By: John McKay
The art and science of economic development communications is often overlooked by the very organizations who need it most. As a communications agency with clients in all levels of government and from economic development organizations, we have gained some insights.
In celebration of International Economic Development Week, here we outline some of the top tips for those wishing to communicate clearly and effectively about economic development projects in 2018 and beyond.
Stakeholder Communication and Engagement is Critical to Project Success
For one large communications project RMA led, we worked with a provincial power utility organization to build an international consortium around new environmental technology. In working with national and international stakeholders in the energy sector, we took the approach that communication and engagement activities should not be simple, late-stage add-ons to project development. Rather, we realized and recommended that they be adopted early on as critical determinants of success. Clear, concise communications about projects’ benefits, objectives and potential outcomes would allow these organizations to create and frame their own message. Rather than having to rebuff negative claims about their work later on, they could provide effective messages and facts about their projects earlier and help shape public and stakeholder perceptions.
We knew that more than one project in this field had been sunk by organized resistance from opposing groups whose stances were based on faulty science and information. By the time some economic development experts woke up to this fact, they had already invested millions of dollars in projects that were ultimately going nowhere due to a lack of trust and support that could have been increased through effective communication. They hadn’t learned the lessons from experiences in other industries, such as genetically modified foods, which saw billions of dollars wasted because the “anti” side was much better at communicating (even if the information was often questionable at best).
If they had they would have been building communications and engagement into their project plans from the very beginning. For example, engineers talk about doing a “site characterization” to determine the project’s viability in terms of the geography, geology and other factors. Many developers have now started doing a “social site characterization” to take into account the perspectives and feedback of all stakeholders, and work with communities around a particular project. Contact RMA for fact-based communications advice on your economic development project.
Communicate Beyond Borders: Focusing Marketing to Groups
Several years ago we had a federal government client working on economic development and cultural change in more than one province. This had resulted in their communications and engagement activities being focused on geographical borders. The common approach was to have the “drive-by funding announcement” whereby elected officials arrive to announce a funding envelop for a particular region and then leave. We advised them to focus on economic “clusters” across all areas for which they were responsible, such as the energy sector or the film and television production industry.
“We knew that more than one project in this field had been sunk by organized resistance based on faulty science and information. By the time the developers woke up to the fact, they had already invested millions of dollars in projects that were ultimately going nowhere.”
Economic development activities are about bringing together stakeholders to achieve a goal — and often those stakeholders are not in the same location. Our work ensured that communications and stakeholder engagement became much more effective. In fact, based on our recommendations, the client reorganized their organization so it was aligned by sector, rather than location.
People: The Heart of Your Economic Development Activities
Our work with a national financial sector organization reinforced something we had seen time and again. We at RMA have observed that when working with economic development and other technically-focused organizations – there is a tendency to focus on detail and terminology, as opposed to context and meaning. For example, a news release by such an organization is often rife with professional jargon, excessive numerical and technical detail, and readability levels that land in the post-doctoral range of literacy. It is important to remember that the media and general public being targeted by said news release are not technical experts and as such need extremely clear, concise and descriptive information. The news release also needs to be SEO optimized and needs to be distributed to the right publications. Contact us if you would like to get our advice on truly effective news releases for your economic development activities.
What makes the technical expert good at her or his job is the detail. What makes for good communication and engagement around that expertise, is meaning, backed up with only as much detail as it takes to reinforce that meaning. For many stakeholders and the public, the new development in a community is not about square meters or other measures. It is not about the technical specifications. It is about what the project will mean to the lives of the people involved. In the end, the entire project is about people, whether or not the technical experts are fully aware of that fact or take it into account. Talking about economic development in personal terms about real people in the real world makes for much stronger communication and engagement, which, in turn, makes for more successful projects.
All of these examples, and many others we could talk about, have reinforced a fundamental truth about project management and economic development: communications and engagement are fundamental to any project’s success. It must be built into the organization from the beginning and not the exclusive purview of a person or people tagged with the name of “Communications” or “Public Affairs” who are called in just before the project is set to be launched.
To find out more about RMA and how we can help you with your next project, contact us.
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More on Project Management Communications
Read part 2 of this article, What Might Have Been: Project Communications Part 2
Check out this interesting article from the Project Management Institute called “The High Cost of Low Performance: The Essential Role of Communications”.