John Radford highlights the importance of local liaison when planning an outdoor event, and how to get it right
You’ve worked hard to plan your project or event. Your sums add up (hopefully), the team is working well, the date is set and the marketing plan is taking shape. What more do you need to produce something unique and exciting?
How about making sure that you have really done your homework when it comes to local liaison and engagement? We are not talking about placing a marketing advert in the local paper or even telling friends down at the local pub about your plans. We are talking about really engaging, communicating and liaising with those in the community in which the project takes place. Those who live or work nearby, the local shops and businesses, the parish council, local authority and the local agencies such as Highways, Fire Service and the Police.
Benefits for all
Have you really considered the benefits that this kind of local liaison can bring to your event? What’s even better is that a lot of this liaison shouldn’t cost money but simply time and effort. The rewards though could be fantastic and the investment in time and effort can easily pay off handsomely. Some of that liaison may not always be positive but if issues are highlighted in the early stages then actions can be implemented or simply the act of communicating may assist in developing a better relationship. Better relationships can build better projects through opportunities and ideas. Look at local liaison time as time well spent.
Who are these stakeholders?
The term stakeholders is sometimes used when considering projects and events but who exactly are these stakeholders? At the most simplistic level, they are persons with an interest in or concern about something; in this instance, that “something” is your project.
You’ve probably thought long and hard about the project you are about to embark upon. Have you considered though how it may impact others around you? Do you have neighbours or adjoining businesses? How will your actions impact them? Rather than working in isolation, early engagement and building relationships can provide significant dividends. We often see local stakeholders object to projects and events based on perceptions or assumptions that don’t actually hold water. The classic example is the small community music event in a local field that adjoining residents feel is rapidly going to become the next Glastonbury Festival when the reality is an attendance of 1,000 people from local families having a fantastic summer evening out. Getting these groups and individuals (stakeholders) on side and informed is a critical aspect of the event planning, and something that shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be ignored.
Don’t just see these stakeholders in a negative context. Local stakeholders may hold the key for you in terms of opening up other opportunities to improve your event. Do they have adjoining access or egress routes that may assist in ensuring your customers can get to and from the venue or event footprint effectively? Maybe they would like to become actively involved as a volunteer? Do they have experience in similar projects? There could be significant positive impacts from local liaison and stakeholder engagement.
Where to Start
Get the facts out there early. Does the local community really know how your project or event could benefit them, or even simply what the project is actually about? Will your customers spend money in the local community or use local accommodation and food outlets? Are you using a local park or school as part of the event footprint for example? Have you paid fees for the use of local halls or facilities that can have a direct and positive benefit for local stakeholders? Have you talked to similar events and projects to gauge what benefits they created locally? Provide good examples – don’t hide the positives.
Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the wider positive aspects that your project can bring. If you are running a closed site with on-site camping, food and entertainment there may be minimal immediate cross benefits for the wider community, although you are still putting the location on the map and visitors to your event or project may return again, simply to see the local area in more detail. If, however, your project is integrated into the general environs the benefits to the local community can be substantial. Increased footfall produces increases in revenue for shops, cafes, pubs and accommodation providers. Have these potential benefits been investigated and can you use local relationships to bring benefits to all?
During the planning phase ensure that the communication process is an integral part of the project life cycle. It shouldn’t be seen as an optional add-on but an integral element within the process of planning. In some circumstances it may be wise to bring together a larger group of people who could be affected by your project to ensure everyone feels they have a clear line of communication with you. Don’t be afraid if they ask searching questions – if you have done your homework and planned the project appropriately then you should have nothing to hide.
Engage and communicate
Communicating – “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium” (Oxford Dictionary). We all do it on a daily basis, but sometimes we forget how important communication is. Whether verbal, written or even body language, communication allows understanding and engagement. Don’t be afraid of it but embrace it; it can make your life easier and bring people and organisations on side if they aren’t already.
Use the local newspaper or community website, write some articles, run a local leaflet drop or maybe facilitate an open meeting. As a business, we recently attended a community hall meeting regarding an event. Initially there was some hostility towards the planned event but having come face to face with the team behind the project, the community went away with a better understanding and knowledge about what the event would bring and how they would not be impacted. Overall the meeting took less than two hours but over 30 people from the community attended and the benefits of that engagement can not be underestimated.
Councils and public bodies
Many promoters and event teams leave liaison with the local authorities and other public bodies like the Highways and Police until either the license has been applied for or they are called to a Safety Advisory Group (SAG) meeting by the authority. Our view would be that early engagement and liaison with these agencies is vitally important and can help in the planning of a safe and successful event. They may well identify weaknesses in your plan but if these are communicated to you at an early stage remedial actions can be appropriately managed and implemented. Leaving these elements to the last minute can simply make your life harder.
Local councillors often have their ear to the ground and can be your positive spokespeople out in the communities. They can ensure that the facts are being communicated rather than false rumour. Again, they may be aware of issues that have not been currently identified but with good liaison may also assist in solutions. A past example for us was a promoter who simply didn’t engage or empathise with the community in which their event was set. They didn’t engage in any pre-planning liaison with anyone, including the local authority. When it came to licensing the event, they were met with brick walls and a list of objections of which many could have been dealt with through early engagement and face to face liaison. Time was wasted, and those barriers lasted a long time as the local agencies felt they and the community weren’t being listened to.
Social media and the internet
With the explosion in social media and internet usage it pays to be aware of the benefits but also the pitfalls in these mediums. They are a great way to showcase the event or project, to explain the benefits in greater detail and to act as a marketing platform. However, they can also be used equally effectively by others to degrade your event or make complaints, concerns or objections they may have very public. Think about using elements of social media to ensure that your event is understood and that the plans are clear and take account of the local area and stakeholders.
Your own website may well be a first port of call for interested parties trying to find out more information about your project – so perhaps include a page on the website providing information for local residents or how local businesses could benefit from working alongside you.
Getting it wrong
What’s the worst that can happen if you forego local liaison or don’t ensure that local stakeholders, the council or others have the facts? In some cases, nothing, but in others you may find that your licensing process is a rocky road or that there is significant negative press about your event.
The work that you put into local liaison may not always pay off, but if you have tried your best at ensuring that the local community and stakeholders in your project are kept well informed and engaged, then at the very least you cannot be accused of hiding the facts or being difficult in answering queries or concerns.
From our experience, those extra phone calls and meetings bring big dividends. When we work with clients to develop ideas some of our first thoughts are how we can communicate these plans to the wider community and how best to ensure that our local liaison is the best it can be.
About the Author
John Radford runs JR Event Services and has worked in the event industry for over 20 years. He provides event management and event safety consultancy services for a broad spectrum of events from single day and city centre cultural events to week long music and dance festivals. Visit www.jreventservices.co.uk or call 01275 406760 for an informal chat.