Jan 23, 2024  Katie Tierney

How to build stakeholder support for public projects: expert strategies unveiled

Embarking on public projects with a spectrum of stakeholders can feel like navigating a maze. The journey from inception to realization is often no walk in the park—it can be riddled with challenges and diverse, ever-changing stakeholder interests. 

Public initiatives demand more than blueprints and logistics. They're about rallying a diverse group of supporters. From governmental bodies to community movers and business entities to environmental advocates, the cast of characters can be as varied as the project itself. Success in these endeavours hinges on more than just vision and strategy. 

To garner support and foster collaboration for public initiatives, it's essential to identify and engage stakeholders with differing views, perspectives, interests, and opposition. Overcoming hurdles involves engaging skeptics, balancing competing interests, and effectively communicating the project's benefits. 

Enter the art of coalition-building—a cornerstone in public project advancement.  

Building project support requires smart strategies, resonant messaging grounded in effective research, and sustained stakeholder engagement. Navigating this complex landscape necessitates insightful and adaptable methodologies and a keen understanding of stakeholder dynamics. 

Read on to explore the intricate world of building third-party coalitions. Get expert advice from Jessica Luternauer, Senior Vice President and Partner at Southwest Strategies, who sheds light on effective coalition-building in the public sector. 


Jessica Luternauer, Senior Vice President & Partner, Southwest Strategies

Jessica Luternauer

Jessica Luternauer is a seasoned professional in public relations and public affairs. She has a notable record of obtaining regulatory approvals for controversial projects, such as the completion of San Diego Gas & Electric's Sunrise Powerlink transmission line and Protea Properties' renovation of the Flower Hill Promenade shopping center, both earning recognition from the Public Relations Society of America.

Currently serving as Senior Vice President, Luternauer collaborates with clients like SDG&E, Cogentrix Energy, and Westfield Corporation in the energy and retail sectors. Her role involves developing and overseeing strategic plans for daily implementation to achieve specific public affairs goals.

Strategic groundwork: How to craft messages for audience impact 

Setting the stage for a successful coalition starts with meticulous planning and strategic groundwork.  

According to Jessica Luternauer, a coalition planning expert, this process has two critical parts: understanding the diverse audience spectrum and crafting messages that truly resonate.  

Pinpointing potential supporters and shaping messages that genuinely connect with them requires flexibility in research methodologies.  

Public project messagingJessica underlines the irreplaceable value of quantitative data that public opinion polling uncovers.  

"Public opinion polling offers quantitative data that helps you to see which messages are most effective and how they rank in comparison to each other," Jessica adds. 

While quantitative data from public opinion polling offers broad insights, qualitative research delves deeper into nuances that align messages precisely with diverse stakeholder needs.  

"Public opinion polling isn't always an option due to timing or costs. Tailoring messages through a multi-dimensional research approach enables precise alignment with your stakeholders' diverse needs and perspectives," Jessica says. 

Qualitative methods like stakeholder interviews or facilitated discussions can help professionals refine messages to match the priorities and concerns of different stakeholder groups.  

"Whether you need to engage agricultural stakeholders, residential areas, or businesses, tailoring your messages to each audience's specific concerns is important," Jessica advises. 

Refining messages through this multi-dimensional research approach enables coalition builders to better align their communication strategies with their stakeholders' diverse needs and perspectives. 

Project precision: How tailored messaging and inclusive leadership pave the path to engagement  

Creating compelling messaging for supporters and potential opposition is a cornerstone of coalition-building efforts. The initial step involves defining the project's purpose, benefits, and broader implications. 

"Start by explaining the purpose of and the need for the project, and then clearly communicate the benefits of it to your stakeholders," Jessica asserts. 

Providing this baseline level of clarity with your messages will enable you to create tailored narratives that resonate with various stakeholders. Consider tapping into topics that may be important to them, like reliability or renewable resources for energy projects. 

"Identifying topics that resonate and looking at which people feel most engaged and eager to support is crucial," Jessica emphasizes. 

Once you identify core messages, leveraging research becomes crucial in gauging audience engagement. Research should serve as your guiding force in determining which messages resonate most strongly with stakeholders, and it will help you prioritize and tailor your communication strategies effectively. 

Explaining the economic benefits of a project, for example, may necessitate collaboration with partners. 

"If economic benefits test high, then you could work with a local university or another partner to commission an economic study, which could be beneficial to explaining the project's merits," Jessica recommends. 

Moving beyond message creation, the structure of the coalition's leadership plays a pivotal role. Jessica emphasizes the importance of a leadership structure that encourages active participation and balances workload and responsibility distribution among its leaders. 

"Leaders are often third parties who are volunteering their time, so having enough people involved with the coalition's leadership is essential," Jessica says. 

She suggests a balanced leadership approach, advocating for a diverse yet manageable group of individuals. Ensuring representation across different geographies and diverse cultural backgrounds within the leadership team fosters inclusivity and aligns with the project's broader goals. 

By aligning messaging strategies with the project's benefits and creating a balanced leadership structure, coalitions can pave the way to engage stakeholders and navigate potential opposition effectively. 

