Good consultation is good PR – despite what the consultation experts say!

An organisation specialising in consultation, which will remain nameless (you know who you are!) continually refers – despite my protestations to the contrary – to PR as ‘spin’.  In its eyes, consultation which doesn’t deliver good two way dialogue is ‘PR’.

As a PR consultant specialising in consultation, this has always irritated me because PR is exactly that – good two-way dialogue between and organisation and its publics.

Then recently I came across an article which referred to ‘PR and community relations’.  Surely community relations is good two-way dialogue between and organisation and its publics.  So how is that not PR?

The CIPR says of PR:

Public Relations…is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

This is backed up by theory: as all qualified PR practitioners will know, our hero Grunig (writing in Grunig J Excellence in PR and Communication Management New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992) identified four models to demonstrate ‘excellence’ in communication and cited the epitome of excellent communication as the two-way symmetric model – an entirely symmetrical relationship,

That is based on research and that uses communication to manage conflict and improve understanding with strategic publics.

On this basis, I believe both consultation and community relations to form part of public relations.

Furthermore, when devising a consultation programme, I use a standard PR strategy which involves research (situational analysis, issues analysis, political analysis, stakeholder analysis, pre-consultation dialogue), strategy (aims and objectives, messages, questions, target audience, strategic overview), selection of dialogue methods, resource allocation, creating the necessary documents and publicity, timetabling, monitoring, analysis, reporting, responding and evaluation. This has been the basis for much of my work in consultation over the last 20 years, and the books that I have written on the subject.

I was recently asked to write a chapter for an academic book on the subject of public participation in the Arctic (Arctic Voices in Extractive Industries: Strategies for Community Engagement, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and to be published by Routledge in early 2020).  In it I outline ten principles of effective public participation:

  1. Accessible: provides easy access to all stakeholder groups – access may be cultural, physical, intellectual, technological.
  2. Accountable: assumes responsibility for the impact of the development team’s approach to consultation and interpretation of the results.
  3. Engaging: uses appropriate and creative dialogue methods to involve and inspire.
  4. Informative: provides adequate, unbiased information to enable good decision-making, ensure that complex information is explained clearly, and consider adapting consultation materials for different audiences.
  5. Manages expectations: uses pre-consultation dialogue and research and monitoring to understand attitudes and expectations and responds accordingly.
  6. Responsive: responds to all communication quickly and positively; allows development proposals and the process to evolve in line with feedback; ensures that all consultees receive the consultation report.
  7. Strategic: follows the strategic approach to ensure that the consultation is well researched, based on firm objectives, structured and designed to produce meaningful analysis and evaluation. The strategy should be well understood within the development team and communicated to wider audiences in the form of a Consultation Mandate.
  8. Transparent: from setting realistic objectives, communicating the purpose of the consultation, drawing up agendas for discussion and imparting information, to analysing results and providing feedback, openness is paramount. The consultation report provides a clear audit trail of analysis and recommendations so that the impact of consultation upon subsequent decisions is identified and where feedback which has not been used to inform the final decision, demonstrate the rationale for doing so.
  9. Two-way: aim to achieve a symmetrical flow of information between the development team and the local community, as opposed to bombarding the community with information and paying little attention to responses.
  10. Timely: allows ample time to develop the early stages of the strategy, to engage fully and provide adequate time for responses. The timescale is set out in a document which can be accessed by all.

I’m sure that any PR professional reading this will immediately recognise these principles of ‘excellent’ public participation (as inspired by Grunig among others) as features of excellence in PR.  We just need to convince those outside our industry that this is the case.