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Tales from the Trenches with Wendy Carlson

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Wendy Carlson and I have been working in communication and stakeholder engagement for around 15 years. In the early years I was an art and heritage consultant, specialising in interpreting historic places and object collections. I assessed corporate art collections, public art assets for local government, street murals and memorials. I engaged with many people during that time to understand how they identified with place and what their material culture represented to them. All very interesting but eventually led to community relations and communication for major projects. It took a while to adjust but eventually I learned to appreciate the creativity of engineering and the community benefits that ensue from significant infrastructure development. Right now I have my head in land use planning, urban regeneration and place attachment – and what that will mean for Sydney’s future.

What does your role involve?
My current role involves large scale change through redevelopment and how that will create economic and social benefits/opportunities into the future.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
My day might consist of assessing plans to ensure stakeholder engagement is a well-considered component of overall development plans, writing communication material, working with some amazing consultants to strategically position development proposals and ensure input from stakeholders is supported in theory and practice.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
Most of my stakeholder engagement career has involved construction. Good experiences involve good outcomes – and most people are appreciative of efforts made to assist. I like to solve problems that help property owners and businesses impacted by construction. By finding a solution that is shared between the property owner, project community relations and technical teams, we can create a sense of achievement that lifts the moral of everyone, solves a problem for the property owner and builds the reputation of the client.

Of course there are many ‘bad’ experiences, and although painful at the time, allow you to learn something of importance that may help in future – even if only to alert you to not doing it the same way next time. People are diverse and have many complex issues. Construction impacts can be the last straw and I am empathetic to that – I will go out of my way to make things easier for people in difficulty. However what I am finding occurring more often is less defensible. I don’t accept that community relations teams are there to be treated badly. I don’t accept that we should be the recipients of misplaced emotions, political disagreement or general contempt. I will no longer apologise to dickheads or try to assist people who undermine me personally while I am doing my job – all real examples from the trenches. The positive side is that negative experiences have taught me to be absolutely professional, keep my opinions to myself and value my integrity above all.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Be pro-active – people are mostly reasonable and appreciate any assistance they can get, such as being informed appropriately, having their issues taken seriously and resolved as quickly as possible, and being dealt with in a kind, professional and efficient manner.
2. Do persist – communicate with the project team. Be there, be in their face, don’t take no for an answer and don’t get fobbed off in your endeavours to resolve an issue for someone in need.
3. Look after yourself, have resilience – don’t let bad behaviour derail you. Leave work at work, rest and share experiences with your colleagues or mentor. Don’t feel you have to work alone and bear the brunt of difficult people.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
This is important work where you can make a difference to people’s lives. You are benefitting society through your involvement with major projects, supporting input into decision-making processes and acting as a link between the community, the project technical team and the client delivering the project. Engagement will increase your ability to be collaborative, fair and empathetic. You will learn how to communicate effectively (or face the consequences), assess risk and be part of something satisfying.