By Amy Elmore
I want to tell you a secret. I’m terrified of social media. I know… I know… I’m a communications & outreach manager – how can I fear social media? But the truth is, I see the power behind it. One post on Twitter can calm a protest or panic a city. It can negatively stir or unite a broken nation. Words are powerful – and the fewer words you use, the more significant each becomes. There’s a strategy behind social media, like every other communications tool. Every word, every graphic, every video is carefully crafted to convey our purpose and truly tell our story.
Right now, I hope you’re reading this and thinking back on the significant role communications played on a global scale this past year. The impact of communications at Forward Pinellas was no exception. I came on board during the height of the pandemic, while our community was facing incredible challenges. I was charged with ensuring that the public could get the meaningful, timely, and accurate information they needed despite uncertainty. It is vital, now more than ever, that Forward Pinellas continues to lead our communities forward, making sure we had funding for safer streets and more access to transportation, studying how we can break down racial, economic and social barriers by redesigning highways, working toward making homes affordable for everyone, and reaching out to our community to listen for ways we could create a more equitable Pinellas. And for better or for worse, the pandemic and the communication barriers it created, pulled us all into a brave new world of online public engagement.
The Transition to Virtual
Like many organizations navigating the pandemic, we cancelled several important in-person events due to safety concerns and had to quickly re-think our engagement strategy. We found that transitioning in-person events to virtual or hybrid events can bring a myriad of challenges but can also provide incredible opportunities to engage people effectively at a countywide level. With the use of social media and other digital outreach tools to get feedback and hold meetings, community members could participate from anywhere on any device and on a time most convenient to them. A single dad with three kids and two jobs could now participate in an online listening session for the Downtown St. Pete Mobility Study. A woman with a disability who had trouble getting to in-person meetings could now participate in a board meeting from her phone. A college student who works during the day and takes classes at night could join in the fun of our Bike Your Own City event during their free time. A firefighter who works 72 hour shifts could take the pledge for Safe Streets any time without having to attend an in-person summit. We not only saw a drastic increase in public engagement but also showed that we could reach many traditionally underserved audiences.
The Digital Divide
But this sudden change in tactics has given rise to a new equality issue known as the digital divide. The increased use of online engagement tools has amplified barriers facing many of our under-resourced communities lacking access to internet or internet-accessible devices, don’t know how to use or aren’t comfortable with the technology, or all of the above.
From partnering with our schools and libraries to creating digital neighborhood tech hubs or even attending in-person outdoor events, ensuring our outreach is equitable is imperative. We know that historic systemic racism in the planning field continues to have significant impacts on our minority residents. So, we’ve been working with our community and community leaders to identify the best ways to engage with marginalized communities to truly hear the representative voices of our residents, so that all voices help us make decisions for the future.
What’s Next for the Future of Communications at Forward Pinellas?
The coronavirus pandemic is one of the defining challenges of our time and will inevitably leave a mark on every aspect of our lives, including how we navigate the world of public engagement in the future. We found that we can reach many more people through virtual engagement, and by not continuing to use social media, videos, websites and other online platforms, we’re missing critical perspectives that can be extremely compelling in making a shift in direction or policy. We must break down “planner-speak” to truly relate to our audience, showing them how these plans, studies and projects can improve their daily lives and why they should get involved.
However, we also can’t just plan from behind a screen. We have to get out into our communities and hear people’s stories. What are their concerns, questions and aspirations? We must truly listen to their stories and show them we’re listening through our actions. It’s not just about our community seeing the value in our plans, it’s about us as planners developing plans that reflect our community’s values and voices.
At Forward Pinellas, providing equity in our outreach requires a comprehensive approach. We have to meet people where they are by building a framework combining in-person and virtual outreach to create hybrid experiences, so everyone who wants to participate can easily do so.
Our Planning Division Manager Rodney Chatman always says that “a healthy community is one that changes with its residents and grows over time.” In the same way, our public engagement must change and grow with our community. For my part, I will continue to strive to be a leader of change for our partners and communities – knowing that the work I do now affects not just what happens tomorrow, but how the world is set up for generations to come.