Organizations with long histories, such as the Sierra Club, do a lot of things people might not know about. Sometimes it's hard to get the message out about those initiatives, says Stacy Bare, director of the club's Mission Outdoors. Press releases or slickly produced videos don't always seem authentic; they're too polished.
That's why on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Bare joined Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, for a 45-minute Google+ hangout to discuss one of those very topics: how the Sierra Club helps veterans with outdoor recreation.
"We had a blast with it," Bare says. "I had never walked away from some 45-minute conversation or interview and thought: That was fun; let's do it again."
The hangout not only opened people's eyes to an aspect of the organization they may not have been aware of, it also gave the Sierra Club another way to connect with people, Bare says.
Prepping the hangout
"A lot of legacy organizations have struggled with adapting to new technologies and new opportunities to share their message with their internal communities as well as the broader community," Bare says. "We were looking for ways to continue to utilize new media."
The Sierra Club had been in contact with the Craigslist staff about doing an event with Newmark, who has also advocated improving veterans' quality of life. A few weeks before the hangout, Craigslist staffers and Sierra Club team members gathered to brainstorm what kind of event they could hold. A Sierra Club team member suggested a hangout; Newmark loved the idea.
Bare says he, Newmark, and Brune made some basic plans for what to discuss, but they wanted to keep it mostly free-form.
"We had an outline of where we wanted the conversation to go, which was around outdoor recreation and the environment for military veterans and their families," he says. "That was about it."
Brune also made sure to include a bit about the Sierra Club's history with veterans.
Risks and rewards
Brune, Newmark, and Bare spent a few minutes before starting the hangout just joking around with one another. That "fun, loose atmosphere" carried on into the hangout, Bare says. It wasn't stuffy and regimented, as radio and TV conversations so often are.
"It's not a 30-second sound bite. It's 45 minutes of discussion," he says.
There was no makeup or professional lighting, Bare notes. "You're getting people where they are."
Next time, though, he might ask people to sit in rooms that are a little cleaner, he says.
One major difference between the hangout conversation and a radio interview, the group discovered, is that people can't just call in and ask a question. You have to ask people ahead of time to join in and offer a few queries. In the week or so prior to the hangout, Bare did just that.
What he and the other hosts ended up with were some thoughtful questions, as well as at least one totally unexpected question.
"How many times a day are you asked if you're a communist?" Bare says with a laugh.
Even that question wasn't a problem, he says. In fact, it gave him an opportunity to discuss just how broad the Sierra Club's membership is. Sure, there are ardent Democrats, but, "We had people this last election cycle working on behalf of tea party candidates," Bare says.
According to the Sierra Club Google+ page, more than 100 people attended the hangout live. Another 300 or so have watched all or some of the 45-minute hangout on YouTube. Announcements of the hangout on Facebook have gotten dozens of "likes" and a handful of comments.
Bare says his team was pleased with those numbers and with the comments that came in. More questions arrived in the days following the hangout, he says, as more people watched the recording of the online discussion.
To build the audience, Bare says he reached out to Sierra Club networks and his own personal networks. The club asked partners to help get the word out. Newmark posted about it, and Google even posted about it on its hangouts page.
"A lot of it is just letting people know that the conversation is happening," he says.
The big thing for him is to broaden the conversation about outdoor recreation—and it will continue, he says. Bare's team came up with ideas for 15 more hangouts less than an hour after this one's conclusion, he says.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.