Know your audience before you speak: Why Scientists and Engineers need audience analysis

Posted on Dec 15, 2016

No scientist or engineer would launch a project without a plan, so why do so many communicate without having a clear understanding of their target audience? Scientists and Engineers who take the time to understand their stakeholders – who they are and what they think– before launching into a presentation are far more successful than those who do not.

Communication comes naturally to some and poses a significant challenge for others. But this doesn’t mean natural communicators always get it right, or those less sophisticated communicators can’t be successful. The differentiating factor between communication success and failure often boils down to how well an individual, or a company, understands its audience. Investment in strategic, science-based communication research – stakeholder or audience analysis – can often make or break any communication program.

Approaching strategic corporate communication based on stakeholder analysis is a relatively new concept in the coal mining industry. However, its growing popularity reflects an increasing recognition that stakeholders – individuals, groups, and organizations – are different, in terms of the information they want, the way they process it, and the best methods for delivery. Companies can use information gathered through qualitative and quantitative audience analysis research to develop strategies for communicating with stakeholders to help meet their strategic and operational goals and objectives.

Recently, a client contacted us because they were experiencing increasing community opposition to their proposed mine expansion plans. Organized local opposition to the project appeared to be gaining momentum, and the company was concerned this opposition had the potential to derail the proposed expansion. The good news was that the company had a communication plan, demonstrating an understanding of the importance of communication in meeting business objectives. The downside was they had developed the community relations piece of the plan without baseline research. As such, the company did not clearly understand the extent of the opposition to the project and how this opposition would impact the company’s ability to earn social license and secure the necessary provincial and federal permits to move forward. It also meant the company had no way to measure the success of its plan in changing perceptions. After all, that’s what public relations and communication plans are designed to do: influence behaviour and attitudes.

Our first step was to design a perception audit to determine the current level of community support and knowledge for the project; understand the demographic makeup of the community; determine attitudes towards mining in general, and determine perception about the company’s community outreach efforts to date.

The statistically accurate survey data provided some surprising results. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed stated they supported the mine expansion project; this in contrast to the company’s perception of significant community opposition, which in reality was opposition from a small, but very vocal, minority.  The survey also revealed that members of local First Nations didn’t understand modern mining: when asked their perception of the industry, most described it as “dirty,” “destructive” and “responsible for global warming,” despite the project being an expansion of an existing mine.

The perception audit provided the baseline measurements necessary to determine an accurate picture of community perception and support for the project and became the basis for communication with the provincial and federal governments, as well as with local media (who until that point had supported the opponents’ point of view). The company also developed an education program about mining for aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, with the goal of raising awareness about the responsible mining.

The other goal in conducting the survey was to gather information from stakeholders about how they gather and process information. Communication is often complicated by the fact that needs vary, based not only on demographic and social considerations, but also as a result of individual behavioural styles. To some extent, the research helped the company target important influencers and decision makers, but it also enabled them to deliver information designed specifically to meet audience needs. For example, past strategies for communicating with Aboriginal communities were not working. Rather than creating lengthy, information-filled brochures for First Nation’s audiences, the company realized it needed to deliver content reflecting and respecting a more traditional Aboriginal approach to sharing information: storytelling. Video and more visual elements in print and online communications offered ways to inform and educate using mediums that worked for the specific audience.

People in the mining industry use data every day to make decisions and are comfortable doing so. Developing communication programs that tie directly back to data can help to alleviate the fear of communication for some, and focus the efforts of others.

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