Interviewer: Marc Valois is a senior consultant and chairman of the Intersol Group, which delivers strategic and business planning, participative public consultation, group facilitation and conflict resolution/mediation services.
Marc has a deep knowledge of government and process techniques which help him design group meetings in challenging circumstances. He works to establish a climate of respectful dialogues where a group dares to question its own assumptions as they set out to meet their challenges…
So, Marc, it seems to me that there’s an awful lot of overlap now between good PR, the way PR needs to be practiced, and public engagement that we can’t go back to the way of trying to impose the answer you want on the public. What do you think? What are you seeing?
Marc: What we are seeing is that those practice areas seem to be coming together. A colleague of mine a couple of years ago now coined the term “it’s actually turned into a smoothie,” where they all seem to be merging together. In fact, certainly at the federal government level, we see a lot of communications shops that have now taken on the responsibility of public consultation and public engagement.
It’s interesting, even with the Canada Post decision to remove the household mail delivery, when they were looking for a consulting firm to go out and do a lot of the consulting, what we saw emerge was not a pure consulting firm but one that was going to be doing some of the consulting, but also more of a public relations firm, because there was the messaging that needed to be conveyed as well so that it wasn’t simply consulting with the public. It was also, how do you message this appropriately as well? Certainly it’s not the way it used to be. That’s for sure.
Interviewer: You raised a really interesting example because with the Canada Post one, that first bit of messaging was, huh? There seemed to be very little understanding about what the public really wanted, and that messaging about, “Well gosh, we’re hearing from seniors that they really want the exercise” was just head-scratching.
Marc: In Canada Post’s situation, frankly, the decision had been made, and I think that the consulting end of things was more on, how can we best implement this? Often in the practice of consultation and engagement, there is a continuum that starts from understanding and making sure you understand the issues from all of your stakeholders’ perspective to potentially engaging your stakeholders in helping you to develop options and then helping you to choose options and then identifying issues associated with implementation of those options and so on.
As I say, in the Canada Post situation, I think the consultation, if it even has begun, has begun once the decision has been made, and they need to know what the implementation issues are and how best to address those. That’s the only kind of engagement we’re seeing there now or potentially seeing now because as I say the decision in this case was already pre-ordained.
Interviewer: It’s really tough to get organizations, particularly bureaucratic ones, to understand the importance of co-creating a solution with their publics or with the whole concept of honest public engagement as opposed to manipulation of, how do we sp- … We’ve even seen in surveys — I got a survey last week that I was asked to participate in, and it was just mind-numbing. It wasn’t actually about public consultation, and they seriously didn’t want my opinion. They were just looking for opportunities to throw messaging at me.
How do you move some organization like that from their current thinking of “Let’s just manipulate this or finesse this or get this,” how do you move somebody from that place to a place where they’re honestly engaging their publics?
Marc: If people are serious about engaging, they first need to understand that an imposed decision is one that may create much more difficulty for them to implement. Whether it’s within an organization or even with the external populations, the first thing that the proponents need to understand is if it’s an imposed solution you typically will encounter much more resistance than if it’s a solution that has been achieved by consensus and/or by, as you said, co-creation.
There’s a simple exercise that training firms often do with organizations, and you may be familiar with it. It arrives in various forms, but the one I’m familiar with is Lost in the Arctic, or the other one I’ve seen is Lost at Sea, where a group of people are given a number of items that they need to choose from, and their survival depends on how well they choose. They’re given perhaps ten items and they have to put them in rank order of importance, and they may only be allowed to take five of those items with them
In the exercise, the people in the group are asked to rank the items individually first and then to rank them as a group. Typically, the group does a better job at rank-ordering the items and has a higher chance of survival because they benefit from the intelligence and the skills and the knowledge of the full group as opposed to each individual.
I remember running that exercise with a group once. We had several groups doing this at the same time, and the idea was to come back to plenary to see how that went. We had one group that actually had an expert in the group who knew the right answers. He was a survivalist, so he really knew the right answers. Do you think he could convince his colleagues that he knew the right answer?
In his group, the group score was lower than his individual score, so the group turned to me and said, “Ha, Mr. Facilitator, what say you now?” In this case, we had a CEO in the room, and it was his organization that we were working with. I kind of smiled at him, and I said, “Do you want to answer or do you want me to answer?”
This was a guy I knew. He was a very intelligent guy. He became a CEO at a young age, and for a good reason, because he was a very smart guy. He said, “Well, let me tell you what I would do with that. I learned fairly early on in my career because I had a good manager who took me under his wing. He said, ‘John, you’re going to go far in life, but you’re going to need to learn a few lessons along the way in order to be successful.’
He said, ‘A guy who is as smart as you is going to have the right answer a lot of the time,’ and he said, ‘The reality is though if you let their people come to their answer, even if it’s only 80% of the best answer, chances are that if it’s theirs and it’s not imposed upon them, they will likely move that much further forward much more quickly than you could ever move it forward if you imposed your right answer on them.'”
