7 must-do’s for effective community consultation meetings

If you have ever had to organize a community consultation meeting, you know that these meetings can be a slippery slope.

Companies with development projects in neighbourhoods – building multifamily homes, large healthcare facilities, cell phone towers and the like – are often required by municipal bylaw to hold a consultation meeting with the surrounding community. Or, in some cases, organizations hold a meeting simply because they are a good corporate citizen.

While the objective of a community meetings is the civil exchange of views between company and residents, often times, emotions are running high.  What starts off as an information session quickly turns into bloodbath that media love.

I recently attended a consultation meeting in my neighbourhood, put on by Rogers Communications in an effort to persuade me and my neighbours that an 8-story cell phone tower in the middle of our community made good sense.  I have organized community meetings for business interests in the past, so it was interesting to be on the other side of the fence this time and watch how Rogers handled things.

As I watched the proceedings, I was reminded of 7 things companies must do to prepare for a community consultation meeting:

  • Bring your A-game.  Bring your best company representatives and speakers to the community meeting. These sessions are not the place for rookies or the faint of heart. Your point-people need to be well-versed, well-spoken, compassionate and thick-skinned.
  • Fill your bench. You likely be outnumbered by people in the community so bring as many company spokespeople as possible. This makes it is easier for the community to have the chance to be heard, and most importantly, to hear your point of view.
  • Hire a hired gun.  If the meeting includes presentations and a Q&A, hire an outside community consultation facilitator to run the meeting and the discussion. The facilitator works for you, but will help the community feel like they have a voice on their side, ready to listen.
  • Prepare for passion. If the community is even a little bit against your development or project, come prepared to deal with emotionally charged individuals. You might think your company is looking after the community’s best interests, but neighbourhood residents will also feel they are the guardians of the community’s best interests.  Be prepared to acknowledge their concerns and fears.
  • Prepare and practice, and then repeat. You can never prepare and practice enough for a community meeting. Have solid key messages and make sure your spokespeople know those messages by heart. Think of the difficult questions that could be asked and practice answering them over and over with your team.
  • Be prepared for media. You may be hoping that no media show up for the community meeting, but if the residents have done their job right, media will be there.  At the very least, be ready to speak to the media with a prepared statement, and be prepared for television media to show up and go live to air.
  • Pay for AV equipment. If the community turns out for the meeting, the room will likely be very full and it will be hard for people to hear your team’s answers during a Q&A.  This is not the time to be cheap. Make sure your voice is heard and rent the AV you think you will need.

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