You’re a stone cold crisis communications professional – you didn’t write your first empathy statement yesterday, and this isn’t your first rodeo. When your organization screws up, the big boss trusts you to hit the right tone when you let that first tweet fly free.
So, when the big one hits – when those pristine white beaches are covered in your company’s oil, or when the logo on your office building is receiving some free advertising via protest signs, or when a toxic chemical threatens an entire town’s supply of drinking water and your agency is in charge of keeping the public safe and informed, or when citizens aren’t just mad, but outraged – you know what to do. And you know what not to do.
Which is why you won’t be holding a town hall meeting to inform the community. You know, those “blood-baths,” disguised as community meetings, where you offer your incident commanders and company CEOs up for sacrificial tarring and feathering and the public leaves more pissed off and less informed than when they arrived?
Yeah, you won’t be doing that. You’ll be throwing a different kind of party. Have an open house, instead.
The goal here is achieving community awareness by providing a space to voice concerns, get questions answered and pass vital information. You’re going to want to apply that old risk communications wisdom that says, “during a crisis, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” So how do you tell them you care without getting ripped apart? SHOW them. An open house – DONE RIGHT – can be a great way to play show and tell without all the messy blood.
Footage from a community open house (coordinated in large part by the author) held by the incident management team responsible for mitigating damage from the Refugio Oil Spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., May 2015. File under: “Do your public meetings like this!“
Footage from a community town hall meeting (well, it was supposed to be a meeting) for the incident management team responsible for mitigating damage from a train derailment, with release of hazardous materials, in Paulsboro, N.J., Nov. 2012. File under: “Sure you want to do it like this? Really?! Positive?”
Here’s a quick how-to and some do’s and don’ts:
Organize: Think of what it would take to throw a large wedding, where the entire town is invited, in a short amount of time. You’ll need a team to divide and conquer the following:
Think Logistics: Space enough to host the town, booths, food and drink, bathrooms, security, transportation, etc. Make sure your venue is handicap accessible.
Conduct Outreach: Everyone’s invited! Put out the word via social media, radio and multi-lingual fliers. Clearly advertise the hours of the event in your outreach efforts, and make it a convenient time for maximum community participation. Ask community leaders to help spread the word, and don’t forget small business associations, tribal councils, etc. Make them partners and allies in helping to inform their community, instead of shutting them out. The payoffs can be huge.
Prepare Products: Your product is information and expertise. Accurate and up-to-date information on the response should come directly from the actual subject matter experts (SMEs) who have been brought in to deal with the crisis. Have your SMEs staff booths representing different aspects of the response (health and safety, wildlife rehab, rescue operations, claims, volunteer sign-up, etc.) Your response leaders, be they federal, local, or private industry, need to be there. They should circulate, be available for questions and be approachable.
- Find out what people want to know. Check out the community’s biggest concerns on social media or what the FAQs coming into the command center are, and design/staff your open house booths to reflect those concerns.
- Invite media – full, unrestricted access and the ability to interview anyone involved is a must for transparency.
- Provide a public comment box and/or electronic QR code for the public to send their comments and questions – then follow-up!
- Serve food and beverages – hunger and anger is not a good combination. Use local vendors if possible. Throw some $$ back into that affected community!
- Have security, but hit the right tone. Think sporting event style security, not the Secret Service. Tell protesters they are welcome to come in to get information, they’ll just have to leave the signs, backpacks and screaming at the door.
Three things will hijack your open house and turn it into its evil cousin, the dreaded town hall. These are key:
- NO MICROPHONES – That’s right. NO announcements will be made. When people walk in, they’ll naturally gravitate and dissipate to the booths they’re most interested in (marked by large signs) and go there to speak face-to-face with the SMEs. Nobody gets the entire room to show off for, and nobody’s voice will be louder than the community’s
- NO STAGES – Psychologically, this represents no one standing above or looking down on the affected community. This also keeps leaders from being raised targets to shout at. Yes, there may still be shouting, but it will be on the same level – without microphones – and occur with multiple SMEs around to provide information and dissipate the anger.
- NO CHAIRS – What?! This is not a boxing ring where people get to sit and wait for the entertainment (blood-letting) to begin. People come in, go to the booths they are interested in, grab some donuts and coffee, are encouraged to talk to each other face-to face, get information from experts and leave.
Editor’s brandon’s note: Mariana is a full-time federal government communicator who specializes in on-scene environmental and disaster crisis response, conducting media and community relations activities in the field nationwide when the “big ones” happen. Thanks for the “boots on the ground” insight, Mariana!
Note 2: Yes, yes – there are times when there are legal requirements for having a town hall-style meeting. There’s a way to work within those requirements so your legal department isn’t trying to run your crisis communications, and your communications department isn’t put in charge of your legal matters.