Just kidding. A public meeting by any other name is still old school. And I love old school, but only on the radio. Yes, I still listen to radio. Nonetheless, even I know that almost twenty years into the twenty-first century, there has got to be a better way to do community engagement.
It’s not that I am against community meetings. They offer a rare opportunity to make governments human, to connect with people, to answer questions in real time, to gather feedback from our most important stakeholders - the public. They play an important role in our community outreach toolkit; but rarely do you build a masterpiece with just one tool.
Community meetings seldom draw huge crowds. Yet, when construction begins on a new recreation center, or a public park is moved, or enforcement begins on a law people ignored throughout the legislative process - everyone has an opinion. We often hear the same responses from Public Information Officers, “We followed our standard public notification process. We hosted community meetings. We provided our standard public comment period.”
Clearly, these are not always enough. As marketing and communications experts, we know we have tools at our disposal to reach thousands, if not millions of people, using proven techniques. We don’t need to limit our outreach to the local community room capacity. We don’t have to stay chained to a projector, sentenced to a lifetime of clicking through powerpoint slides. We are not beholden to foam core display boards forever.
1. Host a Twitter Chat
Make your content available online in advance, such as a report or proposed development map. Then pick a date, time, and hashtag, have a moderator open the discussion, and let the input begin. Anyone following the hashtag can ask questions, provide comments, share ideas and create a robust dialogue around your topic, whether it is pollution or development, opening a rec center or a shelter. Check out #edchat on Tuesdays at 1pm ET to see a great example.
Pros: The public can provide input without driving or parking, no worrying about making arrangements for dinner or a sitter. And you are reaching an audience that might not be at every community meeting.
Cons: Chats still have to be at a set time to be interactive and the materials must be very carefully crafted because you still only get 280 characters at a time.
2. Conduct a Facebook Poll
Sometimes we just need to simplify things a bit. Facebook polls are a fun way to conduct “pulse-checks” and see what the community thinks on a particular subject. For example: This year we closed the road for the first time as a safety measure during the city’s signature festival. We are interested in hearing what you thought. Did the new road closure work well for keeping people safe? 1) Yes, it was great for safety, please do it again next year. 2) Yes, it made a difference, but I think it needs some changes. (Comment below.) 3) No, I don’t think this is a good way to address safety, I have some other ideas (Comment below!).
Pros: This simple poll lets us get a percentage of what the participants think, and record comments. It also sends a message to the community that we care what they think.
Cons: You are opening yourself up to negative feedback for the world to see. Though honestly, if you have a Facebook page, you are doing that anyway. Also, the poll is not scientific nor does it accurately represent the entire community. Guess what? Neither do community meetings!
3. Distribute a Prezi
The beautiful thing about Prezi is that it allows you to present ideas and information clustered in a circular, triangular, or any other format, rather than just linear as with powerpoint. You can zoom to different neighborhoods on a map, and between each screen, show the entire city for context. You can look at different depths of the ocean zooming deeper with each click to represent the journey. You can follow the path of traffic or a watershed to help your audience understand the challenges your team is facing. The speaking points can be simplified and worked into each screen so the presentation is self contained. The final screen can ask pointed questions and provide a link for responses to those questions. The prezi can be posted online and the URL can be distributed on your website, to your email lists, on social media, in a press release and you can even use a paid media strategy for targeted distribution. Leave the Prezi up for a 30 to 90 day comment period and really give people time to explore and respond. Check out this example of a Prezi on Moving Towards a Digital Government.
Pros: The Prezi still works at community meetings if you are obligated to host one by ordinance, and can be taken to stakeholders as well.
Cons: It is important to put the effort into development of the Prezi upfront to ensure the content and messaging are clear.
4. Produce a Video
I don’t mean videotape your elected or appointed official giving a presentation for people who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Animate your ideas, use b-roll to illustrate your points, or use 3-D modeling to show how something will work. I find talking heads aren’t usually necessary unless they are adding credibility. This can also be distributed on multiple platforms and linked to an online survey or feedback form. It can be as simple as a call to action that says, “Tell us what you think. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org”
Pros: Videos grab people’s attention and give us the opportunity to animate complex subjects that are difficult to show in still formats.
Cons: Not much time. To be most effective, videos shouldn’t be too long, because you will naturally get drop off. Engaging content will help, but you don’t want a documentary!
5. Host a Radio Call-In Show
Remember those Sunday morning public affairs shows? Well, actually, lots of other people do, too! Not to mention talk stations dedicated to public interest programming. Many will work with you to sponsor a segment. This particularly works well when you are early in a process and do not yet have visuals or renderings, but perhaps want to gather feedback on the idea. An example might be looking for new locations for a park, or beginning an environmental review process and asking for input on what should be considered.
Pros: You can reach a lot more listeners at once this way, more than you ever could in a single room.
Cons: I suggest asking pointed questions to keep the comments on track; the station can help you filter if necessary.
6. Host an Open Exhibit
3D models are cool. Show them off! Use a public plaza or even the outside entrance to a government building and put up three different half-scale public art pieces that are being considered for the area and leave them up for several weeks. If you are planning to put up new park monument signs, make full scale foam versions of each and put them on display in a centrally located park for a full month. Build the exhibit so it has the story built-in to the signage in the exhibit and people can learn about the background, options and next steps as they walk through. Ask for feedback by providing a URL or e-mail address. You can do this indoors for more complicated models that need to be encased, which also gives you the opportunity to add in a tablet or kiosk where people can provide input onsite.
Pros: People love to take pictures with stuff like this and you can set it up artistically to encourage social media exposure. Provide a hashtag!
Cons: This is public. Very public. You cannot get this kind of engagement in an auditorium. Be ready to hear anything.
7. Build an Interactive Micro-Site
Long-term projects with multiple opportunities for comments over time may be worth building a micro-site. I normally fall on the landing page side of the debate, but for finite projects (and with meticulously aligned branding!), a micro-site may give you exactly the kind of interactive freedom you need. You can find the right platform to show renderings, build animation, add surveys, and change information over time.
Pros: You can usually add the newest functionality, without being tethered to your standard platform.
Cons: Using a micro-site diverts traffic from your main site, but for major projects where it is important to get feedback during multiple stages, this may be worth it.
8. Send out an online survey
If you really want to know what the community thinks, use an online research partner to send out a survey. They will help you develop questions, recommend a survey size sample, and execute your survey tool. In the end you will have a breakdown of feedback that is much more representative of the community at large.
Pros: You can segment your data to better understand differences in responses between neighborhoods, education levels or other filters.
Cons: It excludes the element of choice - the people who want to participate. You will still need an option that gives people a choice to give feedback if they choose to do so.
Just because people don’t come to public meetings doesn’t mean they don’t care about the future of their communities. We can meet people where they are, on the platforms they are on, with the mechanisms built in to provide feedback. Let’s take the risk, skip the comment cards and save a golf pencil.