During Queen’s IRC’s popular Change Management program last June, real estate and environmental consultant Harold Kenny shared his unique, sometimes unorthodox thoughts about how stakeholder communications can help make your change happen – in his case, years ahead of schedule and millions under budget. Here’s what Harold has to say about engaging stakeholders so that the sticks stay out of your wheels, and change keeps rolling smoothly forward.
Harold Kenny learned a lot about stakeholder communications while leading the reclamation of a contaminated former CN railway site in downtown Moncton, NB. As general manager of a Canada Lands Company (CLC) project to transform the former train repair site into a residential, business and recreational development, he found himself the central player in a complex change scenario with many different stakeholders.
In 1995 when responsibility for the site was given to CLC – a Crown Corporation responsible for making dormant land productive – the 280-acre former CN railway shops had been sitting vacant, surrounded by barbed wire, for a decade.
Harold’s was no easy task. Regulatory authorities, understandably, were keeping close tabs on the cleanup. As well, politicians and local people – who had strong feelings around the CN railway shops – had to be brought onside.
Volatile emotions had swirled around the shops since the mid-80s, when their closure meant layoffs for 2,500 people. It was a huge economic blow to the local economy, which had been dominated for 90 years by the railway, the single largest employer in Moncton’s history.
As well, many local people who had worked there felt guilty that perhaps they had contributed to the pollution. Citizens feared that potentially toxic dust would blow into their neighbourhoods, and about the costs of a cleanup. Wild stories began to circulate. “At one point, there was even a rumour that Jimmy Hoffa was buried there,” Harold recalls with a laugh.
It was clear that two things had to happen at once: a large environmental cleanup and a change in public perceptions about the decontamination of the land. Harold had to secure regulatory cooperation and local buy-in – quickly.
In accomplishing this, Harold says he learned many important lessons about what really works in communicating with stakeholders:
Lesson 1: Have all the facts
“Embracing GIS [Geographic Information System] technology helped us deliver our messages. It was a great planning tool for communications and management. It helped us with local buy-in and regulatory cooperation. For example, it allowed us to make detailed maps showing people where the contaminants were, how deep they went, and explaining how we’d clean it up.”
Lesson 2: Keep your polyaromatic hydrocarbons in perspective
“One site visit we had all the city councillors in. We were driving along with two scientists – one with a PhD in toxicology and another in biology – who were telling the councillors, ‘A big problem was identified in a previous scientific report; a problem with polyaromatic hydrocarbons.’ We get out of the bus, and the scientist continues, ‘Yes, we’ve got these polyaromatic hydrocarbons. They are known to cause cancer and we have to get them all out of here.’
“Whenever we talked about this, everybody went catatonic: ‘Oh no not the polyaromatic hydrocarbons; what an awful thing!’ Then the scientist reaches down and picks up a piece from a pile of roofing from one of the buildings. ‘There you go, that’s polyaromatic hydrocarbon. It is roofing: it’s on everyone’s house, everyone’s foundation is tarred with it, your pavement is made of it. Now if you are going to sit down and eat it, that is a problem. But if you don’t eat it…’ Then we explained to the councillors how we were going to collect it and take it to a disposal site.
“You’ve got to work to keep things in perspective.”
Lesson 3: Bring everyone in to keep sticks out of your wheels
“Stakeholders – it’s like a big clock, with all these wheels and wheels going around. This guy went to university with the other guy, he picks up the phone and says, ‘How’s this project going?’ That’s why it was so important to work at the grassroots level, at the citizen’s level. You never know who is out there that’s got a lot of influence on people’s opinion in the Ministry of the Environment, for example.
“Don’t ever underestimate who has got a lot of influence over whether you are going to succeed or fail – unexpected people can bring you some real gems of information.
“That’s why all our key stakeholders were involved simultaneously, and I had them focus on the same goal. They all put pressure on one another to move forward once they were pointed in the same direction. Be careful not to ignore anyone, or next thing you know you are going to have a big stick in your wheel.
“Local participation was a real success factor for us. We had regular roundtables, community town hall meetings, and site visits, which were very popular as people liked seeing what was going on.”
Lesson 4: Encourage open dialogue
“We had a formal weekly meeting, and everyone on site had a rep who sat at the meeting and had a voice. If a truck driver didn’t agree with a scientist about how much material he could move because he knew the truck couldn’t handle that amount, he’d tell him. There was no pecking order; just a very open dialogue.
“This openness extended from everyone on site to the local community to the wider community. It is risky, because things pop up. But when they do, you can deal with them. We had some rough days, but things don’t come up as violently if there is transparency.”
Lesson 5: Keep your head in all boxes
“I tried as much as possible to keep my head out of one box. If I got too far into one, then I’m leaving out too many others – I had to see from all stakeholder perspectives simultaneously. Otherwise people would say, ‘He’s championing the citizens at the price of the environment, ‘or whatever. You have to see from all viewpoints at once.”
Lesson 6: Know who your taxi drivers are
“I was obsessed with getting the word on the street. We put on a session once and invited all the taxi drivers for free coffee and donuts and a visit to the site. This was because when people come to town, the first thing they do is step off that airplane and into a cab, and say, “How ya doing? I hear you’ve got a property you are cleaning up there?’ ‘Yeah’ – and the driver starts telling him all kinds of stuff, and most of the time he doesn’t know what’s going on if we don’t tell him. So we invited them, and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what we are doing, here’s the site – don’t worry, we work here all the time, get on the bus.’
“Every time I’d go out for a drink and take a taxi home I’d pepper the driver with questions to get some feedback. When taxi drivers started telling me things were good, that was my validation we were succeeding. Taxi drivers are like canaries in the mine – if you start getting badmouthed by the taxi drivers you know you are in big trouble.
“Then there are the bartenders – those guys know all kinds of stuff…”