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Guide Guidelines for successful virtual public meetings

This guide contains legal guidance, regulations, checklists and recommendations to hold engaging virtual public meetings based on work being done by MassDOT. You will find information on how to meet accessibility and ADA requirements, along with best practices for hosting a meeting as a project manager, facilitator, and producer.

Table of Contents

Overview

Unlike in-person meetings, virtual meetings allow more participation due to the ability of technology to transcend geography and time barriers. If used strategically, virtual meetings can reach more people with more dynamic interaction than traditional meetings. 

This guidance will provide strategies, tools, and requirements for successful virtual meetings which are different from in-person meetings.

General meeting instructions: 

  • Presentations should be simple. Slides with graphics and narrative should be easily translated.
  • Meeting agendas should be confined to one or two topics to allow for more effective communication, appeal and participation.
  • Meeting times, durations and frequency should be varied. Unlike in-person meetings, virtual meetings can be held at different and multiple times and days to enhance participation.
  • Virtual meetings allow for greater engagement, creating a level playing field for both new and seasoned participants.

This guidance has been created by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and is being shared as a resource.

Considerations 

Virtual meetings require more advance planning to enable compliance with legal and accessible accommodations to protect the public. Advance notice will allow more outreach for new participants and those requiring assistance with technology, language and accessible platforms. 

Outreach needs to be more robust – more than in-person meetings. Outreach, advertisement and agendas of meetings should be clear and enticing. In a world of virtual interactions there is a lot of competition for attention.  You will need to give people a reason to attend and message it far and wide. 

Role of public engagement 

What level of active public participation do you want out of your meeting? This will help determine which platform and tools you will use. 

  • For engagement – Use workshops, advisory groups, design charrettes 
  • For outreach & consulting – Use design public hearings, wiki-mapping, other feedback solicitation (e.g. surveys, meeting-in-a-box, etc.) 
  • To notify & inform – Use social media, fact sheets, websites, public informational meetings

Steps to achieve successful engagement 

Successful engagement in virtual meetings involves serving a broad population. To ensure you are planning an engaging meeting:

  • Identify Meeting Outcomes
  • Select the Appropriate Platform and Tools
  • Identify Barriers to Participation
  • Ask for Feedback and Respond to Inquiries
  • Measure Performance and Success

Planning process

Define the purpose of your virtual meeting 

Defining the purpose of your virtual meeting is key as this will help in the selection of your meeting platform, along with informing strategies for outreach, planning, and engagement. These questions should help guide this process. 

  • Why are you having the meeting? 
  • Who is the target audience? Who will be directly impacted by the project? Who do you need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate with internally? 
  • Where and When? Plan for multiple date (s)/time (s) of the meeting to accommodate more participation. 
  • How will people participate? How to develop a strategy for outreach and engagement that addresses a diversity of needs and resources. 
  • What do you need to get out of the meeting or are required to get out of the meeting? 

Public meeting notice

Public meeting notices are essential to an engaging meeting that follows legal parameters. All public meeting notices should include accessibility statements and should be translated into key spoken languages. 

  • Include the selected platform to be used in your notice along with how to engage and where to access information in advance of the meeting.
  • Your notice and social media should focus on why people should attend and make it easy for them to participate.
  • Your notice should anticipate new audiences and therefore it will need to identify how and what materials are important to access.

Managing diverse needs after sending notice

  • Critical project details and supporting documentation are finalized and disseminated between the notice going out and the actual public meeting(s). As materials are released - posted online, shared with invitees, etc. – accessibility standards and language access requirements should be observed.
  • For non web-based outreach, share information by mail, community postings, or through local media outlets. Note: alternate formats (large-print, braille, captioned video, etc.) and additional languages may be advised, depending on local needs. 
  • Allow attendees to send questions and comments in advance through email, mail, phone, web, and other practical means of communication.
  • Send meeting reminders as the date of the meeting approaches and share instructions for virtual platforms and tools that will be used.
  • First-time participants will benefit from basic background information.

