Managing the Public Hearing for Maximum Impact

Debra Stein

Successful public hearings require more than just getting your supporters to city hall and hoping that everything works out. In fact, you can take several steps to manage the public hearing for maximum impact.

Learn the Rules
How does the commission, council, or board conduct its hearings? Is it a "cattle call" where citizens wait in the aisles for their turn at the microphone? Are witnesses called up in the order in which they sign up? Do opponents testify before supporters have an opportunity to make their case? Does the chairperson alternate advocates and adversaries, or call witnesses in some other order? You can’t take advantage of the rules if you don’t know them. Speak with the appropriate staff person or the chairperson well in advance of the hearing so you know what to expect.

Sign Up Your Supporters
If you are permitted to submit speaker cards or to sign up your supporters before the public hearing begins, do it. But don’t register all your supporters to speak successively. You should reserve some allies for later in the hearing to allow an opportunity for rebuttal and to ensure that hostile messages about your project are interspersed with your side’s positive messages.

Get the Good Seats
The early bird may get the worm, but early-arriving witnesses get front row seats. Stake out good seats so decision makers can see your allies and know that the audience supports you.

Maintain Contact with Supporters
Hearings often last longer than expected, and supporters may try to slip out of the hearing room without testifying if they think they will not be noticed. On the other hand, supporters who have been personally welcomed know they can be held responsible for breaching their commitment to testify. So greet your supporters when they show up. Remind them that you are counting on them both to remain for the entire hearing and provide testimony. Maintain eye contact with waiting witnesses during the hearing and talk to them during breaks. If necessary, be prepared to intercept bolting witnesses at the door and press them to stay for just a few minutes longer.

Make Sure Your Visual Aids Are Visible
Your charts, boards, or other visual aids should be visible to both decision makers and the public. An audience that cannot follow the discussion will feel excluded and offended, and decision makers may start treating the development team harshly simply to show the audience that no one has the advantage. Keeping visual aids on display can also help defuse strong emotions by redirecting attention from irrational fears to rational facts. If it is not feasible to set up your boards and easels so both the public and the politicians have a clear view of them, then consider making handouts available to permit the audience to follow along with your comments.

Ask Your Best Speakers to Testify First
A few of your most compelling, golden-tongued speakers should testify first so that later witnesses can be inspired and guided by those early presentations. In addition, reporters who must leave the hearing early to meet their deadlines can pick up quotable quotes from your most persuasive advocates.

Provide Talking Points
Before they testify, your supporters should be prepared and know what to say. Providing a one-page fact sheet or list of bulleted talking points helps ensure that your witnesses emphasize the key messages on which you want decision makers to focus. If you have lined up several speakers, you may want to produce a variety of fact sheets that address different issues. For example, labor union representatives might be provided with a fact sheet that focuses on new jobs while PTA representatives’ talking points might include details on schools and tax revenues.

Read Testimony Into the Record
Do you have a couple of important supporters who cannot attend the hearing? If so, their brief testimony can be read into the public record during the hearing. You can ask the absentee to recruit his or her own spokesperson, or you can ask an audience member who has not already approached the microphone to read the missing speaker’s comments. If absolutely necessary, a member of the development team can read the prepared statement on behalf of the absentee.

Encourage Supporters to Look Supportive
Your allies (including your own team members) can express their enthusiasm even when they are sitting still. Encourage them to smile and nod at appropriate moments. If there is an impressive crowd of supporters in the room, you can ask them to raise their hands or wear buttons to identify themselves as project advocates.

Remember the Press
You can increase the chance of getting your message in print by urging your supporters to talk to the reporters covering the hearing. Identify a couple of willing community spokespersons ahead of time and provide reporters with their names and telephone numbers. Encourage your allies to approach the press, introduce themselves, and explain why they support your project. If your supporters have submitted comments or have prepared written testimony for the hearing, they can provide copies to reporters. Remember that more quotes from supporters leave less room in the article for quotes from opponents!

Try to Speak Last
You want to be the last voice the decision makers hear before they cast their votes. By speaking last, you can rebut attacks made by earlier speakers and ensure that your own key messages are fresh in officials’ minds when it comes time to make a decision. Ask for a brief rebuttal period. If necessary, reserve some of your originally allocated speaking time to provide a summary of your views after all witnesses have testified. If you cannot secure rebuttal time for yourself, try to hold at least one persuasive supporter in reserve to speak at the end of the hearing to summarize your key messages.

Do Not Delay The Vote
If you see that decision makers are impatient and ready to vote your way, then do not irritate them with unnecessary additional testimony. Even if opponents continue to drone on with boring and unpersuasive complaints, encourage your supporters to waive their testimony in the interest of time so officials can get to the vote as quickly as possible.

Citizen testimony in favor of your proposed development should be carefully coordinated to ensure that the vocal minority opposing your project does not overwhelm your supporters’ political strength. By monitoring and managing all facets of the public hearing process, you can help make certain that decision makers truly appreciate the level of community support for your project.