Core Values for Public Participation

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has issued core values for those who practice public participation. Developed over a two- year period with broad international input, IAP2 identified aspects of public participation which cross national, cultural, and religious boundaries. The hope is that practitioners will use these to make better decisions regarding the interests and concerns of potentially affected publics.

The core values include:

1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.

3. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

For more information on additional core values, visit the IAP2 Web site at www.iap2.org.


As North Acres Wastewater Annexation Project Nears Completion, Street Conditions Present Conundrum for Team

Sometimes unexpected circumstances put projects in what seems like a no-win situation, with no choice but to choose the lesser of two undesirable options. The key is to communicate openly, frequently and accurately to affected stakeholders. In other words, we have to plough through using best practices to achieve informed consent. It isn’t always comfortable, but if we practice with integrity and forthrightness, we’ve done our job.

Such is the case with the North Acres Wastewater Annexation Project in northeast Austin. Neighbors were thrilled when the project team announced that repaving of streets on the south side of the subdivision would begin. Plans were to mill and overlay each street from curb to curb. But when the contractor began preliminary work to prepare the roads for milling, it was clear that the streets had little or no subsurface to deal with. That meant milling, which is the standard practice, would not be possible and the only options were to rebuild the streets from scratch (for which there were not enough funds in the project budget) or simply overlay the existing pavement with a layer of asphalt.

The resulting overlay reduced the depth of the curbs substantially in some places, and there was an immediate outcry from residents concerned about the both aesthetic outcome and the increased possibility of flooding. When the next big rain event created near-flooding conditions in a few spots, the team brought Watershed in to help find solutions.

The team, along with a representative from Watershed, attended a special neighborhood meeting to answer questions and update residents on the developing situation. They informed the group that if the remaining streets to be paved had the same substandard base, they would not do the overlay. Instead, they would have to do trench repair, so that the curbs and gutters would remain uncompromised. Needless to say, this prompted an outcry from residents of those streets, and the team had to explain that it was a choice between a less visually homogenous, but sound and smooth road versus the possibility of increased flooding.

Two weeks later, an even bigger rain event happened. And this time several homes were flooded. At a neighborhood meeting that week, neighbors wanted to know what would be done to prevent future flooding and when it would be done. Unfortunately, the team still had no clear answers. That meeting could have easily gotten out of hand, but it didn’t. And here’s why: 1) We began the presentation by acknowledging the severity of the situation and demonstrated sincere empathy for those who had flooding, 2) We listened to people’s complaints and let them vent, 3) We acknowledged that while we still had no permanent solution,  we promised to implement short-term measures immediately, 4) We promised to keep them informed of any developments in devising a long-term solution and 5) We wrote down any questions that could not be answered immediately, along with contact information, and provided answers within the week. The result was a meeting that ended with acceptance on the part of the residents that the project team was operating in good faith, doing its best to alleviate the situation and sincerely had the neighborhood’s best interests in mind.


Don’t Use that Word!

Introducing a new product or service to the community via a news release requires “sticking to the facts and skipping the hype”, according to the PR News staff, which is hosting a “Boot Camp” in Boston in September to discuss this and other topics in more detail. In fact, the group has come up with a list of 25 words and phrases that have become almost meaningless because of overuse. They advise PR pros not to avoid these words entirely, but to use them judiciously.

Here are the offenders: announced, authentic, award-winning, best of breed, cross platform, cutting edge, exciting, exclusive, groundbreaking, impact, improved, innovative, launched, leader/leading, leverage, next generation, new, proactive, proud to announce, revolutionary, solution, state of the art, unprecedented, up and coming and unique.


Be Prepared for the Inevitable Crisis

How long has it been since you’ve reviewed your organization’s crisis management plan? Or do you have one in place at all? Whether you work for a company as its public relations professional or represent a client on an important project, you undoubtedly realize that bad news can hit 24-7 creating a challenge made even more difficult by the relentless hunger of social media.

As Randy Pruett says in an essay for Dallas’s Pierpoint Communications, “What happens in Vegas stays – on YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook.”

We can all think of many current examples where company reputations are either crushed or salvaged, depending on prior planning and the expertise and training of the leadership, employees and public relations team.

Here are several of Pruett’s key tips for avoiding public relations nightmares:

  1. It is crucial to get your side of the story out as quickly as possible. In a crisis, one member of your public relations team should respond to all inquiries. This avoids conflicting, inaccurate or incomplete information.
  2. Role-play different crisis scenarios before they happen. Be authentic and avoid brainless spin. Avoid speculation when you don’t have a clear direction.
  3. Tell your employees what’s going on in person versus in writing, if possible. Although personal meetings can certainly be recorded via cell phone, emails and internal memos definitely get leaked to the media, posted on blogs or appear in all types of social media.
  4. Communicate with clients and customers. As much as possible, business should continue as normal.
  5. Know that public relations has limits. PR alone can’t fix a 10,000-barrel a day oil leak or improve disastrous financials. But it can enhance your reputation in the long term by the way you handle a crisis when it strikes.
  6. Keep your public relations team in the loop and seek their guidance when choosing a course of action. They are your company’s first line of defense.

