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In the Weeds: Live-Streaming City Council Meetings

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Facebook LiveTripepi Smith Business Analyst Skylar Hunter shares his experience with live-streaming City Council meetings from formerly engineering and running the Facebook Live broadcast of City of Lake Forest Council Meetings.

Social Media live-streaming can offer a plethora of advantages for Cities. The audience who actually sees the council meetings will increase dramatically over traditional streaming solutions. Segments of your community who might not otherwise know that council meetings are open to the public are more likely to stumble across your stream. The platforms can provide instant feedback from residents and opportunities for the community to share ideas or ask questions from the convenience of wherever they are located.  Of course, implementing streaming of council meetings to any platform will face challenges that are both technical and legal in nature. Approaching implementation should warrant serious consultation with information technology staff, the agency’s public information officer and the agency’s legal counsel. Platforms, such as Facebook Live and YouTube, offer dynamic ways for sharing content with stakeholders, however, simply pressing ‘go live’ on your broadcast system is not as simple.

The Requirements

Live-streaming by its very nature is hard. In the case of a public agency meeting, which for most agencies is being broadcast over a television network, live-streaming is essentially another production front. The technology that goes into production depends on what you want to achieve with your livestream.

In my experience, Lake Forest had a clear directive: to push the City of Lake Forest ahead of other agencies in terms of establishing a direct line of communication with residents related to council video production. The need for live-streaming city council meetings arose as a request from the council to offer additional accessibility for meetings to residents and individuals who wanted to participate but were unable to attend.

Live-streaming requires a powerful internet connection, a dedicated live-streaming program (Open Broadcast Software, Wirecast) to manage your cast, as well as sophisticated audio/video equipment. There are many well-produced tutorials out there on how to do this, but the task is pretty similar to running a TV channel. In this day and age, technology has allowed for simultaneous broadcasting over the air and through the net.

Cell Phone Fail

Common questions of such an implementation include:

Can’t I just do this with my cellphone?

The short answer is ‘yes,’ but the real answer is more complicated. A cell phone isn’t going to offer access to quality audio/video you need to produce an acceptable broadcast. The broadcast would depend on a wireless signal which is prone to inconsistency in some areas, intermittent and even failing mid-broadcast. A single camera shoot does not  support multiple cameras, control audio levels, the ability to place graphics on the screen or even make announcements. Essentially, cell phones offer access to live-streaming, but they don’t facilitate the production quality and experience that your residents likely already have with your existing broadcasting solution. Plus, residents don’t just want the meeting to be broadcast; they have an expectation to see a well-produced, technologically-sound broadcast.

Let’s Talk Policy

The technology is only one-half of the equation. The other half is the policy. Sure, you want to broadcast your city council meeting over Facebook Live, but what kind of can of worms do you want to open? How will you archive broadcasts? What is your policy in the event a cast goes down? How will live-streamed meetings be available to comply with the Brown Act?

In my experience the City treated the livestream broadcast as an ancillary component of the meeting, allowing public comment to be submitted to the official record by reading off feedback from the livestream. Live-streaming should be regarded as a privilege and not a right. Building in parameters for lost broadcasts and setting the expectation that if a livestream goes down there is no obligation to ensure that comments submitted via livestream chat after the fact are required to be read to council. There is the matter of entering them into record so setting a time limit on when comments are recorded is important to avoid processing comments submitted days or even weeks later. The other option is to avoid allowing public comment altogether and simply broadcast the meetings. In regard to video recording, most cities will use a separate service recording video of the meetings. Unless there is no service in place, you do not have to worry about additional video backups of meetings.

Conclusion

Live-streaming a city council meeting is an effort that requires strategy, planned policy and technological know-how. Each situation is unique and Tripepi Smith is more than happy to offer assistance in those areas to help you work through the ins and outs of your situation. Contact us today to see how we can help.

See an example of the City of Lake Forest Facebook Livestream.

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