• A community of 'muppets'?Tell me & I’ll forget (or worse lose interest or disengage completely)
  • Show me & I might remember (but I’m highly likely to get lost me along the way)
  • Involve me & I’ll be inspired (then I can inspire others & help make real change happen)

So often we hear people talking about the importance of community engagement (or employee engagement for that matter). Yet, so often the programs that are put in place are strictly one-way communication. Someone stands up in a room of people and presents at them. Or there’s an email, newsletter or an event – essentially telling you what will be happening to you. Sometimes there’s even a survey as box ticker.

Management think their job is done until the next time and everyone goes on their merry way patting themselves on the back for doing a good job. Any wonder current research shows physical communities and employees are at their most disengaged ever. Some organisations think social media is the way to engage. Don’t get me wrong, it can be – but only when it’s done well and most organisations don’t engage very well at all. They want to talk at their community rather than engage with it.

I’ve seen this happen rather a lot, particularly in government both with staff and more disturbingly the communities they were elected by. Lots of money was spent on surveys and roadshows, only to tell the communities how it would be, which by the way had been decided long before the surveys were ever undertaken. Why bother you might ask? Well in one particular case, the federal government offered funding for it, so the dollars were there to be spent and they were. Yep, your tax dollars were working hard that day. And it ‘looked’ proactive.

However, if you dared disagreed with the direction the ‘men in the know’ had chosen for you, you were shot down and discredited, often publicly as someone who knew nothing. I’ve heard similar sentiments about the heads of chambers of commerce, patient advocate groups and staff members.

The recent Goldman Sachs’ ‘muppet’ debacle got me thinking that it’s not just the investment community that are guilty of this name calling although the descriptive terms of those served might be different.

So how can we move away from treating communities with distain and really get them to engage?

4 keys to community engagement:

  1. If you’re conducting any kind of engagement campaign, seek first to understand. That means first start by listening – really listening. Don’t tell, don’t show, just listen.
  2. If you’re asking questions, sure test your hypotheses, but don’t go out with your mind already made up or your plan already formulated. That just engenders contempt for you and your organisation when it’s clear later that you were just using people to tick boxes along the way. Be prepared to change your plan based on the information you’ve gained
  3. If you serve any kind of community at all, ask them how they’d like to be involved in whatever the plan is. Make it their plan. Ask for their help – and really allow them to contribute. Help them get their plan off the ground. Make it all about them. Sure it might take longer, but it will work better and best of all, they’ll love you for it.
  4. Have your communications team heavily involved in the process. Their main skill set is engagement and they should understand how to get the best from stakeholder groups as well as any discussion materials you create (surveys included). I’ve seen surveys created by non-comms people come back with odd answers because the questions weren’t asked correctly and people didn’t understand what they were really being asked. Most importantly they’ve got the skills to keep whatever campaign you start going and that’s where you and your organisation will get the most return.

Now if we could just get those old govt and corporate dogs refusing to learn new tricks to realise that the days of command and control are long gone (except in the defence forces where it actually can save lives) and arrived are the days of community engagement and two-way communication.

Kristin Austin is a marketing & communication strategist and trainer who’s been doing the marketing ‘do’ for almost 20 years. She can be found hanging out in social media land – for her clients’ benefit of course when she’s not working on client programs, strategy or writing them content. You can follow her @glitteratichic or click on the LinkedIn icon on the right handside to connect there. If you’re not on social media and still want to connect – she’s happy to talk marketing and business boosting over coffee.

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