Planning is a deliberate, methodical process. Social media is capricious, sprawling, and unpredictable. It’s also not always given to truthful representation. All of which might suggest that it is anathema to planning. But to stay ahead of the curve as a planner, you should get involved.
Social media is increasingly important to planners and planning. It's where many people get their news, have their opinions shaped and influenced, and are spurred to action. “Action” means individuals and groups can get noticed in exchange for a minute at their keyboard. Groups can form quickly and they can make seemingly powerful representations to officers and councilors. You may yourself have felt the heat of a Twitter storm, a Facebook campaign or an online petition.
How do we adapt to this new age of communication?
1. Take the initiative, way before there are plans
Whether you are working for a public or a private entity, your plans are likely to create change, and change makes some people nervous and fearful. Be proactive: engage before plans are submitted and try to understand local concerns. Digital is critical: it has a far wider reach than exhibitions and public meetings, and appeals to a different demographic. You will start with a website or page with “Our proposal”, but this alone is not enough. It is social media that will bring you traffic. Social media users are typically below 40. Get them through social media, bring them to the “proposal” website and you can capture their voices alongside the voices in the community hall. At Commonplace, a majority of people who leave comments through our websites are under 45.
2. Engagement drives engagement
Social media is a great tool to drive traffic to your website - especially if you can get something of a circular engagement pattern going. To do this, when people reach your proposal’s website you ask them to do something that they then share: add a comment that gets shared to their social media friends, or enable them to share existing information. The way this “share” appears should encourage the friends to visit your website, generating a circle. Engagement drives engagement.
3. Who is talking?
Most of us need to document the extent and validity of our interaction with the public over plans. This will form part of a Statement of Community Involvement, or just feed into discussions with stakeholders and politicians. If you can use social media to get traffic to your website, you can ask people for basic demographic information to understand who you are engaging with digitally.
Yes, people will see your plans and talk about them. For the public sector, this is the norm. In the private sector, there is a preference sometimes for “doing things quietly”. That may work, but often you find - too late - that social media means there’s no such thing as “quiet”. Having a social media storm days before a critical decision is no fun, and difficult. A proactive approach to engagement can give you data to place the “storm” in a wider perspective of documented and more nuanced responses.
5. It’s not all digital
Digital is essential but not in itself sufficient. Efficient digital engagement will help you identify where to deploy your “face to face” resources - targeting specific groups and geographic areas. For some people “digital” means you are reaching out to them; others can see it as you hiding from them. Each is valid and needs to be reached.
The bottom line: We should aspire to widen the franchise of public who is involved in planning decisions. That means adapting to new modes of communication - not to do so is to cut off a growing and significant number of voices, to the detriment of the quality of planning and of democracy itself.
Note: Always ensure you have appropriate legal advice on data protection and use
David Janner-Klausner is co-founder of Commonplace Digital Ltd, a consultancy which supplies digital platforms for engagement exercises.