PROFILE – The changing face of public engagement
Richard Edwards of Quatreus speaks to Zoë Lenkiewicz about an innovative approach to consultation
Picture the scene: your department has a new project that you need to consult the public on. You’ve booked the village hall, placed adverts in the local paper, created some exhibition boards and printed your feedback forms. But is your communication approach going to produce an informed response from your stakeholders?
Particularly for larger organisations and projects, the need to deliver on-target messaging is becoming ever-more important. Take HS2 for example – the consultation is a mammoth undertaking and whichever way you sway, the outputs really matter.
People attend these types of exhibitions with questions and concerns, and the quality of their feedback will largely be determined by their experience on the day.
Richard Edwards of Quatreus, a company that specialises in the design and delivery of engagement programmes, spoke with me about the changing expectations of the public in the age of technology-driven information.
Edwards’ view is clear: “People have increasing expectations to be informed about decision-making processes, particularly when it comes to publicly funded projects. The government is investing in critical schemes that carry sizeable price tags, and communicating the value of these projects is fundamental if the public are going to support them.”
Too often though, organisations are spending money on consultations but missing a trick. “Times are changing and the public can be swiftly turned off by a static, tired-looking exhibition stand. Protest groups are at times gaining the upper hand simply because they use more exciting tactics.”
What Edwards is talking about is neatly summed up by the Chinese proverb:
Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand. “We all know this approach works in the classroom, but we seem to forget the value of experience when communicating messages to diverse adult audiences,” explains Edwards, “Interaction with your audience is critical if you want them to be receptive to your message.”
He makes a good point. The marketing industry is continually developing new ways to get our attention, and
Edwards argues we can learn a lot from the way technology is being used by these messaging experts. The future, says Edwards, is experiential. “Delivering information about the needs and benefits of a project in a way that people will resonate with is part science, part art. By involving your audience in a story, you are giving them the opportunity to engage with the subject in a new way.”
“If all this sounds too airy-fairy, then think of a shop that really engaged you and helped you understand the value of its products,” Edwards suggests. Of course, I immediately think of Apple stores.
Richard doesn’t own an Apple product, but his 86 year old mother does, and he’s impressed by their approach. “Apple stores are all about engaging customers in the experience. They don’t just have a load of kit – they immerse you in what the products can do for you. It’s all about the hands-on experience.”
Apple stores are a far cry from most public sector information campaigns, and I’ve been involved in a few. Fortunately we don’t all need to don “Genius” t-shirts (no matter how well they fit), but Edwards’ point about communicating through experience certainly has merit.
“You can’t do that on Facebook or Twitter,” argues Edwards, “Face-to-face engagement is so important – building relationships with your stakeholders, especially when you’re spending public funds – that’s what changes perception.”
As well as designing innovative engagement programmes and experience centres, Quatreus can also provide a swat-team of professionals to do the communicating for you.
They appear to have thought of everything, pioneering reusable equipment and logistical support for public information campaigns, reducing waste and allowing clients to focus on their message. “If you’ve got hundreds of venues to visit, the logistical side of things can be a headache. We make sure everything is set up and ready to go, enabling different departments to share equipment and reduce their consultation budgets.”
Edwards is passionate about using appropriate tools to enhance the public engagement experience. “Technology and personal interaction aren’t mutually exclusive: adopting both can give stakeholders an experience that will help them understand your project.” “The future holds exciting opportunities for public engagement. With technology, creativity and a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you can save money and reach your audience in ways that just wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago.”
Edwards’ final words of advice… “Don’t just get a Twitter account for the sake of it. Think laterally about the right tools to enhance your public engagement campaigns.”
By working with a specialist partner and adopting a smarter approach, the public sector can deliver face-to-face experiences that inspire and engage audiences – and produce results.
Tel: +44 (0)1728 831 666