A project website could be the best way to engage with hard-to-reach residents, says Penny Norton of CommunitiesOnline.
Communication with local residents usually starts during the planning process but it certainly doesn’t end there. The immediate community, local groups and potential users or purchasers will want to understand what’s being built and the timescales involved.
They may also be interested to receive regular updates. Equally, it may be useful to have the contact details of those in the immediate area so that they can be informed of road closures over-runs and major work on site.
Very importantly, contractors and developers will benefit from gaining the goodwill and support of local resident, and possibly the local media too, and this can only be achieved through good communication.
Traditionally community relations during construction has largely been managed through newsletters and sometimes viewing windows/platforms, site visits or exhibitions. But the internet and social media are changing the way we communicate in every context. Today more than 60 million individuals in the UK use the internet regularly and this is increasing by 1.5 million each year.
Online is the preferred method of communication for many people. More specifically, more than 60% UK residents own a smartphone or tablet. In public consultations and planning applications run by ConsultOnline, engagement via mobile devices is providing increasingly popular with an average of 78% of those taking part choosing to do so using tablets and smart phones.
Building community relations
As our use of the internet increases, the old, often expensive and time-consuming methods of communication can be partially replaced or supplemented by something much simpler and more effective: a community relations website.
A typical community relations website may include a timeline, interactive Google maps, Q&As (to which users may contribute), the Construction Management Plan, regular updates on construction work and images. Time-lapse photography is very popular, as are CGI fly-throughs of the future development.
Other useful information might include an introduction to the team with hyperlinks to each organisation’s own website – a great opportunity to inform local residents of sustainability initiatives, commitment to using local workers / suppliers and other corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes.
External links, such as to the Considerate Constructors Scheme, are also popular. Finally – but perhaps most importantly – a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest under a specific subject, be it in relation to construction updates, property sales, lettings or employment opportunities.
Our research has also shown online community relations to be particularly popular among younger age groups, working parents and commuters. Many traditionally "hard-to-reach" groups can also find what they are looking for best through a website thanks to the physical accessibility of the internet and the opportunity to provide information using translations, large text and text-to-speech.
Online communication has the advantage of being available 24/7. Residents most frequently view our websites late at night, and construction companies benefit from being able to communicate immediately with residents when required.
So as communication increasingly moves online, so too will community relations. Of course, online community relations will not fully replace offline community relations entirely. In some circumstances and to some people, a screen will never compensate for a human face. But there are many advantages of online communication over offline communication: it provides the means to communicate unlimited positive and important information, it is extremely cost-efficient, it is fast and time-efficient, and it provides easy access to a wide range of information, in equally wide-ranging formats.
When the diggers arrive on site, most people will head straight to Google to get the information that they feel entitled to know. Rather than allow residents to become frustrated at that crucial first point of contact and resort to social media and chat rooms to speculate about the changes to their neighbourhood, the savvy developer or construction team will use this opportunity to provide a first – and long-term – impression that is welcoming, informative and constructive and establishes the new development in the very heart of the community.