How to avoid community backlash – Shelley Crestani

Shelley Crestani leads a company of engagement specialists. In her words, they are “true engagement people, not comms people or planners in disguise. Don’t find out what the community will tolerate but find out what it is that the community needs.”

In this article Shelley shares her thoughts on how to avoid community backlash when undertaking projects that change the way people live their lives.

Many high-profile engagement push backs seem to take people by surprise. The reaction is one of bewilderment: “we didn’t see that coming!”.

It’s a problem that’s global.

Let’s start with Brexit.

The Brexit result was one of outright shock. It showed there were huge differences in views about links with Europe by region, age, education and economic group. It showed that many Brits were out of touch with the views and attitudes of their fellow countrymen.

And then there’s Donald Trump. His election was a nasty shock and caught many commentators off guard. Like Brexit, this revealed the pisions in society and the disillusionment with political parties. Many Americans feel that they have no one representing them. No political party that speaks for them.

New Zealand is not immune to this worldwide trend where people no longer feel they have a voice. We have a growing distrust in local and central government as representative of the needs of many New Zealanders. Social media has allowed us to mobilise quickly on an issue and advocate widely for it directly, bypassing elected officials. Not surprisingly, we are starting to be get more polarised especially around contentious issues. We have an important referendum heading our way on cannabis reform so we should tread carefully.

Polarisation prevents healthy debate. We can’t claim to have real freedom of speech when people are attacked for their views. You might think that this is restricted to highly political topics, controversial issues like cannabis laws. But in our work in the transport sector we’re seeing a growing tribalism. The way you choose to get around has become a part of people’s identity, and it’s generational.

Young people identify as multi modal and are increasingly urbanised. They want cheap affordable public transport and scooters, cycles over car ownership. A transport system designed for more cars and big motorways, the comfort zone of older New Zealanders, is out of step with how this next generation prefer to get around.

In light of changing attitudes like these and increasing distrust of government and other traditional sources of information, the way we choose to engage with communities is more important than ever. We know everyone is looking for the shortcut – the technology that can deliver engagement. But in the current environment, engagement needs to be authentic, and based on two main principles: insight and participation.


1. We need to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

It’s important that we understand the climate in New Zealand as it often explains the weather we encounter at a community level.

For example, the climate of the generational them and us. There is a perception of greedy baby-boomers who got on the property ladder, free university and paid work. While for millennials, it’s a case of saying goodbye to home ownership and hello to student loans and unpaid internship. An example of this tension was demonstrated at the Let’s Get Wellington Moving forum recently. Seventeen-year-old Steph Edlin asked why Wellingtonians should have faith in councillors to get it right with the $6.4 billion transport initiative. The answer from one councillor was condescending. He told her he had been involved in transport governance since before she was “even a twinkle in her father’s eye”. Steph’s response was understandably to the point: “Our generation isn’t as welcome in politics as the older generation.”

2. Do your homework

Don’t assume that you can build it and they will come. Don’t sell a dream that’s too much of a stretch from reality. Understand how people get around and use public space before designing a major change. Find out the history of the community you are engaging with. Is there any bad blood? You rarely start with a blank slate.

3. Are you asking the right question?

A once over lightly approach to engagement proves very expensive at construction. What questions are you asking? Take a pause before leaping to the future and asking, say, Do you think a shared cycle/walking path is a good idea? Instead, it might be better to ask people how they get around today? Are they cyclists? Recreational or commuter? Do people stroll alone or with their dogs?

Dig deeper. Be careful not to ask people to talk out of their own reality. Build a picture and see how that lands. Good engagement people have good instincts – they experience a ping on their radar and they ask lots of questions.

4. Stay agile

The engagement process is not linear. We may set out to simply inform but in the real world this can quickly turn to full engagement overnight. The converse is also true, we may set out to engage but hear the message from the community to ‘get on with it’ so we move to an engagement lite’ or a warm inform’ approach.


1. Throw the net wider.

Don’t talk to the usual suspects. We won’t bring people with us if we keep talking to people like ourselves. Understand the views of as many people as you can. You have no choice or you will continue to be caught off-guard.

2. Rip open that can of worms

If you leave that ‘can of worms’ in peace it will develop into a pit of vipers very quickly. Unearth all the gripes and attitudes early. Understand, analyse and feed back to the project team. The public may not always get exactly what they want but they will appreciate that they have been listened to and have been taken through the logistical, technical or financial reasons WHY they may not get what they want.

3. Have a seat at the top table

Are the voices of the community valued internally? Is engagement at the top table? Is it at board level? Is it independent? If not – you will continue to have border skirmishes with project managers who speak a different language. Engagement will be seen as a ‘nice to have’ but not essential to the success of a project.

4. Go where the party is.

Don’t ask people to come to you. Holding polling booths in supermarkets is a good start. Be wary of social media as it can be deceptive, and risks becoming an echo chamber rather than a space truly representative of community sentiment.

5. Choose your language carefully.

It’s tough. It sometime takes humour. It’s plain English. It’s not English. We are a country of more than 200 ethnicities and 160 languages.

What does this mean for you as an engagement professional?

For authentic engagement we need to be able to face some pretty challenging and inconvenient truths.

It’s not easy but knowledge is power – humans are complex creatures that don’t fit easily into project timelines.

If your clients or your team want a tick box exercise – challenge them. Trust broken is difficult (if not impossible) to regain. Play the long game as engagement professionals.

Infrastructure is about creating, building things that improve our way of life. New Zealanders deserve to have a say on things that affect our way of life. To ignore them makes no sense, and as engagement professionals we need to have the courage to stand our ground.