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12 Questions to ask yourself before organising a community meeting

Especially if you are considering a ‘town hall-style’ meeting…

This is the perfect article for you if you need to know how to run a community meeting… you see, I had lunch with a former colleague last week (always a pleasant experience especially when the venue is one of Melbourne’s beautiful parks and it’s a glorious day).

During lunch, we got to talking about perception and engagement (deep, I know!).

Over the years I have certainly come to realise that when I hear or say the phrase “let’s do some community engagement” there is a suite of actions, tools, activities and questions that come to my mind. And I must admit, I get pretty excited by the possibilities…

But, I have also come to realise that when many others say or hear “let’s do some community engagement” a completely different set of images and ideas pop into their head. Most of the time I think the ideas are any combination of these tools:

- a media release

- an information session

- a few social media posts

- a survey

- a Community ‘town hall-style’ meeting

The community ‘town hall-style’ meeting…

Let’s focus on that last option – the town hall-style community meeting. The town hall approach has been on my mind all week because, at the delightful lunch break I mentioned, my colleague was telling me about the fall out from a recent town hall meeting. I was confused, with the background I knew about the project … why would they go with a town hall process?

Now, I must admit my bias here. I would put just about anything in place BEFORE a town hall-style meeting. Mainly because I‘ve never seen one achieve anything positive except in a crisis communication situation (and that’s only if it’s a natural disaster – if you’re the people who have created the disaster… forget it).

In the majority of situations, town halls immediately set up an ‘us and them’ face off with the community sitting arms crossed over their chests staring down the ‘experts’ who are standing up the front. A town hall rarely helps people walk away with the information they need, nor do they get their questions answered, and don’t get to share or discuss anything other than what a bunch of douches the people up on the stage are. The result is that when they leave the meeting they are no wiser but probably more frustrated, angry and/or scared.

So in the interest of great community meetings for the community (and the people planning them… ) here are some questions to ask about the context of the situation before you organise a town hall-style meeting.

Here are the questions to ask

Answering these questions will also help a skilled facilitator plan a process that will achieve your outcome(s):

1. Is it a crisis situation (fire, flood, an emergency of some kind)?

2. Will people have questions?

3. If so, how will you collect and respond to those questions?

5. Is there local knowledge in the crowd that the project can benefit from?

6. Do people have valuable insight and/or perspectives to share?

7. Do we have valuable insight and/or perspectives to share?

8. Are people upset, frustrated and/or angry?

9. Is the community organised against the project and/or issue?

10. Are there vocal people opposed to the project and/or issue?

11. Do these people have community support? Or can they get it?

12. Do we have valuable information or a valuable project we need the community to hear, discuss and understand?

12. Do we need community support and understanding to deliver the project on time and budget?

The rule of thumb to employ here is that if you answer yes to number 1 – a townhall-style meeting may be the way to go.

If you answered yes to any combination of the other 11 questions. You need to design a process that is:

1. Planned and fit for purpose (ie designed to achieve the outcome(s) you’re after).

2. Facilitated by an independent facilitator if you answered yes to questions 8-11.

3. Facilitated by a skilled facilitator is you answered yes to any of the other questions.

4. Designed to give the crowd maximum opportunity to discuss, share, listen, ask.

But it does raise the question. Why do townhall-style meetings endure?

Why does the image of a town hall-style meeting pop into peoples heads when they say or hear the phrase ‘let’s do some community engagement’?

Are you looking to create great engagement experiences for you and your stakeholders? Do you need to create engagement activity that gets business results, not angst?

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