To educate stakeholders and gather much-needed feedback on a project — from road construction to new electric transmission lines and anything else that affects people and places — successful public engagement campaigns routinely rely on community-based events such as open houses.

These meetings allow project organizers to meet and engage public stakeholders, provide them with precise information about project impacts, correct misconceptions, and obtain first-hand input that can guide the planning and development of a project.

But even the most well-thought-out public engagement event could fail to reach a sizable portion of potentially impacted stakeholders. Any number of factors can lower attendance at community forums, including the size and population density of a project area, competing events, inclement weather or, as recent developments have shown, large-scale public health concerns that discourage in-person gatherings.

Distance engagement services, such as virtual open houses, are maximizing public input and guarding against the unexpected for a variety of clients and projects. Comprising interactive online tools, educational materials and analytical technologies, these engagement tactics are being applied to multiple cross-state transmission projects with diverse stakeholder populations. In fact, one such large, multistate project developer in the Southeastern U.S. discovered multiple benefits with its virtual open house and custom website. Data showed that this online resource, populated with project content, brought in more than 80,000 unique website users.

In conjunction with traditional communication methods — such as door hangers, mailed collateral, in-person surveys, community-based information centers, and meetings with key stakeholders and the public — virtual open houses allow project teams to disseminate data-rich information in a cost-effective manner while simultaneously obtaining qualitative and quantitative feedback.

Most content for in-person open houses is created digitally, so the backbone of the virtual open house is readily available and easily modified. Materials such as fact sheets, boards, FAQs and surveys can be optimized for online distribution, while contact resources like email, project hotlines and links to agency reference materials can provide virtual open house site users with direct lines to project team members and additional information. The interactive nature of the site provides public stakeholders with the ability to customize data and gives the project team specific insight into user demographics. By overlaying community input and site analytics, these stakeholder management solutions create engagement plans that adapt to a project’s specific needs.

Virtual open houses also are ideal venues for developing and deploying interactive content. Optimizing the online experience, multimedia content, such as videos and customizable information tables, provide stakeholders with condensed educational information and the opportunity to hear directly from project team members.

Geographic information system (GIS) mapping tools are other valuable resources for virtual open houses. Such systems allow stakeholders to view map-based project information, manipulate data layers, and input their feedback for review by a project team. For data collection, virtual open house tools allow a project team to identify low response areas, formulate targeted outreach materials and methodologies, and create heat maps based on geographic patterns.

One of the most appealing aspects of the virtual open house is the adaptable environment in which public-facing information can be shared. Using project needs and regulatory requirements, online engagement tools can be customized to specifically targeted a unique audience. For areas where internet service may be slower, materials can be right-sized for streaming and download. And for areas and individuals without internet service, engagement materials can be modified and mailed to maintain consistent outreach and inclusivity. This flexibility is essential to see that public engagement opportunities are available, public regulatory requirements are addressed and open meetings laws are followed.

Content developers can work closely with clients’ project and brand managers to create and share information through virtual open houses that meets or exceeds design standards. From creating content to live on an existing domain to developing a stand-alone website that can host tens of thousands of unique users, these interactive online tools offer creative, customizable approaches for any project, keeping projects moving and people connected in any situation.

 

Our reality is changing traditional project processes, leaving owners to question how to create and nurture relationships with stakeholders and communities. Using a full suite of services applicable to multiple industries, a customized approach to communication, engagement and outreach plans not only maintains but also optimizes public engagement, in any form, throughout the project life cycle.

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Chris Deffenbaugh is a senior public involvement specialist at Burns & McDonnell, where he specializes stakeholder management solutions in public involvement, crisis communication, utility project development, integrated rate and resource planning, and communicating public and private policy options.