For companies and government agencies operating in today's ever-vigilant consumer climate, having a dedicated, artfully employed digital public engagement program is no longer a nice-to-have feature for the forward-thinking few. Rather, installing an accessible and genuine method for interacting with stakeholders is an absolute necessity for organizations of all sizes.
Aided by powerful new interactive tools, modern public engagement yields untold advantages -- from gleaning data and reliable evidence that can accurately anticipate clients' ever-evolving needs, to developing organic channels to foster future growth or respond to a crisis.
But there's one business segment that never needs reminding of the tenets and rewards of embracing a modern approach to public engagement: accreditation agencies.
Setting industry standards and measurement protocols in fields as diverse as education, business, law, healthcare, and government, these organizations find themselves in the unique role of counseling, judging and holding to account the very stakeholders whose business they depend on for their existence. Which makes ensuring transparency and continuous client communication the highest of priorities.
"Our goal is to be first choice in healthcare accreditation, making sure organizations are meeting the standards they should be," said Maggie Cornett, Vice President of URAC, a Washington DC-based accreditation organization focused on the healthcare industry.
In this role, Cornett said, there can sometimes be a fine line to walk when providing healthcare companies a set of standards intended to get them out of their comfort zone to improve service.
"We pride ourselves on the comprehensiveness of the process, and make sure it's not a check-the-box function," Cornett said. "It's important that we're listening and getting grassroots feedback to see exactly what issues are most important to the experts in the field who rely on us to test them and to elevate their level of quality."
To accomplish this, Cornett said URAC utilizes not only traditional marketing techniques such as social media, regular email campaigns, and targeted messaging to their database of clients, but also a network of member-led committees, which set the standards for the facilities and healthcare executives who submit their groups to URAC's stringent accreditation process.
She said these resources are particularly important when URAC staff proposes changing a performance metric or standard, which can take up to a year and sometimes requires going out for multiple public comment periods with the organization's healthcare-industry stakeholders. To ensure the most efficient process possible, Cornett said the organization is always looking to employ the most efficient engagement practices possible to ensure they're never far removed from how the standards are actually being implemented.
"If we're working with a specialty pharmacy, we're making sure they're getting that drug shipped correctly, have the right training, and that the drug is doing what it's supposed to be doing," Cornett said. "So while we're not hands-on with the customer in the field, we're putting in place standards to ensure the care being provided is of the highest quality -- and the key to that is staying engaged with those we're assessing."
The same is true for Sharon Jaye, executive director of DC-based Green Schools Alliance (GSA), a non-profit which sets sustainability standards for its almost 8,000 member schools around the world. Like URAC, GSA relies on advisory councils to set its standards, but still needs an organized method for getting a buy-in on those standards from its member schools.
"Any time you're trying to get someone to change the way they do something, you need to communicate with them," Jaye said. "You need to include them in the process so it's easier for them to understand and it makes them more likely to be early adopters."
Jaye said the effort to improve GSA's public engagement is constantly evolving -- from revamping their advisory councils to ensure the most accurate representative participation to standardizing the consistency and methods of the organization's outreach.
But because of the organization's limited resources and far-flung membership, the key to achieving effective outreach most notably lies in embracing technology. Like URAC, Green Schools Alliance is a SmartComment client who recently used the company's custom public engagement software to get feedback on a proposed change in how its sustainability standards are measured. To accomplish this, SmartComment worked with Jaye and her staff to break up a dense proposal spreadsheet into digital pieces that allowed members to submit e-comments on individual sections via our online tool.
"We needed to have a way of managing a large volume of public comments and feedback. We could have certainly emailed everybody and said, 'Hey, here are the metrics. Let us know what you think!'" Jaye said. "But by letting them weigh in the way we did, we get a better buy-in from our members because they were included in the process. For my audience, that's very important."
While Cornett and Jaye both emphasized the importance of using digital public engagement to simplify the process of interacting with their stakeholders, they insisted the main benefit of improved communication from the process belongs to the citizens who, as a result, will attend more ecologically conscious schools or be treated at medical facilities with the highest possible standards.
"Our ultimate client is the everyday consumer -- to make sure the healthcare they're getting is quality," Cornett said. "We owe it to both our clients and the public to do the right kind of public engagement and make sure everyone's expertise is included in the process so the treatment is better at the ground level."
"You're asking people to change their ingrained behavior, which is very difficult for humans to do," Jaye said. "I've learned through communication and involvement, we have better results every single time -- and that shows up in the experiences of our member schools."