How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I was born and grew up in South Africa and earned my degree at Witwatersrand Polytechnic. It was a co-op degree and I worked as an intern at a PR agency where I got my first experience with P2. The experience was more covert than overt: it was the era of the spin, where you controlled all the messaging and it was more prescriptive. PR agencies had lots of money and could reach out to organizations. Social media didn’t exist then, so the PR firms could control the messaging.
I went on a different tangent for a while, in journalism, marketing and PR. I moved to Vancouver 20 years ago and worked in various publishing and marketing related environments and then started my own business. Five years ago, I joined SustaiNet Software Solutions to manage their online engagement product – EngagementHQ. Howard Adam, the CEO of SustaiNet had just become the Canadian distributor for this community and stakeholder engagement platform built to do consultation online. So this brought me full circle to what I found I was really passionate about: communication practice and public engagement.
EngagementHQ gave me an opportunity to see more of the public engaged in the issues that affected their lives. In fact, I couldn’t believe how true to my original communications principles this process is – my belief that people should have a voice no matter who they are. EngagementHQ is built strategically to address online consultation and to be an enhancement to all the tools in the toolbox of community engagement. It helps reach citizen who really are too busy to attend meetings and ensures these busy people also have a voice. It creates an honest and transparent process and ensures quality of information. That’s crucial in the P2 process on all sides.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
I am constantly energized at what fine personalities you’ll find in each community or organization. I love the openness of people working in P2. PR was all about spin and this is no longer true – no controlling of the message. Certainly, online engagement was perceived to be harder and riskier. It sometimes takes a mind shift to dispel that perception.
I think another big “AHA” moment for me was seeing how these organizations were using online tools successfully. Organizations were now able to provide an additional way for people to have a voice. You (companies and governments) have to embrace that: if you don’t, you’re dead in the water.
The online world has moved at Mach speed. I‘ve seen a shift in as little as 4 years from where people said “we don’t have a website” and “our organization won’t allow social media,” to where they’re now embracing online engagement tools. Online engagement is about making people comfortable, making it easy and feeling safe about getting involved. In Mississauga for example, there was a budget process which included online participatory budgeting and they had 2,000 submissions. That level of participation was not achieved through face-to-face meetings. Online helped people feel they could contribute and make a difference at time and place that worked for them and the city could reach even more citizens.
What “big wins” in P2 have you witnessed?
I’ve seen more and more cities enthusiastically include online engagement in their community engagement process and reach a greater proportion of their citizens. The Regional Municipality of Halifax has very much embraced online engagement as part of their overall community input. Their engagement strategy defines how they consistently engage their citizens based on IAP2 Core Values and principles.
I see places like St John’s NL and the Alberta Energy Regulator; I see it in the city of Richmond (BC) and Port Metro Vancouver: all building processes successfully around citizen engagement that not only embraces online engagement but also embraces how to use social media successfully and reach out to an even greater proportion of their citizens.
The City of Mississauga was very successful with their project for Port Credit. They won an award for their online engagement micro-site and process which was used strategically alongside their in person events. They took all the right steps to make sure everyone had a voice.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
I think it’s an exciting field: it offers so many opportunities to work in different divisions of organizations and to be very connected with the voice of society. It has a long way to go in many ways, but organizations like IAP2 have “awakened the beast”. For a young person interested in communications and connecting with people it is a very real way to participate in issues that affect citizens lives and make it possible for them to have a voice.