Outreach After COVID-19
We are all dealing with many challenges now due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we continue to adapt to the changing times, we want to think about the future and how things will change even after the brunt of the pandemic has passed. Even in the world after COVID-19, we know public engagement and participation must still happen in order to make our projects and programs successful. Communications during this “new normal” will be different across agencies and organizations, and affect all aspects of engagement. In this piece, we want to focus on digital tools for conducting many of the public engagement activities that happened in-person prior to COVID-19. Using the digital space to engage with the public is a practice that was already growing in recent years, and is now here to stay with the realities of large scale health concerns. Even once the immediate risks of COVID-19 are over, people may long be hesitant to gather in large groups.
Digital engagement also offers opportunities to address environmental justice issues in ways that public meetings might not. While it has always been the case that agencies need to look for ways to engage folks who may not be able or willing to attend a public meeting, the current pandemic highlights this need even more, for those who are vulnerable to disease and cannot come into contact with large groups of people. It will be more imperative than ever going forward to provide the public with options to provide feedback that doesn’t involve leaving the home or coming into contact with others.
Agencies can still effectively engage with stakeholders and the public without in-person meetings or workshops. This includes:
- Can be conducted online with a facilitated meeting
- Similar to in-person events, start with walking through a presentation
- Have people submit questions that a moderator reviews and reads out loud. Or have people virtually raise their hands or get in a queue to ask questions
- Meeting can be recorded for posterity and posted online
- For communities with large numbers of non-English speakers, consider setting up separate or concurrent meetings that are conducted with interpreters in that language
- Engagement can be conducted through online survey tools that are used during the meeting, either through participant polling or links to online tools
- You can create an online space or feed for posting comments on various aspects of project, that can be moderated and responded to by the project team
Stakeholder Working Groups
- These can often be smaller, more engaging meetings, but make sure there is clear order of operations and rules for running the meeting
- Have an agenda and someone to walk through it to guide the meeting along
- Use round robin for getting feedback on items from all participants
- Use screenshares to have people present their work or dive deeper into a subject
- To allow for engagement similar to what would happen in person, plan to host multiple “rooms” with different meeting links sent to folks ahead of time, the rooms can focus on various topics and allows people to choose which topic most interests them
- Have moderator for each room
- Have online page with all information folks can access, including the agenda and participants
- Post recordings of different rooms online for engagement at a later date, and ask about sending out contact information for participants to follow up on their own after the summit
For any online engagement, a few overall best practices apply. Make sure the tools you are using are mobile-compatible, which ensures the broadest access for all people, even those who might not have a computer or internet at home. Have a clear message about what the meeting is for, and what it isn’t for, so people don’t expect to be able to discuss anything and everything as part of the meeting. Spread the word about your event in many of the same ways you would normally – through eblasts, social media posts, and website posts and ads. Consider sending out mailers if possible as a way to engage folks in a specific area and ensure you reach those who cannot leave home. While publicizing the date and time of the event, be sure to keep the meetings secure through whichever online platform you are using, and remind people not to share sensitive information online, to reduce security risks.
Also see our page on tips for hosting effective virtual meetings. It’s important to set up guidelines and rules ahead of the meeting to keep things civil and productive.
Below is a table of online tools that can be used for effective public engagement.
|Platform Name||Good For||Features|
|Microsoft Teams||Workshops, Working Groups||Screen sharing, record session, live messaging, file sharing, whiteboard (add-on)|
|Zoom* (this platform has had some security issues that are being resolved)||Workshops, Summits||Record session, live messaging, file sharing, whiteboard|
|Google Hangouts||Working Groups||Screen sharing, record session, live messaging, file sharing|
|WebEx||Public Hearings, Summits||Screen sharing, record session, whiteboard|
|BlueJeans||Working Groups||Screen sharing, record session|
|GoToMeeting/Webinar||Public Hearings, Workshops||Screen sharing, record session|
For help planning your upcoming public engagement activities, reach out to us to learn more!