Notify public of platform features - examples

  • Real-time Captioning is provided by a third-party. In the event we experience any issues with live captions, the recording of today’s session will be closed captioned.
  • Today’s session will be recorded. Registrants will receive an email with links to the recorded presentation, slides, and transcript.
  • Have questions? Please submit them via the Q&A pod. We’ll save time at the end to answer as many as we can get to live, and the rest as part of the follow-up.

Utilize support staff

Public meetings require multiple members of a given project team to support the project manager in the virtual meeting process. A "producer" - someone who will manage technical set-up, meeting chat and moderation - should be determined for your meeting in the planning process. Producers implement any accommodations identified prior to the meeting. 

A facilitator, often the project manager, should be identified during the early stages of the planning process. The facilitator will work with outreach and engagement experts to determine key information aspects of the meeting, as well as open the meeting the day of. 

Understanding access & removing barriers

Removing barriers

Over 40% of the population has some barrier to access and participation in meetings, such as: ability, language, time, travel, and technology. The people are modally agnostic and may participate in many public meetings. Consistent platforms, using simple tools to access meetings virtually, is imperative.

Use tools and techniques to lower the barrier to access and participation.

Using technology to maximize participation

With available technology (websites, virtual meeting platforms, video uploads, etc.), information can be shared 24/7 and it is strongly recommended to host multiple meetings on a topic at multiple times of the day to encourage broader participation.

Consider the following:

  • Post a video of the meeting presentation on your website, with instructions on how to provide comments.
  • Request that attendees submit questions before the meeting
    • Tailor the presentation to address these questions or,
    • Post ‘lightning talk’ videos online where you briefly discuss questions raised
  • For feedback on key decision points, utilize live polling in the virtual meeting platform

Accessibility tools

When a participant requests a reasonable accommodation and/or a language access, respond with an acknowledgement and indicate that the request will be processed in a timely manner.

“Three-legged stool” of equal access in the virtual setting

  • Title VI Diversity – Beyond the Usual Stakeholders – Virtual platforms and tools make it possible to identify and connect with new and diverse populations.
  • ADA Accessibility – Remove Barriers to Access – Share accessible information and solicit participation through accessible platforms to promote equal access.
  • Technology – Recognize audiences have different internet, devices and broadband capabilities. Plan for phone calls and mailing options to reach populations with non-compatible devices and lack broadband.

Responding to ADA and Title VI requests

When a participant requests a reasonable accommodation and/or a language access, respond with an acknowledgement and indicate that the request will be processed in a timely manner. It is critical that the budget has sufficient allocation of funds to satisfy accommodation and language requests as well as to fulfill the public engagement mandate more broadly.

The obligation to provide these services is significant. You may need to communicate with the requestor to better understand their specific needs and how to reasonably address them.

Responding to requests from the public

If a participant requests a reasonable accommodation and/or a language access, respond with an acknowledgement within 48 hours and indicate that the request will be processed in a timely manner. You may need to communicate with the requestor to better understand their specific needs and how to reasonably address them.

Requests should be submitted a minimum of 14 calendar days in advance of the meeting to ensure interpreter availability.

If the meeting is cancelled or rescheduled, interpreter requests should be canceled at least 48 hours advance in order to avoid being billed for the service. If no third-party service providers are available on the requested date, consider rescheduling the meeting, holding another meeting session when services are available, working with the requestor to identify other accommodations that may still facilitate their participation.

Accessibility & accommodations services

Captioning

Captioning is an essential component of meeting diverse needs, providing a meeting environment accessible to all as well as improving the quality of your meeting. The best way to provide captions is to use a professional captioner.

