I’m a huge fan of the wisdom of crowds. You never know what you might learn from someone outside your ‘bubble’ that could help you improve your project or initiative.
Whether it’s a community group seeking feedback on its new website, a bunch of friends starting a topical chat around a hashtag on Twitter, or a local government seeking public input on the policy-making process, public engagement is ubiquitous and can take many forms. That said, there are some common principles that are too often overlooked. I was asked to pick my top five, which was tough, but after careful consideration, here they are.
1. Know to whom you’re reaching out and why.
What do you hope to learn or accomplish? Who is your target audience? — Important to note: ‘everyone’ is not an answer. Some engagement professionals actually refer to ‘publics’ instead of ‘the public’, since it’s not like there’s one monolithic demographic.
2. Prepare to listen, and be authentic.
The UK’s National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement‘s definition of public engagement really hits the nail on the head: “a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”
It’s important to recognize that public engagement is not synonymous with PR or marketing, which have traditionally been unidirectional, as opposed to bi-directional — it’s a conversation, not a broadcast. Ask questions of your audience, answer their questions and be prepared to listen as much as you speak (write/tweet/post/etc.), if not more.
3. Remember: You are not your target audience. Meet people where they’re at.
You’d think this would go without saying, but it’s surprising how often folks end up preaching to the choir, overestimating their audience’s level of knowledge or familiarity with a topic, or missing the mark entirely by taking an angle that isn’t interesting or relevant to their audience to begin with.
It’s one thing if the project you’re working on is highly specialized (say, science-related) and requires specific qualifications. In that case, by all means, throw in a bunch of acronyms and jargon it up with terminology only others in your industry would know. But when engaging a broader audience, explain concepts in plain language —aim for a 9-year-old reading level (think of how quickly the Harry Potter series caught on; it was easy reading!). Use Microsoft Word’s and Outlook’s built-in tools to measure readability. You might also consider asking a friend or colleague in an unrelated field to be a sounding board for your ideas or a second set of eyes on your content.
Make information accessible in different formats (text, video) on multiple online platforms — your website/blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, and potentially Facebook or Pinterest, depending on what field you’re working in. By casting a wide net and using multiple tools in your tool kit, you increase the odds of reaching more people. That said, do your research; determine what platforms or tools are most relevant to your audience, and use those. You want to be efficient, not spread yourself too thin.
4. Be patient. Take the time to do it right.
It takes time to build relationships, especially with publics outside your usual sphere of influence or activity. Take your time in approaching stakeholders. You should have information on your project/topic available in print or online (preferably both), but be sure to follow up with a personal email, phone call, or arrange a face-to-face meeting. Authenticity and real relationships are likely to provide more useful feedback.
5. Say thank you and follow up.
People took time out of their day to give you feedback because you asked. Thanking them is good manners, and letting your participants know how their feedback was used or integrated into your initiative helps them feel validated and demonstrates that their time was not wasted. Even if you consider your public engagement initiative a one-off thing, you may later need to reach out again, so it helps to have a pool of people who felt respected and had a positive experience the first time around.
- meet your goals?
succeed in getting outside your bubble? (How diverse was your group of participants? What relationships are missing?)
- take enough time?
- use the right means of communication?
- provide enough information far enough in advance?
In the spirit of public engagement, I’mma throw this back to the crowd. Is there anything you’d add to this list? What have been your experiences with public engagement? Pet peeves? Things you’ve liked? Comment here and I’ll respond, or tweet me at @celestecote with the hashtag #pubengmt.
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I used to be a “host” (like a community facilitator) at HUB Ottawa and love it there. This post originally appeared on the HUB Ottawa blog here.