As more individuals get vaccinated and life moves toward normal, public involvement (PI) professionals are being asked: Should we go back to the way things were before, with public meetings held in local high schools from 4:30 to 7 p.m., with snacks, stations, a presentation, and a question-and-answer session?
Our experience, coupled with public and client feedback through the last 15 months, suggests the answer is no; a shift to virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value, flexibility, and inclusivity that virtual events present, so we can expect a hybrid approach to public involvement in the future.
The following are just a few best practices that our PI teams have learned through the pandemic that we think are here to stay:
- Virtual meetings can be more inclusive and respectful of individual’s time – Even if a live meeting is offered, some form of virtual presentation/comment option should be considered. The pandemic forced wide-spread adoption of these technologies, and many members of the public who formerly would not have attended (due to limited mobility, non-traditional work hours, lack of transportation, or busy family/personal lives) have expressed gratitude for the inclusive nature of online events.
- Virtual events should be separated from live, in-person events – Consider holding them separately so that the materials and presentation tools are catered to the unique audience needs. Have you ever been on a virtual call when they forget you’re on the line? Give your audience your full attention by holding them separately.
- Pre-recorded presentations still have a place – Regardless of whether you’re sharing information in a virtual setting or in person, pre-recorded video segments can allow for more consistency, better quality control, and a tighter presentation. For example: this works well for large projects with multiple presentation places and times or projects with a mix of virtual and live presentations. Furthermore, some clients who prefer to take the lead at meetings aren’t always seeking the limelight with public presentations. A pre-recorded presentation can allow for more comfort for our clients so that the only live portion of the meeting is the question-and-answer session. Videos also offer the value of being “evergreen,” meaning that they can have continued use as an educational piece long after the event.
- Provide materials prior to the meeting – Public meetings often present a lot of complex information. Allowing the public to look through the meeting materials a few days before the meeting (regardless of whether it’s held virtually or in-person) gives attendees more time to digest the information and bring better, more comprehensive comments to the meeting — and that can ultimately make projects better.
- Embrace technology – Current technologies like geo-located comments, video presentations that walk you to or through a project location, and simple animations, offer creative and user-friendly ways to present information that aren’t as feasible in-person. These tools continue to evolve and innovate, and these constantly emerging technologies are sure to shape the future of PI. As we move forward, it will be critical to working together as clients, PI professionals, and the public to find the latest, best-practice technology to elevate our PI processes.
- Know your audience – The golden rule to communication still rings true, and we should strive to always distill our messaging to meet our audience’s needs and expectations. All rules and tips are made to be broken if the audience warrants a different direction (For example: a small community with 100, homogeneous people may not require a pre-recorded presentation or virtual meetings).
Let us know if you have other tips, tricks, or best practices you’d like our industry to embrace (or try!) as we move out of the pandemic. Public projects are best with a comprehensive public process, which includes constant evolution.