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Community Engagement and Communication – What’s The Difference?

Communication, Government

Understanding Community Engagement and Communication

Throughout our work with government and non-profit organisations an interesting question often arises – what’s the difference between community engagement and communication?

It’s common for smaller organisations to combine their engagement and comms work into one role. Even some bigger organisations blend these different functions into one team. We’ve seen big organisations advertise for engagement specialists but the job description reads more like a comms officer.

Find out why it’s important to make the distinction.

Firstly, let’s be clear about what these two processes are.

Community Engagement

Community engagement is really about collaborating with community members to shape solutions. The level of engagement can vary, but 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, which might be used in a particular part of a larger engagement process. At the ‘Empower’ level, up the other end of the spectrum, the community is given complete control of decision making.


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 approach?

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. Most importantly, you can bring the most value if you plan and engage early.

What types of engagement does your organisation use? Are you stuck on the inform end of the Spectrum? Is your community regularly outraged and you’re feeling disempowered? 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. Our team have a wealth of experience in engagement and are trained in the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum. Tee up a time to talk here.

A version of this blog post first appeared on Anna Dixon Consulting’s website, our previous brand.

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