Open Houses vs. Town Halls during Crises

openhouseThe following may sound like a contentious view when you first read it, but I consider it a public service announcement when I write: if you have bad news or risk information to communicate to publics affected by your crisis, don’t ever (ever, ever, EVER) choose to hold a town hall meeting to do so.

Some people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them this – even veteran communicators – so let me be completely clear and define exactly what it is I’m talking about. So-called New England-style town hall meetings are those that are usually set up like this (I’m sure this will sound familiar):

  • There is a panel of people, often sitting behind tables on a raised podium. These are the “listeners,” or those people (often management or leadership) chosen to represent the entities involved in the crisis du jour.
  • Sometimes the “listeners” have opening statements, but that’s typically all the talking they do.
  • There is an audience. Sometimes they sit on folding chairs in a large public meeting space, sometimes on bleacher-type seating in an auditorium. These are often the “concerned citizens.”
  • There are microphones set up here and there, and people who wish to express concerns, ask questions or “speak their piece,” whatever it may be, line up.
  • People who reach the microphone are usually given a time limit to speak. A two- or three-minute opportunity seems to be standard.
  • Typically, there is no feedback from the panel, no matter what it is that people say or ask into the microphones.
  • What people say is entered into the “official record,” and when the meeting is over, it’s over.
  • If people in the audience arrive to the meeting angry, they’re often angrier when they leave.

Public meetings are often held when groups of people have high concern and low trust about an issue or crisis, a subject that Paul wrote about recently for the blog. The style of town hall meetings described above are such a bad idea in those situations, that colleagues and I have used the same synonym to refer to them for years: bloodbath. Figuratively, of course, because the people on the panels (and their reputation) often gets massacred (again, figuratively!) by the audience. Just the setup alone sends a bad non-verbal – an “us vs. them” layout. If you’ve held even one like this during high concern/low trust situations, I’m sure you’ll agree that you want to do whatever you can to make it better next time.

I can’t answer, “Why are people still holding this type of meeting?,” because I really don’t know. I see it all the time, though. It seems to be a favorite communications fallback position at all levels of government. I can answer, “Why is it such a bad idea?,” though, and it’s simple: New England-style town hall meetings – no matter what ANYONE tells you – do not promote constructive communication. They are a series of monologues during situations in which dialogue is what is needed.

Public meetings are a great way to communicate with people affected by your issue or crisis – so what’s the alternative? Easy – an open house. Here’s what this type of meeting looks like, as opposed to the town hall meeting:

  • There is an open, easy to navigate space in which attendees and spokespeople intermingle (like in that cool graphic at the top of this post).
  • Subject matter experts staff information booths that cover each distinct part of the issue or crisis. They often have visual aids and handouts.
  • There are no time limits to conversations, and everyone has a chance to speak to whomever they wish.
  • People who attend can get the exact information they need without having to wait through speeches at microphones.
  • Organizations that hold this style of public meeting can build or repair trust and credibility by communicating directly to the people affected, addressing their specific concerns.
  • People who arrive angry may not leave that way, because they’ve gotten the answers they need “straight from the horse’s mouth” of the subject matter experts.

Some U.S. government organizations have legal requirements to hold town hall meetings during certain circumstances (bummer). Is all lost? Absolutely not. If you find yourself in that unenviable position, go ahead and schedule your required town hall meeting – but have an open house immediately before that meeting, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results (I’ve seen this happen, and it was a good thing). People will attend the open house to receive information; they’ll attend the town hall to vent. Good news? If you have an open house before your town hall, those “venters” will have a greatly reduced audience.

Simply put, the traditional style of town hall meeting is about as effective as issuing a news release at the beginning of a crisis, but then refusing to provide any follow-up information or clarity when the situation changes.

Talk to me, Goose.

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