Using virtual Q&As to embrace communities, promote your agency

Since COVID-19, virtual events have become the 'new normal.' Here's how agencies can use tech to connect with communities

By Tripepi Smith

Stuck somewhere in between a full-blown pandemic and a return to the society we knew, virtual events are the “new normal.” Because of open meeting laws in a physically distanced society (which doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon), public agencies have been figuring out how to hold public meetings on Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. The next best thing to being in person, after all, is replicating face-to-face engagement through video.

However, unlike in-person meetings, video recordings can last indefinitely. And, as we’ve seen from viral videos of hot mic and accidental hilarious filters, you may be reaching a much wider audience for all the wrong reasons. In the wake of a renewed call to reimagine the role of policing in public safety, police departments also face increased interest in how they conduct business. That attention makes it all the more important to use video tools wisely. Here are some approaches agencies can consider.

The City of Santa Paula, California recently introduced its new police chief to the community through live, virtual Q&A sessions with community members.
The City of Santa Paula, California recently introduced its new police chief to the community through live, virtual Q&A sessions with community members.

The Q&A concept

When unusual times call for unconventional measures, police departments and public safety agencies can get creative with how they engage their communities while adhering to safety guidelines. Virtual events allow participation from people who normally would/could not attend in person. Also, the comfort and convenience of engaging virtually embolden many who may not ordinarily wish to speak in front of a crowd.

Getting in front of the community through virtual Q&As allows police chiefs and agency leaders to engage with residents in a meaningful way while simultaneously forming new relationships and rapport with community members. 

The City of Santa Paula, California recently introduced its new police chief to the community through live, virtual Q&A sessions with community members. This venture helped the new chief convey his goals for the department, virtually meet important leaders in the community and climb the steep learning curve of serving a new city. This same tactic can have a similar benefit for other agencies.

Embrace the community

While it might be easy to get lost in the logistics of a virtual Q&A, remember it is for the community's benefit, not just the agency. It will be helpful if participants can rely on a team (whether in-house or third-party) to handle technical logistics so they can focus on representing the agency.

Having police leaders as the face of an agency’s Q&A demonstrates to residents that public safety is operated by individuals, not a faceless institution. It immediately strips away any facade of an entity calling the shots and reveals the reality that officers are behind the scenes, working on complex challenges to protect the public. Residents are more likely to feel seen and heard if they can connect a name with a face. Often, this connection goes both ways with residents being more apt to take in what agency leaders have to say, which can quell animosity and build trust.

Join the conversation

With plenty of skepticism and criticism following recent calls to reimagine policing, residents have rejuvenated interest in what local police departments are doing. Engaging in a virtual Q&A clearly defines a path into the conversation. It also signals to residents that their police department shares a desire to improve operations and services.

Another direct benefit of virtual Q&As is a critical vantage point on prevalent gripes within your community. This is especially important for incoming police chiefs who may be new to the community they are now serving. A Q&A will allow any chief to surface the unique issues and challenges the community is facing while also humanizing the police chief to the public. 

Direct the narrative

With increasingly negative perceptions of public safety agencies, a meet-and-greet may seem like an invite to an ambush of negative comments and disinformation. And while this may happen to some degree, it doesn’t have to be the only outcome of the event. These events remain a communications opportunity for leaders to direct the narrative around their agency. 

Consider how this event can elevate your agency’s brand and mission. Preparing talking points, anticipating potential questions, as well as appropriately composing your tone, wording and phrasing will all help promote a positive image of your agency while managing public opinion.

Establish clear expectations of participants' behavior. Will you only accept questions submitted in advance or field questions live? Will you or your staff respond to real-time comments or tell your audience upfront that you are not monitoring comments/chats? How tightly you control the Q&A process is up to you. A strict process leaves little room for surprises, but your audience may feel you're not open to authentic dialogue.

Eight best practices for virtual events

Although virtual events are common, it is easy to make simple mistakes that undermine professionalism and can cause residents to lose interest. 

  1. Zoom backgrounds. A branded Zoom background makes you look prepared and professional while eliminating any background distractions.
  2. Avoid technical delays or difficulties. Technical difficulties are the easiest way to lose your audience. Test your systems thoroughly, use the strongest internet connection available to you and join your scheduled meeting early to settle in before going live. Hiring a third-party resource to handle technical logistics will allow you to focus on your audience. 
  3. Ask questions. The questioning doesn’t have to be one-sided. Coming prepared with questions of your own deepens genuine curiosity in what the community has to say. Getting uninterrupted time with community members can be a valuable learning experience for the agency.
  4. Avoid jargon. Public service is full of acronyms and complicated processes. The average resident may not understand all the terms you use on a regular basis, so speak clearly and explicitly to keep everyone in the conversation.
  5. Keep it short and simple. Residents will likely come armed with a multitude of questions. Honor their effort by keeping your answers short and sweet to address as many questions as possible.
  6. It's OK to say, “I don’t know.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, do not make something up or speculate. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know, but I will look into it and get back to you” as long as you follow through.
  7. Empathize. It is important to avoid appearing defensive on video. Pay attention to your body language and practice in front of a mirror if necessary. Approaching each question from an empathetic and compassionate place can facilitate remaining open even while enduring the most critical of feedback. The camera and residents alike will capture this openness, which can go a long way to a viewer.
  8. Establish action items. Make sure residents don’t leave the Q&A asking, “Now what?” Guarantee they continue feeling like they have a direct line to the agency, not only through social media, newsletters, or websites but through direct contact information or an ongoing series.

A virtual Q&A or meet and greet is a cost-effective and straightforward way to talk frankly with members of your community, unearth community issues and concerns, and engage with newly interested residents. This will only help you better serve and connect with your community, all while allowing your agency to be seen in a truthful and positive light.

NEXT: It’s time for police leaders to get serious about community communication

About the author

Tripepi Smith – a public affairs, technology and communications firm – has worked with multiple public agencies, including the City of Santa Paula, to strategize and align communications with their purpose and goals. Strategists and technical experts make up our team, allowing us to produce successful virtual events both technically and relationally. We understand the sensitive and complex nature of a public safety agency’s relationship with its residents at this particular moment. Tripepi Smith is able to use a virtual Q&A to get in front of any negative sentiments while also affirming an agency’s character. Contact us for outreach campaigns, video production, content writing, messaging and more.

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