In town planning, the link between community consultation and effective communication cannot be overstated. As urban landscapes evolve, involving the community in decision-making processes becomes integral to creating sustainable and inclusive developments. How this is done can be set out in communications plans.
This article gives an overview of the importance of a communication plan to support engagement during town planning initiatives. PlaceChangers platform is often used to support interactivity and immersiveness in town planning consultations, where technical complexities, multiple differently able communities, and tight timeschedes of project plans need to be carefully managed.
When engaging the public in town planning projects, there’s a fine line to walk between paralysis from trying to plan engagement to perfection, and communicating without any plan at all. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail.”
That’s where a communications plan can help.
What is a communications plan?
A communications plan is a document that outlines how you, as a team or organisation, will engage with external audiences, who may be impacted in a planning project, or are likely to take an active interest.
A good communications plans serves as a guide internally, outlining the who, what, when, where, and how of communication efforts. A communications plan helps bring mindfulness to the outreach and engagement activities, considering the needs and wants of the audience, and the likely resources, and timeline for outreach.
By providing a clear framework, communications plans ensure consistent and coherent messaging while allowing for flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Ultimately, a communications plan is a dynamic tool that enhances organisational transparency, fosters engagement and contributes to the overall success of strategic initiatives.
What to include in your communications plan?
At a minimum, communications plans for public consultation and engagement should include some of the following items:
- Objectives and aims: Define specific outcomes the communication efforts aim to achieve.
- Audiences: Identify and understand the diverse stakeholders to tailor messages accordingly. Local residents are not a homogenous group. Demographics, abilities, and levels of local involvement will play a role. There may be local groups and local informal leaders for initiatives. What are those?
- Key messages: Distil complex information into concise, understandable points aligned with project goals.
- What is known: Consider what participants already know about the project and how to connect the project objectives to local objectives and activities.
- Channels and Platforms: Aligned with the audience research above, it’s important to understand which communication channels are most effective in reaching the right audience. Some residents may prefer local social media, some may depend more on direct communication, or others on local news outlets.
- Timeline: Establish a schedule for the timely delivery of messages, aligning with key milestones or events.
- Responsibilities: Understand your resources within the team. Who will be front-facing and who will be more in a back-office role? Who will produce the materials? And who will provide the final sign-off?
- Budget: Allocate resources for media placement, design, or technology activities.
- Evaluation and Measurement: Establish criteria to assess the plan's success against predefined benchmarks.
- Feedback and Adjustments: Implement mechanisms for gathering stakeholder feedback and making necessary plan adjustments.
Audience research for communications plans
As mentioned above, one of the key benefits of a communications plan is the ability to consider external audiences' needs and likely expectations. The first draft of a consultation document is often phrased in an inward-facing manner (think of “we have planned thai and that”). However, a successful engagement project actually takes the perspective of external audiences first.
Make sure to understand your external audiences and where they may be reached. Here are some examples:
Postal leaflets; Facebook neighbourhood communities
Schools; parents; TikTok
Older living organisations, community centres
Walkers and cyclists
Community hubs; cycle shops; in-street notices; Facebook adverts
For the benefits and limitations of different promotion and outreach methods, read more here: How to promote your planning consultation
Planning consultation timelines
Depending on your project, your timelines for communication consultations may need to be longer. This can be a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, the likely communications plan will be very short. On the other hand, there will not be time for re-engagement.
On large projects, the communications plan will be more complex, considering multiple stages of engagement and multiple consultation formats. There’ll be the added complexity of updating participants on outcomes from previous consultations.
In your communications plan, try to be clear on timelines. While it is excellent in theory to plan for ongoing communication, the team resource is finite. Think of key points in the design process and anchor engagement along those. For example, the RIBA Plan of Work guides town planning projects when key design decisions are made and when involvement is helpful. On the other hand, in the context of a retrofit project, say in the UK, the constraints of the funding mechanism (e.g. SHDF) will dictate the engagement phases.
For different engagement strategies, take a look here for inspiration: Lets talk layout: Two engagement strategies for your next residential masterplan
Channels and platforms to consider in communications plans
Selecting appropriate communication channels and platforms is a pivotal aspect of comprehensive communications plans. Diverse stakeholders often have distinct preferences for receiving information, necessitating a strategic approach. Traditional channels, such as press releases, newspapers, and broadcast media, remain influential for reaching a broad audience. Simultaneously, the digital landscape offers a plethora of platforms, including websites, social media, and email, catering to a more tech-savvy demographic.
Social media platforms, in particular, provide a dynamic space for engagement, allowing organisations to share updates, gather feedback, and foster a sense of community. Email communication offers a more direct and personalised avenue suitable for in-depth information dissemination. Additionally, leveraging multimedia channels, such as videos and podcasts, can enhance the overall impact, appealing to varying learning and engagement preferences.
Balancing a mix of traditional and digital channels ensures a comprehensive reach, acknowledging the diverse communication habits of the target audience. The key lies in understanding the unique attributes of each platform and tailoring content to maximise effectiveness in conveying messages.
For an overview of engagement platforms vs websites, take a look at this article here: Comparing your options: Engagement platforms vs project websites
Planning for success
In conclusion, a well-crafted communications plan is the linchpin for successful engagement in town planning initiatives. By integrating clear objectives, targeted messaging, and strategic channels, organisations can navigate the complexities of community consultation.
The dynamic interplay of traditional and digital platforms, combined with a responsive approach to feedback, ensures a comprehensive and adaptable strategy. As town planning evolves, the enduring success of projects hinges on transparent, inclusive communication.
The communications plan emerges not merely as a document but as a dynamic tool shaping collaborative relationships and fostering sustainable developments to benefit communities and their stakeholders. But don’t fall victim to planning paralysis. To maximise the value of public feedback, plan in public engagement when plans are ‘good enough’ to discuss, and not when they are ‘final’, or with the view that what’s shared needs to be perfect.