Engaging With The Media – A Case Study

This week we continue our discussion on working with the media during a public engagement process by providing an example of how the wrong message can create unneeded conflict.  This example occurred a few years ago while we were working as facilitators in the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning process.

After the participants in the process had been working together for nearly a year to create a set of vision statements, goals, and action plans, the overall process consultant at the time (not us!) organized a workshop to get public feedback on emerging plans.  During this workshop, those who had not been participating in the visioning process more generally were to be given the opportunity to review what the groups had come up with and put “dots”  on what they considered to be the best ideas.  The overall purpose of the workshop was to create a snapshot of community concerns that could be used alongside other information being generated through the working groups in putting together the final plans.

Although this workshop was intended to be an interim check-in and not a decision-making point, it was titled  “Community Choices”, and was reported in the media as if community members’ votes would result in a ranking of ideas and priorities, through which certain ideas would “win” or “lose”.  As a result, the local Chamber of Commerce reached out to its members and further exacerbated the situation by asking members to turn out and sure their priorities won the day.  When a local group which was concerned about the pace of development found out the Chamber was organizing its members to vote, it sent out a similar message to its members.

At the actual event, facilitators who were there to help community members engage with and understand the ideas, concepts, and connections that were being identified in the working groups, instead spent much of their time explaining that the workshop would not result in a “win/lose ranking”.  Despite this effort, several participants used all of their dots for a single strategy or goal in an effort to make sure that goal “won”, while others followed instructions to use one per idea.  Efforts were made after the workshop to explain to the media that no ideas had won or lost, and that, given the different approaches on placing dots, the “vote totals” were not very useful data.  The media still reported on the vote totals, although the post workshop efforts did mitigate to some extent how they were reported.

At the most basic level, providing an opportunity for broader community input was a good idea.  The event was successful at generating interest and attendance. However, the failure to clearly communicate the purpose of the workshop and how the data would be used in advance led to unnecessary confusion and rekindled existing animosities between community groups. This confusion could likely have been avoided entirely with an appropriate and clearly organized message delivered consistently to the public and to the key groups likely to participate.   This case study illustrates the need to review, both when planning for an overall process and for individual events, the possible conflicts that could arise and the potential for  misunderstanding regarding the purpose of a process.  It also illustrates the importance of explaining how the data generated will be evaluated and used, and how participant are expected to interact.   This community workshop would have been more fun for the community and more valuable to the overall process, if there had been a clearer articulation of its purpose and a clear statement that the  data generated would be folded into a longer dialogue.  Providing the media with an explanation of how dialogue differs from traditional win/lose processes could have helped as well.

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