Communication with local residents usually starts during the planning process, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Whether you’re refurbishing an existing building or creating a new scheme, the immediate community, local groups and potential users / purchasers will want to understand what’s being done and the timescales involved. They may also be interested to receive regular updates. From the facilities manager’s point of view it may be useful to have the contact details of those in the immediate area so that they can be informed of road closures, over-runs and major work on site. Very importantly, facilities managers will benefit from gaining the goodwill and support of local residents, and possibly the local media too, and this can only be achieved through good communication.
Traditionally community relations during construction has largely been managed through newsletters, a phone line and sometimes viewing windows / platforms, site visits or exhibitions.
But the internet and social media are changing the way we communicate in every context. Today over 60m individuals in the UK use the internet regularly at home and this is increasing by 1.5m each year. Online is the preferred method of communication for many people and for a variety of different tasks. More specifically, over 60% UK residents own a smart-phone or tablet. In public consultations on planning applications run by ConsultOnline, engagement via mobile devices is providing increasingly popular with an average of 78% of those taking part choosing to do so using tablets and smart phones.
As our use of the internet increases, the old, often expensive and time-consuming methods of communication can be partially replaced or supplemented by something much simpler, cheaper and more effective: a community relations website.
A typical community relations website may include a timeline, a masterplan, interactive Google maps, Q&As (to which users may contribute), the Construction Management Plan, regular updates on construction work and images. CGI fly-throughs of the future scheme are very popular, as is time lapse photography – though if this is considered too expensive, regularly taken photographs are just as effective in showing progress on site. Other useful information might include an introduction to the team with hyperlinks to each organisation’s own website – a great opportunity to inform local residents of sustainability initiatives, commitment to using local workers / suppliers and other corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes. External links, such as to the Considerate Constructors Scheme, are also beneficial. Finally – but perhaps most importantly – a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest under a specific subject, be it in relation to construction updates, property sales, lettings or employment opportunities. We can then use these comprehensive databases to inform people of progress, communicate with neighbours in an emergency, as well as having a database of potential users.
Our research has also shown that online community relations is particularly popular among younger age groups, working parents and commuters who cannot easily attend events but are likely users of mobile technology. Many traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ groups can also find what they are looking for best through a website thanks to the physical accessibility of the internet and the opportunity to provide information using translations, large text and text-to-speech. Content can be intellectually accessible too, using clear, simple and jargon-free, with any complex concepts explained and with information presented in a variety of forms such as text, images, videos and audio files.
Online communication has the advantage of being available 24/7. Residents most frequently view our websites late at night, and construction companies benefit from being able to communicate immediately with residents when required.
So as communication increasingly moves online, so too will community relations. Of course online community relations will not replace offline community relations entirely. In some circumstances and to some people, a screen will never compensate for a human face. But there are many advantages of online communication over offline communication: it provides the means to communicate unlimited positive and important information, it is extremely cost-efficient, it is fast and time-efficient, and it provides easy access to a wide range of information, in equally wide-ranging formats.
When the diggers arrive on site, most people will head straight to Google to get the information that they feel entitled to know. Rather than allow residents to become frustrated at that crucial first point of contact and resort to social media and chat rooms to speculate about the changes to their neighbourhood, the savvy developer will use this opportunity to provide a first – and long-term – impression that is welcoming, informative and constructive and establishes the new development in the very heart of the community.
First published in Facilities Management September 2015 .
Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and founder of ConsultOnline. Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is widely available, and two further books Promoting Property: insight, experience and best practice and Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice will be published by Routledge in 2020.