How the infrastructure sector can tell a better story, and learn from COVID-19

Insight

Nearly all projects begin with public goodwill in mind. But there’s a big difference between ticking off a stakeholder survey and realising a vision others want to be part of.

In New Zealand, there’s a general consensus that Jacinda Ardern’s government did a brilliant job leading the country’s lockdown response to Covid-19.

The “go hard, go early” narrative resonated with people and the lockdown helped save lives and the country’s precious health system. Newspapers like the Washington Post and Guardian swooned over the Prime Minister’s communications skills and ability to connect in a crisis. Yet not much has been said about how these skills can be applied more widely.

Before lockdown, we sat down with infrastructure leaders to discuss communication challenges in the sector. One leader lamented the difficulty of building anything without upsetting someone and the erosion of goodwill when it happens. In the past, we celebrated a new dam or power line, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, he said.

The government’s approach to fighting COVID-19 is instructive for the sector. It all starts with good planning and a sound narrative and having conversations well ahead of any physical work beginning. In other words, having the right conversations at the outset, not after the fact.

Crucially, some projects fail to build political consensus. Tens of millions can be lost on an application that is not rightly framed. There are human costs too, for example, startlingly direct social media abuse can take a high toll on people involved in a project.

The RMA process necessarily drives consultation, which is often seen as a risk rather than an opportunity. But there is a big difference between attending to something and putting your heart into expressing a vision that others will want to share.

In winning hearts and minds for its COVID-19 response, the government didn’t simply tick off a stakeholder survey. It told a simple and compelling story with conviction from the start.

It was a change management strategy in action. They established a sense of urgency (in hindsight this looks easy but it’s a trick the United States and United Kingdom didn’t seem to quite manage). Then they communicated a vision and a strategy for anchoring a new way of life in our culture.

Our infrastructure sources told us of basic and tested approaches that they have found work well. Engagement needs to be done early, often and well. Visuals are always helpful. Creating strong partnerships pays. When you talk with reporters always provide a fact sheet. “Never give firm dates if you can help it,” was a lesson that had come hard earned.

Even more important is winning genuine and human support.

One long-term project converted early opponents into genuinely constructive contributors. A highly successful major Auckland construction project began with the company board and advisors starting from a free discussion of such intangibles as to how a development would make people feel and fit into a city. Despite real risks, it has since gone on to have encountered almost nothing but goodwill.

True, not all projects can be the stuff of dreams. Sometimes grudging consent might be your best hope. But how you connect from day one will count. As well as going hard and early, it’s also good to get it right from the start.