Public consultations: Engaging with your audience


Public consultations are changing the way we make decisions – meaningful decisions. They’re no longer a tick box exercise for the public sector, but a way to engage with and have consequential conversations with our communities. A good consultation can change culture and behaviours. Good communication is absolutely at the heart of a good consultation.

You’ll learn:
•    The role of communications in a public consultation
•    How to develop engagement and trust through public consultation
•    How communicating ethically and with conscience builds relationships that last beyond the consultation

There are some great guidelines and publications available that provide a solid framework to plan and implement good public consultations – check out Gov.UK Consultation Principles: Guidance.

This chapter provides additional tips, tricks and things to consider when designing a consultation campaign with a difference.

1.    What’s the why?

First things first - start with the why. What’s the purpose of consulting with the public and your community? What are the objectives? How can you ensure your consultation is meaningful? 

It’s important that the Communications Team has a seat at the table when the objectives of the consultation are being set. This is your opportunity to speak up, challenge and advise. It’s also an opportunity for you to understand in full the consultation details from your Leadership directive and start to develop a story and narrative based on that.

2.    Agree your consultation principles – including your own

There are of course the standard principles that PR professionals should adopt for any campaign, including integrity, accessibility, transparency and commitment. 

Additionally, a wise contact of mine (thanks Jim Owen) shared the principles of Involve, Consult and Inform. These simple principles of engagement provide clarity to both employees and public. This transparency helps our stakeholders understand how they can contribute and - more importantly - what engagement has already taken place.

3.    Who are you trying to reach?

Your audience isn’t necessarily (and is unlikely to be) the whole wide world. 

In a recent consultation, we focused on one county and then specific areas within that county where change was proposed. If there’s one area I recommend you spend time on, it’s researching and preparing a detailed audience profile and stakeholder map. By understanding who you need to be engaging with and reaching, you can tailor your messages, choose the right channel/s and sequence for the most appropriate timing. Don’t forget about your employees too (see point 6 below).

4.    Leadership buy-in

You’ve got to have buy-in from your Leaders (and their Leaders) on how you’re proposing to communicate and reach members of the public. Draft a communications plan and get their input and feedback. Be clear that the plan is fluid – great communicators adapt and refine their plans to deliver the best results. Your Leaders need to be the voice of your organisation. They need to be on message and transparent. Look at ways they can interact directly with the public; face-to-face sessions, videos, social media and so on. 

5.    Engage with the media

Invite the media to be a part of the consultation journey. Working with media and journalists helps build the narrative, helping the public understand the basis upon which changes are being recommended. Offer up embargoed interviews with your Leaders ahead of the consultation going live. That way your message hits the papers the day you push the button on your consultation.

6.    Don’t forget your employees

In fact, this should really be titled start with your employees. Your employees need to be fully aware of the consultation journey. Is there an opportunity for them to be involved with designing the consultation? Are they affected by the consultation proposal? Think about the channels you use to reach them. They absolutely need to be a core part of your communication plan.

7.    More than channels

As communicators we have a number of quick, easy and cheap channels available to “push” messages out to the public. But great communication is more than just that. How can you engage with and talk to your audience? Who is your audience? Are they likely to be at work during the day and miss the face-to-face sessions you are planning to host during working hours? What’s your budget? Look at the channels that are more cost effective, targeted and measurable – for example Facebook adverts.

8.    Measurement. Plan, do, check, act. 

Measuring and checking in on your communication efforts, outputs and of course outcomes is a must throughout the consultation. Think about how you can engage and keep your Leaders and stakeholders up to date. In a recent consultation, our measurement and evaluation demonstrated that there were some areas where large amounts of change were being proposed, but we had received little public consultation feedback. By checking in, we enhanced our communications plan to incorporate targeted communication campaigns specifically to those areas. 

What does a successful consultation look like? Steer away from communication outputs. It’s much more than the number of social media posts you published. What is the public saying about your brand and your organisation on social media? What behavioural change can you identify? How can the feedback you have gathered be used to help your organisation make better and more informed decisions?

9.    What happens when it’s over?

Well it’s not over. You’ve just spent a number of weeks talking with your employees and the public in an open and engaging way. Don’t lose that relationship. Make a commitment as to what the next steps are and stick to them.

Remember, consultations aren’t just a numbers game. Consulting with integrity is about the public understanding what you are consulting on, and engaging with the process. This continues after the consultation deadline.

10.    What can possibly go wrong?

Nothing right? Well, I can’t finish this chapter without making reference to the #NameOurShip campaign. NERC’s objectives were to engage with the UK public to promote a new research ship, demonstrate the role their organisation plays and highlight the importance of natural science.

The comms team behind this asked the general public to name the boat. One popular one was put forward: Boaty McBoatface. This went viral – globally. While the campaign certainly achieved NERC’s objectives, the decision not to go with naming the ship Boaty McBoatface certainly caused a stir.

What can we learn from this? Well, consult and communicate with integrity. Basically - be clear. Be clear about everything. Consultations are more than just crowd sourcing. Effective consultation is about building relationships between organisations and the public, transparency and cultural shift.

Emily Osborne Chart.PR is a corporate communications specialist with a passion for taking on complex change management and cultural change programmes. Founder of Know How Communications, an award winning communications consultancy, Emily has 14 years’ experience gained across the UK and Middle East. Emily has achieved her Chartership status with CIPR, and is a CIPR Chartership Assessor.

Twitter: @em_cathryn