without print newspapers do we risk losing the daily opportunity to tune into the broad coverage of community information they provide? News that we can read over coffee, swap, share and circle with a pencil. Or even rip out and stick on the refrigerator door if it is particularly relevant to our lives. And without the traditional newspaper where will those without digital access go?

I'm a great believer in the digital age bringing in a golden age in communications. However let's be careful. We may gain something wonderfully valuable from these new digital platforms but in the process we may lose
something wonderfully valuable as well.