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How to run a public meeting when the public can’t be there

Government operations are more important than ever in a crisis. Here are some important things to consider for public meetings when people can’t be in the room.

When there’s a public emergency, governments must continue to engage with the public. Most of the classic ways—mass media, phone trees and even sound trucks blaring announcements—are fine for one-way communication. But with the advent of widespread broadband access, it’s relatively easy to set up interactive online meetings that let governments and the public continue to do their business.

Here are some tips to help make your online public meetings run smoothly.

Make your meeting easy to find.

If you want to communicate with the public, the public has to know about the meeting. Use all available targeted channels you can: emails, texts, social media, even offline media like posters, flyers or postal mail. That means keeping the meeting’s web address simple enough to easily type into a browser. For the sake of manageability, though, stay focused. If your meeting affects issues in a neighborhood, don’t send mail statewide. Unneeded or unwanted attendees will only suck up bandwidth and focus.

Have enough bandwidth.

Talk to your conferencing provider/host/ISP about your bandwidth needs. The only thing worse than no communication is bad communication. You don’t want a choppy broadcast, and you don’t want attendees unable to log in because of limits on your account.

Mute everyone’s mics.

By this time, everyone has enough experience with online meetings that this probably goes without saying: Organizers should be sure everyone’s mics are muted until it’s their turn to speak.

Don’t allow screen sharing.

Conference bombing is an unfortunate reality. Besides muting everyone, be sure that you don’t let people broadcast the contents of their screens.

Allow video, internet and call-in access.

Not everyone has broadband access. Be sure that your meeting can be accessed by regular telephone calls. Put the phone number and access code in all your precall publicity.

Allow questions to be emailed, tweeted or chatted before and during the meeting.

Public meetings can frequently be contentious or have repetitive questions. Online public meetings give organizers greater control of the “room,” but you probably don’t want to exclude questions. In your publicity, include an email address and other social media lines (particularly a Twitter account or a monitored hashtag) to gather questions ahead of time.

In the meeting itself, remind people that you’re accepting questions via your meeting’s chat area for questions. When you do, acknowledge that you probably won’t be able to get to everyone in the time allotted, so ask that they include with the question their email address or other ways to contact them after the meeting. (Note that you’ll be able to use those addresses when it comes time to publicize the next meeting.)

You’ll probably find a lot of similar questions; be sure to answer those in the live meeting.

Allow live comments sparingly.

If you do allow live comments, either ask people to request time before the meeting in email or text, or in the conference itself with a “raise hand” function in your software. If you already have procedures for public comments in your live meetings, figure out the best way to replicate that procedure online. Be sure to remind attendees ahead of time about the “rules of the road” regarding length of time for each comment and decorum. Call on them, unmute their mics and remind them of their time limit. In times of uncertainty and crisis, though, be prepared and forgiving if commenters are not always their best selves.

Adhere to public records laws.

Your online meeting may be subject to public meeting laws, which means you may need to record it and make the recording available. It’s a good idea to do that, anyway, but consult with counsel before the conference occurs.

Remember about after-action.

If people left their contact info with their questions, get the answers and email them as quickly as practical. A substantive answer is best; if none can be given, some kind of “Thanks for your comment” is appropriate. If you can, email attendees or others on your publicity list a link, transcript or summary to call in case they couldn’t make the call itself.