Ideas To Engage in The Face of Social Distancing : A ‘Big-Bug’Offensive

  • News & Updates
  • Ideas To Engage in The Face of Social Distancing : A ‘Big-Bug’Offensive

INSIGHTS PIECE – Erin Ashford | Principal Strategic Communications

I’m going to need therapy after this whole ‘no high fives, just foot tap’ period of anti-infection measures.

As a communications and engagement advocate, connection in a face-to-face environment is something I crave. And while the minutes turn into hours, hours into days, and days into weeks and weeks of isolation, there is a very real risk of the engagement realm being tarred with the same ‘Bad Hygiene’ brush that is being used to paint an anti-contact picture across the country – to avoid tactile, face-to-face human interaction for prolonged periods of time – which inevitably makes up many of the fundamental modes of traditional engagement measures.

To keep our economy moving forward, councils and developers today are faced with the very real challenge of how to keep projects progressing, whilst ensuring they still give people a say… but also advise social distancing or to just stay away.

This puts project managers in a contradictory position. And, presents engagement professionals with a whole new social ball game.

So cue the question – how do you engage meaningfully in the face of new social distancing measures?

Whilst we don’t know how long this COVID-19 circumstance will prevail, we do know it’s likely to last for a while. So it’s no longer a matter of holding down the fort. Now, it must be one of evolution – in how we engage, in service provision, in new ideas, and how we communicate to achieve meaningful insights for greater community connection.

FACT: Innovation can be born in the face of adversity.

Take the great Australian blond-tips man himself, Warnie. His 7 Zero 8 gin factory has now transformed into a temporary hand sanitiser producer – and is providing it pro-bono to our amazing health care professionals.

Or Guzman and Gomez, the Mexican food chain who have announced they are waiving delivery fees because right now, they recognise that COVID-19 is ‘nacho problem’.

Then there is Corbett & Claude, who have transformed their carpark into a drive-in using a mobile phone app, with their food offering now delivered direct to your driver’s seat.

It’s those types of businesses that treat COVID-19 as a chance to innovate, and go on a self-coined, ‘Big-Bug’ Ideas Offensive’, who will have a higher chance of making it through this period. And not just survive but thrive in the face of adversity.

My colleagues and I have upcoming, on-ground engagement projects that have all experienced a challenge to project scopes, courtesy of COVID-19.

Smack bang in the middle of our project engagement periods, is the expected peak of COVID’s social impact.

For one particular project, the on-ground engagement component consisted of a series of workshops and pop up events. Initially, even I was hesitant to participate for fear of contracting the socially sourced snuffles.

Quite frankly, the ideas of peddling tactile participation in a giant community game of ‘Coronavirus Connect-Four’ didn’t seem fitting anymore.

Neither did the idea of having to ask the community to graffiti their feedback on a pop-up Ideas Wall, using communal Posca pens, covered in microscopic traces of dirty-dirty, human interaction.

It grated against my better health judgement.

So stopping short of getting creative and dressing the engagement team in matching hazmat suits, and branding them with the words, ‘SAFE TO TALK TO’, I genuinely felt that the community would feel the same as me. And that pop ups would – in this current climate – be a (lonely) waste of time, and generate lousy insights. But I also didn’t believe it was worth cancelling and delivering a half baked insights pie.

The community was still there. They still had ideas. And a right to a say. The project was still moving, so it was clear – the change lay in our approach.

In response, I took some time (alone) to ruminate about all the ways we could flip this contextual change to our client’s advantage. And use it, to evolve in more innovative and efficient ways of engaging, so that having a ‘safe say’ might just become one of the many new things that could bring people together in a meaningful way. Because the distancing was not social – it was physical. And this is a barrier we were already overcoming through our national and international engagement work.

So for anyone who has a project running, but is stuck on the need for a different engagement approach, here are 6 simple ideas that might just help you flip the script on how to continue to engage meaningfully in the face of physical distancing:

1. Get (more) digital.

Now is not a time to go into ‘engagement hibernation’, if you can help it. Even though we are facing unprecedented change to the way we are now forced to live and work, we are also living in a time where our digital realm can provide a plethora of engagement opportunities. And that may not be as difficult as you think.

