Smile — You’re on Candid Camera!

What’s the impact on public meetings when virtually every person in the room has a video camera in their pocket?

Recently my school district hosted a regional meeting for our state Department of Education, sharing information about the new Smarter Balanced state tests. This is a controversial topic in some surrounding communities, so I was prepared for a lively debate. What surprised me, however, was the number of cell phone cameras in use throughout the meeting.

Standardized testing protesters videotaped not just state presenters, but every attendee who asked a question or made a statement. How many in the crowd, I wonder, were afraid to voice their views, knowing they could appear on social media? How many worried that if they spoke about a child’s special needs, it would compromise student privacy? How many educators worried about the impact on their careers? How many folks wished they had sat in the back?

Video or audio recording at public meetings is usually legal and increasingly common. As public relations practitioners, how can we ensure that public meetings remain a safe place to exchange ideas and express diverse views?

Transparency is a trust builder, and video can be a way to involve community members unable to attend an event. However, there are ways to keep it from having a dampening effect on your public meeting:

1) Remind presenters to expect cell phone video cameras: Public officials should be aware that it’s likely they will be videotaped, especially when dealing with controversial topics. Remind them to be diplomatic. Make sure they are well prepared with talking points and real-world examples.

2) Lay some ground rules: Ask your audience to respect any individual requests not to be video or audio recorded when they speak in the meeting. Explain that people may have a need to protect student privacy or a child in protective custody.

3) Provide a way to ask questions or raise issues anonymously: Hand out cards for questions and comments, which can be read aloud by a neutral facilitator. Provide the presenter’s email address, so people can ask questions privately. Try a clicker-response poll using cell phone technology so folks can weigh in anonymously. Poll Everywhere is one of many such tools, allowing for open response, word cloud response and multiple-choice polls.

4) Balance airtime: Don’t let one person or viewpoint dominate. Allow the opportunity for a variety of voices to be heard. Setting a time limit on comments can help. Don’t allow a second question or comment until several others have had the opportunity to speak.

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