Best Practices in Community Engagement

As a firm, Novitas is experienced and adept at building community engagement campaigns, especially surrounding issues facing the energy industry. Novitas founder Michelle Lyng was recently asked to present best practices for community engagement for other PR professionals at the Public Relations Society of America’s 2018 Western Regional Conference along with Janice Rooney from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Lee Boughey from Tri-State, and Rick Curtsinger from Cloud Peak Energy. This blog is adapted from her presentation. Although this presentation originally focused on the energy industry (our home base of Colorado employs over 200,000 people in energy!), these best practices for community engagement apply across all industries.

Industry innovation means that companies around the world are growing faster than ever before and community engagement offers powerful opportunities to empathize, educate, and engage with key stakeholders.

Energy production – or any other big industry project or effort  – can sometimes seem sudden and startling to communities. With appropriate communication and preparation, entering a new community can present an opportunity to forge new relationships and deepen existing relationships.

Over the past four years, Novitas has worked to encourage community engagement from David vs. Goliath grassroots initiatives here in Colorado to sustainable energy efforts in Puerto Rico.  We’ve built our company around the belief that, regardless of the industry, positive engagement with communities helps to establish trust, build respect and understanding, and open lines of communication.

So, what does community engagement look like? At the highest level, any communication framework should identify, involve, and inform the community about ongoing projects. Companies can start by:

  • Building or identifying their group of key stakeholders – members of the community or people who are impacted by the industry.
  • Identifying, understanding, and responding to any community concerns.
  • Inviting community members to better understand your company and establish trust.

Here are a few additional Novitas tips that apply not only to the energy industry, but any industry or company that hopes to have a positive relationship with the communities in which it operates.

Talk It Out

Occasional misunderstandings or disagreements occur, but they should never happen as a result of simple lack of information or comprehension. Prevent misunderstandings by keeping communities informed – overcommunicate. Companies should implement a strategy that not only engages, but informs community members about what will take place. Focus on transparency and clarity when distributing information. This is especially important when you are engaging with communities on tough-to-tackle issues. Companies must be the ones to take the first steps, and reach out, listen and respond to community concerns. Not only does proactive outreach act as a salve for concerns, but it helps to set the narrative around any project.

Meet Key Audiences Where They Are

Throughout community engagement efforts, ensure your company is communicating to the right people and in the right arenas. Identify key stakeholders, people that should be involved in engagement efforts. This includes:

  • Owners or neighbors
  • Local and state elected
  • State and regional agencies
  • Community members
  • Community, school, and civic leaders
  • Indigenous people
  • Chambers of commerce and business leaders
  • Local, regional, and national media
  • Local and regional interest groups
  • Local, regional, and international NGOs
  • Universities, colleges, and schools
  • Potential service providers or contractors

It’s important to meet your stakeholders where they are communicating. You wouldn’t attempt to communicate with moms only by attending a hearing in the same way you wouldn’t communicate with elected officials only on Facebook.

Build Relationships

When engaging with stakeholders, promote education and work to bridge knowledge gaps. There is always something companies can learn from the communities they work in, and vice versa. Also work to provide structured forums and opportunities for dialogue around projects and programs that affect communities. Social media is a great communications tool, but nothing beats human interaction for building real relationships. Learn about the community you are working in during those discussions, and ultimately design and implement a communications strategy that addresses the community, cultural, economic, and environmental aspects of your projects.

From vendors and contractors to employees, neighborhoods, community members, and more, every constituent has the potential to be an advocate for you or make business more difficult. Community engagement not only makes good business sense, but encourages companies and communities to act with integrity, compassion, and respect toward one another.

This blog was adapted from Novitas Founder Michelle Lyng’s presentation for a panel at the Public Relations Society of America’s 2018 Western Regional Conference. If you have further questions or want to learn more about best practices for community engagement, get in touch.