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Agile public engagement in a post-pandemic world

Woman attending virtual event

Recently, I joined a panel discussion with Dialogue Partners and communications and engagement leads from across Canada. These are communications colleagues who have been on the front lines of engagement with key stakeholders and audiences throughout the pandemic and beyond. We reflected on key learnings about public engagement during the pandemic and those best practices we’ll continue to apply in our public engagement in the months and weeks ahead.

Biggest learnings in engagement during COVID-19

We started the discussion by sharing our biggest learnings in engagement during a pandemic and there were a number of themes that emerged that are worth sharing.

  • Meet people where they are. Understanding how people would like to be engaged, and creating inclusive opportunities by creating great spaces for conversion. Some people are anxious to see people, others would like to continue with online engagement for the forseeable future. Determine how people would like to be engaged before designing your engagement plans.
  • Importance of good planning. Audience analysis, agenda development, and ensuring you have the right technical expertise and space planning are all critical to creating a good virtual engagement. Virtual engagement typically requires additional resources to run the session, so the facilitator can remain engaged with participants, and is a worthwhile investment to make.
  • Making sure people feel safe and comfortable. Whether physically (in the room) or working with technology, it is important to set expectations for the engagement session and to have safety protocols in place for in-person meetings, and the right technology and technical supports to run the virtual session.
  • Technology accessibility. While virtual sessions have been great in so many ways, there is still something to be considered with accessibility to technology. Adequate Internet services, desktop or mobile hardware, comfort level with technology are key considerations. While we’ve all come a long way this past year, there are some still have challenges with virtual engagement.

Best practice in post-pandemic engagement

Through this exchange of learnings and sharing of ideas, we were able to reflect on some of the practices that should continue in a post pandemic world.

  • Flexibility is key. Stakeholders will continue to look for virtual engagement opportunities in addition to in-person meetings. Design your engagement opportunities to have multiple points of participation to ensure the greatest representation of your target audiences.
  • Virtual meetings are here to stay. As engagement practitioners we need to adapt to provide both virtual engagement opportunities and opportunities to meet in person. The key is having the right technology setup and resources to accommodate a great experience for all participants, particularly in running a hybrid session where people are both virtual and in person.
  • Designing and implementing inclusive engagements. Be deliberate and focused on designing and implementing equity-centered engagements that consider inclusive engagement opportunities during the planning phases.
  • Time is valuable. People are busy and Zoom fatigue will continue. Be thoughtful and focus on the most important information required from your engagement. It’s important to continue to engage people in interesting and meaningful conversations and be disciplined in your approach—develop lighter agendas when engaging virtually, create more space for conversation and use interactive tools (e.g., MURAL) to visually share ideas, ask the right questions, and create more than one dimension of participation (e.g., feedback surveys, engagement tools and capturing conversations on story boards).

Throughout the pandemic our Atlantic team alone facilitated more than 100 virtual engagmeent sessions using tools like MURAL, drawing on our IAP2 training skills and adapting to online engagement. From experience, we know that virtual collaboration has seen amazing innovation and teams are able to reach consensus and alignment significantly quicker by adapting flexible engagement approaches. Some of the most effective and important meetings we’ve hosted have happened virtually, augmented by shared browsing and collaboration tools.

We are adept at working effectively in a virtual and hybrid environment and welcome the opportunity to discuss your engagement plans further.