Top 5 Reasons Mass-Scale Conferencing Should be Part of Your Crisis Response Plan

What if I told you that there is technology available that can handle a live, 2-way conversation with hundreds or thousands of participants at once without hearing everyone talking at the same time? And what if I told you that you could call them all, rather than them having to call in? This does exist and it has been an incredible tool when used in a major crisis.

The city of Fort McMurray was evacuated May 4, 2016, just before a massive forest fire hit the city. The damage caused by the fire became Canada’s costliest natural disaster ever, with approximately 2,200 structures within the city destroyed. The total is estimated to have cost C$3.5-billion.

The forced evacuation of 90,000 people with no casualties directly related to the fire was truly miraculous. But the government then faced an enormous communications challenge – how exactly does one communicate with that many people who have dispersed across the province and the country to provide critical information? Add in the fact that many people needed support accessing basic human necessities, and the situation again had the potential to be catastrophic.

Government leaders were communicating through traditional channels, like the media, to inform the evacuees of the latest developments, the status of the fire and plans for re-entry. The government was also very active on social media. But all of these channels did not enable a means by which the government could speak directly, and only, to evacuees. So the government turned to Converso’s Virtual Town Halls, a mass-scale conferencing technology that essentially turns the phone system into a live talk-show.

The system proved so useful that the government ran 17 events in 30 days during the evacuation period, leading up to re-entry. Each session was 90-minutes long (rather than the normal 60 minutes) and had extremely high participation and engagement rates compared to non-crisis events. The government’s priority was to allow evacuees to ask questions of the nearly 15 government officials and partner organizations (e.g. Canadian Red Cross) who gathered for each call. And ask questions they did – over 8,000 through 17 events.

This is an extraordinary example, and it clearly illustrates the point that a direct channel to tens of thousands of people impacted by a disaster is a remarkably powerful tool. And the participation rates prove it was invaluable to evacuees as well.

The top five reasons you should consider mass-scale conferencing technology as part of your crisis management plan are:

1. There is no replacement for a direct information channel to your most important stakeholders during a crisis. 

  • Evacuees heard directly from government officials with the most up-to-date knowledge of the situation, including status of the fire, location of evacuation centres, how to access emergency funding, etc.

2. Helping people understand what is happening and resolving their issues is critical.

  • Through the question asked by evacuees, the government and Red Cross were able to start resolving individual cases that participants raised. For example, accessing emergency funding from Alberta while not in the province.

3. Ensuring you get the right information out quickly.

  • Having all of the government leaders responsible for the crisis response on the town hall meant that the most accurate and timely information available was received by evacuees in an unfiltered way. These were the same leaders speaking with the media to provide updates, and evacuees had a direct channel to them.

4. Dispelling misinformation.

  • On nearly every event, evacuees brought up matters that they had heard on social media or through friends and family. If the information was inaccurate, the government was able to clarify and correct it for everyone on the town hall. For example, people had been hearing rumours that looting was happening in the city, but the police, who were on the call, corrected the information and confirmed there were no break-ins.

5. Understanding clearly what issues or challenges stakeholders are struggling with during the crisis.

  • There is a massive need for information in any crisis, particularly the kind that threatens the well-being of stakeholders. With 1,000 question requests in the first event (about 35 were answered), evacuees were in acute need of information. By capturing the questions and forwarding a file the next day to the government, highly-targeted FAQs were created and guided messaging for media activity and call-centre briefings.

As with most matters, preparation is everything in a crisis. The Government of Alberta had experience using this technology during non-crisis times, which made its application during the crisis so successful. Such tools are designed to facilitate communication during crises. Therefore, organisations considering this technology must ensure they are familiar with it before the crisis strikes – because during is the wrong time to learn.

While this example demonstrates how a government very effectively handled a disaster response situation, this technology would be equally valuable to companies experiencing a crisis.

  • Employee Communications – engaging with hundreds or thousands of employees across vast geographies in a controlled, live, two-way conversation during a crisis would enable the response team and company leadership to ensure accurate information is disseminated in very quickly.

  • External Stakeholder Communications – should a crisis impact a community (think a train derailment or chemical leak) or key segment of your business (think VW and its dealers during the diesel emissions scandal), the technology would enable an immediate and live connection with those impacted. This would reduce rumours, demonstrate the company is taking the issue seriously and, long-term, protect brand and reputation.

