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Newsletter, May 2006

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When is public engagement really public relations?

Public engagement is turning into something of a bandwagon - and a money spinner - for people who normally deliver the one-way processes of public relations.

Numerous PR firms now claim to do 'engagement', but their definitions of engagement do not always tally with ours. The give-away is often in the small print: usually along the lines of "we'll ensure that your project goes forward with the minimum of delay or obstruction by campaigners or local authorities".

If they do get into detail, it is to tell you how good they are at "targeting local influencers" or "ensuring people have the information they need to support the right decision". In other words, they regard 'engagement' as the process of persuading people to agree with their clients.

There is nothing wrong, of course, in making sure people are informed - provided that the information is accurate. But how many public relations campaigns are anxious to point out the negatives as well as the positives?
Would the clients pay so well if 'engagement' processes pointed out the warts as well as the wonders?

The distinctive purposes of engagement should be to generate accurate information that enables people to make informed decisions; to discern real interests and real concerns on all sides; to build trust between organisations and the public; to agree shared values and the priorities they dictate; and to create shared as well as unilateral commitments to action.

Consultation and engagement can help ensure that ‘respect’ is mutual; that there is space for democracy - for the voices of all to be heard - between elections and in the places where those voices are too often silent; and that that those in positions of power listen so that people don’t have to shout or to take to the streets.

Engagement must be about so much more than just getting your own way.


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