We often work with non-profit organisations and local governments on community engagement projects. Occasionally it raises an interesting question – what’s the difference between community engagement and communication?

Many smaller local governments team up their engagement and comms work into one team (or sometimes, into one role). Even some bigger organisations blend these different functions – just lately some big organisations have been advertising for engagement specialists but the job description reads more like a comms officer.

So what’s the difference between community engagement and communication? Read on to find out why it’s important to make a distinction.

What is Community Engagement?

First, let’s be clear about what these two processes are. Community engagement is really about collaborating with community members to shape solutions. The level of engagement can vary, but almost always involves two-way communication. A great tool for understanding the level of participation you’re inviting is the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum. On this spectrum, the ‘Inform’ level is the most basic and is really a one-way process. At the ‘Empower’ level, up the other end of the scale, the community is given complete control of decision making.

What is Community Communication?

In contrast, ‘comms’ activities tend to be solely about disseminating information or even convincing of a point of view. Occasionally, feedback might be sought through a medium like social media, but it’s very much at the lower end of the IAP2 PP Spectrum.

Problems are more likely to arise in the community, whether in the form of outrage or apathy, when an organisation sticks with a ‘comms’ approach (especially if it’s branded as ‘engagement’) or when any attempt at engagement is at the lower end of the spectrum. 

How can you improve your engagement?

While you might not be able to commit to ‘Empower’ levels of engagement, thinking about how you can have a more robust engagement process will go a long way towards building trust and credibility with your community. 

What types of engagement does your organisation use? Are you stuck on the left side of the Spectrum? Is your community regularly outraged and you’re feeling stressed out? Or perhaps they are apathetic and it’s driving you crazy?

If you need advice on developing your community engagement strategy or are looking for ideas of new and effective ways to connect with your community, we’d love to chat. Tee up a time to talk here.