Going Online to Sell Infrastructure Projects in the Age of the Coronavirus
Roopinder Tara posted on April 17, 2020 |
WSP outlines how city planners and contractors can avoid physical meetings and design reviews.

In the age of the Coronavirus, it is easy enough for the typical office worker to work at home, avoiding coworkers and customers as if they have the plague — and still carry on with all the communication and collaboration tools technology can offer. However, if your role or responsibility involves getting in front of the public to get their buy-in and support on huge infrastructure projects, like a downtown renovation, a train station or sports stadium, meetings with key stakeholders, interviews with the media and the public, your job just became a lot harder.

The multi-national WSP Global, a specialist in large scale urban, transportation and energy projects, has some advice on how city planners and construction firms can cope during the current COVID-19 pandemic with this whitepaper, Online Public Engagement & Collaboration.

WSP’s portfolio includes buildings in the new World Trade Center, Boston’s Seaport and the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, to name just a few. WSP employs 49,000 people worldwide and has 150 offices worldwide. There was an ongoing discussion to merge with AECOM to create an infrastructure creation behemoth before plans were sidelined by the COVID-19, according to ENR.

Take it to the web, says WSP white paper on how to maintain a public presence despite COVID-19. (Picture courtesy of WSP.)
Take it to the web, says WSP white paper on how to maintain a public presence despite COVID-19. (Picture courtesy of WSP.)

Public agencies, planners and their contractors who had relied on combining physical attendance at events and meetings with a social media and an online presence, suddenly find themselves in a world where they must rely on the digital world almost completely.

Townhall meetings, design reviews, open houses ribbon cuttings have all been postponed or cancelled. It is anyone’s guess as to when they will come back.

A big project, which depends on public approval, has to involve the public in several ways, from informing, getting feedback, communication and collaboration, and in the end, if all the steps are met, a public that feels empowered to make the right decision. (Picture courtesy of WSP.)
A big project, which depends on public approval, has to involve the public in several ways, from informing, getting feedback, communication and collaboration, and in the end, if all the steps are met, a public that feels empowered to make the right decision. (Picture courtesy of WSP.)

There may be instances where an online engagement be impossible or unpractical, it may be best to scuttle the project until the crisis is over, advises WSP. For example, one such scenario is a public that has little or no Internet access. Alternately, other forms of media may be considered such as newspapers, TV, telephone and direct mail campaigns. Traditional methods worked before but may not be as cost effective as online methods, so agencies and planners need to determine if the extra costs can be absorbed.

A reliance and dependence on modern, online methods is not without its challenges. Consider the risk of data loss and address privacy concerns, warns WSP.

But certain online methods, online meetings in particular, offer considerable advantage over physical meetings. It is easy for the public to attend (providing they have Internet access) for one thing, as they can attend from home. Seating is practically unlimited. Most online meeting apps offer a method for discourse. Zoom, now everyone’s go-to video conference application, is not mentioned by name in the whitepaper, but WSP has extensive experience in Zoom, GoToMeeting, and several other meeting platforms, as their Communicating in a Crisis fact sheet would indicate (available from the “Communication Rapid Response” download from this page).

A phone-in town hall meeting may be attempted when engaging an impoverished or otherwise offline public. WSP mentions Access Live, Telephone Townhall and GoToMeeting for telephone access.

Online and phone meetings can be recorded and played back on demand, but of course, the opportunity to question in real time is missing. A link, phone number or mail in form, could be used for feedback.

Other methods (most cater to online) are as follows:

  • Polling – quick and few questions easily answered.
  • Surveys – longer, more detailed questioning. This can be done offline with humans with clipboards or iPads, but the extra cost of human resources should be considered.
  • Discussion and message boards.
  • Social media – setting up a Facebook page for the project and suggesting a Twitter hashtag.

Communication is Everything

Our suggestion (not WSP’s) is to establish a social media presence for the project as soon as possible. This prevents the project identity from being hijacked (think of opposition groups, which all big projects seem to generate). A Facebook page, for example, could be generously populated with information about the project, as much as can be made public, assuring the public of transparency. A project website and domain specific to the project is a little harder to set up but if IT services are available, much more versatile – and free of advertising.

Whatever method is used to take over from the void left by lack of in-person presence to inform the public, the main goal of city planners and the construction firms they employ is to keep on communicating. WSP suggests in their whitepaper that they double down on the web, but also to keep other lines of communication open, whether it be phone, direct mail, press releases etc. Using all resources available, it may be possible to more than compensate for not being there physically.

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