Even though our in-person interactions are significantly decreased with ongoing social distancing measures, project teams must still work hard to develop long-term plans and projects that respectfully engage the public and key stakeholders. This includes working with communities at the very beginning of a project to develop a long-range vision or plan and then see that vision through to construction or implementation.

Working together with communities to develop projects with their vision in mind will become increasingly more important as many state/local projects continue to move forward during this time. Additionally, more projects impacting communities could be created with anticipated federal stimulus funds.

Get to Know the Communities and Develop Trust Early
Before starting or planning a large infrastructure project, gather pertinent data to inform how you engage with the public and your stakeholders. This includes some of the following tactics:

  • Start a dialogue about community goals/vision and any project history with influential community leaders. You can use this information to inform your engagement strategy and possibly get early support for your efforts from someone already respected in the community.
  • Research how people get their information, such as researching what people read and watch, and where they already have conversations (i.e. social media).
  • Understand what languages are spoken in a community and any existing roadblocks for access to a reliable internet connection, whether due to rural geographic location or for financial reasons. This tactic could help you decide what tools you might want to use to communicate with and get input from the public. For example, if internet connectivity is high a virtual meeting could be one valuable tool. 

Developing open lines of communication can help build trust within communities and calm uneasiness even during times of uncertainty such as a pandemic. Working to develop trust early could mean there is less of a chance of opposition as plans or a project moves forward.

Revisit Community Visions
How we physically navigate day-to-day in our own lives and communities has drastically changed in the past several months. Personally, many of us have developed different or changing priorities. The same could be true for what our communities now think is important. We should all be prepared for the fact that communities may not think now that plans for a large infrastructure project are as important as something like planning for a future pandemic. Additionally, state/local governments may need to tighten spending to adapt to diminished revenues. If public support is key to your project, survey the community to find out if things like community visions and project priorities have changed.

Analyze the Data
Many agencies, organizations and project teams have already adjusted, and will likely continue to modify, how they communicate with the public and stakeholders. Set plans in place to analyze the data received from the public and the effectiveness of these new tactics. Asking specific questions through electronic surveys will allow you to more effectively quantify public sentiment around a topic and collect demographic/location information that would allow you to see if additional efforts need to be focused in certain areas and/or with certain audiences. Engage those community leaders again to gather information about what they are hearing from their communities.

Find Common Ground
Not all stakeholders are going to agree on every plan and project. However, it is still very important to engage those who are likely to oppose what is being proposed from the very beginning. After connecting with them, you could find that there are things that both you and the stakeholder might see differently after a discussion. Many people right now are craving connection with others, even if virtually or through a phone call. You might come to an agreement that there is a current problem but may differ on what the proposed solution should be.

Support for a Vision and Major Projects Can Take Time
Patience, understanding and thoughtful decision-making are vital right now. Set the stage and manage the expectations. Crafting plans and projects with the communities that will be impacted will take time. That could mean adjusting a project timeline to develop alternatives or allow more time to implement a wider variety of strategies to reach people, such as conducting virtual town halls, sending comprehensive mailers or, if necessary, waiting until you can have in-person, one-on-one discussions. You might find that taking a deep breath and considering multiple options could be better in the long-term and demonstrate that you are part of a team that can be trusted and has community interest in mind.

Chelsey Smith is a planning and policy project manager at Burns & McDonnell. With more than 20 years of experience, Chelsey specializes in public relations and communications strategy consultancy with a demonstrated history of working in government and public relations.