By Tony DeLisi, Vice President
Many economic development organizations have seen their work come under increased scrutiny in recent years, which is highlighting a critical need for improved communications with local stakeholders.
Questioning of economic development initiatives, and even the basic mission of an EDO, can come from different fronts. For example, in our experience as economic development strategists, we have numerous clients who are fielding strong pushback from local elected officials. National headlines often hit close to home, and concern about the use of public dollars to spur economic development has some citizens agitated (and confused). In other cases, we see local businesses questioning their own investment in job creation campaigns that could further heighten competition for talent.
This increased criticism makes it difficult for economic developers to perform their jobs. In some high-profile cases, like Amazon HQ2’s Queens location, anti-economic development voices can even lead to cancelled deals. Embattled EDOs may spend so much time defending their activities at home that they have little time to do their work – resulting in missed goals and even greater disapproval. This escalation of tension is bad for business and bad for the community.
A lot has been written about economic developers’ roles as educators in a community. But focusing on “education,” although well intentioned, may be part of the problem. Education implies that the educator knows the truth and the student does not. This inherently invalidates the beliefs, the “truths,” of critics in the community, and likely will not go over well. Ask yourself, how do you respond when told that you are wrong? Even when done sincerely and truthfully, education leaves little capacity for the educator to learn and grow.
Rather than educating their community, successful communication instead makes the case for economic development. Making the case requires conversation, which is a two-way street – sharing your perspective on economic development while also listening to the perspectives of others. Through this process, both sides are likely to learn something. Critics of economic development may better understand its role in the community, and economic developers may discover new ways to serve their community.
At the end of the day, economic development does not operate in a vacuum. The needs of a community, just as the needs of businesses, are always changing. If economic developers are not proactively making the case in their own community and listening to local perspectives, they may find themselves in exactly the position we see too frequently today – out of alignment with their elected officials, citizens and even businesses. In our practice, we see the most successful EDOs making their case every day – sharing their perspectives, listening to their stakeholders, and updating their mission as needed. Practicing this form of communication will improve your relationships with local stakeholders and help accomplish the primary goal of economic development – truly serving your community.