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Public engagement and the private sector

The business case rules, discovers Lesley Paterson

Half of the businesses interviewed online in a recent survey said that they do not take part in engaging wider society because they do not believe that their work is relevant to the public. This is one of the findings of a research report published by The Royal Academy of Engineering (the Academy) and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

The research was commissioned on behalf of the Science for All expert group, established by BIS in 2009 to develop an action plan for public engagement across the UK, who noted that knowledge of public engagement within the private sector was lacking.

The report provides insight into how scientific and engineering businesses undertake public engagement and why.

The results show that the way for the public engagement community to work with business is to focus on purpose rather than process. The idea of framing any discussion around ‘public engagement’ is likely to be ineffective. Firstly, because the term has little resonance with the business community, as is also the case for the acronym ‘STEM’.  Secondly, because the findings indicate that companies are much more likely to respond to specific and distinct projects that meet their business objectives.

The business public engagement landscape

For the purposes of this piece of research, the definition of ‘public engagement’ was deliberately kept broad, so as not to close down any conversations or avenues of where, when, how and why businesses communicated with, interacted with or involved the public in their activities and operations.    

The most frequent activities were focused on communicating to the public – marketing, promotional activities and schools outreach – rather than listening or collaborative-type projects. As might be expected, larger businesses were much more likely to undertake public engagement activities than small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the latter being restricted by a lack of resources.

Businesses that were interested in doing more wanted to focus on inspiring more young people or promoting and reinvigorating specific industries that were perceived to have an image problem – such as manufacturing and engineering.

Motivations and barriers

Companies undertook engagement activities with a clear business purpose in mind. This could include helping to resolve an issue within the local community or to maintain a good public image and reputation. Although motivations were primarily corporate, there were also individual staff reasons for participating including a desire to change perceptions of science and engineering, and personal profile raising, either within their own company or their sector.

The barriers identified for not participating in public engagement included the perception that there was no business need; that the business was not relevant to the public; financial and time cost restraints and concern about attracting unwanted attention, especially if working in controversial areas.

Similar to academia

It is interesting to note that there are a number of similarities between public engagement in business and in academia, when compared to the Royal Society’s 2006 report on why scientists engage the public. That report demonstrated that academics’ public engagement activities were also focused on communications activity to raise the profile of their research area or institution and to inspire young people to become scientists.  Some of the barriers were also similar, with a lack of time and resources restricting involvement, rather than a lack of willingness. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that public engagement the private and academic/ public sector are not as different as we might have believed.

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Dr Lesley Paterson
Dr Lesley Paterson is Head of Communications and Engagement aht The Royal Academy of Engineering
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