Town halls and question-and-answer sessions have long been a staple of democracy in the United States. But how do you engage with your constituents in a digital world where they are harder to access — and your political leaders might be harder to access as well?
The mayor of Evanston, Ill., Elizabeth Tisdahl, decided to turn to Facebook. She and her team, including Luke Stowe, Digital Services Coordinator at the City Manager’s Office, decided to host a Facebook Q&A so citizens could ask her anything they liked.
“It was just a neat way to connect with our audience and the residents of Evanston,” Stowe said.
And the residents seemed to think so, too. They asked several dozen questions on everything from bike safety to the status of a new grocery store development.
The questions didn’t come flowing in on their own, though. Stowe stressed that promotion ahead of the Q&A was a crucial part of the event’s success. He and the mayor’s team also encouraged folks to submit questions before the event.
“We issued a news release, and we encouraged people to submit questions in advance, so that way we would have several questions to choose from to begin with,” Stowe said. “And then it would also give us time — if it’s a question that needed some data or some additional follow-up — it gave us a little bit of time to prepare for that. And if there ever was a quiet moment during the town hall, that was a great time for us to insert a pre-submitted question.”
The Q&A was a hit. “When we took a snapshot right after the town hall was over, I know the organic reach at that moment right when we ended was over 1,500 people,” Stowe said. “Then we Storified it and then shared that on social media and on our website afterwards.”
Stowe said other tips for hosting a successful Facebook Q&A or town hall include:
Invite the press. “We had at least one reporter come to that particular Facebook town hall. So I think it’s just good from a transparency standpoint to invite the media to come. And they appreciate the ability to sit in on something like that as well.”
Have a team at the ready for typing and sorting questions. “We had myself and one other person basically typing the mayor’s responses, so we would read the question to the mayor, she would respond, and then I would start typing up the answer, and then my colleague who was also helping me, she would ask the next question. That sped it up a little bit, so the mayor wasn’t having to wait for me to finish typing my answer.”
Use it as an opportunity for citizen follow-up. During the one-hour town hall, the mayor couldn’t get to everyone’s question. “We followed up with them later, maybe e-mailed them or messaged them through Facebook to further answer their question or do a follow-up or submit a service request.
Stowe and the mayor are planning another Facebook Q&A for 2015. Other city officials might do the same thing.
“We might even conduct it with a department head,” said Stowe. “Let’s say the police chief or the director of public works. We think it would be really interesting.”