Advance Local reinvents town hall meetings during pandemic via Facebook Live

By George Rodrigue

Advance Local

New York City, USA

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Coronavirus and political divisions posed two big challenges for local news organisations in recent months: How to better cover vital local issues during a period of social distancing and how to earn the audiences’ attention and trust.

AL.com, part of the Advance Local newsgroup, found a way to accomplish both. Social media editor Ivana Hrynkiw produced and hosted a series of Facebook Live town hall meetings, Reopening Alabama, between local mayors and their constituents. In six installments of just under 30 minutes each, AL.com posed questions directly from its audience. The conversations reached more than 150,000 viewers.

AL.com’s Content Vice President Kelly Ann Scott and Senior Director of Content Izzy Gould discussed the origins of the project and some of the thinking behind it.

Where did the idea for Reopening Alabama come from?

Scott: We saw that, throughout the state, a patchwork of local decisions was creating the bulk of our COVID policies. We wanted to create a way for citizens to have access to their local leaders virtually. We wanted to elevate the voices, questions, and concerns of everyday Alabamians as the pandemic continued. We had noticed online townhalls at some organisations and decided to break our conversations down among mayors to provide that kind of access and accountability.

Advance Local's AL.com hosted six town hall sessions on Facebook Live.
Advance Local's AL.com hosted six town hall sessions on Facebook Live.

How many citizens posed questions to their mayors, and how did you recruit them?

Gould: We used social media for callouts to the public for a full week in advance of each town hall. When people sent us questions in advance we tried to bring them face to face, virtually speaking, with the mayors during the broadcasts. That wasn’t as easy as it might sound, because many people were shy about going on camera. But we had a few. Most of our questions came during the Facebook Live show via the comments section.

What moments stood out for you among these conversations?

Gould: Probably the best part was when we had people speaking on camera directly to the mayors, especially in the initial video with Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. We learned about new technology called Streamyard at the beginning of the pandemic, which made it possible to pull these off with multiple people on a live stream broadcast through social media and YouTube. 

How did you market the conversations to your audiences?

Gould: We used social media, our Web site, and our newspapers to promote the events as interactive opportunities with the mayors, aimed at answering audience questions.

How did your approach to these conversations change over time, if at all?

Scott: Each conversation reflected the concerns and questions from each of those cities. And, each city in Alabama has different concerns and questions. They’re not monolithic.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) sponsored the series. How was that sponsorship agreement structured? Did they have any say in the content of the broadcasts?

Gould: We agreed to allow them to ask a question on camera during each town hall. But they had no editorial control.

What advice do you have for other news organisations that might want to hold similar conversations with their local leaders?

Gould: Think about the user experience and what people might want to learn, hear about, or engage with when you conceptualise your plans.

Scott: Set clear expectations about any sponsor involvement. Limit the scope of your event so that it can be meaningful.

About George Rodrigue

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