Captions can be delivered to participants:

  • Directly into the meeting platform, such as using Zoom’s integrated captioning. 
  • Into a browser page when your online meeting tool does not have a caption option. This can also be an option for tools that only allow one line of captions to display at a time, which can be difficult to follow.
  • Through auto-captioning tools. Note: This is a last resort when a live captioner is not available due to an emergency situation. These captions should be monitored as they will make errors. Have a chat line open, if possible, to post clarifications and to allow participants relying on the captions to ask

Request CART providers (real-time translation)

Request sign language interpreters

Requests should be submitted within 21 days, but no later than 14 calendar days in advance of the meeting to ensure interpreter availability. If the meeting is cancelled or rescheduled, interpreter requests should be canceled at least 48 hours advance in order to avoid being billed for the service. CART providers should be cancelled no later than 72 hours in advance of the event.

Interpreters invoices are billed as a minimum of two hours. For meetings that are anticipated to last more than 75 minutes, two interpreters are required. In most situations, one CART provider is enough if the meeting is no longer than three hours.

Increased flexibility with virtual tools

One of the many benefits of virtual meetings is the flexibility of the virtual spaces. There are many ways to take advantage of this including:

  • Offer meetings at different times – not just at night like in-person meetings- no longer constrained
  • Record the project presentation and post a video, online in advance of the official meeting. Allow individuals to submit questions in advance of the meeting.
  • Post “lightning talks” – short five-minute opportunities for the project team to discuss or answer a question that was submitted by the member of the public. These can be posted online or on the project’s webpage to provide information for members of the public outside of standard meetings.
  • If public feedback is necessary during a meeting (surveys, polls, weighing different options, etc.), consider making these feedback mechanisms available for several days before and/or after the meeting to give ample time for responses.

Legal requirements

Public meetings should be publicized as early as possible -- ideally a minimum of 3 weeks in advance, but never less than 14 days.

The law 

State public bodies are subject to the Open Meeting Law and must post meeting notices on the website of the public body or its parent agency.

Public meetings should be publicized as early as possible. Virtual public meetings should be publicized as early as possible—ideally, a minimum of 21 calendar days in advance, but never less than 14 days in advance. This allows attendees time to submit requests for reasonable accommodations and for meeting planners to set deadlines for accommodation requests to be made in a timely manner.

Messages and chat retention 

Messages that contain substantive discussions may need to be kept for several years or permanently. To the extent possible, configure the platform’s settings to allow for these messages to be retained indefinitely.

Recordings 

If the meeting should be recorded, keep in mind that the recording may be a “public record” that is subject to disclosure and/or required to be preserved and retained in accordance with the applicable retention schedules. 

You must notify participants that you intend to record the meeting and their continued participation indicates consent to being recorded.

Gathering participant information - Accessing meeting

For public bodies subject to the Open Meeting Law, the Office of Attorney General offers the following guidance: 

  • Generally, public bodies may not require members of the public to identify themselves before being allowed to attend a remote meeting, just as mandatory sign-in sheets at in-person meetings are not generally permissible.   

  • Although it is permissible for public bodies to utilize a meeting platform that requires members of the public to register to obtain meeting access, the public body may not require additional information past what the platform requires.   

Gathering participant information – Comments 

Participation during virtual public comment periods is different from in-person. Public bodies may require individuals to identify themselves prior to speaking during a public comment period.   

Similarly, it is within the meeting producer’s discretion to decide how to receive public comment, such as requiring that comments be submitted in writing or that speakers register in advance, as well as to set restrictions on how long individuals may speak or how many individuals will be permitted to speak. 

Meeting preparation

Plan the meeting no less than three weeks in advance to enable effective outreach and accommodation support services.

Developing content – Keep it simple

Content is amplified in the Virtual World –you should consider a simple agenda, use multiple formats, and make information available for an extended period of time.  You can run meeting content for days and even weeks before or after an event to reach broader audiences and get more feedback.

Develop presentation materials that utilize multiple formats:

  • PowerPoint deck – Keep simple – simplicity is key to Accessibility.
  • Surveys can be sent out in advance to guide meeting discussion and/or can use live polling to facilitate understanding and get direction.
  • Q&A can be actively managed by chats or by write ins, call ins (remember all chats are in the public domain).
  • Social media
  • Live or pre-recorded presentations streamed on a video service, e.g. Youtube. 

