Public Meetings – the good, the bad and the ugly

Public meetings. Ugghhhh. We often try to avoid them, but to be perfectly honest, I’ve also seen them work really well.

I’ve also seen the bad and the very, very ugly. If I’m perfectly honest, the ugly is often when we’ve made a mistake. Misread the project and prepared for an open house, when the people show up and want, expect and in some cases demand a public meeting. Things actually get ugly because we aren’t prepared for a public meeting.

If public meetings are going to work, you need to be prepared. You need:

  • an appropriate venue, with seating for all attendees
  • presenters with knowledge and an appropriate level of authority (don’t send the project junior to get eaten alive!)
  • reliable audio visuals, so people can see presentations and hear presenters
  • a clear agenda and process, so attendees understand what is going to happen and when they can ask questions
  • enough time so that questions (and if necessary frustrations) can be heard
  • refreshments, whether that is just water, you need to have some kind of drinks available for presenters and the community.

Things you need to do:

  • Treat the community with respect – that includes dressing appropriately, showing up on time and being prepared
  • Tell the full story – both the good and bad news
  • Have a process to manage off topic, or time hungry questions from the floor – while one person might be very interested in something, it is important to consider the whole group’s time
  • Help your presenters prepare – that might mean working with them on key messages, establishing a way for them to redirect off-topic questions, right through to helping them pick a good spot to present from and reminding them to tuck their shirt in.

Thing you and your project team need:

  • Thick skin
  • Knowledge and belief that the work you are doing is important, despite the immediate community discomfort
  • Somewhere to have a beer afterwards!

Public meetings get a bad wrap. But if you have a lot of information you need to share, a public meeting can be an effective way to quickly inform large numbers of people about project facts and details.