COMMENTARY: Discomfort and opportunity: Public Engagement in a COVID-19 World

🕐 4 min read



The pandemic has created massive change and discomfort but it also has created opportunities for those who not only utilize but fully embrace technology as a core tenant in communications strategies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is here and in spite of the negative impacts in seemingly every facet of our lives, the show must go on.  On the rare occasion we’re actually outside, we’re (supposed to be) masked up and at least six feet apart although we’re all mostly at home trying to make some sort of progress in what feels like an extraordinarily regressive time.

Tom Stallings and Brooke Goggans courtesy photo
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While almost all of North Texas is in various stages of ‘reopening’ there are still many things that are not returning to “normal” any time soon – primarily returning to the office or physically gathering in groups for committee, board, or other public meetings. For those of us whose businesses require daily communication with constituencies, we’ve had to rethink much of our business operations.

While the pandemic has created massive change — thus discomfort for many of us — our firm sees an opportunity to not only utilize but fully embrace technology as a core tenant in communications strategies, not an afterthought. Since March we have been evaluating and testing a variety of approaches to architect and execute a fully digital community outreach campaigns.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

Digital tools are cost effective

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Understanding there’s a variety of add-ons that could change the costs of the following tools, the total invested would be a fraction of flying in consultants, hourly fees, lodging, travel, mileage and printing costs. Further, digital tools ensure consultants won’t outnumber attendees at in-person public meetings.

– Leverage social channels. Depending upon your content, your suite of channels could include one or all of the following: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. All starter levels are free (promoted content can be adjusted by your budget);

– Comprehensive email distribution platform: Create robust contact lists categorized by interests, audiences and locations with a per email or minimum subscription fee;

– A survey platform:  Survey Monkey and similar are easy platforms to use and rates are based on monthly membership levels; and

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– Online meeting services have no cost, low cost options: Depending on your presentation elements, attendees and the regularity of your meetings, utilizing Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Google Meet or Teams can have the greatest impact on your bottom line.

Digital resources meet people where they are

Tarrant County and Fort Worth fare better than a lot of areas in Internet access, according to Broadband Research ‘The Digital Divide’ 92.7% of residents in Fort Worth and Tarrant County have access to wired broadband and the majority of the county has access to at least one broadband-level connection.

Considering most online meetings are available to view 24/7, interested participants can watch a meeting and complete a survey at their convenience. Working to take the burden off the individual to attend an in-person meeting is a welcome option.

Remember the digital divide is real

However, the digital divide does exist, and considerations must be made. Depending on the project, a field team can be assembled with electronic tablets to guide respondents through the project overview and survey. Whether its deploying your team to a park, a library, the grocery store or a bus stop, the added element of small group, personalized attention ensures some of our most vulnerable and potentially impacted citizens can participate in the community engagement process.

Digital tools = Data, data, data

One of the most significant issues regarding traditional community engagement tactics is both quantitative and qualitative.

Often times projects are criticized for a public input process that lacks actual public input. Armed with a variety of the right digital tools we are able to capture important information from attendees on a regular basis: where they live, why this project matter, age range, among other attributes. With regular respondent data analysis, we can alter strategies to secure feedback from target audiences.

Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper once said, “The most damaging phrase in language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’.’’

The choices are –  soldiering on with the old way of doing things OR take the opportunity and leverage the obstacles. The latter allows us to be more inclusive, deliver more impactful outcomes, save money, and ultimately build a more connected community.

Brooke Goggans and Tom Stallings, co-founders of Mosaic Strategy Partners. Founded in 2017, Mosaic Strategy Partners is a strategic communications and public affairs firm. Mosaic is DBE, MWBE certified and located in Fort Worth, Texas.

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