Ipsos MORI’s five-point guide to talking about infrastructure

In a world full of loudly expressed opinions, Ipsos MORI’s latest report seeks to inject some evidence into the debate about how we communicate about infrastructure. In a pleasantly short paper, Ipsos MORI set out their five learning points, whether you are looking to build new housing, roads, railways or airports.

  • Make it meaningful to people, for example by saying “it’s like the human body…the blood supply is the infrastructure”. Look at at the what and the why but also the who. Who benefits from this project? Will people like me use it? Are we asking people to act against their own interests? Sell a vision that connects emotionally, but recognise that the future is uncertain. And avoid jargon…including the word “infrastructure”.
  • Make the case for the new. Any proposals need to overcome the cautious, make-do-and-mend British pragmatism – especially as infrastructure problems aren’t all visible. Everyone who saw the 1950s slums said “we need new homes”, but today’s housing problems are less visible.  People want to see improvements to the roads and trains they already use, not necessarily new  routes. But the case for new infrastructure can be made. People tend to agree that we need to keep up with the rest of the world, that we aren’t currently doing enough, and that investing in infrastructure is vital for our economic growth.
  • Define (and reflect) your audience. Consultations are useful, but many people won’t respond. A representative survey can give very different answers. The report gives an example from a local council where a consultation found net support of +8 for new housing, but net support was +29 among those who had helped develop a neighbourhood plan and +22 among the population as a whole. People think both as a citizen (“what is good for society?”) and a consumer (“what is good for me?”). Your scheme has to embrace both. Be sure to speak to a wide range of people, including those opposed to your plans, and don’t forget to engage the silent majority.
  • Listen and lead. Engage with people early in the process to build legitimacy and reduce the risks later on. Consider the cultural implications and how your project can work with them. Does your project tackle division and inequality? Does it connect with the public sense that “something must be done”? Does it link into prevailing concerns (e.g. about recycling plastics and protection of our heritage and green spaces)? Does it take account of people’s natural cynicism? Does it link into local concerns and appeal to people both rationally and emotionally?
  • Consider the message – and the messenger. Sell the why, not just the what. The majority of Brits believe that infrastructure is essential and we need more of it. But the very long timescales, slow realisation of benefits and lack of public trust in governments means that the conversation often ends up being about the what and not the why. It is important to acknowledge downsides of development: people value honesty. People are sick of hearing from both politicians and protesters. Having an independent third party both talking and listening to people can make all the difference.

BECG’s insight

Ipsos MORI’s advice, backed up with polling evidence and case-studies, reflects our experience at BECG.  Engaging early; talking about what is proposed, why it’s happening and who will benefit; listening to the whole community, not just those who shout loudest; and communicating a vision, while being honest about the costs, all make a big difference. It helps not only build support for schemes, but also to get genuine, high-quality feedback to improve the plans.

BECG is a trusted expert in the built environment.  We create insight-led, integrated communications campaigns that deliver commercial value, enhance your reputation and minimise risk.  Find out more about our work in the infrastructure sector.