Evolving Public Engagement: What I Learned in 2020

Photo by J. Kelly Broti on Unsplash.

Think back to when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2020. Where were you? What were your hopes for the year ahead? I’d venture you weren’t preparing to take on one of the most tumultuous years of your life. And yet, I’d venture that most businesses and entrepreneurs pushed themselves harder than they would have previously imagined possible. I’m an agency owner who specializes in public engagement — the process of drawing communities into conversations about changes to their neighbourhoods or public services. This year, I have seen my industry turned inside out. As someone who thrives with structure, all the adaptation of this year pushed me out of my comfort zone, again and again. But it also revealed some emergent best practices in my field, well-worth maintaining into 2021.

As we bid farewell to 2020, here are my top lessons from the year.

1. We have to reach a broader audience. Period.

At no point has it been more apparent that public engagement must be just and equitable to be worthwhile. Hearing from diverse participants is the only way to run a meaningful public engagement project. If you only hear from people with similar lived experiences, you’ll likely end up with a lot of synonymous feedback. Further, projects — whether they’re about education, transportation, urban planning or health care — impact people differently. We need to do the work to understand how people will be uniquely affected by changes in their communities.

We also need to put the time and effort into understanding how different groups face barriers to participation. Shift workers, single parents, people who experience homelessness, and those experiencing mental or physical challenges don’t access information or contribute feedback in the same way. We need to design outreach and engagement processes tailored to people’s unique needs.

As a white-owned firm, we also need to know our limitations. We are responsible for partnering with IBPOC and gender-diverse agencies and individuals to enrich our perspectives and materials. Further, we have an obligation to compensate our partners fairly. Don’t just ask people for their opinion on how to make your materials or processes better; hire them and compensate them fairly for their expertise.

Why this isn’t just important for public engagement: Whether you’re working in communication or tech, understanding the diversity of your users’ lives will significantly improve the quality of your services and your products. Simply put, this is empathy in action, the foundation of a UX philosophy and design thinking. After everything 2020 threw at us, let’s hope empathy makes a comeback in 2021.

2. Less isn’t more. But it isn’t bad, either.

This year, people were preoccupied, to say the least. Although many people spent more time at home,, longer, more stressful work environments and childcare pressures meant most people had less — not more — free time. This may have impacted participation rates on some projects, decreasing the number of people who contributed to public consultations.

As an agency, we pride ourselves on our engagement rates. Before the pandemic began, we ran an engagement with over 4,000 targeted participants in Vancouver. Mid-pandemic, we ran a series of digital workshops. I’ll be honest, we sent over 600 targeted invitations, had 150 people sign up to attend. Ultimately, 70 people participated. These aren’t numbers that I was used to seeing, and I felt frustrated that I hadn’t been able to spur the same time of action that I had been able to do previously.

I’ve seen some articles citing that less is more when it comes to participation in 2020. I am not necessarily sure I agree. I think that engagement practitioners still need to ensure that we do the work to invite people into the process as much as possible. That said, with smaller groups, you can generate more intimate conversations that are hard to foster with larger group settings. Although we had fewer participants, the feedback we received in our digital workshops was rich, meaningful, and incredibly insightful. We had time to follow up with additional questions and considerations. Ultimately, when we compiled all our feedback into a final report, we could paint a clear picture of why participants expressed the views they did.

Why this isn’t just important for public engagement: The rates of engagement online and the impacts of marketing campaigns are looking different these days. If we start with that premise, how can we shift our goals and intentions? If 2020 was about adjusting to a “new normal”, let’s make 2021 the year we can harness the potential of a smaller, more intimate conversation with our closest followers.

3. Wellness looks completely different — for you, but also for those you’re engaging.

I am not a therapist or a health practitioner. But I can tell you that the need to care for ourselves has never been greater. I have a decade of experience in my field, but I am a new entrepreneur with a young agency. I have never worked harder than I have this past year. In 2020 I let my own physical and mental health slip. I found myself sliding back into the habits of perfectionism and stress addiction. I worked long hours. I went above and beyond for my business when no one had asked for that. Like so many others, I am drained. I can now see that I need to focus on the healthy habits, people and projects that fuel me. This is the only way to move forward into 2021.

My experience isn’t unique. So many people feel like they’ve been running a never-ending marathon this year. I bring it up not just as a reminder to be gentle with ourselves, but also as a reminder of how you need to connect with your audiences.

People have less mental and emotional bandwidth than ever. When we want people to participate in a project, we have to remember this. We have to build projects that take as little energy from people, as possible. From a planning perspective, this means ensuring that we don’t ask for more time or feedback than we need.

Why this isn’t just important for public engagement: The importance of keeping things brief transfers across sectors, services and products. Now, more than ever, we know that people don’t have extra time for a marketing campaign. And they don’t have spare time for slow products. When people are tired, their attention span is even shorter than usual. How can we plan and build with that in mind?

This year was a challenge, but also an epic teacher.

I’m not sure I’m ready for an article on why 2020 wasn’t as bad or hard as we thought. I am not particularly interested in silver linings (yet). That said, I have learned some important lessons — ones that I’ll take with me into the future.

  1. I will bolster my efforts to include and compensate IBPOC and marginalized communities. This work must be front and centre of all fields.
  2. I will cherish small-group settings for the intimate details and information they can foster and provide. But I won’t forget to do the work to cast a wide net when it’s appropriate.
  3. I will take care of participants — and myself — with extra care and detail to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on the individual. There is, of course, a limit to what I can do here. But I can design projects with people’s limitations in mind.

To learn more about our approach to engagement — and the communication and marketing techniques we use to amplify it — visit our website, www.spurcommunication.ca. We’re always eager for conversations with, and perspectives from, new people!

Principal & Co-founder at Spur Communication. Laugh seeker. Public engagement nerd. Sarcasm enthusiast. Adventure chaser. Tea drinker.