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How to Host an Online Executive "Town Hall"

One way for executives to take advantage of a social collaboration network to connect with employees, boost morale, and set strategic direction for the organization is by hosting an executive town hall.

Borrowing from the language of politicians and political candidates, a town hall is an event where the rank and file get an opportunity to ask direct questions of their leaders. For an executive, this is an opportunity to show he can think on his feet (or, in some social collaboration variants, in front of the keyboard).

An event advertised as an online town hall may also have an offline component. The CEO or divisional leader may speak to a live audience at one location, while employees at other offices (or home offices) tune into a streaming video broadcast of the event.

Streaming video isn’t typically an integrated feature of a social collaboration platform. However, the social platform can be a medium for promoting the online event. On Jive, IBM Connections, or any other platform that will allow you to create a web page or discussion post with custom HTML, you can paste the embed code for the video player into that page or post, making the player appear in that spot. This is a simple way of restricting access to the stream to authorized users of the social collaboration network.

Invite employees to submit questions ahead of time as posts to a discussion thread, a private message, or by email. During the event, encourage them to submit questions into the social stream or via instant message or chat.

Many of these techniques will work on any social collaboration platform, but Socialcast is one that provides explicit support for this kind of interaction. The Socialcast Town Hall feature lets community leaders create a special kind of discussion thread on the social collaboration platform that has a specific start and end time, plus designated "speaker" and "moderator" roles.

On Socialcast, once a Town Hall is announced, either to the whole company or an invitation-only list of people, members of the audience have the option of posting questions in advance. However, the point of the exercise is that the speaker will answer the questions live, in the online forum, allowing the opportunity for follow up questions. Some organizations might choose to do a conference call in parallel, but by itself a Socialcast Town Hall functions as an interactive text chat.

If a robust discussion breaks out, the time allotted for a Socialcast Town Hall can be extended. When it is done, the content is archived, allowing invitees who were not able to attend live to view the transcript later.

A variation that works on other platforms is to take your cue from the social link sharing site Reddit, and its AMA (Ask Me Anything) and IAMA (I am an expert on X, Ask Me Anything) features. The idea is similar: a text chat discussion, held within a limited period of time and archived for later review. As part of his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama held an IAMA session (Question: "Who's your favorite basketball player?" Answer: "Jordan - I'm a Bulls guy"). If it worked for the president of the United States, it could probably work for the president of your company.

On a social collaboration site, you can adapt this format by announcing the availability of an executive to answer any question posted to a specific discussion -- or to the main activity feed with a specific tag -- within the time frame you specify, with an answer to every question to be posted by a specific date and time. Tell people to scan the list of questions that have already been posted before adding their own. If their question has already been asked, they should click "Like" to vote it up as one deserving of more attention, rather than posting the same question again.

This suggestion comes from Jacqui Chan of Deutsche Bank, one of several people from the Internal Community Managers group on the Jive Community website who offered tips. She said it's been effective for improving transparency and making employees feel more connected in a large, geographically dispersed organization.

Another technique she recommends is having someone live blog from offline executive events, so those who are not attending can get insight into important points made at the event. Live blogging is a technique for posting a series of short reports about an event as it is happening. Typically, live bloggers post Twitter-style microblog or status posts rather than complete blog articles with headlines.

These techniques can also be combined, meaning that follow up questions from a live streaming video event or live blog might be addressed later in an Ask Me Anything session.

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