Stakeholder engagement – a job for PR or a core project element?

As part of his regular column for Demolition and Recycling International, RVA’s managing director, Richard Vann, penned his thoughts on stakeholder engagements and whether this should be a job for PR or a core project element for the demolition team.

If you missed the article, you can read it in full here…

It might be a bold claim, but in no way is it an exaggeration – one of the most important elements of a modern demolition project now, has nothing to do with the actual demolition works themselves.

I’m talking about stakeholder engagement – the practice of communicating with any individual or group who may be affected, to any degree, by a demolition assignment.

There was a time of course where there was something of a disregard for the need to engage with anyone other than the client. Contractors boldly turned up on site driven by the mindset that they were simply there to do a job. Most were unaware of the need to do anything any different.

But even if projects were executed exactly in line with the brief, on time and with no reportable accidents or injuries, this did not mean the works would unfold with no bad feeling. Neighbours would complain about site traffic, environmental groups would worry about the disruption to wildlife, and the controlled use of explosives..? Well, let’s just say in the absence of knowledge, pre-blast information and updates, many residents didn’t take too kindly to ‘buildings being blown up in the village’.

Now, any demolition professional worth their salt will adopt a far more collaborative stance to working with stakeholders.

Yes, legislation has driven this change. Gone are the days when a foreman could stand in the street with his stop sign to enforce a road closure, for example. And environmental regulations now better protect local habitats ranging from bats and birds to neighbours’ fish ponds.

But truly consulting with stakeholders – asking them questions and understanding their concerns to shape a project, rather than simply telling them what is going to happen – is also inherently the right thing to do. The duty of care element is undeniable.

Now, as part of the long-term planning of a demolition programme, consultants and/or contractors will enter into dialogue with a number of interested parties, ranging from the Environment Agency to pressure groups, and local authorities to schools and community groups.

Ecology surveys are now routinely carried out for instance, so that project schedules can be adjusted and/or methodologies fine-tuned to avoid disturbing nesting birds. Contractors visit schools to speak to make health and safety fun, while educating children about the dangers of trespassing on demolition sites. Vehicular movements are carefully coordinated so that heavy plant does not move materials off site during peak hours when the roads are busy with school traffic. Even communication with a client’s workforce – who are commonly facing redundancy as a result of demolition works – has to be thoughtfully managed.

These little details can make or break a project. After all, demolition engineers are often the first visible team on a site, before a much larger scheme such as a regeneration development begins. Poor stakeholder management in the earliest phase will set the tone for the entire duration of works, long after the demolition works are complete. The legacy issues could be vast. It’s no wonder considerate contractor schemes are now widely recognised and have even created a sense of healthy competition between firms.

Stakeholder engagement is all about creating harmonious relationships for both the immediate and long term. It is every bit as important as planning a hazardous materials survey or commencing the piecemeal dismantling of a valuable asset. It cannot be simply the responsibility of one or two site managers – it must be a mindset shared by all personnel. Efforts will be undone, for example, if colleagues staying over in a local area go out at night and behave irresponsibly – irrespective of the safe and considerate nature of works on-site.

And all of this before we consider the financial impact – poor stakeholder relations often result in reputational damage, which impacts share prices, bottom line and future prospects.

So, aside from a contractor’s duty of care and legislative obligations, poor stakeholder relations also act as a significant distraction. For the standing of the entire supply chain, not to mention the safe execution of the project, this engagement exercise therefore needs to be front and centre from day one.