It was only a couple of years ago that a proposed low-barrier housing development divided Abbotsford residents in to two groups. The first group was comprised of those championing the project. The second group was comprised of those opposing it.
Partway through the development process the firm I was with at the time was engaged by the proponents – a local non-profit service agency – to act as their public and government relations consultants; I was the lead on the file. We were engaged because early on in the process there had been a great deal of misinformation that had set the stage for a whole host of challenges. Little did I know at that time the profound impact this hyper-political drama would have on me; both professionally, and personally.
Professionally speaking, this was the first time I had been pulled into a project mid-way through. Though there to help demystify the project, clear up any miscommunications, and work towards a healthy, productive process, our firm was met with major opposition. Indeed, the toxicity of some of the players in the process was already so spectacular that reason and logic made no difference. I was, on more than one occasion, dumbfounded.
Personally, this project brought me to an incredibly dark place. Despite a generally optimistic outlook and a belief that most people are fundamentally good, I reached a point where I had all-but-lost my faith in humanity. Indeed, were it not for a couple of hundred individuals who braved a snowy afternoon to show their support of this project, I may not have managed to regain some semblance of hope for Abbotsford’s future.
From conspiracy theories, to hypocrisy, to political agendas that made even the most seasoned politicians at different levels of government vow never again to collaborate with Abbotsford, our political and social capital as a city was at an all-time low. The question is, did we learn anything?
For the Record…
As a political strategist and communications advisor who has been practicing for almost nine years, one thing I know without a doubt is that doing things well matters.
For example, it was just a few weeks ago I attended the groundbreaking for a project that my new firm had been a part-of in Chilliwack. Having been retained by another non-profit services agency, we were engaged early on to facilitate their stakeholder engagement process for a below-market rental housing development. As a result of a comprehensive stakeholder engagement strategy, not a single person attended the public hearing to speak against it. Indeed, the Mayor and several members of Council expressed their appreciation for the proactive approach we used on our clients behalf – it was a career highlight! Having said, our success was largely due to two elements.
First of all, the methodology we used was consistent with best-practices. Identify the opportunities and challenges; identity the key stakeholders; create the narrative; and then share the vision. This simple, common sense approach ensured that as the application process and public hearing progressed – processes that can sometimes takes months, if not a year or more – key leaders in the community received the necessary background information to ensure they were fully informed about the vision. Moreover, this further allowed them to speak intelligently about the vision, thereby ensuring they could mitigating any misinformation that might endanger the process before it even got off the ground. In short, it highlighted why prevention is always favorable to intervention.
The second reason it was successful was because those we approached to share our vision – most notably, members of Chilliwack City Council – were not only receptive to taking meetings, but were incredibly appreciative of the investment our client made to ensure the process was handled well. Indeed, by being informed early on members of Council felt empowered; something several of them expressed their appreciation for.
As I look back on these two, drastically different experiences, not only do they re-affirm the need to do things well, they also make something abundantly clear… the different between a forward thinking community versus one that is stagnant all comes down to politics. So then, I once again find myself asking: did we learn anything?
Though only time will tell, after having spent the past couple months writing on issues of integrity I will say this: Those elected officials who open their doors to hear about new and exciting opportunities in the community are the ones who deserve our votes. Those who do not do so need to go, as they clearly lack respect for the very spirit of public service.