Nine tips for successful live, online public meetings
By Amanda Wilson and Rebekah Hernandez - North Central Texas Council of Governments
The North Central Texas Council of Governments is a metropolitan planning organization serving 16 counties with a combined population of 7.5 million. We assist local governments in planning for common needs. In May 2020, we began conducting a high-speed transportation study, the first to be administered out of our office.
The 36-month DFW High-Speed Transportation Connections Study reviews high-speed options in the Dallas to Fort Worth corridor. We are responsible for the study’s general project management activities as well as the public and agency engagement plan. In cooperation with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, we are developing and evaluating reasonable alternatives and documenting these efforts following the NEPA process.
Because of the pandemic, we had to change our public involvement process dramatically, transforming our traditional in-person events into live, online, interactive events.
Following are some of the steps we took to ensure our first virtual event was a success.
1. Select the appropriate technology
Our association had been holding various online public input opportunities long before the pandemic, but they were not very interactive. Starting in March 2020, we became adept at live-streaming policy board meetings and meeting with various resource agencies using virtual meeting platforms. Although the policy board meetings are made available to the public, they typically have little public involvement.
The high-speed transportation study meeting would be different. We needed a virtual platform that could accommodate a high level of public interaction and involvement. Our consultant recommended a virtual platform called Public Involvement Management Application, which they had been developing and enhancing in collaboration with other public agencies. PIMA allows people to register and log in online the day of the public meeting, watch the presentation live and post comments that appear on the presentation after our team screened them for inappropriate content.
PIMA captures the contact information of every person who logs on and stores it for future communication. Through PIMA, we can push out mass emails notifying thousands of people on our contact list about an upcoming meeting. Combining PIMA outreach with our traditional efforts of mailing postcards, publishing print advertisements, distributing news releases and posting notices on multiple social media platforms, we hoped to reach a wider audience and generate greater participation.
In addition to PIMA, we selected a live telephone townhall platform, allowing those who didn’t have internet access to also participate. They could call in, hear the presentation and dial in if they had a comment. Obviously, callers couldn’t see our PowerPoint presentation, but we mailed the slides to them if they contacted us before or after the meeting.
For our first high-speed transportation study public meeting, we planned to go live with both technologies simultaneously.
2. Identify the presentation team and assign roles
Our team consisted of 10 key members, each with a specific role during the live presentation. We had a presenter, a moderator to monitor online comments and read them out loud for the benefit of our listening-only audience, a person to monitor and announce if we had a caller who wished to comment, someone to monitor questions posed on social media, a tech expert to remedy glitches, and so on.
3. Script the entire presentation
We wrote out the entire 20-minute presentation, word for word, adding in periodic reminders of how participants could pose questions, “And, remember, if you’re on the telephone, press star six for the operator. And, if you’re watching online, type your comments using the virtual podium feature.” Scripting allowed a pre-recorded version that could be watched any time during the 30-day comment period to be identical to the live online/telephone meeting experience.
4. Offer the presentation in different languages
We completed the script and the PowerPoint slide deck weeks in advance of the September meeting to allow time to have the contents translated into Spanish. North Texas has a large Spanish-speaking population in the proposed high-speed transportation area. We wanted to make sure they felt included, and accurate transcription takes time. We also had to build in time for the videographer to sync the audio with the PowerPoint, so the pre-recorded meeting was available in Spanish as well as English. Both English and Spanish pre-recorded presentations were available online during the entire 30-day comment period.
5. Hold a dry run
One week before the public meeting, we practiced connecting and operating the technology and read through the entire script. We even asked other staff members to test the web links to ensure participants could access the online presentation.
Dress rehearsals are great for uncovering what you haven’t anticipated. For example, the dry run allowed us to see how well the slides appeared on computer screens and make adjustments. We also identified a technical bug when streaming the live video to some individuals’ office networks. We were able to fix it prior to the actual event.
6. If possible, implement in person
Managing our PIMA meeting with the telephone town hall technology required an orchestrated effort best executed in person. Fortunately, the number of COVID-19 cases had declined in our area, allowing our team to gather in a large conference room with appropriate social distancing precautions and implement the presentation in person vs. from our home offices.
Had we implemented the public meeting virtually, we would have had to use our microphones to coordinate behind-the-scenes tasks, and participants would have heard it. Being in-person, team members could use facial expressions and visual cues to enhance communication, allowing backstage coordination to stay backstage. When possible, in-person execution of a live, online public meeting provides for more efficient, effective communication.
7. Assign understudies
A theatre cast always has understudies – actors who know the script and can fill in at the last minute for a leading actor who is ill and can’t perform. Understudies should be a best practice for online public involvement meetings, too. Despite our best efforts, at noon on the day of our first public meeting, 45 minutes before our event was to go live, a key staff member, who was responsible for operating the YouTube broadcast became ill. We needed a backup at the last minute. In subsequent meetings, we had understudies ready for multiple positions.
8. Be prepared to fill dead air
Our first set of live public meetings occurred over a two-day period. The second meeting did not generate as many public comments as the first meeting did. To fill the “dead air,” we reviewed the questions participants asked at the first public meeting. That way, attendees had the benefit of hearing those questions and our answers. The lesson is to reserve ample time for questions and comments from the public, but be prepared with additional content if those questions don’t come in. Because all the questions from the previous meeting were stored in PIMA, they were easy to retrieve and share with attendees at the second meeting.
9. Resist the temptation to press play for subsequent meetings
The first public meetings for the high-speed transportation study were scheduled for noon on a Wednesday and 6 p.m. on a Thursday. We had recorded the first presentation and could have easily hit “play” for the second presentation and then gone live for the Q&A portion of the event using PIMA. However, our director wanted the flavor of an actual public meeting. So, we presented the second public meeting live, just as we had the first.
Average attendance for a typical NCTCOG public meeting is about 20 people. For our first online public involvement meeting, held over the lunch hour, 88 citizens attended the live event, and 50 people attended the second meeting. The two public meetings generated a total of 56 virtual podium questions, all of which were just as valuable as what might have been fielded at an in-person public meeting. Since then, we have held two more live, online public events this past January and are attracting more attendees with each event. We had 213 participants during the January public meetings and received 64 comments. Using PIMA, we can visualize our participants using interactive mapping, and determine if we’re getting representative samples of the region or if we’re impacting communities of concern.
PIMA and telephone town hall meetings have become permanent tools in our public involvement toolbox. We plan to keep making improvements moving forward to more tightly integrate both technologies with a call-in option directly with PIMA.
Charting the journey ahead
The question is when to hold virtual vs. in-person meetings. Could Tuesday and Wednesday meetings be in-person and a Thursday meeting be held on our virtual platform, for example? Maybe in-person events have a more intimate nature: a neighborhood association meeting or a meeting with a PTA group, for example. Offering a mix of in-person and virtual meetings could be one solution moving forward.
In the meantime, we have made tremendous progress in the virtual world and plan to carry these practices forward as we continue to seek to actively engage the public in the transportation planning process.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Amanda Wilson is program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. She manages the transportation department’s public involvement and government relations team. Wilson and her team are responsible for public meetings, community fair participation, social media, videos and newsletters, media relations activities, military-community planning activities and legislative affairs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebekah Hernandez is communications supervisor at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. She manages communications activities related to government relations, legislative affairs and public involvement for the transportation department. She oversees legislative outreach and education for elected officials while monitoring and reporting on federal and state legislation related to transportation and air quality issues. She also leads public involvement efforts for specific transportation projects and studies in north Texas. Contact her at email@example.com.
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