Nearly half of all Canadians (48 percent) do not believe companies can be counted on to behave responsibly, according to a new study conducted by National Public Relations and Harris/Decima, designed to examine when, how, and why Canadians want to be consulted on matters impacting them.


The agency says the key finding is discouraging news for organizations looking to tap into public sentiment when moving forward new projects that require public buy-in, but suggest there might be a silver lining in the fact that Canadians trust each other. Nearly two-thirds agree with the statement “my fellow Canadians are people I can trust.”


“In this increasingly complex environment, the spirit and the means in which an organization enters into the public consultation and participation process is vital to a successful outcome,” says John Crean, national managing partner of National Public Relations. “Building trust is a bidirectional process. Just as members of the public need to trust that organizations will behave responsibly, organizations also need to trust that members of the public can provide valuable insight and input into the decision-making process.”


The survey reveals major implications for the design of public consultation programs with time-pressed Canadians preferring organizations to reach out to them, versus requiring Canadians to reach out to organizations for information. For example, while public information centers and formal public hearings are among the most accepted methods required by law to engage the public, just 18 percent of Canadians said they would attend a public hearing; 21 percent would visit a public information centre and only 12 percent would join a community advisory panel to discuss local issues.


Most Canadians prefer informal engagement versus participating in more formal public hearings and workshops on an issue. The method of engagement preferred by the majority of Canadians when engaging on an issue is talking with family and friends (65 percent), followed by visiting a website of an organization involved in the issue (45 percent) or participating in a public opinion survey on the issue (43 percent).


Community issues trump both provincial and national issues and are the critical driver in getting people involved. Six in 10 (61 percent) Canadians say they prefer to engage in community issues, proving that the closer an issue is to home the more likely members of the public are to get involved. 


When it comes time to engage, the survey paints a picture of two drastically different types of Canadians: a majority group (70 percent) of uninvolved Canadians who usually choose not to engage on any given issue; and, a minority group (30 percent) of involved Canadians who, while smaller in numbers, are those most likely to provide and set the public voice on an issue.


“There is a minority of the population who are tuned in and participatory and another larger group who care about issues that affect their communities and society as a whole, but tend not to invest themselves in the processes made available,” ssays Doug Anderson, senior vice president, Harris/Decima. “This smaller group of involved Canadians will be more inclined to actively participate in the formal aspects of the consultative process, but our data tells us that their influence extends beyond the public forum to their kitchen tables. Successfully delivering a message to these involved Canadians and having them engage informally with family and friends is among the best ways to reach a much broader cross-section of the public.”