Has the word ‘engagement’ come to your attention lately? Perhaps you’ve been tasked with ‘engaging your stakeholders’ to get their feedback on a complex issue, or to develop a strategy to increase ‘employee engagement’. And perhaps you are wondering how, exactly, ‘engagement’ differs from what your communications team is already doing?

Engagement, much like communications, is about building and nurturing relationships. In fact, effective communication is a necessary condition for effective engagement. However, while traditional outbound communications focuses on getting the right messages or ideas out to the right audiences, engagement is about enabling audiences to play varying roles in the creation of that message or idea.

To help illustrate this, the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) proposes a ‘Public Participation Spectrum’ that lays out different levels of participation, each of which reflects a different ‘promise’ made to the audience:

  • Inform –  ‘We will keep you informed’: providing the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problems, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions (e.g., through a corporate website or information campaign).
  • Consult –  ‘We will listen to and acknowledge your concerns’: obtaining public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions (e.g., through surveys or focus groups).
  • Involve – ‘We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are reflected’: working directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered (e.g., through workshops or deliberative polling).
  • Collaborate – ‘We will seek your direct advice’: partnering with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution (e.g., through representative advisory committees).
  • Empower – ‘We will implement what you decide’: placing final decision-making in the hands of the public (e.g., through citizen juries or referenda).

If one were to draw a Venn diagram, ‘inform’ and certain ‘consult’ and ‘involve’ activities would appear in the overlap between traditional communications and engagement. The important thing is that each level of participation is equally legitimate, but it helps to be very clear on where you need to be on the engagement spectrum, and why: consider your goals, time frames, resources and the issue’s level of complexity, concern or controversy. Think about the state of your current relationship with your audiences. Ask yourself whether talking at your audiences will suffice, or whether you need to be talking with them.

When I got involved in this field close to ten years ago, the notion of ‘engagement’ was buttressed by strong theoretical and philosophical traditions, but hadn’t quite made it to the mainstream.  Many championed the need for engagement, demonstrating its power through ground-breaking initiatives, but rare were the organisations – whether public or private – that made it a core part of how they did business. Today, engagement is not only an accepted principle of good management and sustainable decision-making, it is increasingly expected. So when you turn to communications to get the message out, remember that greater levels of engagement can help you get the message right.

For the past eight years, Manon Abud was a partner with Ascentum, Inc., a boutique, Ottawa-based consulting firm whose niche market was public, employee and stakeholder engagement. Last August, Ascentum joined forces with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and became H+K Ottawa’s new Public Engagement Group