What’s in a message?

How to tell when your project needs public involvement and when it needs public relations

KC Cooper
JD White Co.

Sometimes you hear that a project includes public involvement, or maybe what you’ve heard was that a public relations firm has been hired to be the "mouthpiece" for a project. The terms public involvement (PI) and public relations (PR) are often used interchangeably, and they do share similarities – both strive to educate the public, dispel misconceptions, correct misinformation and create understanding, if not acceptance. However, there are real differences between them.

Public relations almost always boils down to client advocacy – a PR campaign usually is intended to build the client’s image and cultivate media attention on the client’s behalf. The client and PR professional decide on what the message will be and how it will be conveyed. Normally, the client and the PR professional decide what the campaign will look like and the public is not part of the decision-making, and often there is no feedback channel through which the recipient’s comments on the message can be received. PR can be reactive: responding to bad news, perhaps an unfavorable news story or some problem with the company or a project that has been made public. The response that goes out is designed to put the project or the company in the best possible light. Often, the PR professional speaks for the client and acts as the client’s representative.

Public involvement focuses on creating opportunities for the public to understand the issues and provide meaningful input. Successful PI starts early in a project – before decisions are carved in stone – and is more proactive (or preventive) than reactive. PI elements such as stakeholder interviews, surveys, issue forums and open houses should be designed to explore the issues that surround a project in an open, fair and transparent way. This neutrality is especially important in the case of controversial projects, because a few opposing voices may try to derail the entire project or block a decision by charging that the process was unfair or that they didn’t have adequate opportunity to weigh in. Good PI can help people understand the facts that went into the final decision, and this can result in positive opinion. In addition, an open process can bring out ideas from the community, providing a different perspective that can enhance the project.

The need for public relations is almost intuitively apparent: sometimes a project needs somebody to make the case for it and tell the story.

But how can public involvement be useful to a real estate or development project?

Projects whose fate depends on approval by public bodies that are accountable to the community almost always include public involvement as part of the approval process. A good public involvement process will help identify community issues early so that they can be mitigated to lessen the possibility of adverse testimony before the approval body. If members of the public have issues that have not been heard through a good public involvement process, projects can get delayed, costing the project not only time, but additional expense to mitigate concerns. On the positive side, public involvement can help create trust and increase the project proponent’s credibility as a responsible, caring member of the community. Support from community members who are informed and whose issues have been heard makes it easier for approval bodies to accept the proposal. For instance, a project that would mean the disappearance of a neighborhood institution might be accepted more readily when neighbors are provided with clear, up-front explanations and information about the eventual benefits to them.

In other words, an ounce of public involvement could save a pound of time and money in the long run.

KC Cooper is the public involvement manager for the JD White Co.

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