  • Post-Crisis Business Continuity – once the crisis is contained and the company stabilized, how do you get everyone back on track? How do you rebuild trust and reputation? Connecting with employees and external stakeholders to explain what exactly happened, how things have changed and what the company’s plans are in the future to manage crisis situations, which would have been a great tool for BP following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

CS&A would be delighted to speak with your organization about how Converso’s Virtual Town Hall technology can help you manage the critical flow of information during a crisis, within your company or in your community. Please contact us to set up a call or demo.

Carl is an Associate with CS&A based in Toronto, Canada. He owns Converso and is a leading authority on the use of Virtual Town Halls during disaster response situations. 

Government of Alberta wins IPAC Award for Fort McMurray Response.

I should have posted this a while ago, but better late than never. The Government of Alberta won an award from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (2016) for its response to the wildfire last year. Here is the link:

Here is a great video the government put together to support their submission:


'Fort Mac's telephone town-hall a life-saver in the midst of chaos'

Click here to download a case study of the government's response.

The title of this blog was the headline from a Toronto Star article in May 2016, a little over a year ago. It explains the outcome of an epic stakeholder engagement challenge, but doesn’t capture the planning and strategy behind the Government of Alberta’s monumental response to the crisis.

The city of Fort McMurray had been evacuated May 4, 2016 following massive forest fire that hit the city. The damage caused by the fire  became Canada's costliest natural disaster ever. Approximately 2,000 structures within the city were destroyed, and the final tally is estimated $3.5-billion.

The fire forced the evacuation of 90,000 people with no casualties directly related to the fire. This was truly miraculous, but the government then faced an enormous communications challenge - how exactly does one communicate with 90,000 people who have dispersed across the province and the country? Adding the fact that many people need support accessing basic human necessities, and the situation again had the potential to be catastrophic.

Government leaders were admirably communicating through traditional channels, like the media, to inform the evacuees of the latest developments, the status of the fire and plans for reentry. The government was also very active on social media. But all of these channels did not form a direct connection between the government and the evacuees. So rather than relying on the media or other secondhand distribution of information, the government used virtual town halls (or telephone town halls) to create a two-way channel directly between itself and nearly every evacuee.

The team leading the creation of the events were very thorough in their strategy and planning, and brought all of the key personnel into the room - with some joining remotely from Fort McMurray. The focus was always on the myriad of questions that evacuees may ask - they wanted to give them answers.

Normally, there are between two and three speakers at one of these events. The government decided to put no less than 15 experts around the table who had the most up-to-date information available to respond ion information channels. From the Premier and Minister of Municipal affairs to Alberta Wildfire, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, Alberta Health, Education, Human Services - all the bases were covered.

Evacuees who were having trouble accessing funds were identified and followed-up with. Updates on the fire’s status were to the minute. Criteria for assessing if it was safe to return was delivered by the Chief Medical Officer of Health. The security of the city was affirmed by the RCMP.

In addition, the Red Cross attended each event and played a pivotal role in the distribution of emergency supplies and funds. Other stakeholders were in attendance as well, like the Insurance Bureau of Canada which answered many complex questions about home insurance policies.

And it worked brilliantly. There was rarely a question that someone around the table couldn’t answer, even over the course of 17 events in 30 days, over 8,000 questions were registered, and approximately 700 answered. (You can only answer so many questions in 90 minutes.)

This experience was by far and away the most effective use of the telephone tech telephone town hall technology that I have ever seen in over five years and 250 events. Just as an example, on the first town hall, the government saw 3333 online audio participants - the previous record on events I’ve worked on was 45. This technology demonstrated incredible flexibility in bringing together so many people affected by the disaster, and connecting them with government leaders who had the most up-to-date information on virtually every aspect. And I mean up to date - these were the very people the media would talk to.

I recently spoke at a conference in London, UK about the governments response to this disaster. Many people in the audience found it amazing that this kind of technology exists and was able to be deployed so effectively in a crisis situation. The main factor in my view that allowed the government to respond was that they had an understanding of the technology having used it already for different policy engagement activities such as pre-budget consultations and policy consultations. Because of this familiarity and their understanding, they were able to deploy the technology very rapidly, within about a 36-hour turnaround time from the start of planning to implementation.

All in all, this had a very positive outcome for the government in the response from evacuees on the phone, and media coverage as well. And they were recognized for by the Institute of Public Administration Canada with an award. For me, the most notable thing is what we have not heard. We have not heard the ongoing narrative you often hear during these kinds of situations, which is "I didn't know anything.” Or "the government didn't tell us where we could find help” and "we had no idea what was going on."  These kind of comments simply don’t exist. And during a crisis of epic proportion's, sadly, that is sometimes the best a government could hope for - that the people felt their needs information needs were met. 


