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CHECKLIST FOR ORGANISING PUBLIC MEETINGS
 

Alistair McConnachie published Sovereignty from July 1999 to its 120th consecutive monthly issue in June 2009, and he continues to maintain this website.
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This article by Alistair McConnachie appeared in the October 2001 issue of Sovereignty.

The new political movements have re-discovered in the public meeting an effective forum for dissent. We were promised that television and the internet would promote participation; instead they have provided our representatives with new screens to hide behind. As radical movements struggle to escape from an enclosed and virtual politics, public speaking has become the new rock and roll.
George Monbiot, The Guardian, 8 February 2001.

- The Seven Aims of a Public Meeting
- Hiring the Hall
- Preparing the Hall
- Publicity Using the Local Media
- Publicity Local Advertising
- Conducting the Meeting
- Immediately after the Meeting

SEVEN AIMS OF A PUBLIC MEETING
1- To publicly oppose a policy and promote a policy alternative;
2- To bring together people who share the aim of promoting the policy alternative;
3- To collect the names and contact details of these people;
4- To plan further action to promote the policy alternative;
5- To obtain publicity in the local, and national, media for the
policy alternative;
6- To educate, and raise awareness of the policy alternative both locally and nationally;
7- Ultimately, to get the policy alternative on the national political agenda, and change government legislation.

HIRING THE HALL
Your first priority is a Date, A Venue, and a Time.
- Fix the Date
How much time do you have? What day does the local press come out? Do you have time, ideally, to place a report and/or an advert in the next issue in time for the meeting? Are there any other meetings on at the same time, or any national events likely to coincide? Once you have possible dates then ...

- Delegate a Local Activist to Hire a Hall
Local activists will know the best places in their area for a meeting. A deposit may be required, but you should aim to recoup all the expenses from the collection at the meeting.

- Time and Length of Meeting
7.30pm-10pm is a good time. The length of the meeting will depend upon the number of speakers and their allotted time. Always book the room for at least an hour after the official end of the meeting, to ensure plenty of time for very important networking and mingling. Always start and finish on time.

PREPARING THE HALL
- Amplification
This is almost always necessary. Even if you have speakers who can project their voices well, it is still a good idea to have a microphone on the platform. Check if the hall will provide amplification. If not, it may be possible that someone within your circle of contacts has access to amplification. However, microphones which are constantly malfunctioning just make the meeting look farcical and so check they work! A "roving mic", to take questions from the audience, is a bonus.

- The Platform
The speakers platform should be on the same level as the audience. Platforms on stage are for conferences. A table lecturn is a help.

Where possible, try to have a banner across the front of the platform, and a slogan, or a website address prominently displayed. This creates atmosphere and gives any press photographers a photo opportunity, resulting in subsequent publicity for the cause.

- Video the Proceedings
Try to have someone video the proceedings. This way, videos of the meeting can circulate and be seen by potentially thousands of people. Some speakers may not want to be videoed and you may wish to ask their permission individually before the meeting begins.

- Refreshments
It is quite good if someone can provide tea and coffee on a separate table in the corner of the hall, or in the corridor. Provide glasses and jugs of water if bottled, British! for the speakers.

- Spare Tables
These are for literature, petition signing, and merchandise.

- Collection Buckets
Don't forget these most essential of requirements!

PUBLICITY USING THE LOCAL MEDIA
Using the local media is the primary means of getting both the meeting and its aims widely publicised.

Moreover, achieving publicity in the media is one of the main aims of a public meeting.

How successful you are in achieving publicity may depend upon the local journalists, their time, their interests, and how well you are connected with them, but generally speaking, the local media is more likely to be interested in reporting your activity if it concerns a topical, and also a local, issue.

For example, at the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis, we had no problem at all in interesting the local journalists in our activity. In fact, they were beating a track to our door.