Developing PowerPoint presentation slides

  • Create only one presentation deck.
  • Keep text at a minimum: follow accessibility best practices (e.g. provide alternative text for images and charts/tables, use headings, embed hyperlinks).
  • Use images and charts only where needed to convey important information. These should be clear and readable with min size 16 font for any text within the chart, table or image
  • Include an overview slide with relevant background and history, overview of the presentation and goals, purpose and need.
  • Presentation should not include more than about 150 words per slide, min size 16 font.
  • If translating the presentation – consider whether to translate slides, script or both.

Run of show – Suggestions

A "Run of Show" is a detailed outline showing what each person should be doing at what time. A typical run of show consists of:

  • Outline event details, speakers, topics and procedures
  • Double check that all participants know timing, how to join the meeting, and how to communicate with the Facilitator
  • Establish ground rules for the team and for the public early and develop guidance slide
  • Have a script for the presentation - make sure translations are correct and working
  • Inform interpreters during rehearsal of terms, acronyms or concepts that are likely to come up so they can effectively communicate
  • Develop and present presentation content – take comments after
  • Remove presentation from screen so audience can focus on speaker – Run the agenda along side –make sure all of this works
  • Rehearse and do practice dry runs with involved parties, troubleshoot any issues

Dry runs & rehearsals

Dry run your meeting before you go live to make sure all technology is working, and everyone knows the hand offs. Write out talking points, particularly for the beginning of the meeting to provide an overview of the meeting, platform and tools and accessibility features. 

  • Practice the hand off between speakers.
  • Practice is imperative but not perfect, things will go wrong.
  • Build in Redundancy
    • Extra preparation and rehearsal
    • Extra equipment
    • Additional camera for viewing
  • Plan for the Unexpected
    • Internet issues
    • Translations not working properly
  • Always be prepared to offer an alternative solution
    • Will provide translated materials on website after meeting with full proceedings
    • Will allow for an additional week for input and response
    • Send out all information ahead of time to allow participants to follow meeting in event of broad band or technical challenges

Managing meetings

Prepare panelists and speakers

Before the meeting begins, prepare panelists and speakers for the presentation by not only providing the necessary materials, but additionally providing tips and best practices for either the platform, the meeting itself, or both.

  • Use a computer to run the platform – do not use a phone if presenting/speaking (phone can be used for audio portion, but in order to display a webcam, speakers should use a computer).
  • Panelists set up by the Producer should receive an email titled “You’re a panelist for [XYZ]” with your instructions for joining the meeting. The email will contain a unique link to join the meeting, and a specific dial-in telephone number and access code. Do not share the link or dial-in information with anyone else!

If you are holding a meeting on GoToMeeting, you can offer the following support guides for panelists, presenters, speakers and other participants. 

  • Panelist quick guide – how to join and use platform as a panelist.
  • Test that the program and audio work properly before the meeting starts.
    • Recommend using a headset on computer or connecting audio by phone and using headphones to minimize background noise and improve audio quality for everyone.
    • Upon joining the Webinar, if you select Telephone mode for audio, your specific dial-in number and access code will be displayed in.

Ground rules for engagement

Moderating virtual meetings to maintain a professional meeting environment comes with different challenges from in-person meetings. To cultivate a cooperative meeting environment, consider implementing the stated ground rules for engagement. 

  • Mute all participants upon entryNotify participants they are muted.
  • Thank everyone for joining and want to welcome feedback
  • Notify participants if the meeting will be recorded
  • Describe agenda and structure of the meeting
  • Describe how to use accessible features and who to call if they don’t work.
  • If the meeting is going to include CART, ASL, and/or foreign language interpretation services, include instructions on how to access these or how to work with them to engage with questions or comments.
  • For meetings with many participants and commenters, explain how a person will “get the floor” to comment or ask a question.
  • All Participants should state their name and affiliation if they comment
  • Respect the queue - consider allowing only one question per turn so everyone gets a chance.
  • Announce the next person’s turn to speak. If a lot of people ask to speak, announce the next 2-3 speakers in advance so they can be prepared.
  • For Q&A sessions, moderators and presenters can ask the person managing chats/calls if there any comments.
  • Designate a person to manage a call-in number, email, chat, or other mediums, and to address any technical issues.

