This is the third installment of the Pressure Tactics series where we share lessons communicators can learn by how governmental organizations persuade the public.

seaworldPublic consultations are an invitation for constructive criticism and debate, but the way your company asks for feedback will determine how beneficial, and successful, the campaign can be. Recent engagement campaigns by Seaworld and McDonalds have disastrous results.

Brand detractors hijacked the #AskSeaWorld and #AskMcDonalds campaigns by asking questions such as “Do you genuinely believe that it is right to keep an animal that can travel 100 miles per day in a tank?” or for McDonalds “Why hasn’t our classroom burger broken down & molded/rotted after 1 year?” The questioning derailed the campaign’s positive PR efforts and instead shown a negative light on the brands.

However, not consulting the public or stakeholders is costly and ineffective says Lara Tierney, Team Lead for the Public Engagement Unit for the City of Calgary.

Calgary-1“When you make people part of the decision making process, even if they don’t like the result, they’ll feel better about it,” said Tierney, whose team spent four years developing a new internal process for public consultations. “If our stakeholders (residents) aren’t consulted, they can drag a project to a standstill.”

To see the benefits from an engaged public discussion follow these 5 communications from City Hall:

1. Forego the illusion of consultation

Explain when recommendations will be implemented and exactly what influence those recommendations have in final decision making to garner goodwill.

“If there isn’t an opportunity for the public to really impact the decision, don’t do it,” said Tierney. Her team uses an internal scoring tool that helps project managers evaluate whether or not a project requires public consultation. The technique is so successful that it has become a mandatory step in Calgary’s government projects.

2. Practice your process internally.

Begin your consultation by asking for input internally, answering questions or addressing concerns, then opening your feedback pool to the public. Internal disagreements or turf battles will dismantle project.

3. Experiment with new formats and processes.

When a city budget consultation for his ward resulted in fewer than 20 attendees, Ottawa City Councillor Mathieu Fleury sought out a less traditional consultancy model.

The city’s downtown ward of Rideau-Vanier has a diverse population that can be difficult to reach because of language barriers or a lack of traditional participation in public consultations. To expand the reach into less-accessible population groups, Fleury brought in volunteer organization the Citizen’s Academy to run a more interactive consultation. The group conducted two sessions, leading residents through some of the challenges facing the city and provided them an opportunity to discuss the facts surrounding the issues.

“In both sessions we had more than 100 residents in attendance,” said Fleury “You have to experiment with format, marketing and even the times of consultations to attract new audiences.”

4. Don’t overlook social media on traditional issues.

The messaging sent out to the broader public is as important as the content of a consultation itself says Joe Thornley, C.E.O. of  Ottawa-based PR agency Thornley Fallis. Thornley has helped clients run many successful public engagements.

“Today good public consultation needs to integrate both real life events and online engagement,” said Thornley, adding that creating social objects to share and promote will broaden your audience.

Use live streaming or allow people to provide their feedback online before or after the public consultation. This gives more people an opportunity to be heard and, in Thornley’s experience,  sometimes that’s all what people really want.

5. Provide a follow-up report

The public holds an expectation of results based on their feedback. The first step in that is providing a report on the consultation back to participants. Summarize the essence of what’s been said and include quotes from residents that are archetypal of varying groups opinions. The City of Calgary’s new policy frames the importance of this feedback clearly:


Local residents and your consumers hold the power to grow your brand and influence your industry so don’t be afraid to face the public side of public relations.

If you missed the first two pieces of the Pressure Tactics series, check out how you can use content marketing to change public perceptions, and in part two, learn communications lessons from unions and governments

– Photo of Mathieu Fleury, Wikimedia Commons, Stephane Galipeau.

– Photo of Ottawa City Hall, Jean-Luc Henry 

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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