Selling to Local Stakeholders

The Critical Need for Internal Communication

Selling to Local Stakeholders

By Marian Kansas & Tony DeLisi

When economic development organizations discuss communication, we often focus on external communication – marketing and selling our communities to new businesses and talented individuals. This is an important function, but only one component of the communication work necessary to sustain a healthy and resilient economy. Internal communication – efforts that engage local residents, businesses, elected leaders and partners – gets less recognition, but has become increasingly important due to several recent trends in the world of economic development.

This need reveals itself in a multitude of ways – citizens questioning the use of business incentives, elected officials cutting funding for programs, businesses commiserating publicly about local challenges, and a general misunderstanding of the role of economic development in a community. If any of these situations sound familiar, you are not alone. Across the country, we see increased public scrutiny of economic development activities and a disconnect between those working to grow their local economies and the communities they serve.

We saw the importance of internal communication revealed through the Amazon HQ2 search process and announcement. Amazon’s search for its second headquarters location was the most publicly visible site selection project in history. Communities across the country submitted bids to be the future home of HQ2 with varying degrees of transparency and public inclusion. In the end, Amazon announced it would split HQ2 between two communities: Long Island City in Queens, N.Y., and Crystal City in Arlington, Va. These communities reacted differently to the news, with drastically different end results.

Queens saw residents, grassroots organizations and local politicians protest the decision, which was aggressively recruited by the state and regional economic development organizations. Many locals felt excluded from the process and that HQ2 would hurt their community – accelerating gentrification, increasing traffic and wasting $3 billion on incentives that could be better spent on local needs. The lack of internal stakeholder involvement and transparency in the bidding process led to public protests, negative press, tense town hall meetings with Amazon representatives, and ultimately, Amazon’s decision to pull out of the deal. Amazon HQ2 may well have brought significant benefits to Long Island City, but by leaving internal communication with residents as an afterthought, New York lost the project to distrust and discord. 

In contrast, economic development leaders in Northern Virginia spent time engaging with internal audiences while preparing their bid for HQ2. They sought to understand and address concerns from residents and businesses about potential impacts to traffic, affordability, talent competition and more. They transparently discussed both the positives and negatives of the project and what they would do to address them if the project was won. The different outcomes in this tale of two cities clearly demonstrate the importance of proactive internal communications.

Especially for business development managers at chambers and EDOs, leading with internal communication may seem counterintuitive. But, if we focus only on external audiences without engaging locally, we risk losing the community support that helps us succeed. Thankfully, chambers have always been a natural convener for important community conversations. So, when your chamber is ready to up its community engagement game, these five tips are here to help you succeed.

Avalanche’s Tips for Internal Communication

1. Don’t wait until a crisis. Too often internal audiences only hear from chamber leadership when something has gone wrong. By then it may be too late to change the narrative. Chambers must engage in proactive storytelling. Do not wait for someone else to tell your story for you.

Real-World Example: In 2011, the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce (now Columbus 2025), learned that many local stakeholders did not understand what the chamber did and why. To raise awareness and proactively tell the chamber’s story, the chamber surveyed the community to better understand perceptions. Based on their findings, it created the “I am the Chamber” campaign to dispel misperceptions and share their story. Learn more

2. Be honest. Building and maintaining trust with local stakeholders requires honesty about the good, the bad and the ugly. Residents and business prospects know when you are ignoring a glaring truth. Speak honestly about your challenges, let stakeholders know how you plan to address them and ask them to celebrate when you make progress.

Real-World Example: The Greater Omaha Chamber’s 2015 and 2017 young professionals’ surveys found that black young professionals were six-times less likely than their peers to recommend Omaha. Rather than ignore this finding, the chamber raised this issue openly. It created a committee to tackle diversity and better grow opportunities for young professionals of color in Omaha. Learn more

3. Make communication easy. If you want to hear from locals, you must make it easy for them to reach you. There are a few ways to make engagement easier – physically meeting different audiences where they are in your community, proactively offering opportunities for feedback via online and in-person forums and using local partners to share your message with a wider audience.

4. Be inclusive. If we only communicate with the usual suspects, we will hear the same stories. Chambers must look around the room and ask, who is not here? Proactively and personally reach out to include underrepresented groups. Bringing more diverse voices to the table only strengthens your organization and builds trust that you are making the right decisions.

Real-World Example: The Velocity 2040 effort in Chattanooga, Tenn., built an inclusive vision for the region’s future. The process included a series of public workshops and a survey that received over 5,000 responses. Efforts were made to ensure the demographics of respondents reflected the community and captured as many perspectives as possible. The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce then used this inclusive vision to craft Chattanooga Climbs, the tactical economic development strategy for moving the community toward its vision over the next five years. Learn more.

5. Show you are listening: After you solicit feedback from your community, you must then show that it was heard. It is hard to build trust when residents feel like their input is falling on deaf ears. One effective way to prove that you are listening is to share testimonials – elevating the voices of actual individuals and businesses in the community, versus your own organization.

 

As chambers evolve, internal communication should be a top priority. Those that proactively communicate at home will build trust, gain support and ultimately bolster the community’s future economic success.

 

Marian Kansas is a Consultant at Avalanche. Marian is a strategic thinker and highly experienced storyteller that uses her knowledge of top-of-mind ED trends and best practices to help Avalanche’s clients engage with residents and effectively tell their community’s story. Marian understands how to effectively use marketing practices and research as an economic development tool and uses these skills to empower audiences to achieve their economic goals.
Tony DeLisi is Avalanche Consulting’s Vice President, where he focuses on workforce and economic development strategies, project management, research, and client support. He is passionate about helping communities collaborate to address challenges, inspire innovation, and grow in an inclusive manner.

 

 

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