You asked, we answered: Engagement in the era of COVID-19

How should organizations engage their public during the COVID-19 pandemic? That was the question Argyle’s national public engagement team tackled on a national webinar last week.

Over 80 participants joined us online as we shared ideas and answered questions on the opportunities and imperatives for organizations to ensure inclusive, meaningful engagement on their decisions at a time of social distancing. You can find a copy of our presentation here. For a link to the video of the webinar, send us a note at

Here are some of the top questions we received from engagement and communications professionals across Canada – and our answers. Some have been edited for concision.

Q: When working with Indigenous communities and remote communities, where trust, language and comfort with technology can be barriers to engagement, how do you build relationships?

We hear this questions from many clients. One of the strategies we’ve had success with is to partner with a trusted member of the community who can act as an ambassador or community liaison. If you are trying to reach out to Elders in the community, partner with young members of the community who may be more comfortable with technology platforms such as Facebook Live or other digital technologies. Some online platforms help indigenous communities work through complex conversations and decision-making processes.

Manual toolkits that support family conversations at home can help draw out insights and opinions on a smaller scale, perhaps with a hosted dinner. The host for the discussion documents the input and sends it in.

It really depends on the community you are working with. Avoid assumptions, and ask instead.

Q: What can you advise on ‘readiness’ of the public to engage during this time when they are consumed with the COVID information and preparations?

This is so important, especially as we are all glued to the news 24/7. Timing is always key when planning engagement and COVID-19 is no exception. One of the first things to consider is if your engagement is relevant. Can it wait? Is the decision time-bound?

On the other hand, people are home with time on their hands. If your project is relevant, it may be a good time to engage. Take a step back, look at your original strategy and determine your timing. It is becoming clear that we may be ‘distancing’ for a while, which may mean re-engaging over the next few weeks. That said, you might actually get feedback that is influenced by the current state; that is, if people are in a state of fear and anxiety, will you get the best input from them on your project or initiative?

Some clients that COVID-19 will stop or delay some important public initiatives. This is a great time to look at alternative approaches that keep the public and stakeholders engaged to move projects forward and get the input needed to proceed. It’s also an opportunity to provide more information to prepare for engagement later on. We often hear from stakeholders that they don’t have enough time to digest the information before they have to respond. Taking time now to build that foundation helps strengthen relationships now that lead to improved engagement later. The key is to know your stakeholder base, understand their readiness to engage and test your ideas and messaging.

Q: Engagement timelines are often regulatory/government mandated, such as public comment periods or open houses to receive input into impact assessments and project plans. With hope, proponent and regulator come out as a unified front on what are reasonable timelines. Conversely, how do you prevent a shift to online only comments, which could prevent vulnerable and remote communities from fully participating in regulatory processes? How do we keep connection while offering alternative tools?

It comes down to your audience: whom do you want to reach? When you are looking at marginalized communities, that trust is not always built in, so trusted community members can play a huge role in building those relationships. Spending time up front doing stakeholder mapping, audience segmentation and identifying community champions helps you make better informed decisions about engagement.

Having discussions with regulators about their expectations is important. Even before COVID-19, digital tools were being considered because participation in in-person open houses was declining. Now may be the time to introduce innovative digital tools to keep people engaged and move to some of these tools more quickly.

Q: Of all tools you have shared, what advice can you give the group about creating connection, and understanding different perspectives, when people can’t get in that larger room together?

It’s important to be creative in designing these platforms in a way that is not robotic, using humanizing, empathetic language, leveraging visuals, and adopting an inviting tone. These are the same communication principles that you would have at in-person events. Some of the features in the tools we use offer interactive commenting, voting up, transparent sharing of comments, so if you prioritize a level of transparency and sharing, you can still achieve a level of connection and dialogue. Show that you’re making space and being transparent about hearing from those who both support and oppose ideas.

Video is a powerful tool that can create connection. While we are used to seeing high-production, slick videos, the movement is to authentic video with little production. This removes some of the barriers (especially cost) to adding video.

Q: I am interested in knowing your experience with tools that reach large groups of people but still deep and meaningful engagements?

The crucial part of reaching a larger audience lies in communication and promotion. You can build a great platform but without promotion, you may miss the people you need to make an informed decision. Whose input do you need to inform your decision or outcome? What are the best ways to reach them? What are barriers or considerations to reaching them, considering language, literacy levels, digital literacy levels, etc. You can only drive participation by making people aware of the engagement opportunity.

Language is another consideration in your promotion strategy, especially multiple languages. Creating a multi-lingual marketing strategy will definitely help and drive participation.

Q: Can you share good practice on Gender-based Analysis Plus, and digital engagement?

Many organizations are committed to bridging gender gaps through more inclusive engagement. Online engagement may be better for women, shift-workers, and care-takers because there is more flexibility in participating, wherever and whenever. This offers more options than in-person events such as open houses that often take place during dinner time or after-school pick-ups. Understand whom you need to reach to gather their input, create ways to facilitate that, and make sure your promotion strategy reaches them. We work to ensure our many of our visuals and language are androgynous or non-gendered.

Some more sophisticated platforms allow you to measure who is participating in real time so you can identify if you are not hearing from particular audiences. We use include demographic questions, which includes asking participants their gender identity, so we can monitor underrepresented groups and adapt and pivot our promotion and communication accordingly. Whether it’s is a multicultural community, a linguistic community or gender community, you can adjust your marketing and promotional campaign in real time to increase reach to those communities.

Q: What about decision makers who have not had experience in receiving feedback from new or enhanced techniques? Some regulated engagement has structured timelines, forums and reporting based on techniques such as open houses rather than online mechanisms.

It’s true that there is a level of comfort with traditional gatherings and face to face interactions and a fear of losing the relationship between the Project Manager and the public when you can no longer come face to face. Another concern is that you may not have an opportunity to probe deeper online. These concerns can be addressed through a multi-faceted program that includes a range of techniques that allows you to have different conversations in an online or digital space. A phased approach gives you the opportunity to review the input you gathered during your first phase and adjust your questions to fill the gaps in the responses you received.

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