The Better Way to Give Affected Masses Crisis Info

When a crisis comm pro gets excited that the next public meeting is going to be an open house, then finds out it's a town hall.

“Our public meeting is going to be an open house?!! Oh. Town hall. OK.”

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 diatribes 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” from subject matter experts with whom they wanted to engage.
openhouse

NOTE: No one is screaming into a microphone like the singer of a Norwegian Black Metal band. Not that there’s anything wrong with Norwegian Black Metal ….

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.

An earlier version of this article ran on The Crisis Communicator in June 2014 with the headline Open Houses vs. Town Halls during Crises.

2 thoughts on “The Better Way to Give Affected Masses Crisis Info

  1. While you are right about the approach for a town hall meeting — I’ve used it myself very successfully — but I have to disagree with you on one main point. The event you described with the non-responsive panel, is NOT a town hall meeting. It is a formal Public Hearing which has a very specific legal purpose with very specific legal guidelines on the format. They are not used for an incident or accident, nor as a replacement for a more interactive Town Hall Meeting. Yes, I admit, I hate the public hearing format too, but they are not a public affairs function, they are a legal function. The purpose of a public hearing of this type is to capture comments from the interested parties about a proposed action. The comments become part of the permanent record of the proposal and the ultimate legal Record of Decision. The panelists/leadership are not permitted to respond to any specific comment in this format to ensure that their responses do not taint the points of view of others still waiting to testify. A classic example of this is for an Environmental Impact Study. The draft EIS is made public for a period of time, then a Public Hearing is held to gather comments (comments are also usually accepted in writing throughout the review period). The comments are addressed in writing as part of the final EIS document. This serves as a formal record that citizen concerns were considered before a final decision is reached. The biggest problem with this format is that a great majority of the time, the purpose and rules guiding the format are not clearly communicated and attendees may have an expectation that they’ll have their questions answered. In a Town Hall meeting they would be, in a public hearing, not. Your suggestion format for a Town Hall meeting is excellent, but we need to be clear on what type of event it is appropriate for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reply, John, and you’re right on many points. I understand the legal requirements for some public meetings. A subtlety that I didn’t add to this piece was that some people and organizations *have* used the formal public hearing format as both a legal function and public affairs function. And, of course, they’ve been wrong to do so, because while those meetings do take care of legal requirements they have absolutely zero value for public affairs/public information goals. Actually, *less* than zero value! One of the main points of this piece (while not spelled in as much detail as you’ve written) is to prevent people from making that mistake when they need to communicate with large groups of people in high concern/low trust situations.

      Thanks again!

      Like

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