Trust is key when driving community change

By KYLIE COCHRANE | 15 August 2018

The Coles plastic bag bungle has a lot to teach us about the importance of community engagement, including how to get it right and the costs of getting it wrong.

We can assume the supermarket chain had good intentions when they started charging for plastic bags, but from the outside it looked as if they were approaching the issue as just a public relations exercise. Surprised by the customer backlash, the company reacted to the reaction and dropped the charge. Then, in the face of broader public criticism, they announced they would reimpose it after all.

This series of backflips came about because Coles tried to do something ‘to’ people, rather than ‘with’ them. They didn’t make it easy for their customers to be a part of the change, and they didn’t give their staff any solutions to manage customer reaction.

A better starting point would have been to acknowledge that plastic bags served a real purpose and listen to customer ideas on other ways to meet that need. Although most people philosophically agree with removing plastic bags, Coles needed to talk to their customers about their plans before removing the bags.

If Coles had listened to their customers, they might have heard people saying: “Don’t take them away so quickly – we need a transition period.” Or even: “We’re happy to pay for alternative bags if part of the price is donated to an environmental cause.”

Around where I live, for example, a community group has been sewing cloth bags from recycled fabric. The shopkeepers give them to customers for free, but customers are welcome to make a donation to help cover costs.

Businesses and politicians need to appreciate that people, especially in Australia, are not going to do something just because they’re told to. With any big change, you need to capture the hearts and minds of the people affected. And that applies to everything from new schools to transport timetables.

If you get it right, people are more likely to want to be a part of it. If you don’t, the commercial risk is high. The recent University of Melbourne Next Generation Engagement Project found that, in the last decade, $20 billion of road infrastructure projects were put on hold, delayed or cancelled because of community outrage.

The social risk is also high, because that anger impacts on the reputation of the political party in government and on the government agency involved. You lose credibility and trust, putting your social licence to operate at risk.

I work on what I call ‘Social Triangle Theory’, which says that every society is made up of three major components. First is the political leadership of your tribe or country and second is your religious leadership. Third is your community, defined as your family, friends, neighbours and others who share your ‘place’.

Private corporations fit somewhere along the line between political and religious institutions. I work across Australia, New Zealand and Africa, and I have yet to find a society that doesn’t fit this model.

But what we have seen in the last decade, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is a loss of trust in our political and religious leaders. People are walking away from these institutions.

What we’ve got left, the only thing we trust, is community – our people (friends and family) and our place (our land, street, town or suburb). If anything threatens that, we’re going to react in a way that may seem emotionally out of proportion compared to what we saw 10 or 20 years ago.

That’s why controversial infrastructure projects can attract such strong reactions, targeted for a range of issues seemingly unrelated to the actual project. For example, in the past, we have seen a failure to engage communities early on for road projects leading to locals attributing everything from increasing school sizes to privatisation of transport networks to the original infrastructure plan. The level of outrage can be a reflection of mistrust in the institutions that make up the city. And if people don’t trust institutions, conspiracy theories take hold.

The good news is that a few simple principles can reliably guide your community engagement. The first step is to understand the community that you’re impacting, the community you’re potentially impacting, and the community you’re perceived as impacting – and remember that these can be three different groups.

Second, start talking to them to help people understand the parameters of the project and how they can be involved. Be really clear about what those engagement and communications channels are.

Third, use the channels that they are already using to seek, source and share information. The channels need to be specific to the community you’re dealing with. With Sydney’s Wynyard Station, we knew that 100,000 commuters pass through it every day and all of them had a phone, so we offered an app that uses virtual reality to show what the station will look like once the redevelopment is complete.

Fourth, set up a feedback loop so you can establish transparency and trust. You need to go back to people and say: “We heard what you said, and this is what we’re doing with it.”

I firmly believe that people who are affected by a policy, project or business decision should have an opportunity to have some input into that decision. But engagement is not a vote. It’s not, “Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” It’s finding out the community’s local expertise and adding it to the design where it’s relevant.

If you just thrust change on people, you won’t succeed. But if you do your research and work out how to engage the community, you can bring them along on the journey.

(Kylie Cochrane is Global Lead, Communication and Stakeholder Engagement at Aurecon, and chair of international member association IAP2 which seeks to promote and improve the practice of public participation or community engagement.)