Managing a sensitive issue at an outreach event 

In the last few months, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been at the forefront of political discussion.

To find out how people use the border in their everyday lives, the Exiting the EU Committee held a community event with local organisations and people who regularly use the border. This was designed to highlight key issues and points to raise when thinking of the border, Brexit and future negotiations.

With the border’s historical significance and the significant media attention in the border discussions, during the planning and designing stages of the event, it was important to keep these sensitivities in mind. Here’s how we approached it.


Managing expectations

Before the event took place, we were explicit with participants about what would happen, helping to manage attendee expectations. The invitation described what the committee wanted to discuss, and 48 hours before the event, we sent the agenda to all attendees.

This all helped to give attendees an understanding of the event format, and also provided the opportunity to ask any questions before the event.


A targeted invite list

We kept the list of organisations to invite  defined contacting organisations recommended by the Northern Ireland Assembly and using the Northern Ireland Council to reach out to the Voluntary Action’s database.


Anticipating the discussion topics

Eventbrite is a key tool of our work and in this case, it gave us the chance to ask attendees questions as part of the registration process. We asked them the top three ways they use the border. Significantly, the same topics came up again and again. The responses helped to focus and tailor discussion topics. We had five topics and an example of one was work, liaising with colleagues and other business activities.

With a sensitive issue and the constraints of the committee’s schedule, this helped to focus discussions and save valuable time for discussion.


Making people feel welcome

The venue had security scanners – not always typical at a public meeting! To mitigate any possible nervousness, we were there to welcome attendees once they came through the scanner and point them to the teas, coffees and cakes.

It’s so important to make the right first impression and put attendees at ease and comfortable. 82% of attendees at this event had never engaged with a select committee inquiry.


Being clear about the next steps

With any contributions we receive in a public forum, it’s important to let people know what happens next. It’s even more important with a sensitive issue that people are passionate about.

In this case, discussions were varied with attendees speaking passionately on topics such as access to healthcare and improving infrastructure and their concerns about the border. We were sure to clearly communicate where their points are going and how they will be used.

The Chair of the committee, Hilary Benn MP, rounded up discussions and emphasised the importance of the discussions in shaping the committee’s views.

Any follow-up work the committee does, we’ll be sure to forward this onto attendees, showing them the impact of their contributions.


A holistic approach

When managing a sensitive issue, it’s important to plan your approach from the first point of contact right through to the follow-up after the event.

Events that concern sensitive issues present specific challenges, but this kind of planning provides an effective framework for making them a success.


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