Introductions and kick-off

Introductions are an important first portion of a meeting and should be practiced beforehand. 

  • Start with Ground Rules.
  • Post ground rules for engagement on website/meeting notice.
  • Verbally review the process for engaging with the platforms and tools.
  • Make sure to accommodate those who call in or accessible modes are working and what to do if they don’t work
  • If you are going to have people introduce themselves - make sure they identify themselves by name, know in advance and practice.

Meeting chats and recording

Unless a meeting is required to be recorded, you should not record the meeting. If you are conducting a recorded session:

  • You should not start recording until meeting begins and end after you conclude – do not ‘go live’ or record internal discussions. Let everyone know that the meeting is being recorded!
  • Add important information in the chat feature (e.g. separate call in number, separate close captioning link, attachments or links that are discussed during the call)
  • Share Recordings – recordings allow for longer and more accessible access by public to view, comment and ask questions. 
  • Announce when, where and how long the recording will be available and in what accessible formats
  • Make sure you acknowledge chats but do not respond to substantive questions in the chat box

Managing the conversation

Managing Recordings - Consider posting meeting recording and/or notes that allow you to accurately track positions and decisions.

Ensure Inclusion in the Conversation:

  • At key points in the conversation, pause the conversation and ask if anyone else has something to add…do not take silence as agreement
  • You can ask all those who agree to put something in a chat – like a +1, if agree -1
  • You can go through each Name (formal members) and ask them if they have any concerns –or if they even had any issues connecting
  • Be attentive to confirming consensus if this an outcome of your meeting as you may not see faces.
  • When presenting materials on screen, provide a verbal explanation of what is being displayed so that those participating by phone or those who are unable to see the presentation materials will be better able to follow along. 

Proactively ask if they want to share. Specifically, if some are dominating the conversation you can ask.

  • "I see X on the chat or call but I would like others to have a chance to weigh in. I am going to PAUSE for a moment to see if others are ready to contribute."

Platform engagement techniques

Virtual meeting platforms come with engaging features such as in-meeting polls, break-out groups and different survey features. Learn more about the benefits of these features below. 

Engagement technique: Live polling

Live polling allows the meeting host to create multiple choice questions for the participants to answer in-meeting. Consider using informal or live polling to learn more about the audience attending a meeting to enable participants to validate their understanding, to confirm meeting objectives and to even weigh in on options or alternatives presented.

This can help understand sentiment about the project, or quickly identify what parts of the project should be focused on for a particular meeting. Polls also help the project team learn how effective the meeting presentation was, and what things should be changed in the future.

Engagement technique: Advance survey

Surveys, like a more formal version of an online poll, can help answer more specific questions about what the audience thinks about a project.

Try creative uses of surveys and polling to assist in setting a common ground for a meeting. Use that information to finalize your agenda and provide feedback from the survey as the first items on your agenda.

Engagement technique: Break-Outs

Break-out rooms allow the host to assign participants into multiple smaller meeting rooms from within a meeting. This can allow for collaboration in a meeting as well as a more concerted discussion on a certain aspect. For some projects, it may make sense to ask the audience in advance what aspects of the project they are most interested in. Organize break out groups accordingly.

Assign specific goals/tasks to breakout groups and designated a lead to report back to larger group.

Use whiteboards to document discussions

Closing out the virtual meeting

  • Consolidate chats, whiteboards and polling results at the end of the "comment period“
  • Post online to share with individuals who may not have attended the official meeting.
  • Where possible, also include responses to the comments and resources for additional information on the project in accessible locations (website or at town halls).
  • Notify Participants on how to continue to comment and where to get additional information and when the next meeting will occur – Next steps.
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