It is that time of year again! When local politics start becoming the talk of the town. Welcome to Election Season. Who is running? Who is this new person? What is his position on public education, public funding, the role of parents, what makes education effective or adequate? Why is she running? Yes, you may know your neighbor well, but do you know the other candidates? Meet the Candidate events are a great way to educate the public about the candidates and issues that the community may be facing.
Why should you host an event?
- To get issues in front of candidates and voters.
- To provide an opportunity for the voting public to learn about and meet the candidates.
- To build relationships with the candidates and to be known as a positive influence in the community.
The purpose of a meet the candidate event is for the public to get answers to their questions or concerns and for the candidates to have a place to address such. These events should not be planned to present any candidate in a negative light or to promote any specific agenda.
Who can host this type of event?
- Organizations, town groups, and individuals (students and adults) can all play a role in hosting these events.
These are the most common formats used, but feel free to think outside of the box when considering what is right for your community and the audiences you are hoping will attend.
Debate: Debates usually position candidates on a stage, at podiums or at a large table where they can face the audience while interacting with each other and with the moderator. Debate dialogue can be structured in several ways. There are pros and cons to each format. Decide which type of debate best meets your objectives and be sure to notify candidates of the chosen structure in advance.
- Questions can be determined in advance and provided to the candidates prior to the event.
- Questions can be submitted by the audience to candidates in a live format.
- A moderator can propose questions to candidates and they respond in a live format.
Forum: A forum is when candidates are answering questions directly, but do not engage or challenge other candidates throughout the discussion. This format is much like a group interview where candidates may be on stage at the same time or separately. Some forums are formal in nature with candidates speaking from podiums, others are more relaxed where candidates are seated in chairs.
Discussion or Roundtable: Discussion or roundtable formats are where groups of people sit down with candidates and engage in a back and forth dialogue with each other and with other candidates. Circles of chairs or chairs angled in toward the candidates provides a setting that is conducive to this type of discussion.
Meet and Greet: Meet and greets are the most informal format where candidates make their way around the room and people go up to them to meet and chat with them personally. This could be a great plan for small towns who may not need to hear from candidates who have been on the ballot for years. People usually know their positions and there is an established track record. These sessions are generally shorter in length than the other formats.
Choosing a Moderator
If your format requires a moderator, choose someone who is familiar with the issues and candidates and can most effectively manage the flow of discussion in an unbiased way. While some use their town moderator, others bring moderators in from the local newspaper, colleges or high schools. The ideal moderator should be trusted, professional and fair.
Budget: Is there a budget for this event? Where will it come from? An event could cost as little as 25 dollars (printing of flyers and waters) to hundreds of dollars depending on the venue and details. Having a local organization to partner with can be helpful in keeps costs down.
Location: Consider the size of the crowd you hope to attract when searching for a venue. Does the town or school offer spaces free of charge for events like this? Can you partner with another organization to and use their venue or receive space at a discount? If the it is a meet and greet format, would someone volunteer their home or business space for the event? If there are not free venues available, this is likely to be your biggest expense.
Topic: Choose topics according to your audience. If this event is attended by parents, local business people or retirees, choose topics that are of specific interest to them. For an open community event, the primary interest may be education or budgeting. Speak to your school board, superintendent, or take a community poll via social media to discover what is of greatest interest to your audience.
Event Length and Time of Day:
- Determine the length of your event based on the number of candidates, anticipated audience size, and location availability.
- This is also dependent on your audience. If most members of the community work, consider commute and family obligations. If this is an event for the business community, it could take place during the workday. For a community-wide event, most towns in NH schedule them to start at around 7PM in consideration of families and their schedules. It is critical in NH, to always schedule a rain date in case of inclement weather.
Time Limits and Statements: Consider the length of time planned for the event. In order to stay within the designated timeframe, the following could help:
- Have candidates prepare a statement in advance to introduce themselves.
- Prepare printed handouts introducing the candidates and their positons.
- Set times limits for candidate and public comments.
If you have time limits for discussion or statements, be consistent. Do not let one person have more time on the floor than others as this may undermine the credibility of your event.
Determining Who Begins: In some formats this can be critical to the transparence and integrity of the format. Fair and easy selection processes have utilized drawing straws or flipping a coin for this purpose.
- Audio-visual needs.
- Seating arrangements and capacity.
- Printed programs (be sure to thank participants and volunteers in this).
- Transcripts or video recording for future use.
- Photography or video recording.
Candidates who are planning to attend are counting on a robust audience. Focusing on your desired audience, consider the different ways in which different demographics access event information and how you will reach everyone.
Assemble a committee
- Get a team together to work on communicating information about your event.
- Word of mouth is a powerful tool in event promotion. The more people focused on getting the word out, the better.
- Once the event date has been established, work backwards from that date to schedule press releases, Facebook announcements, websites posts, state calendars, posting flyers and finding local partners.
Use social media
- Does your chosen venue provide advertising/event promotion opportunities? If you are hosting at a school, they may have a newsletter. If partnering with a school board, they may be able to send out an email blast to their list. Also, see if the local PTA and other parent organizations would be will to spread the word to their email list and on their social media channels.
- Set up a Facebook event page, invite your Facebook friends and ask them to do the same. For a minimal fee, you can boost your posts or promote your event to specific audiences. People will want something to share with friends and sometimes want to interact with an event. This is also a great way to ask questions, take a poll, or allow for discussion. A best practice is to create a policy as to how/when posts will be removed for questionable content or language issues.
- This does not have to be flashy, but be sure to include event title, time, date, place, and who to contact for more information.
- Distribute flyers at places of worship, chambers of commerce, public libraries, coffee shops, other organizations in town, and town hall boards.
- Your local high school civics teacher may be interested in having student help out so that they better understand the process.
Contact local media
- Contact your local paper and tell them about the event. Providing them with a press release with all the details (which candidates are attending, what the format is, time, date and location) in advance is very helpful. Many local papers have event calendars and are looking for events like this to post or if they have column space, may write a quick announcement in the paper.
Day of Event Set-up Tips
- Provide water and breath mints for candidate that will be speaking.
- Have name badges or tags for candidates and attendees depending on your format. Not everyone will know each other and this will help dialogue flow smoothly.
- Double check any audio-visual equipment prior to the event start. Perform a sound check on all microphones and be sure the volume is loud enough for those who experience hearing difficulties.
- Be sure there are seats for those with physical limitations.
Send post event correspondence:
- Personal thank you notes to the candidates should be sent out thanking them for their time, their effort in public service, and their thoughtfulness in preparation and participation.
- Thank the hosting site (and partners) for their generosity in providing a venue.
- Thank your moderator/emcee for their time and preparation for the event.
Evaluate your event: Take time to reflect upon what worked and what did not with your team. Record everything in preparation for any follow up events. In this documentation, include a contact list and timeline for the event so next year the team has everything in one place.
Send out a press release: Create an event wrap-up release. This can include quotes, photos (be sure they are high resolution) and stories about the event. Let people know if there is a next step such as voting or meeting. Be sure to write the release in the voice of the publication to which you are submitting and provide contact information in case they have follow up questions.