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Communication vs. Engagement

We all know that better quality interactions between you and your stakeholders will result in better outcomes for your project. But these interactions hinge on effective communication and quality stakeholder engagement. So, is there really a difference between communication and engagement?

Communication is integral to successful project management and, if used effectively, makes sure your stakeholders know what’s going on. But, what about community engagement? When you engage a stakeholder, isn’t that considered communication? And when you send an email, isn’t that engaging them?

In the stakeholder engagement world, the words ‘communication’ and ‘engagement’ are commonly interchanged; but they probably shouldn’t be. Let’s explore how communication and engagement can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Communication

Usually, communication is associated with a conversation in some manner.

Good communication is about clearly conveying information between an individual or organisation and its wider stakeholders of interest.

But in a corporate context, is communication a conversation? Or is it more of a marketing tool?

An effective communication strategy often begins with crafting key messaging, including strategic positioning, project descriptions, and even timelines.

Corporate communication is a way for companies to control the narrative of information to key stakeholders. As an example, this information is sent via updates, newsletters, text messages, social posts, or maildrops. But it’s pretty one-sided and not like a conversation at all.

As you can see, a lot of this communication is one-way. Whether it is broadcast to thousands, or narrowcast to a selected stakeholder group, the message isn’t inviting a conversation. But, when dialogue follows and the conversation becomes two-way, you begin to intersect the space between communication and engagement.

Engagement

On the flip side, engagement is focused on, you guessed it, engaging with your stakeholders of interest in decision-making or problem-solving. Whether formal or informal, successful engagement is both dialogic in nature and intentional.

Effective engagement greatly depends upon meaningful interaction, so there’s an element of active listening required as well. In contrast to communication, engagement really requires you to connect and be attentive to all stakeholders. When successful, this layer of connection builds trust and helps your stakeholders feel heard.

Stakeholder engagement isn’t a straight-cut line, but more of an ongoing cycle during the entire lifespan of the project. If you’re actively engaging with your stakeholders, you’ll be building better relationships with the entire community, and potentially even make your job easier in the long run.

Understanding the difference between communication and engagement

Communication and engagement definitely overlap, and in many ways, they also complement each other. It is this overlap between communication and engagement that creates a truly unique space.

You could say that communication focuses on what to say and who to say it to, while engagement shines in the feedback you seek and how you’re listening. This can also be further differentiated by proximity, where communication happens at a distance and engagement is hands-on.

Prioritising strategic communication and authentic engagement helps companies to build more positive stakeholder relationships. As a practitioner, it means you’re able to tackle problems from both perspectives, you know when to communicate versus when to engage. And, you understand that both are required for project success.

Is it engagement, or just communication?

Let’s start with a little scenario from our friend Captain Mad.

Captain Mad has consistently complained every week that the route he takes is impacted by your project’s construction. A big sign is impeding his vision to safely steer his ship, and he can’t possibly navigate around it.

You’ve tried getting the construction team to remedy this multiple times, but the problem still occurs, and Captain Mad continues to ring angrily every single week. Everyone in your team now recognises his number and you’re starting to develop a very noticeable eye twitch.

Finally, one day you’re out on site and decide to check out this big sign, and from his perspective, he’s really got a point. It’s impeding his vision, blocking access, and can be easily changed. With one call, you liaise with your team to move the sign to a different location and with Captain Mad’s assistance, you can identify where this should be.

Suddenly his calls stop. You’ve helped turn an irate serial complainer, into a potential supporter of the project.

Sometimes, sitting down with a stakeholder, or group of stakeholders, can really give you insight into why they’re against, or excited about your project. This is the essence of engagement. You’re opening up the dialogue of understanding and you’re actively seeking to understand their point of view.

Bringing communication and engagement together.

A lot of companies send communications to their stakeholders telling them what’s happening on their project and recording their comments in an excellent stakeholder database. But, as we now know, that isn’t actually engaging.

So, how do we bring communication and engagement together?

It might sound like a big task to potentially have constructive conversations or engage with thousands of people, but you can break it down into easier bite-sized chunks.

1. Start the conversation with key stakeholders of influence or interest.

Who are the key people you need to engage with to get the most bang for your buck? You’ve probably already identified these people during the planning phase, as they generally have the highest influence of interest. And, fingers crossed, you’ve at least started the communication process.

2. Select your engagement approach to spark a two-way dialogue.

Now, what is the best way to get your high-influence stakeholders on board? Partnering with them? Making them feel like they have a stake in the project? Simply using communication methods to keep them informed?

This is where we go beyond the inform level and open up our two-way dialogue.

In the end, the correct engagement approach comes down to what your project needs during each phase.

Do you need to sit down and have a chat with your stakeholders about what their needs are and take on board what they’re saying? Or is it enough to keep them updated and informed? You will know pretty fast whether your method of engagement is working – or you will hear about it.

Here are a few considerations to help:

  • Plan your communication and engagement before it happens.
  • Communicate the key points of your project with your stakeholders.
  • Engage with your key stakeholders to make sure your approach is on track.

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