Essential Public Engagement, But Now It’s Digital

As the situation around COVID-19 continues evolving, we are all making necessary changes to face this challenge head-on. But what won’t change is K&A’s commitment to colleagues, clients, teaming partners and friends. K&A is sending a series of blog posts with advice and guidance for digital public outreach and community engagement using a variety of formats, methods and platforms. We hope these tools will help you continue to communicate about things that matter.

We are in an unprecedented time. Social distancing and active quarantines may only last a few weeks, but face-to-face interactions are sure to be postponed for some time.  Finding ways to stay connected ensures not only productivity, but also a sense of community in a time where we need to support one another more than ever.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that we hope will help you adjust to ongoing challenges while maintaining communication and connection when our communities need it most. We know there is some public engagement we have to do. Then there’s the engagement we should do. But what about the types of engagement you provide to be helpful or fulfill a need at this time?

We understand there is some community outreach that can’t wait. Whether you’re in the middle of a CEQA or NEPA environmental review, or working to meet other regulatory or project deadlines, some public engagement requires attention now. At the same time, there is some outreach that may be delayed or slowed due to COVID-19, and we want to be respectful of the seriousness this pandemic requires. So how do you strike the right balance?

What’s essential right now?

Begin by identifying what engagement is essential right now – ask:

  • Are there regulatory requirements that dictate your schedule, or can it wait? Due dates and calendars may have changed, so consider the timing and need for engagement.
  • If you do need to stick with the schedule, what are the goals or requirements for the engagement? Is input required? If it is, how can you provide information for community members to review and weigh in on. Is online engagement enough or do you need to make arrangements to those without access to technology?
  • How do current public health concerns nuance the context of your topic? Will COVID-19 concerns influence or affect the feedback you receive? This may not be within your control in terms of responses but could inform the type of information you provide to help focus stakeholder input.

These are all considerations that must and can be addressed so you’re still able to provide a robust and meaningful process while keeping projects and activities moving in a new way.

What’s the right thing to do?

If the engagement isn’t required but seems like the right thing to do. Consider:

  • Many people are at home right now and are perhaps seeking engagement opportunities. Is there input that you can seek now, creating a win/win situation?
  • Are there actual educational tools that could be useful for students studying from home? Another win/win to help keep our youth engaged while raising awareness on civic issues or projects.
  • Should we revise or postpone any “auto-communications?” You may have some social media posts or other communications that may not be essential or may not have the right tone.

Proceed accordingly (but with caution)

This may be a particularly difficult time for your community, and the effects of the pandemic may be far greater than expected. On the other hand, stakeholders may be seeking additional opportunities for connection and a sense of community. Weigh the pros and cons, and work collaboratively to right-size your outreach effort.

The next blog post as part of this series will be posted on March 23, 2020 and will discuss Effective Alternatives for Outreach and Communications.