Engagement in Cyberspace: It’s Real

At the PIA Congress in Brisbane this year a number of YPConnect speakers focussed on active engagement as a fundamental part of what we do. Mitchell Silver asked that we always consider who the subject of a plan really is and what underpins it: people, the environment, democracy, equity...? Sonia Kirby implored the young planners to be fierce and energetic, ‘then do it all again.’ Isabella Allen emphasised the need to meaningfully engage people by not taking too much time and losing your community’s interest. Importantly, she reminded us that planners need to be comfortable with describing what we do, and in using positive language to do so. Amanda Newberry emphasised the need for stakeholder engagement to be easy for the audience. She asked that we consider the effort required for people to attend discussion or drop-in sessions and workshops, often after work. We spoke about the tension between people wanting or needing more time to deliberate, versus the project cycle which often includes a comparatively short period of engagement with stakeholders or local residents.

All of these discussions lead me to think more about online engagement and its growing (or maybe fully fledged) importance to the way we publicly communicate now, as planners. Do we have legitimate and positive control over the messages about our work online, and do we use online tools to the best of our advantage, and to the best of their potential?

Online stakeholder engagement has become an almost ubiquitous feature in the way we share our work and seek feedback. But how well do we actually understand, and how much legitimacy do we afford this slippery medium? I have observed cases where it is clear online engagement is perceived as having limited value-add, and is simply viewed as a convenient extra (a ‘quick win’). I believe we need better focus on the nuances of these tools as a way to enhance and more widely disseminate the work we do. We need to give legitimate attention to how we develop and maintain them, and we need to ask for more from a resourcing perspective to enable this. While social media may not (and certainly should not) replace face-to-face engagement, I believe we need to invest in development of meaningful online stakeholder engagement as a means to:

  • Reach a wider audience
  • Tap into existing networks
  • Use the 24-hour online cycle to a project and a stakeholder’s advantage.

While much of what we do is concerned with physical space, we should not discount the power and usefulness of cyperspace to support and enhance our projects.

One of online media’s best features is its reach. Aside from the possibility of engaging with a ‘viral’ phenomenon, the internet has reach far beyond traditional word of mouth and print advertising. Social media, as distinct from passive web pages, also has a reach and can engage with a ‘click-bait’ effect that no project webpage is likely to generate. Where websites often sit in a needs-to-know location (e.g. you need to actively find a page, often using a search tool), the power of social media is that it can come to you. Facebook pages, for example, can be designed with a specific geography in mind, so that their algorithms are more likely to advertise to people in a certain region. With a couple of clicks, a Facebook page can be shared inside the platform itself, without your audience needing to exit the app or webpage. When asking someone to engage with a large strategic document, the more clicks and hurdles that person needs to overcome on the way to your work, the less likely they’ll be to make it there. Facebook can be especially useful when a large number of users are engaging with websites via their mobile phone, rather than on the computer, where websites and large .pdf downloads are very unlikely to be viewed.

The flexibility of online tools and the 24-hour availability of the internet is another strong tool to help reach wider audiences for stakeholder engagement: the internet never sleeps. This should be recognised from two perspectives:

  • We are able to capture users at high internet use times, such as later at night (after 9pm) or at the start of a work day by engaging with our audience’s internet usage demographic and behaviour
  • We need to be well-resourced to ensure we can engage with these usage patterns and moderate these pages at less conventional times for a business.

Creating an engaging and attractive platform for online engagement takes time, and if not moderating outside work hours needs planning to ensure posts can be released (e.g. planned in advance) to reach your audience when they are most likely to be online. We need to consider the format of what we share, and how we communicate the information about which we are seeking feedback. Should we really be sharing large format documents, or are there other ways to communicate and ask for comment on the information we seek?

While I have focussed on Facebook here to illustrate my point, there are certainly many online tools we can use to better reach our audience, as well as better engaging people at public meetings and information sessions. Online engagement is not well understood by our industry but I believe we need to take it on more seriously and see its positive benefits to ensure the important projects we are working on, and the research findings we engage with are clearly, positively, and capably communicated.

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Phoebe Harrison is a senior planner at Planisphere and the State Convenor of the Victorian Young Planners. Ideas expressed in this piece are her own. She can be contacted via phoebe@planisphere.com.au

Posted on October 5, 2016 .