Coalition launch strategies: How to build and maintain momentum 

Recruiting a diverse coalition for a project requires strategic approaches, especially in the face of potential opposition. Initial recruitment involves personalized outreach and leveraging existing relationships with stakeholders. 

"Progress often comes down to one-on-one outreach and briefings, especially in the early stages," Jessica shares. 

Building a solid support base allows for broader outreach strategies, progressing to engaging presentations aimed at diverse stakeholders. However, the initial focus remains on identifying and approaching key stakeholders to ensure a comprehensive and supportive base. 

Launching a coalition requires a strategic approach for maximum impact and sustained engagement.  

Jessica stresses the significance of a high-impact launch event involving coalition leaders. This launch event, often a press conference or combined with engaging activities, aims to capture media attention and establish a robust initial presence.  

Follow-up op-eds authored by coalition leaders further enhance media coverage, sustaining interest and visibility. 

"Make a big splash with your coalition launch. And it's important to sustain that steady drumbeat of interest and coverage right from the beginning," Jessica advises. 

Maintaining momentum and community engagement throughout the project's lifecycle is equally crucial. Jessica champions varied communication methods to reach communities, adhering to the principle of reaching people "seven times in seven different ways." 

Nurturing meaningful relationships with communities involves establishing a two-way dialogue, actively listening to concerns, and dispelling myths about the project. Jessica highlights the importance of respectful, mutual dialogue with communities. 

"It's not just about pushing out information to communities. It's about talking with the community and listening to their concerns," Jessica explains. 

Creating a mutual dialogue and respectfully addressing concerns is critical for building trust and sustaining community support throughout the project. 

Coalitions can cultivate lasting relationships with communities and stakeholders by employing diverse outreach methods, impactful launches, and fostering two-way communication. 

Adaptive coalitions: How to address challenges 

Effectively mobilizing stakeholders and addressing challenges in coalition-building requires adaptability and rigorous assessment. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, served as a transformative force in reshaping public outreach and coalition building, prompting a significant shift in engagement strategies.  

Because of the importance of flexibility, coalition efforts now offer diverse engagement avenues, balancing in-person and virtual interactions to accommodate stakeholders' preferences to ensure sustained engagement. 

"Recognize the importance of and need for flexibility, and make sure that you're giving people many different options in terms of how they can engage," Jessica suggests. 

Adaptability is pivotal in successful coalition endeavours, especially concerning project continuity. As new members join or others depart, facilitating knowledge transfer becomes crucial.  

Jessica highlights the necessity of streamlined presentations and readily accessible information to integrate new stakeholders swiftly. 

"Public projects are long, and people come in and out of them, so having a streamlined presentation summarizing essential information that helps to reduce the amount of homework and study it will take a new coalition member to get up to speed is crucial," Jessica cautions.  

Continual learning and improvement within coalitions rely on seamless knowledge transfer and ongoing education.  

Preparing new representatives by addressing concerns, providing comprehensive project backgrounds, and ensuring their alignment with the project's goals maintains continuity and support within the coalition.  

"Make sure that you anticipate concerns, share essential information, and you're prepared to answer questions, which will help to give new leaders the level of comfort they need to support the project," Jessica advises.  

Tools like Jambo help to streamline these efforts, ensuring that all essential information about projects and stakeholder engagement is centralized and readily accessible to coalition leaders as they come up to speed or act in the interests of the project.  

Jambo SRM Tool

Assessing the effectiveness of coalition-building efforts involves a spectrum of metrics.  

Jessica emphasizes the significance of total membership, social media engagement, and email response rates as monitoring metrics. But, the ultimate measure of success lies in the number of engaged advocates and project approvals. 

By fostering adaptability, employing diverse metrics for assessment, and ensuring seamless knowledge transfer, coalitions can effectively mobilize stakeholders and address challenges that may arise during project lifecycles. 

Strategies for successful coalitions: Key takeaways 

Building successful coalitions for public projects hinges on a strategic blend of sound planning, effective messaging, open dialogue, and authentic, nurtured stakeholder relationships.  

Engaging stakeholders through transparent, honest conversations fosters confidence, even amid opposition. Valuing diverse voices and building trust are pivotal and demand open-mindedness and a genuine commitment to meaningful dialogue. 

In the intricate landscape of coalition-building, genuine engagement, transparency, and active dialogue are pivotal. These elements not only assist in garnering support but also help to overcome challenges, navigate the complexities of collaboration, and steer projects toward successful outcomes. 

Prioritizing transparency, addressing concerns, and building credibility form the foundation of successful coalition-building efforts, robust stakeholder engagement initiatives, and project success. 

Discover 5 proven ideas to transform your community engagement process.

About the author - Katie Tierney 

Katie Tierney (tierneymarketing.com) is a freelance writer and SaaS content strategist. Over the last 20 years, Katie led content for renowned, fast-growing companies like Klaviyo (KVYO) and Virgin. 

Published by Katie Tierney January 23, 2024
Katie Tierney

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