Telephone Town Hall: Best Practices for Teleconferences

The Congressional Institute, which is dedicated to helping Members of Congress better serve the nation and to helping the public better understand public policy debates and the operations of the national legislature, has conducted an extensive survey and has compiled a number of "best practices" for those who use Town Hall Teleconference services.  Here is the list of their findings and suggestions to maximize the effectiveness of the call.

For more information on our Town Hall Phone Conferences click this link:

NOTE:  TTH stands for Tele-Town Hall

1) Limit the geography of outbound calls to particular cities or towns near one another, as opposed to taking a smattering from all over the district. When you spread the outbound calls far and wide, and then on the TTH announce where each caller is from, you undermine the intimacy that a TTH call offers. Geographic diversity within the district leads listeners to think there's a huge number of people on the call--an impression you don't want to leave if you don't have to. You want people to think you are calling only people who live near them, and that you're focused on that localized community's concerns.

2) Expand your selection criteria for phone numbers to call. Most of the people in our focus groups who had not participated in a tele-town hall would very much like to attend one.

3) Give constituents advance notice that the calls are taking place. The ideal amount of lead time is one week. You can leave a brief, automated voice message with the approximate time they can expect to receive a call on a given evening.

4) Limit calls to weekday evenings. Sixty-four percent of respondents in our survey who had participated in TTHs said that weekday evenings were preferable either to weekends or daytime during the week. The best time on a weekday night varies from person to person, but with older people you generally want to start a bit earlier (7:00 p.m. or so), and for parents with children you want to start later (8:30 or so, after young kids go to bed). Do not start a call any later than 8:30 p.m.

5) For those districts with pockets of "challenging constituents," be sure to conduct TTHs with those constituents, too. There is considerable goodwill built up by merely doing TTHs and showing that you're listening, even among those who oppose your point of view.

At the beginning of the call

6) During the automated message inviting people onto the call, indicate at what time the call will end. This will give people a sense of whether they want to make the time commitment, and know they're not signing on for hours of conversation.

7) Announce you plan to limit the scope of issues in the first half hour to three or four hot-button issues that you specify. This gives you more control over the agenda and ensures that issues that are on most constituents' minds are addressed in full. It also signals to listeners that people with narrow agendas won't dominate the call. But also be sure to announce that at an appointed time during the call (at 20 minutes past the hour, for example) you will welcome calls on any subject.

8) Take a few minutes at the beginning of the call, before taking questions, to talk about what you've been doing recently in Washington and what you're going to be working on in the next month.

During the call

9) Get callers with personal concerns off the call immediately by referring them to staff. Show all appropriate sensitivity, but tell the caller that they should call a specific person at the office the next day, and give that staffer's first name and phone number. Listeners get very impatient will calls that have no perceived bearing on their lives, or that go on too long.

10) Remind participants the call is live and not recorded. The easiest way to do this is to periodically say what time it is, or announce how much time is left for people to call in.

11) Conduct an instant survey with call participants (by instructing them to push the keypad on their phones) to get immediate feedback on pending issues before Congress. The more interactive you can make the call, the longer people are willing to listen. Remember: The top reason people say the TTHs enhance their view of their Congressman is that they show that someone in Washington is paying attention to their concerns. Building upon that sentiment is crucial to strengthening your TTH outreach.

12) Indicate that the calls are not screened. About half the people in our focus groups thought that the calls were screened. You build considerable goodwill by signaling that you do not screen your calls and you welcome all comers. Our most skeptical people said that merely saying you don't screen the calls is still not enough. The best way to get this point across: Use a bit of humor. Wait until a hostile caller gets on the phone, and when he or she is done with the question, say something like this: "Well, as you can probably tell, we obviously don't screen our calls..."

13) If you know a caller personally, don't make it sound like you're old buddies when he/she gets on the line. When that happens more than once on a call, it leads some listeners to conclude that the call is staged and not spontaneous. Keep in mind: Most of the folks on the call don't know you personally, and it sounds surprising to them that you might know multiple people who are randomly calling in. You might say something warm but innocuous to a familiar caller, such as: "I'm delighted to have you on the conference call tonight."

14) Use the TTH as an opportunity to drive people to your website. Most have not visited it, but they intuit there's useful information there. Also encourage them to sign up for your e-newsletter while on the home page. What you should absolutely not do is use the website as a crutch during the TTH; in other words, do not tell a caller that the answer to a question can be found on the website. Answer the question in full on the call, and then say that if they want even more detailed information, they can find it at your site. And be sure to give out the URL (website address).

15) Remind participants that they can put you on their speaker phone if they have one. We heard some people say it was annoying to have to hold a phone to their ear for an hour, so you can do them a favor if you gently remind people that they may have that speaker option on their phone. You can also turn it into a family event, where you can encourage parents to bring their kids in to listen in the same room.

16) Mention the fact that you're one of the first people in Congress to use this new technology, and that you've been leading others in Congress to adopt it as well. Constituents like to hear evidence that you're able to persuade other Member of Congress to do something; it shows you have some clout to get things done, even if not issue-specific.

17) Cite how previous TTHs have influenced your thinking on specific issues--even if they didn't necessarily change your overall position. We heard from some TTH participants that being on the call sounded "more like the Congressman was giving out information as opposed to answering questions." You want to convey that you are truly listening, and that you are empowering them merely by asking questions of you on a call.

At the end of the call

18) Remind callers they can push a particular key on their phone and leave a message at the end of the TTH, and a staff member will call back soon with an answer (and actually follow up). When offering this, it would be very useful to have your TTH provider dial an automated, immediate reply call to each person leaving a message, indicating that the constituent's message was indeed received, that you look forward to reviewing it, and that a live person from your office will be calling back within 48 or 72 hours. We heard concerns that people had left messages and were uncertain for days whether they were received.  ALSO: In a couple of instances people left messages and never received a follow-up from staff. This left a very bad impression in the minds of constituents.

19) Announce that you will be uploading the audio of the tele-town hall onto your website, so those who missed part of it can download it. (You can easily convert it into a podcast that's downloadable.)

Other recommendations

20) Aim to reach each household once per quarter. More often is too often; less often is not enough. At the end of each call, announce in what month you will be calling them again.

21) Limit each TTH to one hour, maximum.

22) When you dial phone numbers where no one is home, and leave a message indicating you were inviting them to a TTH, give them a way to learn about what you're doing in Congress. The best way is to send them to your website and let them download the audio of the TTH or possibly a transcript. Merely leaving a message saying that the constituent missed the TTH is not viewed as having any intrinsic value.

23) Do not invite guest experts to join you on the call. Constituents want to hear you and you only.

24) Do not indicate how many people are on the call. They assume there are far fewer than there actually, and you don't want to dilute the intensity of "touch" that comes with TTHs.

25) Take these calls seriously, and study how to get them right. At least half the people we spoke with who have participated in TTHs said the main way they determine whether they're satisfied with your job performance is based upon the TTHs.