Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…

12 03 2011

In the midst of a multi-media, consumer society, agencies have to work hard to get their message through the morass of daily communication. And although major corporations can purchase air time during the Superbowl or American Idol, a localized public education or outreach campaign works with limited resources. So how can agencies gain the attention of their intended audiences? Here are a few techniques I’ve recently come across:

Build brand identity. A signature look, hook or character can help people identify the message source and provide reminders of what an agency advocates. In New York City, Birdie has its own social media following and makes public appearances to promote GreeNYC.

Hold contests and give recognition to participants. Interactive media makes it easy to challenge followers to take action and track it online. Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages groups to form teams to track vehicle trip reduction. Interactive media also makes it easy to upload contest entries such as this call for video entries from Utah State Parks. Some kind of reward, incentive or benefit should be clearly communicated to help drive interest and participation.

Be willing to stir up a little controversy. If an issue deserves robust public discussion, don’t be afraid to establish space for it. If you don’t provide good information and a forum to air various points of view, you can bet it will happen elsewhere. In my interest to see interactive media successfully facilitate fruitful discussion, a review of a blog dedicated to discussion of education issues in Iowa caught my attention.

What do these techniques have in common? One, is the use of interactive media. There is something to do, to take part in and even belong to. This is not a lone voice in the desert or speaking from a blow-horn, it is meeting people where they are at and when they have time to engage with the message. Two, props to for providing forums and blogs to share ideas about how government agencies are using interactive media and how they can use it better.


Looking for on-line dialogue

27 01 2011

In  talking with P2 colleagues recently, social media and the potential for public engagement using Internet-based tools is still resoundingly the trend to watch. The push for transparency in government is yielding some interesting on-line tools. Check out these examples regarding state budgets from Texas and commentary on a similar site for Oregon. Commitment to transparency and trying to make complex information understandable gets thumbs up from me!

However, I am still looking for examples of people engaging in discussion of ideas, options, pros and cons related to the information they find. Although the Internet makes information accessible, if decision-makers are only posting information for public use the conversation remains one-sided. We still need the two-way conversation and interactive part of interactive media…

I like this blog post that discusses the need for government to use the Web to listen, not just post information. P2 implies two-way exchange; dare I say, a dialogue! That means engaging with each other’s ideas and creating a space for multiple points of view. What examples have you seen of robust on-line dialogue that is meaningful and productive? I have faith it can happen, but I want to see it with my own eyes!

Dealing with change

15 10 2010

The Gap logo buzz is an interesting case of the public’s reaction to change and the power of social media to comment on and derail corporate plans. Although Gap represents a private industry and profit-driven example, there is much to learn in terms of public communication and public participation. Read a couple of commentaries on how NOT to crowdsource and the basics of brand identity Gap appeared to miss.

Change is what we often brush up against in the process of public participation. Gap’s logo debacle reminds me that as P2 practitioners, we need to ask tough questions about why change, or a specific decision, is coming in order to  explain it to affected stakeholders. Awareness of why a change may occur is half the battle in communicating with the public.

The Gap example also demonstrates the need for clear process. Changing process midstream is tricky, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it can’t be done, it needs to be done with utmost care. Gap appeared to be in a reactionary mode. There is a time and place for responding to comments and making adjustments; and in a social media, real-time environment there is no time to waste. However, it seems to me that they had multiple options for response and the option they chose was not fully vetted out.

Finally, this instance shows the power of public feedback in a social media environment. Again, the context of a private corporation may differ from P2 work, which generally supports public decision-making. However, the real-time, viral, retweet world we work in should be accounted for in public communication planning. To me, this goes to show that a social media plan needs to be in place for every project or agency. Not to do so leaves too much to chance!

P2 practitioners  must be nimble in responding to public reaction and should anticipate every possible response. Solid research provides a foundation that helps the project team or agency define a range of expected comments. There may be surprises, but good communication planning prepares a team for whatever comes its way!

Welcome Seattle NTI class!

15 06 2010

NEPA & Social Media

Social media is inherently participatory and holds great potential for public participation. But it is also relatively uncharted territory which makes some public agencies nervous about using it. What are the risks? What are the legal implications? How should social media comments be addressed in formal public processes and comment periods?

One area that I am watching with interest is how social media is applied to environmental studies. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires some form of public participation at specific project stages, but it does not dictate how public outreach is to be conducted. That allows individual agencies and project teams to determine the outreach methods most appropriate to the project context.

I have started collecting examples of NEPA projects using social media. A couple of posts from the blog at provide tips on archiving tweets for an administrative record and examples of NEPA projects using Facebook. There will be much to learn from these early examples.

The key in the growing social media environment is to determine how you will use these resources and clearly spell out the parameters of use for the project team and for your stakeholders. Just as you would clearly explain the role, responsibilities and use of input from a stakeholder committee, the same should be done for social media sites established for a NEPA study.

If you have been using social media tools for a NEPA project, I’d love to hear about it. Please submit a comment that describes your experience!

New Media: Emerging Tools for the Practice

20 04 2010

I was recently posed the question, What is the most important trend/issue related to public involvement? In terms of tools and techniques, I believe new media including the internet and social media provide significant new opportunities for providing information and methods for public participation.

For people who are on the web on a daily basis, this is not new news. Web sites allow 24/7 access to summaries and documents; citizens can choose to learn about topics to a level of depth that meets their information needs and interests. Interactive media provides the possibility of dialogue on a given topic that doesn’t have to occur in a single geographic location or timeframe. There is opportunity for real-time response as well as time-shifted response (meaning, people can participate in the same thread over the course of time rather than having a specified hour and then it is done).

Although these tools have great promise for facilitating public input, there are also drawbacks: one is related to access to technology and the ability to use it; another is the need to distinguish what is trustworthy and credible information. These two issues will be ongoing challenges to implementing new media techniques in public involvement. Although the use of new media seems obvious to people already familiar with it, there is another segment of the population who are not connected to these media outlets and are completely left out of the virtual conversation.

That said, new media should always be accompanied by other tools and techniques for participation such as in-person public meetings, small group forums, published materials placed in public locations, and telephone and letter correspondence.

What examples have you seen effectively use new media for public involvement? Please share your stories and links by posting a comment!