The coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for changes across a wide range of industries, creating an environment where the answers we seek are often few and far between. Without a playbook to show us the path for moving ahead, many organizations are left struggling to know what success will look like.

Power utility projects, for example, employ public involvement and stakeholder engagement practices to address potential concerns and inform the public of a project’s plans. But in an isolated, virus-stricken world, gathering large groups of people for a meeting presents obvious challenges. Continuing to provide public involvement services for ongoing projects means that utilities must understand new ways to engage the public.

Taking a Different Approach

Public involvement practices have always been focused on providing flexible, nimble service in dealing with stakeholders, but this new situation has required an even greater effort for continued connectedness to keep projects on track.

Keeping this in mind — and in light of the coronavirus — we began reaching out to clients to see how they were doing. Through these contacts we heard that many were looking for guidance in finding effective solutions to public involvement challenges, asking questions like, “Can we replace public involvement meetings with virtual meetings?” and “Should projects be delayed until public meetings can be held?”

However, because the situation was also entirely new to our own team, we understood that we didn’t necessarily have the answers these clients sought. Instead, we felt more prepared to facilitate the development of solutions through enabling and building engaging discussions among clients.

By bringing a group of utility clients together virtually in a peer-to-peer forum, each client would have the opportunity to hear and evaluate responses to the pandemic and then determine what the most effective solutions would be going forward. The resulting virtual roundtable discussion featured utility stakeholder management professionals from around the U.S. and Canada, including representatives from National Grid, Ameren, San Diego Gas & Electric and Duke Energy. Each participant shared experiences, thoughts and innovations regarding how to keep utility projects moving forward despite disruptions to public involvement.

Providing Ongoing Benefits

Through this group-think format, the utility clients in attendance were able to expand their vision and share their own perspectives on best practices for public involvement during this crisis. Certainly, some agencies will continue to require face-to-face meetings with the public for utility projects, and delays will be inevitable in those situations. But for projects that can move forward by using virtual meetings and other tactics, the peer-to-peer meeting proved invaluable.

“As a provider of critical services for our communities, two of our core values are accountability and safety,” says Leah Dettmers, supervisor of stakeholder relations at Ameren Transmission Company of Illinois. “Our services are essential, so it’s important to reach out to one another during this pandemic to find the most effective ways to mitigate risk as much as possible while continuing to complete our projects.”

Regardless of what area a company represents and no matter the situation, Dettmers hopes to see continued connectivity and sharing of ideas among utilities.

“Utilities must continue to communicate with one another,” she says. “It’s about keeping the lights on for everybody, no matter where they live, and sharing new ways to communicate and accomplish our goal of providing value for our companies and our customers.”

Evolving to Meet Future Challenges

In the end, the conversation helped utility clients share knowledge and ideas to develop better public involvement solutions for situations resulting from the pandemic. Facilitating meetings and discussions is already something we do with clients every day, but now we are seeing the value of bring peers together, not just the value of consultant-to-client communication.

Public involvement will continue to be an important step in the development of many projects, today and in the future, no matter the situation. We hope to conduct more of these types of meetings going forward to continue to help clients share and learn new public involvement solutions.


Many common public involvement challenges can be solved by engaging with the public in a virtual forum.

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Joab Ortiz is a project manager providing stakeholder management services at Burns & McDonnell. In his role, he supports clients on engagement and outreach strategies.