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Public Engagement Is Not a One-Night Stand

“Public engagement should be a relationship, not a one-night stand!” shouted an awesome and outspoken participant at our Building Better Places Training in February 2020 (aka The Before COVID Times). It was a brilliant observation. So often, we approach our public engagement process with a “one and done” mentality: “let’s just get as many people as possible to respond to this survey” or “let’s see how many people we can get to put dots on this map. “

We tend to go after the quick-and-dirty, surface-level input but neglect to truly get to know the people we are engaging. And do we follow up with these people post-engagement? Hardly ever. Community members are left asking: How will my input be used? What was the value of engaging with the project? When will they see me again? Did I do something wrong that made them not call again?

Kind of sounds like a date gone wrong, doesn’t it? When it comes to public engagement, none of us want to be the jerk that doesn’t text you back. So we wondered, if community engagement should be more like a relationship than a one-night stand – are there similar lessons hidden in other popular dating terms of the moment?

This Valentine’s Day, we hope these insights will give you some laughs and help you share the love to your community members in your public engagement efforts.

Breadcrumbing. When the “crush” has no intentions of taking things further, but they like the attention. So they flirt here or there, send dm/texts just to keep the person interested, knowing full well they’re staying single. A lot of engagement efforts are unfortunately executed as a way to appear collaborative with the public, when in fact the real decisions are made behind closed doors. Before beginning an engagement process, ask yourself how you will be held accountable to use the input the public gives you.

Ghosting. When a person cuts off all communication with the person they’re dating, with zero warning or notice beforehand. You’ll mostly see them avoiding friend’s phone calls, social media, and avoiding them in public. When you host a public event for a project, do you have a plan for how you will follow up with participants? Be sure to create an easy way for all of your community members to get information about the project and be mindful of language and technology barriers so that anyone who wants to stay involved can. Also be sure to keep lines of communication open outside of workshops or surveys. Can you create a project Facebook page, have comment boxes around town, or a website where folks can submit their thoughts?

Catfishing. Making yourself seem way different than you actually are on online dating websites. Examples would be using photos from a long time ago, exaggerating your skills, talents, hobbies, etc. When it comes to design charrettes, we often get REALLY EXCITED about the possibilities – which is great and is of course one of our desired outcomes. It is critical, however, that what we show is grounded in market reality and is actually feasible. If it’s not feasible but the public is really excited about it, consider what might be standing in the way from a policy or financing perspective. The point is, make sure the images you show are realistic for your community, or be committed to finding a way to make it possible.

If you’d like to learn more about effective engagement strategies, check out some of our other blogs:

*All definitions courtesy of Urban Dictionary.
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