What We’ve Learned About Hosting Virtual Public Meetings During COVID-19

11.10.2020 | Eugene M. Reindel |

In this COVID-19 era, virtual meetings have become the new norm. Like most companies, HMMH quickly learned to adapt to virtual check-ins and collaborations internally. A greater challenge, however, was learning how to hold effective public meetings in a virtual setting. With the experience now of contributing to more than a dozen virtual public meetings, we wanted to share what we have learned along with some useful tips.

The purpose of holding public meetings is to gather input and comments from the public with regard to projects in their communities. Our experience has ranged from airport/community noise roundtables, to technical advisory committee meetings, to task force meetings with elected officials.

When hosting a public meeting, it is important to try to maintain a similar structure to a traditional public meeting. Here are a few key ways to ensure effective communication to and from the public:

  • Members of the roundtable, advisory committee, or task force should have video and audio enabled during the meeting so that everyone can see the members as they speak
  • Members of the public should keep their cameras and microphones off and stay muted until the meeting is opened up for a comment period
  • A meeting administrator should be designated to handle the technical side of things, including monitoring comments as they come in and the order in which hands are raised during public comment
  • Members of the public can let meeting administrators know if they want to speak on a particular agenda item in two main ways:
    • “Raising their hands,”  a standard function in most virtual meeting platforms; or
    • Filling out speaking request forms provided to them when they log into the meeting as a member of the public
  • The meeting administrator will call on members of the public in order and unmute them so they can speak or enter their comments. Depending on the number of commenters, the speaking limit should be around two minutes
  • Alternatively, some virtual meetings have required the public to provide their comments, in writing or as a message left on a dedicated voicemail line, prior to the meeting. Then the comments are read aloud by administrative staff. If here is not enough time to read all of the comments, by having them in writing the comments are provided to the members of the panel and entered into the record.

Another consideration in terms of providing adequate opportunities for public comment is to offer separate phone lines for foreign languages. These separate phone lines can provide live translators so that non-English speaking members of the public can also become informed. The line can also provide comments in their native language that is also translated live to the English lines.

These meetings typically have PowerPoint-type presentations included and often from more than a single presenter. It is possible within virtual meeting platforms to give control to each presenter so that they can run the presentation from their computer. However, it is also possible, and sometimes preferred, to have all the presentations on a single computer with the same person driving the presentations for the presenters. While the presenter will have to say “next slide” for the administrator to advance the presentation, this can reduce the possibility of connection problems with the various speakers as some locations have a better Internet connection than others.

When hosting a public meeting, expect the unexpected. Assume that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong and arrange the meetings with “belts and suspenders,” meaning having a backup plan for every element of the meeting. For the committee members that are required to have video and audio, I suggest you hold a rehearsal or dry run at least one day prior to the event with all members. You may use the time between the rehearsal and the event to triage any issues that arise during the dry run. I have not experienced the need to have more than one dry run but can imagine the possible need, so you may want to schedule the dry run a few days prior to the actual event, but I suggest it not be more than a week from the event.

One positive result I have noticed from these virtual meetings is higher attendance. It may have to do with no longer having to travel for the public meeting and attendees having more availability due to the pandemic restrictions, making it is easier to attend. We will want to consider a virtual option for public meetings going forward since it is the goal of public meetings to engage the public and hear from the public regarding our projects. Virtual meetings offer an alternative many may find more attractive than having to go to a public meeting. I do not believe virtual meetings will replace on-site public meetings but, with most of the public using virtual meeting platforms during this pandemic, it is a viable option to consider in addition to on-site gatherings.

About the Author
Eugene Reindel, Gene Reindel, Vice President, Aviation, HMMH

Eugene M. Reindel

Vice President

Gene has focused the greater part of his career on aircraft noise and consulting across the country and internationally. As Vice…

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