That holds as well in any of these kinds of issues when you’re trying to come up with solutions to often complex problems where frankly you need an awful lot of people’s good will and knowledge and expertise to move them forward.
In this day and age, issues are so complex and they typically involve so many different stakeholders that no one organization typically can own any given issue, and so people need ways to collaborate more effectively, and in fact collaboration becomes necessary in order to move a lot of these issues forward and develop new policy, new programs, et cetera, that will address them.
Interviewer: Pixar has a really interesting approach to story creation. One of the rules, and it’s one that we hold near and dear whether we’re working on the creative side of things or in our PR work, is you never give people four. You always give them two plus two. And you can never do the work for your audience, regardless of where your audience is or who they are, because they will not accept the answer.
They will accept the question or the problem and the answer they come to, even if it’s hopefully close to the answer that you are looking to get, not in terms of imposing but in terms of where you need to go. But they won’t accept four as the answer just because you tell them.
Marc: Frankly, the public is becoming more and more that way as well. People want to be involved in the decision-making. You often hear, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” There is a much greater expectation now than there ever was that people are consulted and engaged in those issues that are important to them.
Interviewer: We say something too in the emerging-generation millennials particularly, and I actually really like this, and I hope this is the way the world is going. It’s certainly going to make for some interesting challenges.
When you look at social engagement, particularly that brands offer, and corporate social responsibility, the traditional model has been your business model goes off and does whatever it wants but then it makes up for whatever it’s doing wherever by throwing some shiny coins at an issue.
If it’s doing damage to the environment, maybe it’ll do a tiny little bit of work over here, or if it’s got sweatshops over there, maybe it’ll do a little bit of thing over here.
I think millennials are really challenging us to say, “No, the core values of your organization have to be aligned with our values.” I think a lot of brands and a lot of organizations are really going to have to start thinking about how they do business in order to do business with this next generation. Is that something you’re seeing?
Marc: I think so. I say that because I’m not entirely sure. I think there are certainly many of those millennials. We have many of those folks working for us here in our firm where they’re highly involved in doing social work. They’re highly socially responsible themselves.
Those are some of the folks that I’m seeing. Whether they are the norm, I can’t say that I’ve got any data on that.
Interviewer: I’d have to say it’s somewhat anecdotal for us as well, but you and I met at a public engagement conference, and in fact Riley Gill from Open Media was one of the speakers. I look at Open Media as kind of a classic example of that, and I serve on that board just full disclosure here. I look at that group of young, socially responsible, really creative young executives who really could be doing anything, and they’ve chosen a particular stand and they’re almost reimaging brands from the outside.
Every brand will be reimagined by its publics whether it wants to be or not. I think that’s a given now. I do see that this next emerging generation does tend to be moving that way, and there may social leaders from within them, but they’re so good at engaging others in those conversations.
With Open Media, it’s gone from 0 to 600,000 members now in just a couple of years, and those are very engaged members. Some of them are supporters. It’s not just youth, but I would say it is a youth-driven movement, or at least certainly started.
Marc: Among the youth, it’s interesting, we’ve kind of coined there is that whole — what’s the word I’m looking for — a cohort of youth that I would call the technology natives. They’ve grown up with social media, they’ve grown up with all kinds of technology, and the rest of us, who have not, even though we may become fairly proficient at use of these things, I would call us technology tourists, so to speak.
The natives, because they’ve grown up with these technologies, they are used to engaging, or the ability to engage, any place, anytime. They are socially connected across the world.
It has really really changed the face of social networking where in my day and age my social network was those people I truly knew, or real acquaintances, and it was all about the face to face. This new cohort has grown up, and the face to face is probably an area where they’re even less comfortable than they are online.
That whole ability to connect and to connect on issues that have importance to them anywhere anytime across the world is I think changing fundamentally the way we engage and the way we move issues forward.
Interviewer: And the way we have to engage. I think the technology was a product of the spirit of community. I don’t think that the spirit of community was the product of the technology. I think that what I have seen is that generation, millennials particularly, really crave community, and that this technology has arisen to meet that need. Then how they define communities and find each other. They align through certain values and through issues more than proximity. It is a fascinating shift.
Marc: I agree. Having said all of that, certainly in the work that I do, there is still a real mix of the need to engage online and the need to some extent to bring people together in the face to face to make things happen.
Interviewer: You absolutely have to. I don’t think you can do it all exclusively online. I know even with Open Media that’s one of the things that they really try and to is bring thousands of people together in spaces when they care about something because nothing replaces all being in the same room and breathing as one.
What do you see as emerging trends or things that we need to be watching out for in public engagement?
Marc: Certainly in public engagement, there is a real shift to the online world, and as I say, you can not completely replace the face to face, but I think an awful lot is now happening online, certainly in the preparing for a face-to-face meeting and then post face to face in order to keep momentum going.
