A public meeting is one of many ways to engage with your community. It's a way to share information and discuss specific proposals or issues with local people. It allows people to gather and express their thoughts, listen to a speaker or offer help. Perhaps most importantly, it's a way to build support for your community energy project.
Main topics covered in this article include:
Why hold a public meeting
The main objectives of a public meeting are to:
- share information with a large group of people, and encourage discussion and debate
- increase awareness of key proposals or issues
- build support for a project
- act as a starting point for a community group or association that can continue to work in support of the project
- hear the thoughts and opinions of local people
According to Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment, holding public meetings can build a sense of community, and the number of people attending them is a good indication of the level of interest in a particular issue.
The main benefits of public meetings include:
- offering a wide cross-section of people input and involvement
- spreading useful, detailed information about the project throughout the community
- developing agreement on what to do when it comes to complex issues that affect the wider community
- a chance to consider alternative strategies.
Public meetings don't always meet everyone’s needs. There may be other options which will better suit your needs such as an informal open day or a workshop. A public meeting is not recommended if there is substantial opposition to the project.
Here are some of the potential problems that can arise:
- Sometimes, a small number of articulate or powerful people can dominate meetings, so only a few people get a chance to have their say. This can mean the full range of thoughts and opinions doesn't get heard.
- It can be difficult to know how to pitch a presentation when the audience has such a wide range of interests, levels of understanding and opinions on the project.
- It can be hard to stick to the agenda. People may see the public meeting as a chance to bring up other issues which are unrelated to the project, and it can come across badly if organisers try to sidestep or ignore them.
- Some community members might not be willing to work together.
- Meetings don't always result in overall agreement.
- Meetings can take up a lot of time and money.
Friends of the Earth UK recommends considering the following:
- It's important that your meeting is well attended so that you don't waste time and effort speaking to only a handful of people. Experience shows that if the issue is timely and local, you'll get plenty of interest.
- You might decide you could create just as much impact by attending other people’s meetings as a speaker.
- It's important that you have enough people in your group to help, and enough time and money to make the meeting worthwhile. Public meetings need good preparation, so set out a timetable of jobs to do, and who will do them.
Planning a meeting
Good planning is critical to a public meeting's success. Here are some of the things you can do to make sure yours runs smoothly:
- Give the meeting a title.
- Choose the right format. A conventional public meeting format is a panel of three or four speakers, including a local decision-maker, followed by questions and comments from the audience, and a call to action.
- Get an impartial, locally respected and confident person to chair the meeting — someone who's used to such events, and who can diplomatically guide the meeting through its agenda.
- Invite a mix of speakers who will appeal to a wide audience, and brief them on the nature and format of the meeting.
- Book a fairly central, neutral venue, like a community centre, school or church hall with disabled access. Consider booking a venue slightly smaller than necessary — a packed meeting in a small venue is better than a half-full meeting in a larger venue — especially as it'll probably be attended by local media.
- Ensure the meeting is well-publicised — poor attendance can undo all your other good work. For example, consider:
- personally inviting respected community members and organisations
- alerting local newspapers and inviting journalists — they'll probably want to write about your project before and after the meeting. A photograph of a spokesperson and details about the meeting are very useful
- contacting local radio/TV — and briefing someone to talk about the project and the meeting
- putting up notices on community noticeboards
- using of your email contacts and getting them to spread the word too
- a leaflet drop
- advertising weekly in local newspapers (although editorial publicity can be far more effective and is free)
- an RSVP option in your communications so you can plan more effectively.
- arrange catering — be flexible, as numbers can be hard to predict, and don’t provide alcohol
- consider people whose first language may not be English
- develop an agenda
- remember the facilities and materials you might need, such as a PA system, presentation equipment, leaflets, feedback forms, pens, and chairs and tables.
Running the meeting
On the day, make sure you and your team:
- have a running sheet that includes times, helper's tasks and resources
- have enough helpers — you'll need at least three, and maybe eight for a large meeting, including someone who's confident with any presentation technology you're using
- set up at least an hour early
- set out chairs, put leaflets on seats, set up the information/name tags stall (staffed before and after the meeting), check the stage and PA and put up signs
- greet people with an agenda as they arrive, and keep the atmosphere light and welcoming
- use name tags for delegates at larger meetings
- keep an attendance sheet and get contact details for follow-up
- welcome the speakers and introduce them to each other
- start the meeting at the time you arranged — greet latecomers, but don't go over old ground beyond saying briefly what stage you're at
- give people the chance to introduce themselves
- provide refreshments before and after the meeting, and during breaks
- finish on time — people will then have a chance to mingle and discuss things.
A local ‘celebrity’ can be an effective, crowd-pulling chairperson, but they must be familiar with public meetings — able to control debate and handle hecklers, for example. A chairperson ensures speakers keep to the point, and get equal chance to get their points across. He or she will also use questions effectively, to probe and fully understand the range of views people have.
According to Campaign Strategy, a good chairperson, doesn’t try to silence critics with cleverness or authority — a more effective way to quiet them is to allow others to be heard (everyone has to have a say) including:
- listens, gives feedback, sums up what’s been said, and gives an idea of what will be done about it
- treats people respectfully
- is persuasive
- never loses their temper
- should not argue with people or focus on correcting mistakes
- builds on delegates' contributions.
Your secretary prepares the agenda, and records and distributes the minutes of the meeting.
All your speakers should keep presentations short and include time for your audience to respond or ask questions.
You should have someone at your meeting who can make sure no-one has to shout to be heard.
After the meeting, it's worth getting together to discuss what went well at your meeting, and what could have been done better. Learn from your mistakes. Also, consider:
- writing a follow-up letter to the letters page of local newspapers
- issuing a media release outlining the meeting’s key outcomes
- writing to thank the chairperson and speakers.