Plan a Town Hall Meeting on a Health Issue

Planning a town hall meeting about a health issue is basically no different than planning a town hall about any other issue, except in the audience makeup and types of panelists who will be speaking the event. Nonetheless, there’s a lot that goes into planning a town hall meeting of any kind successfully. You’ll need to work hard, recruit important stakeholders, and make sure you’ve given yourself enough lead time to secure the attention of the press and community.


Laying the Groundwork

  1. Form a planning committee. The idea behind a planning committee is strength in numbers. There are few issues related to health care that aren’t of concern to more than one organization. You need to identify other organizations within the community concerned with your issue, convince important members of the benefits of a town hall, and recruit them onto your planning committee.[1]
    • For example, if your issue of concern was childhood nutrition, some community organizations concerned with that issue might be schools, pediatricians, food banks, churches, farmers, and day cares.
    • Self-promotion can be an extremely compelling motivator. Approach target organizations from a vantage point explaining how participating in the town hall could be of benefit to them specifically.
  2. Localize the issues. It’s much easier to get concerned about an issue that affects you directly. In order to make the subject matter of your town hall more immediate and compelling, emphasize the local impact of the issue rather than the national or global impact.[2]
    • For example, if your city or state has a high rate of HIV infection, or high rate of obesity, you should emphasize the problems your locality will face as a result rather than the problems that come from HIV diagnosis or obesity generally.
    • So you could say: “The City of Philadelphia will have to pay $3.5 billion more in healthcare costs over the next 15 years because of our high rate of obesity,” rather than “ Obesity leads to higher health care costs.”
  3. Identify the objectives. The objectives of your meeting will dictate the format, who you invite and how you will promote it. The term “town hall” only signifies a type of meeting where open question and answer from the public comprises the bulk of the meeting.
    • The objectives of your meeting could be informational, advocacy for a certain position, or for giving feedback to political candidates. While political candidate and advocacy meetings probably attract the most attention, they aren’t necessarily what’s best for your issue. For example, if public opinion is against the policy objectives of your organization, an informational meeting could be a better strategy for changing opinions to suit your needs.
  4. Pick a format. The traditional format of a town hall is for a panel of three to five speakers plus a moderator to give short introductions detailing their backgrounds and positions. Then, a moderator opens up questions to the audience. While the audience may pose questions to a certain panelist, the moderator should act as a facilitator, and if they feel the program would be advanced by posing that same question to multiple panelists, they should. Other formats could include:
    • A pure question and answer format. This can be good for a candidate’s forum.
    • An anonymous question format, where questions are submitted in advance, and the moderator chooses which questions to present to the panel. This format can be good for controversial subjects.

