In recent weeks we at De Tijd, a Belgian newspaper, have been experimenting with chat sessions where members of the Belgian government are brought in to discuss politics with our community. I’m very enthusiastic about this because I feel that our newspaper has enabled its community to have a direct, high-quality conversation with policy makers.

I reported in a previous article about how we use CoverItLive for our chat sessions, live blogs and moderated live forums. CoverItLive allows us to have live moderated chats and discussions. We can also launch polls during the sessions, insert images and other files, and stream video.

CoverItLive has a lot of features and uses, but I’d like to focus on how it can be used for enabling a dialogue between policy makers and the citizens they serve. First, I’ll describe what we did, and then I have seven recommendations to help you get the most out of these kinds of events.

Bringing Government Ministers Into the Newsroom

De Tijd has held two chat sessions with government members. For our first session, we invited justice minister Stefaan De Clerck into our newsroom. Our justice reporter participated in the online discussion by opening the session with a few questions, and then concluding it with a round-up at the end. During the session, our journalists asked questions, as did members of the community who logged in.

While the questions and answers were flowing, one of our journalists was moderating the submissions from the community and grouping them into issue-related groups, such as crime and security, prison management, etc.

Two weeks later, we did a similar session with Vincent Van Quickenborne, the Belgian minister in charge of telecoms, public administration and competition policy.

Each session lasted one hour and over 3,500 people logged in and participated each time. (About a third of the all participants were logged in for longer than one minute, so we did have people come and go.) We also made the text of the chats available for reading at a later date. In the end, the participants submitted about 200 questions. We also followed each chat session with a brief video interview.

Recommendations For Hosting Chats With Public Figures

This kind of collective interview is rather new, and we’ve learned lot of lessons about the best way to conduct them. Here are seven recommendations:

  1. Be visible. We placed our CoverItLive chat boxes high up on the home page of the site. We learned that running the chat as part of a blog, which was not immediately visible on the home page, attracted fewer people. Even putting a banner ad on the home page does not help much in driving traffic to a “hidden” chat. (People tend to ignore banners; did you hear that, marketing people?)
  2. Moderation is key. No, your guest won’t be hit by tomatoes, shoes, eggs or worse. But allowing people to hurl insults or make threats will not improve the experience for your guest or the community. Along with keeping the chat clean and on topic, group the submitted questions under topics as they come in and try to provide some structure. We had one person focusing on authorizing and grouping questions. They also sent private messages to participants in order to let them know if or when their question would be dealt with.
  3. Provide context. Explain for the public how things will work, and provide them with some important issues or topics for discussion. This is also an opportunity to provide links to background articles and videos from your own site, as well as from external sources. This kind of context and information causes participants to reflect on the topic; it also helps make the session more of a productive experience, rather than an emotional shouting contest.
  4. Make sure everyone understands the event’s mechanics. Not everyone is familiar with chats or online discussions, so it’s important to make sure your guests understand how things work. Particularly slow typists might need help typing their answers. It’s also important to explain your moderating process.
  5. Build packages. For high profile events, we publish a preparatory post where people can ask questions and discuss the upcoming chat. We also announce the chat in the print newspaper. After the chat, we conduct a video interview and will often prepare a story for the print newspaper. Combining these forms of media adds value for the community and for the guest. It also gives the guest the chance to offer answers in a variety of formats.
  6. Get the newsroom on board. If possible, conduct the chat using a centrally placed desk in the newsroom. The same goes for the video interview after the online chat. (Audio technology these days allows anyone to do an interview in the newsroom, rather than in an isolated office, and still achieve a high quality of sound.) This will make sure everyone in the newsroom sees what’s going on, and it helps familiarize them with the process and results. That can make them want to participate, or at least appreciate these new forms of conversation and interaction.
  7. Be consistent. Make these chat sessions a regular feature so that your community and colleagues come to expect and look forward to them. Of course, you can also have special editions for breaking news events, but it’s worthwhile to have scheduled events.

The Future

So far I’m happy with the results from these chats. I’m also interested in organizing panel debates where high-profile experts debate issues and the community can insert their comments via chat. That way, we have the experts talking to each other, and also reacting to what they see going on in the community discussion.

CoverItLive’s ability to integrate video also means that we could add live video streams. For example, the community could comment and ask questions via text, and the host and guest would respond on video.

We are still in the early stages of seeing how chats and live discussions can be used by news organizations to engage their communities. Personally, I’m convinced that there’s so much more we can do with chat sessions, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.