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Virtual community engagement reached a wider audience with better results

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HS2 has proactively engaged with proximal stakeholders and the wider community to communicate works and build public sentiment and advocacy for the scheme. Face-to-face engagement, meetings and public events have been commonplace. However, in early 2020 the world changed with the rising threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. The nature of HS2’s engagement needed to adapt and provide a much more comprehensive virtual offering due to the inability to carry out in-person engagement events because of multiple nationwide lockdowns.
This paper covers the approach taken by LM to plan and implement virtual engagement, demonstrates the benefits and disbenefits of virtual engagement compared to face-to-face and provides a set of recommendations for others to consider when running virtual engagement events.

Background and industry context

Major Projects bring major change to communities. It is standard to communicate those changes to the affected communities and stakeholders. The scale of the project as well as the type of works will dictate the frequency of communication efforts. If the project is a large single site construction project, e.g. a new public hospital, it will potentially affect less people than a linear project that spans across miles of countryside, e.g. power lines or, in this instance, HS2’s 140km route from London to Birmingham.

HS2 is very conscious of the change it brings to communities and strives to communicate and engage with its stakeholders and the wider community and always look for new or better ways to reach wider audiences. Despite Covid-19 risks and restrictions, HS2 and its contractors ensured that comprehensive engagement was still undertaken by using virtual platforms.

The Enabling Works Contract (EWC) on the northern section of High Speed Two (HS2) Phase One (known as Area North) is being delivered by the Laing O’Rourke Murphy joint venture (LM). When the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hit, LM was at the peak of delivering HS2’s early works in Area North. HS2 construction was one of the projects specified by the Government that could continue, providing that work was carried out under stringent processes, because it was recognised as a project of public importance. As work was continuing, it was essential that the associated engagement should do so as well, to keep communities and stakeholders informed of the work being carried out and what to expect.

Approach

LM’s community engagement team adapted their community engagement approach to explore virtual engagement methods. They reached out to existing contacts via virtual meeting platforms. To go a step further, LM reached wider audiences by organising public webinars, which were piloted with HS2, on topics such as archaeology and ecology to ensure a steady flow of information and to share material on wider issues, not just day-to-day impacts.

HS2’s event team led on the invites to the database and posting the LM webinar information on the various communication channels such as the HS2 website event page, social media channels and targeted mailshots. By working in this way, we worked within the HS2 branding and standard style and format which is used for events on a wide range of topics.

Make sure there is a robust system for hosting webinars to avoid the content being hacked during the session. Work with your IT department to put all the preventative measures in place. HS2 reviewed several options at the start of the pandemic and found that the Teams Events platform was the safest system to use for their organisation. It is possible that other platforms now offer similar guarantees.

We recommend to use Eventbrite or a similar platform as a ticketing system to obtain an easy overview of the number of attendees in advance.

HS2’s first virtual jobs and skills workshop also took place during this time, showcasing current and future employment opportunities to the public. These initiatives helped to prevent an information vacuum being created where speculation might develop. It also engaged wider audiences about the HS2 project and opportunities, rather than just those directly impacted by ongoing construction activity.

Figures 1 & 2 demonstrate the contrast in how the event took place

A group of people at face to face engagement events
Figure 1 Previous examples of face-to-face engagement
Examples of virtual engagement events due to Covid 19 restrictions
Image left: Park Street Burial Ground talk to Midland Ancestors group – July 2021
Image right: HS2 Virtual Jobs and Skills Workshop – February 2021
Figure 2 Examples of virtual engagement as a result of Covid-19 restrictions

Outcomes and learning

Outcomes

The online opportunities for engagement were extremely well received, with feedback from participants illustrating they were glad for the chance to continue to engage despite the restrictions of Covid-19.

Virtual meetings reached a wider geographical audience: Virtual events attracted a wide audience, in a geographical sense, who were not directly affected by HS2 construction, so it follows that their outlook on HS2 covered the spectrum from negative, through neutral, to positive. These people would not have engaged if they had needed to travel to an event.

Lessons learned

Archaeology webinars helped neutralised negative conversations: Archaeology is a subject that can disarm the most negative audience. LM held over 25 public webinars over a period of one year, which received high praise and large public participation, often from people who normally didn’t support the project. This is because spokespeople for communities who raise queries about the works are often the same people who act as guardians to preserve their community. They are normally interested in their local history. Webinars and closed session presentations, especially on the topic of archaeology, for private audiences such as parish councils brought an understanding to those groups that HS2 is trying to do the right thing every day and always starts from best practice. Archaeology webinars neutralised the potential for negative conversations with many groups.

Virtual meetings attracted more people and a wider cross-section of views: With face-to-face meetings no longer possible, online options filled the void created. In most cases, ‘virtual’ events and meetings attracted greater numbers of attendees than those who would normally attend a face-to-face event. Experience shows that face-to-face events often attracted mostly people with a negative outlook.

We learned through verbal feedback that eradicating limitations around issues such as transport, location and time, stakeholders’ community members could ‘attend’ engagement events from their own homes or workplaces on their terms. Some business community groups have now transferred the majority of meetings in relation to the project online because it saves them a lot of travel time and the meetings become more efficient.

Virtual meetings excluded those without IT: Those who did not have sufficient IT literacy or access to devices were excluded from opportunities they could have participated in via face-to-face events. To mitigate this, where possible, relevant information and imagery was sent via post to stakeholders who had previously informed LM of a lack of access to IT facilities.

Virtual event attendee feedback also affected the overall public acceptance statistics that are derived from various engagement mechanisms such as focus groups, interviews, mystery shoppers and feedback sessions that are collated by HS2 on a six-monthly basis. Area North scored higher than average because LM kept up the regular information flow and team members were available to the public to discuss all topics.

