As public agencies, local government leaders, design and construction project teams, and their clients are all trying to find new ways to keep their cities and their construction projects moving, public meetings are increasingly moving online. To be successful in this newly virtual world and ultimately gain community buy-in and obtain regulatory approvals, building industry professionals will need to adapt their approach and learn how to master the virtual public meeting.
It can be daunting. Our firm, Cooper Robertson, was halfway through a long-range master plan for George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., when COVID-19 hit. In the previous five months, we had facilitated over a hundred campus meetings with faculty, staff, and students, held dozens of workshops and work sessions, and toured every inch of campus many times over. With the next round of community workshops already in the calendar, and everyone committed to continuing the collaboration, our team turned Zoom into a virtual community meeting hall and met with over 500 people over the course of two weeks.
Was the transition smooth? Not exactly. Did we learn along the way? For sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Below are some lessons learned during our firm’s recent immersion in the high seas of virtual public meetings.
1. Know your audience. Every public audience is different; so should your presentation be. If you’re working with a number of different stakeholder groups, it’s tempting to think of every online session and presentation as the same. Don’t make that mistake. Just as with in-person workshops, you’ll need to tailor the format and content to the specific needs of whichever group you’re focused on for a given session.
Hone your messaging to the specific circumstances. We are in uncharted territory. Right now, everyone is zeroed in on what the next 12-24 months will bring. This means you will need to learn how to talk about your project or proposal in a different way than you would have done just a few months ago.
For example, it’s important to acknowledge that near-term investments and responses will be necessary to pave the way for any long-term improvements. If you’re presenting a master plan, it’s also important to acknowledge the role of flexible, principle-based planning. Strengthening identity, and creating a sense of belonging and strong community can be achieved incrementally; when done well, it can grow exponentially.
Strategies that start with quick wins and low-hanging fruit and build into a holistic and long-term vision will likely be the most well received. Take a lesson from the community’s collective response to the pandemic. If, in just three months, everyone in the city where you’re working agreed that they should close a street for pedestrians, maybe this is the time to think about redesigning it with widened sidewalks, temporary furnishings, and access for food trucks. Don’t lose sight of where…
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