Pulling the Meeting Together

  1. Pick a location, date, and time. The location of the meeting should be in a centralized, neutral, handicapped accessible location. Churches, libraries, government buildings and community centers are all good choices. Make sure it doesn’t conflict with another popular community event, and hold it at a time when many people will be able to attend—the weekend, or if during the week, in the evening.[3]
    • A good rule of thumb is to always pick a location that is a little too small. A crowded venue creates the impression of activity and popularity, which is always better than the alternative.
    • Make the event free or of nominal cost, but encourage the attendees to RSVP—a Facebook page, an email address, or a phone number to call are easy, low cost ways of doing so. Assume two-thirds of the “maybes” won’t show up.
    • Make sure you have an alternate meeting location just in case your scheduled venue falls through.
  2. Invite panelists. The panelists are one of the most important factors contributing to a town hall’s success or failure. While it’s best to have notables on your panel, that isn’t always an option. The next best thing is to have panelists representing notable organizations and/or panelists with notable backgrounds—it gives the event more credibility.
    • Look to elected officials, academics, church and community leaders, and treatment providers.
    • This is another area where a diverse planning committee can come in handy. The more far reaching the ties of the members of the planning community, the more likely you are to be able to tap a diverse and exciting panel of experts.
    • Don’t discount the personality factor when you’re inviting panelists. The panelists should be credible enough to get people to the town hall, but they should be exciting enough that people talk abut your town hall long after it’s over.
  3. Recruit a moderator. Moderators are another important factor in the success of a town hall. The moderator has to have the respect of the panelists and the audience, along with the temperament to defuse tensions and pace the discussion.[4]
    • Think of a moderator like an MC—they should be charismatic, but not so charismatic they overshadow the panelists or dominate the discussion. Members of the media, retired judges and attorneys, and clergy can be good candidates.
  4. Brief the panelists. Make sure your panelists know about the format of the town hall, the other panelists, the expected turnout, and the subjects on the agenda. As long as they are willing, prepare them to speak with the media afterwards.
    • It’s a good idea to have your panelists arrive forty-five minutes to an hour ahead of time so you can go over the format and subjects one last time.
  5. Put together a staff. Certain key staff are going to necessary to ensure the meeting runs smoothly. You should have someone to talk with the media, seat the guests, and pass out materials like meeting agendas to the panelists and the guests.
    • These are all fine jobs for volunteers.
  6. Prepare advance materials. No matter what the size of your meeting, you’ll need some printed materials to pass out to guest, press, and the panelists. The type of meeting you’r e running will dictate the specific types of materials. For instance:
    • If you’re running an informational meeting, it’s a good idea to print up handbills or brochures that will touch on some of the information that you’ll cover in the town hall. For example, if your issue is HIV in your community, then print out a handbill that goes over some important statistics about the impact of HIV locally.
    • A town hall with political candidates or officials might include information about the candidates’ or officials’ positions and parties as it relates to your health issue.

Preparing for the Meeting

  1. Make sure the media shows up. The press is crucial to a successful town hall. Whether the town hall is focused on issue advocacy, dissemination of information, or a political forum, its notoriety will influence the success of those goals and your ability to put together town halls in the future.
    • You’ll need to write press releases, identify the reporters that cover stories about health, community affairs, or politics, and reach out to them at regular intervals.
    • A press release is a simple document sent to media organizations that explains an event and why it is noteworthy. Press release are typically less than a page long.
    • News is about current events, so you need to make sure you stress to reporters why the town hall is an event to cover now and not later. For example—obesity is always a problem, but it only makes news when a study is released purporting to show another reason why it is bad.
  2. Reach out to like-minded organizations. Members of your planning committee, panelists, and members of related organizations who aren’t a direct part of the town hall should all be cultivated to publicize the event.
    • Don’t forget to utilize resources like college campuses, hospitals, and government agencies. Post flyers publicizing the event at those locations. They can be a great way to boost attendance.
  3. Hit social media. Don’t forget the extensive network of issue groups on Facebook and other social media outlets. Don’t just reach out to brick and mortar organizations with people on the payroll. Post to Facebook groups, blogs, and message boards of interested and related organizations.
    • Make sure your panelists and members are also promoting the event on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
  4. Put together press packets. A press packet is distinguished from a press release in that it is a packet of materials given to reporters on the day of an event rather than an inducement to cover an event. It should include:
    • The press release.
    • Biographies of the panelists and speakers.
    • Information about the subject matter, including relevant studies, statistics, and personal stories of affected individuals.
  5. Expect the unexpected. Sometimes panelists don't show. Sometimes protesters flood the venue. A snowstorm might sweep into the area out of nowhere. As the event planner, you need to plan for these contingencies by booking alternate speakers or scheduling alternate dates.
    • If your town hall is swamped by protesters, a change in format might be appropriate. If the original format is open question and answer, get advance questions instead. If the protesters are outside, invite them in and change the format to advance question submissions.
    • Line up alternate speakers from your organization or participating organizations just in case a scheduled speaker doesn't show. If the town hall is a forum between political candidates, relentlessly emphasize it to the media--which will make them wish they had shown up.