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Telephone Town Halls for Political Debates


The Telephone Town Hall is a tremendously flexible and exciting tool for communication. It was originally developed to be used in political campaigns as a way of winning over and identifying supporters. However, in the two years we have been organizing Telephone Town Halls, one of the things that never ceases to surprise me is what a variety of often unintended uses it can be put to.

One of the most valuable ways a Telephone Town Hall can be used is as an alternative way of organizing meetings which were once organized face to face. Anyone who has organized a physical Town Hall meeting knows that these events take a tremendous amount of energy and are costly in terms of time and often financial resources. The New Brunswick Union has used Telephone Town Halls in place of their annual Presidential Provincial Tour – 7 stops in 10 days with less than 200 attending. By utilizing TTH’s, NB Union now reaches over 1,000 members without the travel time and expense. Charitable clients like the Stephen Lewis Foundation have used it as a way of communicating information to their members.

However, one use we had never contemplated was the use of the Telephone Town Hall as a forum for a political debate. We thought there would be too much back and forth and that it would not play well over the telephone. As often happens, one of our clients showed us something new.

The Alberta Teacher’s Association (ATA) represents Alberta’s teachers. The Government has called an election for April 23, 2012. Education issues are a key issue in the Alberta election and the ATA wanted to encourage its members to get out and vote and to give its members a chance to find out where Alberta’s five—FIVE— political parties stood on education issues.

The ATA invited all its members to a Telephone Town Hall. The invited representatives included the Alberta Minister of Education, Thomas Lukaszuk; Liberal Party Leader, Dr. Raj Sherman; Senate Candidate for  the Wild Rose Party, Vitar Marciano; Leader of Alberta Party, Glenn Taylor and New Democratic Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly, Deron Bilous.

Three of the debate participants were in a boardroom at ATA speaking over a high quality speaker phone. Two were off-site. In fact, Mr. Marciano was participating from his campaign bus!! The ATA organized a two hour debate which was split into 4 distinct topic areas. The debate was ably chaired by Bill Kilgannon-Moore, the Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta.

The debate went off virtually without a hitch. The Candidates were allowed to “spar” with each other. Over 10,000 teachers joined the call and at the beginning of the second hour over 1,000 teachers were still on the line. Over 200 teachers pressed 9 to ask a question and the 4 “Screeners” screened more than 100 calls in the 2 hours.

ATA President Carol Henderson was happy with the results: “I was overwhelmed by how many teachers took the time to participate in the Telephone Town Hall,” she said.

This was a great event for the ATA but it also was a great event for the candidates. What better way for a politician to spend 2 hours than speaking to over 1,000 key constituents? And there is no more cost effective way to arrange this.

“Through our members’ questions, party representatives heard first-hand about a wide range of teacher concerns,” said Henderson. “Our members sent each of the party representatives what is perhaps our single most critical message: teachers are deeply interested in the provincial election and want a government that will support and commit to public education.”

While Telephone Town Halls were originally developed as a way of political campaigning our clients are finding more and more innovative ways to use the Telephone Town Hall: Information sessions for donors, bargaining meetings for Trade Unions, political debates…the list goes on. If you can imagine it, we can try to make it happen.

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