10 Tips for Managing Contentious Public Meetings

If your business or organization finds itself the subject or host of a public meeting, your preparation may need to include more than just setting up chairs and a microphone. If the discussion is likely to get lively or contentious, take some extra time in planning to avoid unnecessary tensions.

1. Crowded rooms empower crowds. Always hold public meetings in a room of appropriate size. If a larger-than-normal crowd is expected at a regularly scheduled meeting, consider moving the meeting into larger space.

2. Standing crowds are more prone to outbursts and physicality. Standing through a lengthy meeting makes agitated spectators and commenters more agitated. Ensure that all attendees have a seat. If appropriate, consider offering separate “for” and “against” seating areas to keep antagonists apart.

3. Crowds like to be acknowledged. Voice appreciation for a crowd’s attendance and acknowledge their passion / dedication.  Assure participants they will be shown respect and given an opportunity to speak (if meeting laws permit) and ask that they show respect and restraint.

4. Outbursts occur most often “from the peanut gallery.” Provide a designated space podium or microphone from which commenters are to speak. If bylaws permit, require all commenters to sign in before the meeting begins, and politely request they state their name at the beginning of their comments. Let commenters know their remarks are being recorded as part of the public record, and remind them of any time limits that apply to the duration of public remarks.

5. Agitated crowds are encouraged by interaction. Generally speaking, board/ committee/council members are charged with listening to concerns and suggestions from the public; dialogue and debate are generally reserved for governing body members in discussion with each other. Resist the temptation to answer questions from commenters “as they come,” and never engage in dialogue with a heckler or someone speaking “out of order.”

6. Show only as much force as necessary. Don’t attempt to intimidate a peaceful crowd by parading armed officers at the front of the meeting. Conversely, have appropriate personnel on-hand and prepared to physically confront any attendee who genuinely requires it.

7. Encourage everyone to “keep their cool.” Never allow the space in which a contentious public meeting is held to become warm.  Being hot and physically uncomfortable increases the likelihood of outbursts and shortens everyone’s patience.

8. Be a polite host. If appropriate and space allows, provide refreshments such as coffee, bottled water and light snacks. In many instances, providing snacks outside of (but adjacent to) the meeting space can help keep the crowd (and emotions) diffuse.

9. Ensure that media has a place. Television camera operators are generally allowed to move about during a public meeting, but they will usually respect requests to locate in a designated area or avoid a particular space. If any protected audiences are in attendance – such as minors or mentally incompetent adults – ask reporters to respect their privacy.

10. Keep private matters private. Personnel issues, legal matters and discussions of a proprietary nature (including, in some instances, contract terms) are best discussed in executive session.  A board or governing body should consult with its legal counsel prior to any public meeting in which executive session may be appropriate or advantageous to ensure it is compliant with appropriate bylaws.