However, a public meeting on membership of the EU may not necessarily stir the local media too much at this stage, unless it can be tied specifically to a local issue. Then again, a public meeting on membership of the single currency, in the run-up to the referendum, is likely to be of more interest.

So, to publicise your meeting, first:
- Have a Slogan
which is short and catchy and easily conveys both the topic and the purpose of the meeting.

- Create a Database of Local Media Contact Numbers
Seek advice from the local activists. You need to know
a) the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and, especially, the fax numbers for all the local and regional papers, even the free papers, and, importantly, their days of publication,
b) the local radio stations,
c) the local television stations.

You will also want to inform any related publications which are concerned with the issue you will be discussing.

- Contact the Local Media at Least Twice
Create your database, and in the 10 days leading up to the meeting, fax each of them with a one-page press release, at least twice.

Email is still a problematical way to deliver a press release. A one-page fax is something tangible which will be placed in someone's hand. An email, however, always risks being lost inside the computer.

The first release should announce the meeting and its aims, with quotable quotes and contact numbers. This should be sent in time for a possible report to appear in the local papers before the meeting.

If the paper hits the streets on the Friday morning, then the newspaper will usually be put to bed on the Wednesday afternoon. Therefore, you need your press release to be with them for the Monday or Tuesday so they can find space for a report.

Another press release should be sent on the morning of the meeting, as a reminder, and should include the full agenda for the meeting.

Local radio wants to hear about local news and activity all the time. Therefore, don't be shy about phoning them or faxing a news release to them every day. They may interview you. If you have an important news angle then hold on to it until the last 48 hours, in order to ensure maximum publicity on the eve, or day, of the meeting.

- Utilise Personal Media Contacts
If you know any journalists, or if any of the activists know any journalists personally, then ensure they are contacted and told about what you are doing. This can certainly pay off. When we organised meetings on the Foot and Mouth cull in the Spring of this year, we were able, in every case, to secure coverage on regional radio, several local papers, a national newspaper, and regional television.

- Have Written Material to Give to the Media
Have copies of your speech, or any relevant statements, to distribute to the media present at the meeting, and to members of the audience.

- After the Meeting, Follow up with another Press Release
You should provide all local, and relevant national, media with full reports of the meeting, whether or not they send a reporter.

Therefore, send another one-page press release, in time for the very next edition of the local paper, which reports the meeting, explains what was achieved, and what you intend to do now.

Write it in a journalistic style which can be lifted exactly as is, and reported verbatim. Emphasise the elements which make it newsworthy. This will ensure that every local media contact, whether or not it had a journalist present, will have a report of the meeting, and it means you're likely to get another week's publicity.

PUBLICITY LOCAL ADVERTISING
In addition to your work with the local media, here are more ways of getting the meeting publicised.

- Use Good Talkers
Let people do what they're good at and comfortable with. There are bound to be a few activists in your group who can talk the hind legs off a donkey. Therefore, delegate them to phone round their friends and colleagues and get things stirred up.

- Leaflet the Area and Put up Notices
A local leaflet campaign may be possible depending upon funds and the length of time before the meeting. The flyer should include the slogan you've decided upon, the day, date, time, place, full contact details and a map if necessary. Local libraries, display stands and so on are all possibilities for posting notices. Keep a bundle of flyers, and a box of drawing pins or blu-tac in your bag, or car, and put up a sign wherever you get the chance.

- Email Your Contacts
Email everybody you know who is likely to be interested regardless of where they live, and encourage them to forward on the message. Activists will often travel the length of the country to get to a meeting, and will certainly tell others whom they know in your area, and who presently may be unknown to you.

- Local Newspaper Adverts
Ideally, you want to have co-ordinated your press release to appear as a report in your local paper beforehand. This report should carry enough information to enable people to know where and when it is and who is organising it. However, a specific paid advert in the local paper is also a possibility and it should be placed with the intention of recouping the cost from the meeting.

The advert should include title of meeting, place, day, date, time, contact name, telephone and email.