Replacing face-to-face measures with possible online solutions has rarely been a done thing given the strength and power of face-to-face consultation. However, when you have no choice, what else can you do? Don’t be afraid to go digital – perhaps more than you normally might in your own preferred engagement mixes. The communications landscape is changing, and communities are connecting online, more captive and active than ever.

The opportunity to engage is absolutely still there, so how can you shift your focus to try for more online insights?

2. It’s a licence, not a need.

Treat your scope changes this way, and good things will prevail. Any engagement experts might argue that there is a degree of outdated engagement practice (or still a demand for it) occurring across the country. Often these old school, tried and tested ways of doing things, can sometimes be hard to challenge. But now, some of these things that used to frustrate us about the favoured, old school methods of physical engagement are actually being forced to change. That is an exciting prospect. So how will this apply to you and how you have always done things? Because the actual need for digital or more innovative ways of doing things as an industry, has just been given a licence to evolve to a new norm, and in a way that we’ve been waiting for… probably for a while now.

3. Keep it simple, search more.

Online innovation, or finding new digital solutions doesn’t have to mean spending a bomb. It doesn’t mean you have to waste a lot of time doing it either.

There is a misconception that innovating online is a long and costly process. It doesn’t have to be, to get great results. Recently our team developed 360 degree place videos that users could self-navigate, as a way of experiencing places at a time where they couldn’t get to them. We did this in 24 hours from inception to delivery of our first prototype. Our secret? It wasn’t technical expertise. Or a large team with a budget. It was research. Google. We found the apps and platforms to do it ourselves – and for free. If you have an idea, but it seems out of reach, Google ‘how’. You might be surprised about just how much is already out there that can simply and quickly give you better online cut through, for less.

4. Being actively-Interactive.

This doesn’t mean immediate implementation of brand new digital platforms or software. That can be an overwhelming, costly and time consuming place to start. Rather revisit the existing platforms your company may already have access to the solutions. See what other adaptable functionality you may already have from an online engagement or digital communications perspective. Check you online plugins and options for existing software. Where once it may not have been something that people had an appetite for, it may be perfect for them now. You might actually even find something to engage better in the current times – that can generate a similar type of quality outcomes that you needed to achieve before COVID-19 hit.

Another active thing to do? Revisit your understanding of where and how your targeted stakeholders are playing – and operating – in online realms. This simple move could mean immense success in online engagement outcomes. Knowing what times, and where they now may be frequenting online places, since the reliance on digital communication has increased, means that doing just a little bit extra, and actively understanding their new (although arguably temporary) existence online, and interacting with them there, could be one of the best things you can do to ensure greater engagement program participation rates.

5. Muscle-up your ‘Comms Game’.

This brings me to my next point. An integrated mix of communications and marketing efforts to promote your engagement program is always a necessity. It’s what drives your participation rates best. But it is important to consider the need for a strong shift and elevation in how you are creating that visibility and promotion around your engagement program now more than ever, particularly in online environments. Audiences might be more captive online, but it doesn’t mean they can see you in the same ways with previously tried and tested comms campaigns. The advice is to revisit your standard rules for programme promotion shift it, and ramp it. Make sure you have a solid communications plan that is targeting the right people in the right online places. Promotion breeds participation, so don’t forget this when engaging online during the current climate.

6. It’s a great time for a Frank Chat.

Things are moving so quickly right now. People have been ripped out of their social circles overnight. Many are housebound – and if you have kids, or even a menagerie of fur babies to share it with, the walls could be closing in quickly.

Recent results for our own digital solutions are seeing rapid bursts in online response rates – much more than normal. Particularly for more interactive online surveys. So perhaps there is evidence to suggest that there is a shift towards a new social craving for human connection that people may actually be actively looking for, in ways we haven’t yet seen.

Our ability to go digital is such an advantage that this generation has over any other that has lived through a Pandemic, World War, or Zombie Apocalypse (for example).

We should be capitalising on this ability to maintain social connection and still communicate meaningfully with our communities and stakeholders.

Like any revolution or significant moment in time that sparked historical change, herein lies a possible opportunity for the birth of a new era in consultation and engagement practice. And that could continue on past all this. it’s one that we can all be a part of, with very little time or cost disruption…. all it needs is just a little bit more clever and collaborative thinking!


Erin Ashford, Place Design Group

Erin Ashford

Principal Strategic Communications