Canberra recently heard from its first citizens’ jury, which told the ACT government how third party insurance laws should be changed. The news would have passed me by (poor old car insurance is not the most exciting topic) had I not learnt about citizen juries during an IAP2 community engagement course a few years ago. It meant that the government had asked a group of Canberrans to decide which insurance scheme would work best, and had promised to implement their choice. Handing over that kind of decision-making capability isn’t something governments do all that often.

Before I started the course, I thought I knew what community engagement (or as it’s sometimes called, stakeholder engagement or public participation) was. Letting the community know what was going on! Keeping them engaged. I think most of the people with whom I did the course felt the same–we all worked in communications and PR, we were across it. Hell, most of us had stakeholder engagement in our titles, or at the least in our job description. Which makes the confusion in the room all the more funny. By about halfway through the first day it was clear we had no idea what our instructor (Michelle Feenan, who is wonderful btw) was on about.

Turns out that community engagement is involving people in decisions that are going to impact them. The course showed us how to figure out who should be involved and how to match a group’s level of participation to a project, based on IAP2’s public participation spectrum. It took me a few days to get my head around all of this. Some of my course mates were event getting angry, so frustrated were they that there was more to ‘public participation’ than they had anticipated.

Looking back I think our shared confusion shows how infrequently community engagement principles are used in public projects or policy initiatives. A consultation period is usually included in plans for major projects (and required by law in many public projects). From what I’ve seen though, by the time it rolls around a lot of the project details have been decided. That’s why I was really interested to see a citizens’ jury being used–it’s a technique that sits right at the end of the spectrum, where participants are given full decision-making power (rather than contributing information to a decision).

The idea behind community engagement is better decisions are made when you involve the people who are affected by your plan. Learning all about it improved my work no end. From small things–simply pausing before launching into something, and thinking about who needs to know about it and why–to giving me the ability to better plan for big projects. The course is one of the best things I’ve done as a comms practitioner, and it would be great to see more examples of Aussie governments embracing community engagement in the future.

If you’re interested in internal communications, one of the best practitioners to follow is Rachel Miller, a consultant working in the UK. As well as writing a mountain of useful stuff on her own blog, she is a constant source of interesting reads from all over.

The other day, Rachel linked to a short piece from a UK change management firm: The Challenges of Communicating Strategic Direction – Don’t Bother With the Mouse Mats. One of the hardest things about working in communications is pushing back in the face of requests for a poster, an email, or a slideshow. The message has been figured out, and all that’s needed is a whiz bang poster for the tearoom before behaviour change follows suit! It can be tricky to get people to wind back from a focus on the tactics, especially when they’re excited about a new plan (or they have a target to meet!).

The piece, which summarises a more in-depth report, explains the difference between individual understanding (reading the words on the poster) and shared meaning (recognising the value of the message and how it relates to your role in the organisation).

“…we find clients can get caught in the trap of thinking individual understanding is enough for culture to adapt and change; this is where the mouse mats sit. But, Cultures are built on shared meaning not individual understanding. It’s about investing time with your people to have genuine dialogue about what this bunch of words means to their part of the organisation, their context and their culture.”

Another great jumping off point for understanding shared meaning is this great video, by Matthew Koschmann. When I was studying organisational communications I used it to get my head around the initial concepts and it helped so much.

Last week I read a Wired profile of Margit Wennmachers, who is a partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. What I don’t know about investing in tech startups could fill a large bucket, so I hadn’t heard of Margit. She co-founded one of tech’s most influential PR agencies, and is one of a small number of executives at partner level with a communications background (memo to every company ever, do this! Comms belongs in the boardroom!).

Needless to say, Margit is a new hero of mine. Especially since I listened to her speak about crisis communications in one of her firm’s podcasts. Margit and her colleagues argue that a company’s culture can make or break and crisis communications plan – when disaster strikes, what will make employees rally together to help? That little conundrum is exactly why I’m interested in the crossover of organisational and crisis communications. Worth a listen (Margit’s other podcasts here).

The Australian’s media section is the best thing about the paper, a Monday treat. I was very excited when I heard about Stephen Brook’s podcast, which features an interview with an Aussie media figure each week.

I haven’t listened to every episode, but I’m in two minds about those I’ve heard so far – I’m not sure that audio is Brooks’s natural medium. And of course, the subjects know their way around interview techniques. They anticipate the negative questions, so sometimes there’s an air of defensiveness that’s a bit distracting. I still love to hear from journalists in their own words though, so it’s definitely worth a listen. The latest features Mia Freedman discussing the Twitter maelstrom she found herself in after mistreating US author Roxane Gay.

If you love magazine covers and the stories behind them, @oldnymag has so many gems. This one from 1969 was created by Milton Glaser (he of I Love NY fame, who, I didn’t realise, started the magazine along with Clay Felker), with two people and some long hair.

I was reminded today of this great video – when I was studying crisis communications it was the perfect starting point. At 33, I just scrape into Gen Y, which is probably why a video is an effective way to pour information into my brain. Timothy Coombs is a  professor in the US whose name came up regularly during my course, and his situational theory of crisis communication helped me wrap my head around the topic as a whole.

Born a middle aged woman as I was, I love Bill Bryson’s books. The Road to Little Dribbling has Bill travelling across Britain to mark the anniversary of Notes from a Small Island, which is apparently the best-selling travel book of all time.

Bill makes me laugh, even when I have no idea who, or what, he is on about.

I flicked through the channels to see what else was on and the very best option available was Michael Portillo riding a train in the north of England in a pink shirt and yellow trousers, clutching an old guidebook. Occasionally he would get off the train and spend approximately forty seconds with a local historian who would explain to him why something that used to be there is no longer there.

‘So this used to be the site of the biggest prosthetics mill in Lancashire?’ Michael would say.

‘That’s right. Fourteen thousand girls worked here in its heyday.’

‘Gosh. And now it’s this Asda superstore?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Gosh. That’s progress for you. Well, I’m off to Oldham to see where they used to make clogs for sheep. Ta-ta.’

And this really was the best thing on.

Who is Michael Portillo? Bill’s talent is in making it not matter, while dishing up the LOLs. Chortle is probably an apt verb to use here.

Bill is getting very grumpy in his old(er) age, especially about threats to Britain’s countryside. The conservation of the country’s natural beauty is very dear to his heart and the backbone of his trip, and the book.

The Road to Little Dribbling Cover