Recommendations

Organising virtual events such as webinars, online drop-ins and virtual exhibitions should be the norm and not just something to introduce in such extreme circumstances as a pandemic.

Communities directly affected by the project often voice more negative sentiments than those not affected. Sharing more information through virtual formats helped tell the wider HS2 story and explain its benefits to the wider community, allowing them to form an independent opinion of the project, as outlined above. This type of feedback is invaluable in helping HS2 and its contractors to shape future community engagement activity.

LM’s public webinars did not shy away from hot topics such as ecology. Being open and honest and sharing facts was a good decision. It gave the public a chance to ask hard questions and receive the correct facts, rather than only relying on media reports or information put in the public domain by pressure groups.

As LM was the first JV to organise in-depth webinars, the team worked closely with HS2 to prepare these events with a great deal of care and thought. The lessons learned are summarised below.

  • Work with the IT team to find the correct platform to use.
  • Public webinars should always have the audience on mute to maintain control of the narrative.
  • Run through the technical nuts and bolts at the start of the webinar – how to ask a question, what to do when participants have a poor internet connection, etc.
  • The ideal webinar length is 30 minutes of presentation and 30 minutes of Q&As for a one-hour session, or 45/45 minutes for an hour and a half session.
  • Use a corporate video at the start so people who are late at the meeting get three minutes’ grace period to get into the webinar.
  • When dealing with controversial topics do not show the questions the audience sends in the chat function on screen; make them visible only to the panellist on the webinar.
  • Be aware that the webinar could be recorded so be conscious of language use and style.
  • Ask the panellists to sign a photographic consent form.
  • Create in-depth messaging scripts for each slide or video as well as speaker’s notes so the webinar moderator and the other panellists can follow and know when it is their turn to speak.
  • Prepare the expert panel speakers thoroughly. If they are nervous or inexperienced speakers offer to set up a separate session with them to coach them.
  • Agree dress code for speakers and explain that presenters should sit up straight in their chair, smile and have an open body language when speaking. Webinars are very different from face-to-face meetings and attention to detail is important when all eyes are on one person.
  • Check the presenters’ room background on screen in advance and blank it out if needed or use a corporate image as a backdrop.
  • If a presenter or panellist is nervous and needs to stay on script they can put the text on screen and read out or put printed copies at eye level. They need to practice this so it looks natural.
  • Prepare a questions and answers script and allocate topics to each panellist in advance.
  • Work with the client press team so they can share media hot topics or pending press queries, so the panel members are aware of them, or incorporate in the Q&A or the presentation itself. In turn, the press team will also be prepared for any journalist’s questions after the webinar.
  • Social media monitoring will help to gauge the public reception of the event. In a protest group scenario, it will help spot if they plan to boycott the webinar and prepare for that.
  • Prepare extra content for when a video or hyperlink fails during a live event.
  • If a live outdoor broadcast is used, ensure the correct microphone is used so that high wind does not disturb the speaker’s voice during the broadcast. If done well, live broadcast can bring an extra dimension to the audience engagement.
  • Live broadcasts from a site are advisable only if there is a relaxed audience. If you are presenting on a difficult topic it is preferable to record something on or close to the day of the webinar that can be aired. This avoids a raft of technical issues. It also avoids public scrutiny of the site management and set up. One example which was particularly important during lockdown was social distancing and correct PPE. If the broadcast cannot be controlled on the day, a pre-record is preferable.
  • Prepare five key questions and answers in case the audience is slow to start Q&A.
  • Have a panel of people who can filter questions and send the question and name of panellist to the webinar host to read out.
  • Consider extra staff to address questions to attend the webinar. They can be additional panellists for the Q&A session.
  • Not every question can be addressed during the webinar. It is acceptable to park questions that need more in-depth answers if it is confirmed during the webinar that these questions will receive a separate response in a pre-set time frame.
  • If there is a protest risk or a risk of trolling of the expert speakers’ social media account do not put their full name on screen.
  • Check in advance what the rules are around subtitles and posting the video on a public channel e.g. YouTube.
  • Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – consider if there is a need for larger fonts on presentations, translations, sign language interpreters or subtitles on videos. A public webinar is tailored to a wide audience. Being inclusive is key. However, check if the requests are practical and manageable. If for some reason an EDI request cannot be fulfilled, consider a separate session.

Conclusion

The impact and effects of Covid-19 forced the LM engagement function to quickly adapt to the situation and ensure engagement and access to information was still possible. This was achieved by engaging virtually while under successive nationwide lockdowns.

Virtual engagement meant that travel, distance and time were no longer barriers the public had to contend with in the same way as with physical, face-to-face engagement. This meant large numbers attended online events and LM was able to reach more people than at previous events. What can be taken from this is that for LM to effectively communicate HS2 works and the wider benefits, the team must continue to engage in a multi-faceted way to reach as many people as possible.

Do not shy away from hot topics. Instead, prepare webinars thoroughly and share the facts openly and honestly. This gives the project the chance to educate the public and allows the public to ask hard questions and receive factually correct answers first-hand.

Webinars can affect public acceptance rates in a positive way because people can speak to the team and learn about various topics or tap into the employment needs of the project.

As a result of the extreme set of circumstances resulting from Covid-19, LM has learnt that even as life returns to ‘normal’, it would be beneficial to provide a combination of face-to-face and virtual engagements in future to ensure maximum reach and participation.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to staff from HS2, LM, BBV, MOLA Headland, Wessex Archaeology, Five Rivers, Keystone, Connect Archaeology and Suited for Success that made the virtual events and webinars possible.

Supporting Materials