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Poor communication skills give civils projects a bad press

CIVILS PROJECTS are in danger of public opposition and negative press when engineers fail to manage communication properly, the ALGS was told last month.

Drawing on his experiences as public affairs director on the high profile Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Bernard Gambrill demonstrated how a communications failure can result in public backlash.

Gambrill claimed that CTRL's initially bad press resulted from 'a failure to understand the public aspiration to be involved'.

His worst mistake was made in bidding to engage public participation too early, when the project was still in planning phase, he said. No decision on the route's final alignment had been reached. Gambrill walked into a public consultation with 'four lines on a map of Kent'.

Objections are invariably raised, whatever the alignment of a major new transport corridor. But presenting four alignments produced 'four times more complaints than anticipated'.

To limit opposition, engineers should develop their ideas before engaging in public debate, he advised. 'You need dialogue that is constructive - here is a problem and this is how we are going to deal with it.'

Engineers should avoid presenting a range of open ended options as anxieties about who will be affected mushroom, Gambrill stated.

He continued: 'There is no point in consultation if you have no intention of altering the design as a result of consultation. Meet your audience at that magic moment after the back of the envelope stage but before the rebar schedules.'

Gambrill particularly warned of the difficulties of getting a balanced argument in public meetings. 'It is quite simply impossible, ' he stated. He also encouraged engineers to engage in one to one conversations where possible, 'as the rabblerousers always intimidate the silent majority'.

He stressed the importance of an agenda at such meetings.

'Stick to your guns and make it quite clear when the audience is on a forbidden subject, ' he said.

Gambrill talked through many aspects of communication, starting with the most vital of all: identify and understand your audience. 'At each level there are people and organisations that have to be spoken to. Failure to consult with any one group will be spotted, ' he explained.

He urged project teams not to talk down to an audience.

'Although members of the audience will not be engineers, they will be intelligent and articulate.'

Gambrill also told his audience to avoid selecting speakers on grounds of seniority, but according to personal charisma and potential match between speaker and audience. 'Do not demean a consultee by putting up the wrong person. Seek to match levels of competence and thus acquire mutual respect, ' he urged. This also applied to public meetings.

Media relations are especially sensitive. Journalists frequently have ulterior motives when they pose questions, or may focus on single issues. 'Do not rely on trust. It is a dangerous commodity, ' he warned. 'You must understand the media's agenda, and need to be well briefed.'

Gambrill was joined by public affairs and political intelligence expert Charles Miller, who worked with CTRL client Union Railways, providing political information and advice.

Miller used case studies to describe the opportunities for the civil engineer to influence local, national and international political decisions.

Identify the policy and political implications of the project at the outset, he advised. Assess who are the potential winners and losers, and pre-empt their concerns.

Speaking a common language with the audience and avoiding engineer speak is of key importance, Miller said.

This month's meeting formed part of a series of workshops organised by the engineering management board, aimed at bringing experienced professionals to young engineers. The final two workshops will be held on 5 February and 5 March, on sustainable development and contracts respectively.

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