WASHINGTON – More than 73,000 people listened in on a phone conversation last month to hear an Obama administration official, a mother and an environmentalist talk about childhood asthma and the administration's efforts to reduce smog.
“This is sort of a new tactic in terms of our outreach,” said Peter Iwanowicz of the American Lung Association, which sponsored the call.
Members of Congress have used telephone town halls for years to connect with constituents. Now the strategy is rapidly gaining traction with a wide variety of other groups.
Advocacy organizations such as AARP use them to reach out to members. Corporations use them to talk to franchise owners. Labor unions use them to connect with workers. Sports teams use them to cater to season ticket holders. Towns and cities use them to inform taxpayers.
The New York State Public Employees Federation used telephone town halls last year to reach out to its 56,000 members during contract negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“It was exhausting to do just one call because there were so many people trying to ask questions, and often on a very wide range of subjects,” union spokeswoman Sherry Halbrook said. “It's not for the faint of heart, but it's definitely a way to get that two-way communication going.”
No Labels, a group dedicated to ending partisan gridlock in Congress, plans a nationwide telephone town hall March 13 featuring Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
An estimated 200,000 people participated in a No Labels telephone town hall held Jan. 23 on the eve of President Obama's State of the Union address. More recent calls have discussed legislation that would require members of Congress to forfeit their pay if they don't adopt a federal budget by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
AARP estimates 2.1 million people listened in on the 244 telephone town halls it hosted last year, according to Nancy LeaMond, the organization's executive vice president for advocacy, public education and government relations.
“Once we started, we learned a great deal,” LeaMond said. “We have really grown it over the years to be an even more effective tool. You can do a lot in the space of time you have people on the call.”
The American Lung Association's call last month was the organization's first nationwide telephone town hall. Rachel Murphy, a mother of two from Massachusetts, talked about having to decide whether each asthma attack suffered by her six-year-old daughter, Mia, justifies a visit to an emergency room, and her fear that a wrong decision could prove fatal.
The other two guests participating in the call were Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. Jackson defended the administration's efforts to implement new regulations designed to reduce smog and other pollution.
The telephone forum, part of the American Lung Association's Healthy Air campaign to defend the Clean Air Act from attacks by congressional Republicans, targeted women with children.
Telephone town halls use technology that allows vendors to call tens of thousands of people in minutes. Over the course of an hour-long telephone town hall, hundreds of thousands of calls can be placed, inviting people to listen in on a live discussion and ask questions.
The use of telephone town halls initially began with members Congress, vendors say. They have been especially popular with incumbents reluctant to hold in-person town halls, where they risk being heckled or booed.
The format allows for prescreening of questions. And it's a convenient way to reach thousands of people instead of the dozens who might show up at a municipal building.
Lawmakers running for re-election can listeners on telephone town halls to hit one key to show they're willing to put up a yard sign, another key if they're willing to receive email updates, and yet another if they're willing to go door-to-door on behalf of the candidate.
The calls also can be used to field last-minute questions from undecided voters the weekend before an election, said Marty Stone, a partner in Stones' Phones, with offices in Washington and California. The firm specializes in serving Democrats and liberal advocacy groups.
“We never get any complaints for telephone town halls,” Stone said. “The only complaints come from people who were not called.”