Here’s today’s public service announcement from me to you: if you have bad news or risk information to communicate to people affected by 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 say this – even veteran communicators – so let me define exactly what I’m talking about. So-called “New England-style” town hall meetings are often set up like this (should sound familiar to some people):
- 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. They’re often “concerned citizens” (why else would they attend a public meeting?).
- 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. 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 and any media in attendance. 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 communication 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 whenever people are upset and there’s a lot of bad news to share. Ever. Ever ever. They are a series of monologues during situations in which dialogue is what is needed.
Public meetings – done right – can be 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 that attendees and spokespeople share.
- 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
diatribesspeeches 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” from subject matter experts with whom they wanted to engage.
Some 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” may have a greatly reduced audience of fellow citizens – after people get what they want and need at the open house, they’ll leave!
Simply put, the traditional style of town hall meeting is about as effective as issuing a “something just happened and we’re gathering facts” news release at the beginning of a crisis, but then refusing to provide any follow-up information or clarity when the situation changes.
Here’s a case study on how public opinion can drive operations and how communicating with people who are upset, instead of to them, are public information and crisis communication lessons learned worth implementing.
Image courtesy Ryan McGuire of Gratisography, Used under Creative Commons license. Original image: http://www.gratisography.com; license: http://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/ The image has not been altered.