How to Get Results from Your Virtual Town Hall

Cross-posted from the Congressional Management Foundation blog

One of the fastest growing and potentially empowering technologies for engaging citizens, interacting with elected officials, and building better communications is virtual town hall meetings. These meetings can take two forms: a telephone town hall or an online town hall that employs other technology beyond the “conference call” experience of a tele-town hall.

This post will reference two content pieces that can improve telephone and online town hall meetings. The first, Feeding America, a national nonprofit that organizes food banks in the U.S., delivered an outstanding presentation at this year’s National Grassroots Conference hosted by the Public Affairs Council. They offered “10 Rules” for conducting virtual town hall meetings, presented below. The second is a substantive research report conducted by CMF entitled “Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century,” which included extraordinary results on how virtual town hall meetings could increase trust in Members of Congress, improve voter participation rates, and actually change people’s opinions on divisive issues of the day.

Here are Feeding America’s 10 rules for virtual town hall meetings, slightly adapted for this post with a little explanation.*

  1. Identify a “hook” to make it interesting. Make it topical and relevant. People don’t tune into a program unless they find it interesting. A virtual town hall meeting won’t be successful if the topic doesn’t connect with the audience.
  2. Maintain control of process. This doesn’t mean censor ideas your Member or organization disagrees with. It does mean have a clear process, a thoughtful moderator, and a method for vetting questions to ensure that constituents have an opportunity to ask intelligent questions.
  3. Spread the word early and often to promote the event. A Member or organization can promote a virtual or telephone town hall in a variety of ways, including social media, external stakeholders (and their email lists), and your website. To put this in monetary terms: every person recruited to a virtual town hall meeting by one of these methods is a person that you don’t have to pay your telephone town hall vendor to recruit.
  4. Build a narrative. Keep it simple and personal. Complicated pitches never work. Interaction with constituents and supporters needs to appeal to basic, emotional, actionable issues.
  5. Maximize time for Q&A. The interactivity of virtual town hall meetings is what attracts supporters and constituents, and what gets them to ask for more. Don’t be afraid that someone is going to ask a tough question. If your Member or organization leader can’t handle the occasional tough question they should probably be brushing up their resume.
  6. Take on challenging questions. CMF’s online town hall meeting research involved 13 members of Congress who discussed with constituents the topic of immigration – not a softball topic. Prior to the online town hall, 20% of the participants approved of the Member’s handling of the issue of immigration. After the online town hall, 58% supported the Member’s handling of the issue. Support more than doubled … in less than 60 minutes.
  7. Have subject matter experts available. It’s okay to say, “You know, I don’t have an answer for that question – but I know someone who does.” Principals don’t need to have all the answers, and the occasional Member of Congress or Association president who admits they are human actually scores points with stakeholders as being a normal person.
  8. Make it fun. Washington needs a LOT more humor. Take the off-beat question, not just the issue-based question.
  9. Have an “ask.” If you’re a nonprofit, association, or corporation hosting a town hall for your members or advocates, what do you want the participants to do after the meeting? If you’ve discussed a key issue and educated them through a thoughtful virtual town hall meeting, the “ask” might be to engage with a legislator. (Hidden secret: Members of Congress will thank you for your efforts, as the Member or staff will be interacting with someone who went through actual training and understands the issue at hand – as opposed to the constituent who interacted via a one-minute robo-call.)
  10. Follow up. Very few Americans participate in virtual or telephone town hall meetings. If they do, legislators and organizations have built a relationship with someone stronger than you realize. Take advantage of that relationship, and follow up with more information on the topic or with a request to get more involved in the public policy process.

Virtual town hall meetings are an emerging technology. So it’s wise to experiment with small groups at first to build a comfort level with senior managers, make mistakes, and figure out how to do it best. Yet it is also an extraordinarily promising technology. In a CMF survey of congressional staff, 85% of respondents said that comments at a telephone town hall meeting would have “some” or “a lot” of influence on an undecided lawmaker. That’s a statement about a powerful medium.

[*Editorial Note: CMF thanks Brett Weisel and Feeding America for allowing us to use their presentation at the National Grassroots Conference as the basis for this blog. Otherwise, we would have had to think it up by ourselves … and that’s hard work.]

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