For a look at some interesting social media statistics go to Erik Qualman’s popular “Social Media Revolution 2” video and www.socialnomics.net.


Playing Well With Others More Important Than Ever

When Robert Fulghum published his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten years ago, he set out to prove that the basic social skills we learned as children are the most useful skills we will ever learn. Now more than ever, those social skills are taking center stage in the professional arena. Learning to cultivate and maintain relationships through simple techniques that even 5-year-olds have mastered is critical to the success of any organization, corporate or public. In fact, organizational relationships can be nurtured in much the same way that we do our friendships. In the organizational world we call our friends stakeholders. But stakeholders are first and foremost human beings. And they require, expect and appreciate the kind of treatment our friends receive on a personal level.

What are those basic expectations?

That we behave authentically (aka, be ourselves).
That we tell the truth.
That we listen.
That we respond to questions and requests promptly and appropriately.
That we maintain a healthy balance of power in the relationship (aka, take turns).
That we respectfully disagree when appropriate, but give good reasons for why we do.
That we share.
That we use our common interests to strengthen our relationship.
That we have fun together.
That we stick up for one another.

This very basic approach to stakeholder relationship building not only humanizes an organization and keeps it grounded, it does more for positive branding than any public relations campaign could possibly do. Because it’s real. And because it is meaningful.  Sounds simple, right? It is. But it requires a bit of a paradigm shift, which doesn’t happen overnight. And it requires buy-in at every level of the organization, which requires training and practice. But once an organization truly begins treating stakeholders like human beings and behaving humanly itself, then it can begin to reap the kind of long-lasting rewards we enjoy in our personal lives when we surround ourselves with people we truly care about and who truly care about us.


Resolving Complaints and Building Relationships

In the past I wouldn’t have thought of effective complaining as a relationship-building tool. That changed when reading The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Your Self-Esteem by Guy Winch, Ph.D. Winch says that although we are chronic complainers, our complaints are seldom addressed. In fact we vent and grumble without expecting or getting results. However, knowing how to effectively complain can get problems resolved and, in the process, improve relationships, enhance self-esteem, and encourage beneficial change.

Here are a few of Winch’s ideas to make sure complaints get results:

• Complain to a person who can resolve the problem or offer a remedy. When we vent our frustrations to family, friends, and colleagues – rather than a person empowered to resolve the complaint – we may get emotional validation but not a resolution of the problem.

• Keep the conversational tone measured if the complaint is to succeed. Anger never makes a complaint more effective. Instead anger, sarcasm, condescension, and name-calling – however justified – deflect attention away from the content of the complaint and create defensiveness.

And if you happen to be on the receiving end of a complaint, use the opportunity to resolve the complaint and build client loyalty using an 8-step process.

1. Sincerely thank the individual for making you aware of the problem.
2. Explain why receiving the feedback is appreciated.
3. Apologize for the problem or mistake.
4. Take responsibility for the problem and promise to handle it immediately.
5. Ask for necessary details and information.
6. Correct the problem promptly or within the promised timeframe.
7. Follow-up with an e-mail or phone call to determine the level of satisfaction with the complaint handling.
8. Implement system changes or change procedures, if necessary, to prevent the problem from reoccurring.

For more ideas on this topic, consider Winch’s compelling book: Winch, Guy. The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Your Self-Esteem. First edition. New York, NY; Walker and Company; 2011.


Good Neighboring

For the second year in a row, I’ll be attending the Blockhouse Creek homeowners association’s Harvest Fest. No, I don’t live in Block House Creek. Not even close. But one of our clients, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), is constructing a 5-mile extension of the 183A tollroad right in their back yard. And that means noise, dust and traffic troubles for the thousands of residents who live there. Luckily, the folks at the CTRMA understand that public involvement isn’t just about posting lane closures and answering hotline calls. It’s about community building. And that means being a good neighbor and a friendly one, too. Last year, Webber LLC, the 183A extension project contractor, footed the bill for most of Harvest Fest, including hotdogs and hamburgers for 400 people, a live band and inflatable attractions. Sure, it wasn’t cheap. And sure, it meant giving up a beautiful Saturday. But guess what? We all had a great time. The good will created by that is the difference between a distrustful community of stakeholders and a community who is a partner in the project. A few months after that first Harvest Fest, we were invited to judge the barbecue competition at the HOA’s annual “Smoke Out.” As I licked my fingers after sampling a particularly succulent pork rib that day, I realized how lucky I am to do what I do. What could be better than making friends for a living? And of course a little barbecue is also nice.


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