Careers Advice: What planners need to know about digital communications (and why it matters)

Social media

Planning has gone digital and we are working in a digital culture. Some of the transformation has been in the back office, making administrative processes more efficient. Process changes are felt immediately: we learn new interfaces, integrate new software - it is a well-rehearsed procedure in corporate change.

But planning is also going digital in its public engagement. The public face of planning - consultation, debate and contest - increasingly plays out online and especially on social media. We still hold meetings and send out leaflets, but the numbers attending and responding are far fewer than those engaging, or would engage, online.

Most significant planning efforts will have a digital presence, but it is mostly "Web 1" - a page on a website or template software used for online consultation. Occasionally there will be some Twitter or Facebook presence. But to function in the critical social media spaces and take advantage of the opportunity to reach many more people, planners need to deploy a campaign of continuous engagement with the public.

As an example of the speed and reach of online responses to planning, when the London Borough of Lewisham first started asking local people about the regeneration of Catford, one of the actions suggested was to remove the "Catford Cat". This is a large sculpture of a cat placed above the entrance to a local shopping centre. An online petition to save this large fibreglass feline was started immediately and almost overnight gathered over 1,000 signatures and considerable media attention. The Council quickly guaranteed the sculpture's future and so prevented the entire conversation being diverted. The cat controversy set the tone for lively online engagement. Commonplace's Catford website has attracted over 16,000 visitors and nearly 13,000 contributions.

So how do you get started, or improve existing practices?

  • Think of communicating plans as an ongoing process, connecting and enhancing the statutory engagement "episodes".

  • Consider the language and images that you use in light of public and digital communications.  

  • Ensure that resources for communication are part of the procurement chain. Specify to your masterplanners or transport advisors the images you want to communicate the change  - technical drawing and maps don't cut it.

  • Crowdsource: ask people what they like and dislike about their existing environments; what might make it better and what might make your plans better.

  • Start early - ask about likes and dislikes before you start planning. Front-loading the engagement process pays dividends by reducing the chances of surprises and unexpected campaigns.

  • Be transparent: you can't and won't please everyone, but being transparent and engaging throughout will make it easier to be heard when you explain how you have prioritised.

  • When you go into the digital space, expect to use multiple platforms. Public consultation software is not the same as public engagement platforms. Sometimes a quick survey will do but almost always showing images, including before-and-after images, is much better.

  • Having chosen an engagement platform, use social media to drive traffic to your own public engagement spaces, where the conversation is structured, and you can actually draw data from it.  

  • Be prepared to explain to corporate communications that while you follow the corporate guidelines, your campaign will be driven by local timetables and possibly will require greater agility.

Local government is about managing and delivering residents' expectations. Reduced budgets mean more compromises, making it harder to please all comers. If we don't want to be in a state of permanent denial and conflict, we have to communicate the options, choices and decisions openly and continuously.

David Janner-Klausner is co-founder and director of customer success at technology and engagement advisory firm Commonplace.

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