Brenda Poole Bellows shares her insights on stakeholder engagement strategies and how to foster meaningful dialogue.
Brenda has over 20 years of corporate communications experience with 12 years centred on energy and utilities regulatory agencies where she provided leadership in operations, regulatory development, and communications, including advising executives on regulatory and public affairs issues. She has represented regulatory bodies in dialogues about their role with the public, environmental groups, media, international delegations, industry, and students.
The success of a stakeholder engagement or Indigenous engagement initiative depends, in part, on an organization’s ability to effectively reach its audience and to foster open, honest dialogue. In your experience, what are some of the strategies you’ve used to promote meaningful two-way dialogue?
It’s important to understand what the audience wants to talk about and to ensure their information needs are met. What decisions do they need to make? How are they impacted by the organization or the proposed project? What are their burning issues? For a dialogue to be meaningful, it needs to focus on people’s interests and concerns. Once that strategic piece is in place, the dialogue and all supporting materials must be in plain language that every stakeholder can understand. We cannot have good conversations if people around the table don’t understand what is being discussed.
We live and work in an era when the internet and social media enable the rapid dissemination of information and opinion. This can be especially challenging when developing communications or engagement activities for a contentious project. How much has this changed the engagement landscape?
Sharing and finding information via social media is now commonplace. That said, examining social media implications in isolation, without the bigger communications picture in mind, limits our ability to proactively manage risks and leverage opportunities. I prefer to incorporate social media dynamics into a broader communication and engagement analysis, focusing on transparent and relevant dialogue that supports a strong organizational reputation. Certainly, specific communications utilizing social media should take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, but I believe the fundamental strategies and approaches of traditional communications avenues are preeminent, especially when we look through the lens of building relationships and creating mutual understanding.
Stakeholders’ capacity to engage with proponents varies widely. What are some of the ways proponents can support stakeholders who are limited by time, availability or technical knowledge?
It’s vital that organizations work to understand stakeholders’ questions and concerns. Then provide the right information concisely, in plain language and delivered within the appropriate context so they can see how they will be impacted by a project.
The potential impacts of a project, such as noise, pollution or land degradation, are often cited by stakeholders as issues of concern. What benefits are afforded when project developers address concerns with stakeholders in good faith?
When project developers invest in ongoing dialogue about a project’s impacts and how they are working to address stakeholder concerns — and then deliver on commitments — trust is built. Trusting relationships pay dividends when a developer needs stakeholder support. Key stakeholders can influence a project through regulatory processes, social media and public opinion, and general cooperation when it’s needed. The reality is that acting in good faith with stakeholders and Indigenous groups, saves time and money and can build a trustworthy reputation over the long term.
Projects come in many shapes and sizes, each with its own unique complexities and challenges. Are there certain fundamental strategies and tactics that can be applied to any project? (What are they?)
Absolutely. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with a particularly complicated project. The key is to keep a clear line of sight to the organization’s objectives. Work through the project details to find the path where communications and engagement can support getting a client to where it wants to be, efficiently and effectively.