It’s hard to believe, but those changing leaves tell us that fall is here! And with autumn comes the anticipation of elections in November. While this is an “off” year, there are still many city, county, borough, and parish elections happening this year that are of great importance to the vitality of your business climate. Many chambers and associations choose to hold candidate debates or forums and there are a variety of great models out there, but no matter how you choose to manage your event, here are a few suggestions for making it a success:
•If you’re going to have an actual debate, find a moderator (or panel of moderators) who has been prepared with questions that are of interest to your business community. Transportation, economic development, workforce, and housing issues are always good. Your government affairs committee will be able to come up with lots of good ideas for questions, but having a moderator facilitate the event will ensure all candidates are treated fairly. If you plan to take questions from the audience, be prepared with cards on which attendees can write their questions. You should then have 2-3 members of your government affairs committee screen the questions before they go to the moderator. The last thing you want is to have your forum be the place where your community learned that a certain candidate had an affair with his assistant!
• I visited a chamber recently that hosted a “Candidates Roundtable” that provided attendees an opportunity to get to know candidates rather than just hear them speak from a podium. In this model, the chamber brought in a keynote speaker to briefly address the importance of business and local governments working together to rebuild as we move past the recession. Then they had 6 “roundtables” set for 10, with one candidate at each table. At the end of 10 minutes a bell sounded and candidates moved to the next table to talk about another issue. It was kind of like speed-dating for politics! Attendees had to choose which issue they cared about most as they did not move, but it did give them an opportunity to ask questions of the candidates and get to know them in a more informal setting. And as I discovered as I visited the various tables, candidates ended up talking about most of the important issues at each table whether it was the assigned topic or not (thank you, Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce!).
• If you have a number of candidates in a race, it’s kind of fun to allow them a short introduction and then provide them with green (meaning “yes”) and red (meaning “no”) flash cards they can use to respond to questions posed by a moderator. This allows attendees to get a feel for how candidates would vote on a variety of issues and keeps the program moving along at a fast pace. I’ve seen this strategy work very well at events with 12-20 candidates.
• Make sure to have tables available where candidates can display campaign materials and yard signs.
• Sometimes it’s fun to do a straw poll at the end of a candidate or issue forum – and it’s a great way to recruit volunteers to your government affairs committee. Simply provide attendees with a short, three-question survey at the end of your event. Ask things like:
— How will you vote on Nov. 3?
— Did this forum change your mind about this issue (or this race)?
— Would you be interested in finding out more about the activities of the chamber’s government affairs efforts?
I can almost guarantee you that the media will be interested in the results of your straw poll!
• And that brings us to follow-up activities after a good debate. Be sure to send a written thank you to each of your candidates or issue presenters, and if you’ve taken a straw poll, let them know the results. Also be sure to have a press release ready to go to your local media noting how many attendees participated in the event, some good quotes from your candidates/presenters, and the results of your straw poll, if you took one.
A well-planned candidate or issue forum can be a lot of fun, and go a long way toward building strong relationships with current and future elected officials. So plan a forum – and have fun!