Communicator's Toolbox #2: Virtual Town Halls

This post was written by my colleague and big-league communications pro Priya Bates. It was initially published on her LinkedIn blog. She has other technology reviews there, so it's recommended reading.

Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Carl Mavromichalis, a management consultant for Converso Engagement Services. For the past few years, he’s been focused on bringing the Converso Virtual Town Hall Technology to Canadian organizations. It helps them turn phone systems into personal, interactive radio broadcasts that engage stakeholders.

A phone? Yes you heard me say phone.

My first reaction was probably like yours. In this day and age of computers, text messaging and mobile technology, why would we even use the telephone to communicate with stakeholders? Seems so yesterday…. until I heard Carl’s story about his work during the Fort McMurray Wildfires in Alberta, Canada.

When Carl heard about the Alberta wildfires, he knew he had a solution that could help. During the evacuation until it was safe again to move back to their homes, virtual town halls were the connection between the Government of Alberta and evacuated residents. They held 17 events in five weeks providing updates on the status of the fire and community, what was being done, and when it was safe to return.

Driven by the Public Affairs team, the communication effort was a best-in-class example of the role communication plays in integrating efforts. On a regular basis, a team of experts including government officials, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and even the Insurance Bureau of Canada, provided information and answered questions from residents.

Let’s talk about how it works.

Tool Talk
Communicators should use the Converso Virtual Town Hall technology if they need to reach 500 or more stakeholders, especially if the audience is dispersed. The technology dials out to all lines quickly, puts them on hold until the town hall begins, and then allows participants to ask questions and receive answers during the town hall itself.

Imagine using the tool for:

  • A crisis or evacuation situation. Perhaps a back up to an existing crisis plan where access to computer technology could be limited, but access to phones are not.
  • Government relations where officials want to connect with citizens and answer their questions but don’t want them to travel to a limited space facility.
  • Labour negotiations where unions want to communicate to provide members with updates on bargaining or key issues.
  • Member-based organizations that are going through change and want to increase engagement.
  • Employees who are in the field, have a phone, but may not have access to WIFI.
  • Consultation and engagement around major change activities.
  • Sports teams connecting with their fan base - apparently popular in the U.S.

Nuts and Bolts
The key to using the system is the availability of phone numbers. With the Alberta Wildfires, the Canadian Red Cross, with whom all evacuated citizens were asked to register, had lists of relevant phone numbers of evacuees. This played an important role in being able to connect with citizens. In some cases, organizations have a list of home or personal phone numbers in their HR or membership databases; when necessary, some organizations purchase publicly available lists.

Once lists are obtained, here’s what happens:

  • A pre-call notice: These robocalls provide ‘hold the dates’ or ‘coming soon’ type messages. Organizations are encouraged to use other communication channels and traditional methods to create awareness as well.
  • System Dials: The system calls the list. It has the capability to call 15,000 number in about 5 minutes. The largest audience it has ever called included 425,000 numbers. Those that pick up the phone hear a brief pre-recorded message and are then connected to the event.
  • Event Starts: The moderator welcomes everyone and the town hall leader delivers key messages right from the beginning. Leaders are encouraged to keep opening remarks tight and deliver the most important messages up front.
  • Polling: During the event, pre-arranged polling questions are asked allowing listeners to interact using their keypad.
  • Q&A: A moderator then takes live questions from the audience allowing town hall leaders a chance to view the questions and select the ones to be answered. An average event tends to have 15-30 questions, although there have been as many as 50.

On average, the Virtual Town Hall event runs about 60 minutes. That being said, Carl mentioned that Alberta Wildfire calls lasted 90 minutes due to the high volume of questions among evacuees. In some situations, the events have lasted as long as 150 minutes. The more contentious an issue, the more a captive audience of concerned participants are willing to stay on.

Does it Measure Up?
What excites me about any technology solution being implemented today is the available of measurement. At the end of a Virtual Town Hall, organizations get up to 16 additional data points, including the following information:

  • How many people connected to the event
  • How many put their hand up to ask questions
  • How long they were on the phone and what was the peak number of attendees
  • The number of questions that went live
  • Demographic information on those who participated

Generally speaking 50% of the participants on the dial out list answer the phone, with anywhere from 25% to 90% joining the Town Hall based on how motivated they are to participate. The average tends to be about 12% to 15% of dialed recipients and can be higher than 85% during a crisis situation or critical issue.

The Virtual Town Hall is an intimate two-way conversation that reaches people where they are very cost-effectively. For low-volume groups, the cost is between $1 to $2 per phone number dialed and can get considerably cheaper as the numbers grow. It’s not as cheap as running an online webinar, but webinars require your audience to choose to attend whereas the Virtual Town Hall calls you and forces you to respond.

