The following is the eighth in a series of columns discussing how and when organizations should harness the power of the public.

Over my previous seven columns, I’ve urged organizations to engage with the public both early and often.  Citizen and stakeholder support is essential to the success of any undertaking, and the only way to obtain it is by meaningfully engaging with your key audiences.  And yet, there are certain situations when engagement can be counterproductive.

In my last column, I noted that it’s virtually impossible to get 100 per cent of the public to support anything. There will almost always be people who will never be convinced about a given initiative.  Not only will no amount of involvement change their minds, it’s possible that engaging them will only further solidify their opposition.

To be clear, those kinds of opponents often have perfectly legitimate and principled reasons for holding the views they do.  Consequently, they can neither be dismissed nor ignored.  All I’m suggesting is they shouldn’t be unnecessarily provoked either.  Attempting to convince someone to change their minds can antagonize them into action.

This speaks to another point from my last column, the crucial difference between active and passive public opinion.  If an initiative is facing passive opposition, people may not be completely on board with the idea and are less likely to expend effort trying to scuttle it.  With active opposition though, it usually means there is a concerted effort to kill the initiative in its tracks.

Misguided engagement can transform passive opponents into active opponents.  It can motivate them to get off the bench and get into the game.  Even good faith attempts to sell someone on the genuine merits of an initiative can unintentionally goad that person to voice their views in ways that they wouldn’t have contemplated if left alone.

That is why it is so vitally important to understand, from the outset, who are your likely supporters and who are your likely opponents, which can be achieved in a variety of ways.  What you need to avoid is going out with a scattershot engagement exercise that creates more problems than it solves.  To use an animal metaphor: Don’t poke the bear.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa office.

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