People engage on their own terms. So, when our community, our audience or our stakeholders have something to say, we need to be ready and willing to listen, interact, discuss, and engage.

It’s trickier when we have a message to share, though, especially if where the issue is high profile or emotion. Engagement can be make or break when you have change to introduce, a behaviour to shift, a new piece of infrastructure to introduce…It can become a minefield of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?), He Said She Said and Comms over Consultation.

“Is the damage ‘catastrophic and irreparable’ or ‘not insignificant, but it could have been much worse’?”

The recent fires in Tasmania’s heritage areas highlight the struggle to engage and encourage understanding between competing points of view. The Tasmanian Premier is talking down the damage, inviting tourists to see the 98.8 or so percent of the area that’s still just fine. Award-winning, even. On the other hand, environment groups are likening the fires to the “loss of the thylacine”, augmenting their argument with aerial video footage of the devastation.

Even the language used sets the view poles apart on protecting these valuable social and capital asset.  Is the damage ‘catastrophic and irreparable’ or ‘not insignificant, but it could have been much worse’?

Similarly with announced cuts to climate change science and research at the CSIRO. As a nation, would we really be ‘resting on our laurels’ now that we have ‘proved climate change’? Or do we need to realign our research agenda for more commercial outcomes – and start adapting our knowledge of climate change for workable solutions?

Finding the balance takes a deft hand, an open ear, and a willingness to trust that we might not have all the answers. When we engage with our communities we listen, acknowledge and respond appropriately.

A combative approach might generate media hits, and certainly brings issues and views to the forefront, but it might not achieve the result we’re really after.

Take a look at the speed with which Melbourne anti-skyrail campaigners took to social media and other platforms to vent their anger. Melbourne rail infrastructure must be updated to cope with increasing congestion and forecast population growth, but the government message is being lost in emotion and invective. Even those pro level crossing removal are finding it hard to have their voices heard.

And Waste Recycling Industry Association Queensland (WRIQ) CEO Rick Ralph took to the media to voice his frustration with recent, very quiet, reporting of waste industry figures by the Queensland government. As covered in the Business Environment Network piece, Mr Ralph is unimpressed with the lacklustre coverage of real figures waste management figures “resulting in headlines such as ‘Queensland lags in recycling performance’ or ‘Queensland the dump for NSW waste’ ”. Open dialogue with stakeholders on both sides of the fence is key to any change. But sometimes a little push is required to open the door.

Engagement is definitely interactive, and as communicators we can provide the platform for this to and fro of ideas. But should we just agree to disagree? Or is the debate part of the process of learning and change? Can engagement be about negotiation?