How trends in engagement are changing for 2021

Purple 20 Jan 2021
4 mins

As we eagerly leave 2020 behind and cautiously step into 2021, Senior Consultant, Sarah-Jane Dabarera, reflects on the themes in community relations for the year ahead.

Culture and heritage  

2020 has set the scene for an increased focus on culture and heritage in 2021. The Black Lives Matter movement, Australian deaths in custody and the destruction of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge have resulted in increased focus and scrutiny on genuine engagement with Traditional Owners.

The recently released amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, issued by the WA Government, will require renewed effort in making agreements and strengthening relationships with Traditional Owners.

Black Lives Matter Rally, Perth, 2020.

Aside from the legislative repercussions of Juukan Gorge, the heightened awareness of the importance of heritage matters and increased pressure on companies to build and maintain genuine relationships with Traditional Owners will have a significant impact on engagement teams.

The renewed focus gives practitioners an opportunity to advocate for genuine and collaborative engagement programs in an age where tick-box activities are no longer sufficient.

In the intense social and political climate across the world, the reputational ramifications could be extreme for organisations who get cultural and heritage engagements wrong.

Careful planning, early engagement and authenticity will be crucial for teams undertaking cross-cultural engagement in 2021.

Focus on accessibility more broadly

The increasing prevalence of Auslan translators at press conferences have been a visible reminder that accessibility and inclusivity isn’t always cross-cultural and should always be at the forefront of communication.

Not everyone will communicate or engage in the same way, and we need to factor that into our planning.

Premier Mark McGowan and AUSLAN interpreter, Fiona Perry.

Even simple things like colours and fonts in written communications play a significant role in whether that piece of information is truly accessible for all your stakeholders.

Removing barriers to participation is a key aspect of any engagement program. Heading into 2021, we should be more focused than ever on ensuring every aspect of our process is truly accessible to those we are trying to engage.

Continuing to consider comfort levels for individuals, particularly those who may fall within high-risk categories and participate in in-person events, will be a key aspect of engagement planning in the year ahead.

In 2021 we will need to get creative with the mix and range of methods like never before.

Digital engagement – no longer a ‘nice to have’

It’s by no means the new kid on the block, but with COVID-19 forcing many people to use more tools, and use them differently, 2020 has changed the focus of digital engagement.

Lockdown, travel restrictions and ongoing social distancing measures will continue to affect our ability to hold in-person engagements.

Digital stepped up to the plate and was embraced at a truly remarkable rate when you consider IAP2-commissioned research from 2019 which revealed that, of 120 practitioners, 48% said they had never used emerging digital tools.

As we continue to adjust to pandemic life, it is likely practitioners will have to be increasingly agile in the way they deliver engagement.

Balancing the needs of different communities, potentially with different restrictions in place, through the use of digital tools is an effective solution.

Tools like VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are also becoming more accessible, and increasingly may be used to replace or enhance in-person events in 2021. The visualisation of a project through AR or VR will also reinforce the focus on accessibility with as-real representations replacing complex and hard to understand technical drawings/artistic impressions.

And as we continue to make use of the vast range of digital tools available for practitioners as we did in 2020, managing the associated digital risks will also be important. In particular, data security risks in the age of data breach, remote working and technology-dependant workforces will mean practitioners now more than ever should be investing in better database management tools.

In summary

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict what will unfold in the year ahead.

But, for now, it’s clear genuine engagement that overcomes boundaries to participation will be more important than ever. Digital tools that support greater accessibility will underpin successful engagements and the world will be watching as businesses navigate the complexities of culture and heritage.

We’re optimistic that 2021 will bring new challenges and new opportunities for engagement practitioners as we connect collaboratively with diverse communities to build lasting and real relationships.

For advice on how to put together a leading practice engagement program, contact our stakeholder engagement team.

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