P2 tip #7: The project has a life of its own

13 07 2011

No matter how much you plan, there will always be project factors outside of your control. A complex, controversial project has so many stakeholders and inputs that you cannot possibly account for all of them. Instead, pick the most relevant, challenging, or influential stakeholders/issues/factors to pay attention to and monitor them the best you can.

The truth is, no one individual or project team can fully control any given project because a project takes on a life of its own. And it should. If the project truly meets a community need it will gain its own traction and support. It will develop its own champions and lobbyists to find funding, move it up the priority list or work connections that help a study move from concept to reality. You never know what the next caller, commentor or editorial is going to say, and that is part of the challenge and thrill of public involvement work.

The thing to remember is that no single person is responsible for the project living or dying. A complex project grows a life of its own that could be slowed or even stopped by a few loud nay-sayers, but it can also be carried forward through such difficulties by the voice of supporters. Perhaps our P2 role is to facilitate space for both voices to be heard in a structured and productive debate. We can’t control people’s opinions and reactions, but we can shape the tone of the discussion and foster civil dialogue instead of listening to a shouting match.

And when you can no longer see the forest through the trees, step back. Put things in perspective. P2 folks are often down in the weeds of day-to-day controversy and it can wear you down. Look at the bigger picture from time to time and appreciate the work being done and your overall purpose. Take a moment to view the project as its own living, breathing thing that can be sustained no matter what you say or do.


P2 tip #6: Argue internally

6 07 2011

The place to have tough conversations is within the project team. On one of my projects, it was likened to the family dinner table: we argue, debate and play devil’s advocate with each other at home, which makes us more articulate, thoughtful and concise out in the world. By arguing internally, we examine all aspects of an issue and make sure we aren’t missing information. We also confirm whether we have good justification for the direction we are headed.

When I say “argue,” I mean challenging each other, asking the hard questions and looking at things from all points of view. I get nervous if everyone is like-minded and a project is on cruise-control to a single solution. It conjures up images of political yes-men who want to please the powerful at the expense of others’ interests and concerns. Instead, I look for healthy, spirited debate within the team to help the project team arrive at better solutions and better decisions.

This also goes to the fact that in a complex project you cannot fear controversy. Embrace controversy to learn more, tackle the hard issues and arrive at better outcomes. It will likely be painful mentally and emotionally during the process, but if you have a clear, transparent process and believe you have obtained good data using reliable methodology, a project team can fairly examine various impacts, trade-offs and consequences to arrive at a solution. You won’t please all the people all the time, but I truly believe that fierce internal debate will result in better decisions.

Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…

12 03 2011

In the midst of a multi-media, consumer society, agencies have to work hard to get their message through the morass of daily communication. And although major corporations can purchase air time during the Superbowl or American Idol, a localized public education or outreach campaign works with limited resources. So how can agencies gain the attention of their intended audiences? Here are a few techniques I’ve recently come across:

Build brand identity. A signature look, hook or character can help people identify the message source and provide reminders of what an agency advocates. In New York City, Birdie has its own social media following and makes public appearances to promote GreeNYC.

Hold contests and give recognition to participants. Interactive media makes it easy to challenge followers to take action and track it online. Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages groups to form teams to track vehicle trip reduction. Interactive media also makes it easy to upload contest entries such as this call for video entries from Utah State Parks. Some kind of reward, incentive or benefit should be clearly communicated to help drive interest and participation.

Be willing to stir up a little controversy. If an issue deserves robust public discussion, don’t be afraid to establish space for it. If you don’t provide good information and a forum to air various points of view, you can bet it will happen elsewhere. In my interest to see interactive media successfully facilitate fruitful discussion, a review of a blog dedicated to discussion of education issues in Iowa caught my attention.

What do these techniques have in common? One, is the use of interactive media. There is something to do, to take part in and even belong to. This is not a lone voice in the desert or speaking from a blow-horn, it is meeting people where they are at and when they have time to engage with the message. Two, props to GovLoop.com for providing forums and blogs to share ideas about how government agencies are using interactive media and how they can use it better.