The following is the seventh in a series of columns highlighting the importance of putting the public at the heart of communications strategies. This latest column focuses on how government and business should harness the power of the public in defining what is in the public interest.

The term “public interest” has many definitions, some formal and informal. It is perhaps most often used when governments or businesses move forward with a project, which they believe, objectively, will benefit the public.

However, the term is so overused, often indiscriminately, that the public has begun to view it with a mix of skepticism and cynicism. When someone invokes the public interest “principle,” most see it as a means of justifying an otherwise unpopular act.

To define something as being in the public interest is to suggest that its merits are so great that it should go forward despite, or in spite of, vocal opposition.  But, who defines public interest?  Isn’t it more of a subjective, not objective, measurement?

This is where the power of the public can, and should, be harnessed. The public should be engaged to determine whether something is in their interest. After considering the pertinent facts and all options are canvassed, the public can then identify its interests.

The alternative is a growing distrust between the public, companies and government. There is a creeping suspicion that the term “public interest” is being invoked simply to defend a project or defy the public. The result?  A loss of goodwill.

The last thing that the public wants to be told is that companies and government “know best,” or that they are protecting the public from their own worst impulses. The easiest way to poison a debate is to say, “you don’t know what’s good for you.”

Engaging people in a collaborative and meaningful dialogue about what is truly in the public interest ensures that businesses and government define public interest in ways that will garner public support.

Describing something as being in the public interest suggests that there has been some form of public participation to identify what the public wants or needs. If no such engagement takes place, how can anyone say that their view of the public interest is right?

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

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