The technologies online are becoming much much better than they ever were, and oftentimes the ability to combine technologies leads to some I think terrific results.
We work oftentimes synchronously where we’re combining online conferencing technologies with online deliberative dialog technologies, and in fact we sometimes combine a group that’s working in a room face to face with people who are joining online through the conferencing technologies and who then can participate in the discussions because we’ve got the dialog technologies going both in the room and for the people online.
As you can imagine, now you’ve got a very productive group of people who are meeting synchronously and who may not have been able to all come together because of travel restrictions or whatever that might be. It’s a way to bring that full community together.
If you can imagine, in the case that you just mentioned where you’re trying to bring 1,000 people together and they’re breathing the same the air, the reality is that you may not be able to actually get that 1,000 people together in the same room.
However, if you use good technologies, you can actually bring some of them together in the same room and then expand that group significantly through the use of those technologies.
In terms of the use of technologies, we’re seeing more and more software that’s using gamification in a meaningful way so that people are understanding better the issues and the tradeoffs that are at play, and they can help inform those issues and tradeoffs.
Traditionally, municipalities, for example, when they were struggling through their budgeting exercises, typically held town halls to present budgets and to obtain feedback. More and more, municipalities are using online technologies to present the types of issues that they’re dealing with when they’re pulling budgets together and to provide citizens with the tradeoffs that they are struggling with and to ask citizens to weigh in on those things. It’s one additional input that they have to put a finger on the pulse of their citizenry as they’re making those kinds of choices.
Municipalities tend to be a little further ahead of some of the other levels of government when it comes to use of technologies. They’re using — there’s a term out there, they’re called “inside communities.” Inside communities tend to be subsets of your larger communities. You can tap into their knowledge and their experience across the various demographics and use them to test either options or the types of decisions that you’re trying to make or to get their perspective on decisions that you’re trying to make.
They go beyond the traditional polling type of work that pollsters do for you, and they allow those statistically significant sample groups to actually have a discussion on the issues that you’re presenting to them and to provide you with some advice back from that. It’s not simply getting a perspective that is then collated and quantified and then handed to you. It gives them the opportunity to have the discussion. So, lots of interesting technologies that will allow consulting organizations to really tap into the knowledge of the stakeholders that they’re trying to understand.
Interviewer: That’s fascinating. Marc Valois from Intersol, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I really appreciate it.
Marc: My pleasure.
Interviewer: Thanks, Marc. That was great. Really appreciate it. Anything that you didn’t cover that you wanted to?
Marc: I’m trying to think just in terms of the technologies whether there’s anything else. As I say, the thing that has fascinated me of late are these inside communities and the use of inside communities to really tap into the knowledge and the perspectives and the experience and expertise of stakeholder communities. I think they’re very interesting.
I’ve seen some technologies recently that start with what would be a traditional survey or poll type of exercise where an individual provides their own answers and then once they finish doing that they are then taken into the next screen, which is an aggregation of all of the people who’ve answered the same questions so that they can actually see how closely they compare with the other stakeholders who’ve responded.
You can take that to another level, because they can then engage in some discussions, so you can see where there seems to be consensus and where there’s some real divergence of views, and then you can engage on the discussion online.
There are some terrific technologies that research firms are using these days to do some qualitative research, and they’re using the full capabilities that online tools are providing so that as you’re working through the discussions and the questions, enable people to post pictures, to post video clips, so that you can really bring some look and feel to the kinds of perspectives of points of view that people are bringing forward.
Interviewer: It makes it so much more meaningful for them too.
Marc: Yeah. A simple of example of that that I’ve seen recently is a bridge proposal where a municipality was dealing with where to put a bridge, first of all, and what it should look like, and features of that bridge, and so on. There were a whole host of questions that they were asking participants from what was important to them, and they listed a whole number of things, and people could put them in order of importance, or they would be asked to say is this important or not, and so they would see that.
They would provide a map and say, “Where would you put the bridge on this map,” and they would be able to place it and provide their first choice, second choice, third choice. They would ask what kinds of bridges they liked, and they would ask them to post pictures and then tell us what features about that bridge they liked.
They got huge amounts of data from the participants, and then once the participant was through their own exercise, this was an example where they said, “Now, let’s see what others thought.” You got to see where everybody else placed the bridge within a certain geographic area, what kinds of pictures they liked, and what were the features of those bridges that they liked most.
You can see consensus building as well around what was emerging, and so from a municipalities perspective, they got lots of great information from that exercise. The participants were permitted and encouraged to actually have a dialog as well amongst themselves because somebody might say, “Yeah, I really like this feature” and somebody else might challenge them on that, and/or someone might say, “This is where I think the bridge should go,” and somebody else might say, “Well, have you thought of this, that, and the other thing?” You could get that kind of dialog going, and ultimately …
Interviewer: It seems like you paid a lot of money for it before, and now it’s so much more readily available.
Interviewer: Thank you so much, Marc. I really appreciate it.
Marc: My pleasure.