Swine Flu Briefing: A Lesson in How to Run a Town Hall Meeting

Posted 04.27.2009

One of the basics in the senior leader’s communications repertoire is the town hall meeting.  Sometimes (oftentimes?), these meetings can really run off the rails.  When they do, it’s usually because the leader comes in without the answers that people care most about.  Another classic mistake is to come in with the desired information but to deliver it in a way that shows no connection whatsoever with the people in the audience.

Flubrief Fortunately for all of us, there aren’t many town hall meetings on the subject of what leaders are doing  to prevent a global pandemic of influenza.  But, that’s exactly what three senior leaders took on in front of the White House press corps on Sunday afternoon.  To share what the government is doing to deal with the rapidly developing outbreak of a new strain of swine flu, homeland security advisor John Brennan, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Richard Besser and Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano took to the airwaves.  By chance, I watched it on CNN as it happened and I have to say it was a best practice example of how to conduct a town hall meeting.  (If you missed the briefing, you can watch it here. If you want more information on swine flu and how to stay healthy, visit the CDC website here. In about 20 minutes, these government leaders showed how it should be done when it comes to the what and how of conducting a successful town hall meeting.

Here’s what I saw in their briefing and what leaders can learn from their example.

Brennan, Besser and Napolitano each took turns at the press room podium and, collectively demonstrated that it’s not just what you say in a town hall, it’s also how you say it.  Here are some of the things they did in each respect that leaders should keep in mind when they’re briefing their own organizations:

What They Said

Clear Definition of the Problem:  In simple, easy to understand language, they explained what has happened since the flu outbreak began in Mexico last week and what has been observed thus far with the flu in the United States.  Their points were clear, time based, tied to metrics and fact based.   By sharing the facts that they had, they demonstrated their respect for the audience’s capacity to handle the facts.

What We’re Doing to Address the Problem: After defining the problem, they then explained what the government and health care authorities and providers are doing to address it.  The three leaders emphasized the coordination and cooperation between public health agencies around the world and throughout the country.  They specifically recognized and praised the role of local health care providers for their extra efforts in screening patients for swine flu. 

What You Can Do to Help: They made a clear request of average citizens to do common sense things that can help prevent the spread of disease.  Frequent hand washing, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and staying home when sick were among the actionable, easy to do things that they requested.  By clearly making these requests they not only shared information that helped promote their goals, they gave people the knowledge they needed to contribute to the goal.

What Comes Next: Napolitano ended the briefing by formally declaring a public health emergency but made clear that the state of emergency is “standard operating procedure” and compared it to declaring an emergency when a hurricane is threatening the coast.  By taking this step, the government is positioning itself to coordinate additional resources and take other steps that could help contain an outbreak.   By comparing it to hurricane preparations, Napolitano gave listeners a frame of reference they could understand.  This approach can make the unfamiliar feel less threatening and more actionable.

How They Said It

Calm and Steady: In situations like a potential pandemic (or a reorganization or a layoff) that can cause fear and anxiety, you want leaders who project a quiet confidence that suggests they have a plan to address the situation in the best possible way.  One of the primary goals in the swine flu briefing was to prevent public panic by demonstrating the situation was being addressed by smart, competent people not just at the podium but throughout the U.S. and the world.  By speaking knowledgeably and in a conversational tone, Brennan, Besser and Napolitano did that. 

Concerned for People Affected:
  At the same time, they acknowledged the suffering that the flu has already caused (in Mexico particularly) and expressed their concern and sympathy for those affected.  In situations where the technical solution matters a lot, it’s easy for leaders to focus on that aspect to the exclusion of the people impact.  Napolitano and her colleagues struck a good balance between the two.

Clear, Tight Goals for the Communication:  These three covered a lot of important ground in 20 minutes.  They had clearly thought about what their most important points were and resisted the urge to freelance the briefing.

Teamwork Based on Role Clarity and Shared Goals:  Each of the leaders spoke to their specific areas of expertise and authority.  They seamlessly passed the podium from one to the next and in doing so instilled a lot of confidence that there is a team at the top who knows what their roles are, where they intersect and who’s responsible for what.

Hope those observations have some practical application for all of you leaders who, while you aren’t necessarily dealing with global health (although some of you likely are), you’re still communicating with people who need some clear leadership communications.

In the meantime, stay healthy!