Walking the talk – overcoming tokenism in engagement

Cannings Purple 2 May 2021
3 mins

The accusation of tokenism in your engagement can stop a practitioner in their tracks. The reputational risks associated with tick-box engagement and the time and cost of getting it wrong, can have a real impact on your bottom line.

Senior Consultant, Ethan Gallagher discusses the ways you can set yourself up for success and avoid a tokenistic engagement process.

Let’s start at the beginning. Planning.

A sure-fire way to get ahead of the game is to put a robust plan in place from the get-go. Make sure you take the time to understand the project in-front of you – what are the project goals and objectives? Who are the key members of the community that you need to talk to? What are the issues that are important to your community?

Make sure that in your planning stages you have a very clear idea of the key members/groups who need to be at the table and the appropriate level of participation. Speaking and listening to the right stakeholders about the right things, at the right time and in the right way, will set you up for success.

Faith in the front-line

Your staff are your eyes and ears on the ground. They are at the front-line interacting with the community, listening to feedback, having conversations about their work around the BBQ at the weekend – your staff will play a significant role in your engagement strategy both in the planning and implementation stages of your plan.

Include your wider staff group in the development of your engagement plans if it’s appropriate to do so. Their knowledge of community perception will be invaluable as you plan engagement activities, this will also cultivate greater buy-in to your vision and engagement approach from an early stage.

Remember, engagement doesn’t just happen in events planned by your communications team, engagement with your stakeholders is happening every day across your business. By acknowledging this, you can build on these interactions from the ground up.

Strategy in methods

Selecting the right engagement methods will significantly increase the likely success of your plan and how you are perceived by your community. Just because a particular method has been successful in the past, does not necessarily mean it is appropriate for your current scenario. For example, putting in place a workshop to begin your engagement process isn’t going to be an effective exercise if you do not yet have a good understanding of the issues that are important to your community. Instead, you might have a plan that builds up to a workshop which is informed by a combination of surveys, interviews or focus groups.

Each method has its purpose and limitations. By using a set of integrated methods that work alongside each other, you stand the best chance of creating an inclusive and meaningful engagement process.

Consistency is key

Building meaningful relationships takes time, and this can only happen if people have opportunities to interact with you and your organisation. Engaging groups and individuals is more than a tick box exercise. If you have identified a community event to attend, attend more than one. If you’re building a relationship with a community group, identify the variety of ways you could reach out to support or engage with them.

Consistency in your community engagement will also provide you with more opportunities to share your message with the community and the repetition of your messaging will reduce the loss of information as it is passed from one community member to another.

This is particularly relevant when working with communities who rely on word-of-mouth to form relationships with businesses and services they may not have heard of or interacted with before.

Adapt to feedback

Finally, it’s probably the hardest pill to swallow, but if someone tells you they think you have been tokenistic, listen to them. If you’re hearing it from one person in the community, it’s possible they’re not alone in their opinion.

This will be your biggest opportunity to demonstrate to your stakeholders that your activities are anything but. By showing your community you are flexible and willing to implement solutions grounded in local knowledge and experiences, you have the potential to create advocates for your organisation or project. Of course, you can’t please everyone, but by demonstrating a track-record of responsive and meaningful engagement, you’ll be able to minimise the number of people who are swept up in negative conversations that might take place.

In summary

If you remember to plan, trust your staff, think strategically about your methods and demonstrate to your community that you’re listening to and putting feedback into practice it’s likely the word ‘token’ won’t creep up on you.

For in-depth advice on an engagement program for your project reach out to the Cannings Purple Stakeholder Engagement team.


Ethan is an engagement and communications professional with diverse experience across not-for-profit, hospitality, infrastructure and mining.

He has substantial experience developing effective communications and stakeholder engagement plans to deliver positive outcomes for companies, community organisations, and major projects.

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