It’s not a solution you would consider every day, but it definitely has its advantages in specific situations. For more information or to get a demo of the VTH, contact Carl Mavromichalis directly or check out their website at .


Top 5 Ways Virtual Town Halls are Different

It took me a little bit of thinking and digging into the concept of a VTH before it clicked for me. The purpose of this blog is to help you understand the technology a little better, and understand how it is different from other options out there. 

So here they are, the Top 5 ways that VTHs are different from other methods of engagement:

  1. It's a push method of outreach
    • The impact of this simple element can’t be overstated. How many times have you searched your phone's email for the login information for a call, or trying to locate the link for a webinar? Wouldn’t it be nice if the phone just rang at the right time and all you had to do was answer it and say ‘hello’? VTHs literally make your stakeholders’ phones ring.
  2. Helps overcome barriers to increase stakeholder engagement by multiples
    • Because of the push method and the use of the phone system, which reaches your audience where they are, I’ve seen clients realize many multiples greater participation. And this experience has been across sectors, target audiences and geographies. I heard a statistic that 91% of smartphone owners keep their phones within an arm’s reach 100% of the time - and that was in 2007! Now, contrast simply answering your phone to what you would need to do to make it to an in-person meeting. You’d really have to work your entire day around the meeting, from childcare to grocery shopping, from recreational activities to work commitments. The VTH can overcome many barriers to enable a conversation with your most important stakeholders at one time, in a controlled way.
  3. Cost-effectively engage in a two-way conversation with your stakeholders
    • In 60 minutes, you can expect to reach and engage with around 50% of the phone numbers on the dial-out list for one of these events. Not only can this help you reach out across the entire country in a single hour, but your speakers and those managing the call do not need to be in the same place. Ideally, at least the first few times your organization does one of these events, all of your key people (moderator, speakers, producers) would be in the same room. This ensures a smooth event and high-quality outcome. So the operational efficiency potential is tremendous.
  4. Gather real-time feedback from stakeholders in multiple ways
    • There are several ways to gather feedback from your stakeholders in a VTH. As with several other options, like webinars and live meetings, you can open the text chat or mics to participants. However, there are a couple of very interesting features with the VTHs that can enable you to gather even more feedback, such as using the keypad polling feature or connecting your participant to a survey. Participants can also leave voicemail messages at the end of the event, so those not comfortable or who didn't get a chance to ask their question live can leave their feedback.
  5. Develop a detailed understanding of your most active stakeholders
    • One of the most powerful elements of the VTH is the data that you can collect from your stakeholders. Each individual person who is listed in the dial-out file has up to 16 data points appended to their record. The system tracks and notes, among other points, how long the person was on the call, did they raise their had to ask a question, what was the nature of the question, how they responded to poll questions and more. You can also have participants self-identify to provide additional information to the screeners working the call. If you actively run a CRM and are working to build out your data, you can do so very effectively by leveraging the data collection, and planning it in advance, to mine exactly what you’re looking for.

VTHs can open new conversations you've never had with your stakeholders. Please reach out if you have any questions or want to give one of these events a try.

Starting the Conversation

Since 2013, I’ve had the good fortune of working with dozens of clients on hundreds of events to help them engage in meaningful conversations with their most important stakeholders using Virtual Town Halls (VTHs). It really has been a privilege.

VTHs aren't that new - but they're new to a lot of people. In case you're not familiar with them, VTHs, or Telephone Town Halls, are a cloud-based tool that enables mass-scale, two-way communication. It's also a push method of outreach - it actually makes people's phones ring - which means you can experience many-multiples greater participation that if you ask people to dial in, login or attend in person.

I've had some great experiences, worked with really interesting people and have seen their eyes light up when they see first-hand the impact that technology can have on their outreach activities. Ok, that may be a little nerdy, but I can't help it.

I’ve been in the communications business for nearly 20 years and I have honestly never come across a tool that can enable mass-scale engagement they way VTHs can. Social media has of course revolutionized the business, but while things like push notifications can make a difference, nothing has quite the impact of a ringing phone. It rings until the recipient either answers it or actively ignores it.

I am a big believer in this system, that it can have an tremendous impact in so many sectors, industries and business functions, including:

  • governments at all levels
  • labour unions
  • investor relations
  • energy industry
  • employee communications 
  • universities and colleges
  • charities and non-profits
  • professional and amateur sports

Feel free to have a look around this site, and come back soon. There will be more content uploaded regularly.

And, of course, please don’t hesitate to call us today for more details at 1-888-982-9594.