Some newspapers, especially free ones, often have a "What's On" column where you can get an entry free of charge.

CONDUCTING THE MEETING
THE ROLE OF THE CHAIRMAN
This is the most critical role of the evening. If it is not done properly, then the meeting risks descending into chaos. To avoid this, here are some tips for good chairmanship:

- Have a Printed Agenda
It is good to have a printed Agenda given to people as they enter, or placed on their seats. The printing of this Agenda is the responsibility of the Chairman who can then delegate it. This will ...

- Ensure the Audience Knows When it Will Get a Chance to Speak: Explain this again when you introduce the meeting. It will ensure the audience knows exactly when they will have their chance to a) ask their questions, and b) make their points.

- Structure Time for both Questions and Comments
The contributions from the audience are just as important as the contributions from the platform and so structure the meeting so that they will have their chance to ask questions and make their own comments.

One way to do this is to state at the outset so everybody knows that you will take questions for clarification on anything specifically which the speaker has said, for a set time say for 5 minutes immediately after he has spoken. Then when everybody on the platform has spoken, the meeting will be opened up to comments and discussion from the audience.

For example, the Agenda may look something like this:
7.30pm Chairman's opening remarks
7.35pm John Smith speaks
7.50pm Questions on content of J Smith's address
7.55pm David Black speaks
8.10pm Questions on content of D Black's address
8.15pm Next speaker (and so on through the speakers)
9.00pm Panel and Audience - General Discussion
9.55pm Chairman's closing remarks
10.00pm Close of meeting

If the meeting is not rigorously chaired in this manner then it risks descending into chaos, with speakers sidelined, or not heard at all, and the audience clamouring for their say, with everyone getting frustrated and angry.

- Introduce the Speakers Properly
The speakers should each prepare a paragraph on who they are, and what they do, for the Chairman to use.

- Keep the Speakers Exactly to Their Allotted Time.
Some speakers risk talking, literally, all night, unless they are stopped. 15-20 minutes is usually quite adequate for most people, and some speakers may only wish to speak for 10 minutes or less. The main speaker may need up to 30 minutes, but 45 minutes is very long.

It is a fact that unless the speaker is scintillating, then everyone's attention span tends to flag after 20 minutes, max. If the speaker has anything else to say, he or she can usually say it during questions and discussion.

- Repeat the Question for the Benefit of the Audience
If an audience member asks a question then repeat the question for the benefit of the audience. This is because often the only people who heard it were the people at the front of the hall. If the Chairman doesn't do this then the speaker should repeat the question before answering it.

- Final Remarks of Chairman
This is when the Chairman must pitch for the money to cover the hire of the hall and the expenses of the evening. Don't be shy. Make it plain to the audience how much is needed. For example, "This meeting cost us £300 therefore we are going to need an average of £3 from everybody here tonight. Now, if you can't give that, please, give what you can, and if you can give more, please do so. Any excess collected tonight will go to [related cause]"

He should also draw the attention of the audience to the literature and merchandise available, and encourage them to action. For example, signing a petition available, leaving their names and contact details on a special list, and attending the next event.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE MEETING
- Have a Petition to Sign
Ensure you have a special table for this, and ample pens and petition papers.

- Collect Names, Addresses and Emails
This is vital, and one of the main aims of the evening.

- Promote Literature and Merchandise
An enthused audience will be eager for more information. Therefore, have handouts which summarise the content of the meeting and which provide contact addresses.

You waste a meeting if you have no literature or merchandise to provide to the audience. Situate your literature and merchandise tables near the exit so that everyone has to pass by them.

- Network
Again, it is important to book the hall for at least another hour after the official close of the meeting, so that contacts can be made. Remember that people who have made the effort to attend are likely to be more highly motivated politically than most. Have a lot of your address cards to give out.

- Follow-up the Contacts
Capitalise on the enthusiasm and build the campaign constructively.


 
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