Public engagement in the context of Covid-19

Despite being in a moment of crisis, research shows that Canadians think it is now more important than ever for governments to engage citizens[1]. As in-person engagement methods are no longer possible due to physical distancing measures, focus has turned to digital tools for online engagement. The tools we use during this crisis will shape engagements after it – whenever after is. We’re interested not just in how digital communications tools and virtual engagements replace in-person ones, but in what they bring, long-term, to the engagement process. 

However, right now, Canadians are heavily solicited through different communications channels by their employers, governments, service providers, and others. Moreover, for many, confinement means managing both work and family throughout the day, limiting time available for participating in less short-term or pressing matters deemed non-essential for the home environment.

Thus, more than ever, communications tools are a key part of any engagement strategy in order to drive digital participation and ensure that engagement processes are inclusive.

Soliciting participation during a crisis: How do people want to hear about online consultations?

Strategically target your relevant audiences – not just the usual suspects. 

H+K conducted research to find out how people want to hear about online consultation from decision-makers. When asked to rank the best ways to hear about how to participate in an online consultation, 39% of Canadians said email, 21% social media, and 19% radio or television ad.

As one might expect, different age groups prefer different communications tools. For example, 18-34 years old were much more likely to rank social media as their number one choice of how to hear about online consultations. And respondents who are 65 and older ranked phone calls as a preferred way of hearing about consultation opportunities much more than any other age groups.

However, some tools, like email, have consistent high rankings across age groups.

This research indicates that using both hi-tech and low-tech communications tools to drive participation in online consultation can help increase inclusivity of participation processes. It also demonstrates that in certain contexts, using radio or phone may make it possible to reach people who do not usually participate in consultations. Thus, while email has broad support, using a variety of communications tools will help increase awareness and likelihood of participation in online engagement. As always, it is important to know your target population and their preferred communications channels in order to reach your intended audience.

What do Canadians think about digital communications and online engagement?

Experiment with platforms and channels – mix media for a varied audience.

Respondents in our survey overwhelmingly agree that online and digital consultations can be as effective as in-person ones. Beyond the advantages for inclusivity structured by remote participation (less time-commitment, fewer child-care arrangements), they value the convenience and multiple touchpoints of digital tools; they liked being able to learn about engagements on the channels they are used to using and seemed to welcome the prospect of tailored and individualized messaging – learning about an engagement via social media, registering or attending online, or joining a process from a link in an email.

Using digital communications to create inclusive engagement processes

Dig into your communications data – measure, learn and optimize. 

We have heard concerns from institutions and practitioners alike about just how inclusive a digital-only process can be, and that shifting from in-person to digital engagements, and communications may affect the (perceived) legitimacy of public engagement initiatives.

Our research thus demonstrates Canadians’ interest in learning about online consultation from digital communications tools. In addition, digital tools have several characteristics that make it possible for decision-makers to meet their goals of inclusive engagement, such as having a broad and/or segmented reach, meaning that they can target specific groups or the broader public, depending on engagement objectives.

And, unlike more traditional communications methods, digital communications channels and platforms can make it possible to more quickly and comprehensively measure engagement and make it possible to adjust outreach strategies to drive engagement.

Digital promotions and invitations to engagements produce data about each interaction and on how each, version or targeted instance of a message performs, in terms of reaching its objective of increasing participation. This makes it possible to quickly understand how well communications tools are working and improve how the public is being informed and invited to participate in order to increase inclusivity. The clarity, import, and impact of messages have correlative performance data; we don’t need to guess.

Thus, digital communications tools give practitioners the data to demonstrate the demographic constitution of the segments of the public they’ve engaged, including who has been reached, who has been overlooked or missed, and who is/has been responsive and through which platform. This data can be used to correct engagement processes in order to create more inclusive engagement processes. For example, if a practitioner uses paid digital channels to promote a call to an engagement activity, she can not only target demographics of her choosing, but can see for which the content resonates, or in which part of the city her respondents are from. She can, then, develop new content, or target the public differently, so as to engage and involve stakeholder groups that had previously not responded.

So, while digital communications tools force consultants to be acutely aware of how they’re talking to the public they want to reach, these tools also offer proof of the efficacity and inclusivity of messaging.


Our COVID-19 reality means that, if an engagement is to move ahead in the foreseeable future, big parts of it are necessarily going to be virtual, online, or otherwise facilitated by digital tools. Although these tools may be new for some, good communications rules still apply. It is more important than ever to ensure that communications explaining engagement processes are clear, to explain to citizens the object of engagement and how they can play a role in decision-making processes, in order to show it will be worth their time.

Just as digital communications leave a data trail that can help validate and legitimate engagement outreach and inclusivity, it also opens doors to new (and, of course, measurable) contributions from members of the public. When the fog of pandemic clears, it will certainly be preferable to mix in-person, traditional approaches with digital ones. But it will be the opportunities for the personalization or pluralization of engagement opportunities, and the data they yield that keep these new tools in the P2 kit.