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Communication and Engagement: What’s the Difference?

Sep.12.2018

Communication and Engagement: What’s the Difference?
By Jesse Yardley

What’s the difference between communication and engagement? It’s an important question, the answer to which can directly impact the success of your stakeholder engagement initiative.

One perspective is that communication focuses on what to say and who to say it to, while engagement is more about who to listen to and what feedback you seek to elicit. Another view is that communication is differentiated by proximity: engagement is a contact sport, while communication often happens at a distance.

Andrea Di Maio, managing vice president for public sector at Gartner Research, suggests communication and engagement can even be opposites in certain cases. “In essence … an effective communication strategy is likely to be almost the exact opposite of an effective engagement strategy. The former chooses and controls channels, while the latter joins somebody else’s channels. The former determines the rules of engagement, the latter follows somebody else’s rules.”

While there’s no cut and dried answer for this complex question, there are notable distinctions worth considering when developing strategies and tactics for your project. Understanding the differences between communication and engagement leads to better outcomes for both stakeholders and clients, while confusing the two can have deleterious results whereby stakeholders can become disengaged, or worse, feel ignored.

Communica - Communicate and Engage

Petrina Frost is a long-time public relations practitioner who has written about the differences between communication and engagement. She notes, those with misunderstanding ask, “When you engage a stakeholder, isn’t that communication? And when you send a communication to a stakeholder, isn’t that engaging them?” As Frost points out, it’s not that simple.

An effective communication strategy often begins with the development of key messages, project descriptions and timelines. Next, the demographics and psychographics of the audience are investigated with communications being tailored to the audience and disseminated through a variety of means such as printed information packages, notice letters, press releases, videos, websites, social media, open houses and phone calls.

Much of this communication is one-way, whether it is broadcast or narrowcast, but when dialogue ensues and the conversation becomes two-way, we now enter the intersecting space between communication and engagement.

Although communication can happen without engagement, engagement cannot happen without communication.

Efficacious engagement is dialogic in nature and depends upon meaningful interaction. Engagement is active, never passive. It requires the participation of both the speaker and listener. It’s about connecting, being attentive and acting in good faith. When successful, stakeholders feel heard and know their opinions matter. This is fertile ground for problem solving and collaboration. Stakeholders benefit when they can work together with project proponents. And clients benefit when stakeholders share key information that can impact a project.

Certainly, communication and engagement overlap and, in many ways, complement each other. Companies that prioritize effective communication, follow-ups and genuine engagement will see stakeholders become more involved and more co-operative. That’s good for everyone.

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