Arlington Firm Sees Surge in Demand For Virtual Town Hall Services Due to COVID-19
WASHINGTON – “Surreal” is the first word Shaun Thompson uses to describe what’s happened to his business since the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the U.S. just over a month ago.
Tele-Town Hall was founded in 2006 with a single customer — a freshman California congressman who wanted an easy and effective way to reach constituents back home when he was in D.C.
Since the beginning of March and the advent of the first municipal “social distancing” orders, Thompson, the company’s chief government, public and client affairs officers, estimates he’s been working 120 to 130 hours a week trying to keep with the demand for virtual town hall services.
And the calls aren’t just coming from Capitol Hill, where he already has a number of clients, but also from as far afield as the United Kingdom, Australia, “and 12 to 15 other countries.”
“Really, our story is a lot like that of any small business,” Thompson said as he walked The Well News through Tele-Town Hall’s early history this week.
“Like I said, we had this one customer, former Rep. Daniel Lungren, of California, who wanted to reach out to his constituents back in Sacramento and the surrounding area, and asked us if we could help him do that.
“Well, something like 12,000 of his constituents participated in that first virtual town hall meeting and he told his friends about it,” Thompson said. “Before we knew it, we had multiple members of Congress as clients, and they were conducting these meetings on a regular basis.”
Thompson said in the beginning some virtual town halls focused on a specific issue, but most simply served as a way for constituents to hear directly from their congressperson and to air their concerns.
“A lot of the calls were about what was going on in Washington, and we did a lot of tele-town halls on specific issues, like the Gulf oil spill and the California wildfires, but nothing to the extent we’ve seen with COVID-19,” he said.
“Since the start of the outbreak, we’ve literally had hundreds of people who want to do events on any given night,” he said. “We’ve done our best to keep up with the demand. Fortunately, our system has always been very scalable.”
The technology is fairly easy to use. Tele-Town Hall rapidly dials out to a list of phone numbers provided by the host of the town hall. Each targeted audience member on the list receives a pre-recorded message inviting them to remain on the line if they wish to be transferred automatically to the town hall event.
Participants can ask questions through the portal and also answer poll and survey questions. Participants, who are unable to ask their questions live have the option to leave a personal message with a call screener or a Tele-Town Hall voicemail for the presenter at the conclusion of the meeting.
Following the Tele-Town Hall event, clients receive a detailed report complete with participant statistics as well as a digital recording of the event that can be posted to their website.
The cost, on average, is about 10 cents per participant, Thompson said.
Thompson said in ordinary times, the nature of his business tends toward the cyclical. Because he gained an early foothold with public officials, it was natural that he began to get involved in campaigns.
“What that means is, come September and October, we see a massive spike in our users, every year … and this year was no different, with what were then the upcoming presidential primaries generating a lot of traffic,” he said.
What was different this year, was that shortly after the primaries began, the coronavirus outbreak began to move beyond China and show up elsewhere.
Soon, across the U.S., public political rallies were out, “and the political campaigns more than ever needed to find alternatives to communicate with voters,” Thompson said.
If he thought his business would start to slacken as one Democratic candidate after another folded their tent and called it a day, the arrival of the pandemic quickly disabused him of the notion.
“On balance I’d say, we’ve done far more business to date with municipalities, schools, and elected officials dealing with the health and safety crisis than we’ve done with anyone else this year,” he said.
Early on, the pandemic-related town halls Thompson found himself involved in were in places like Washington state and California, which were hit early with multiple coronavirus cases.
“At first it was members of Congress, state legislators, officials in small municipalities, all of whom wanted to educate their constituents on how to avoid catching the disease and spreading it,” Thompson said.
“Over time, the town halls evolved into being something close to public services announcements, much more geared to officials educating the public about social distancing and where to turn if they are in need of services,” he said.
Keeping it all under control, he added, is a matter of communications and logistics.
“We certainly haven’t turned anybody away and we’re trying to do our best, adding additional systems to increase our capacity. Sometimes, of course, we do ask if people can start 15 minutes earlier or later, just to keep everything organized and running smoothly,” he said.
“The craziest thing about all this is, none of us know how long this is going to go on,” Thompson said. “Another month? Another year, year-and-a-half? I think we, like everybody else, are just trying to prepare for the worst case scenario at this point.”
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