One key way that advocacy organizations like Business For Good achieve their public policy goals is by directly engaging with elected officials on a regular basis.
Public commenting is by far the most effective method to make our collective voices heard. Business For Good often relies on our members to comment on our behalf at public City and County meetings to drive our progressive agenda forward.
However, we realize that public commenting can feel like an awkward, daunting task if you haven’t done it before. We’ve created an easy-to-follow guide to public commenting so that you can participate with full confidence.
The what and why of public commenting
Elected officials make decisions every day that affect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in our community. By giving comments at public meetings, you can help our representatives make decisions that align with BFG’s policy action areas across the greater San Diego region.
In California, The Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953 established that the public has the right to attend and participate in all city and county meetings. None of these meetings can be held in secret. Other important things to note about public meetings include:
- All public meeting schedules and agendas must be posted ahead of time
- Right now, many public meetings still take place virtually over Zoom, but you can also phone in your comments
- Your comments become part of the public record—which is crucial for documentation and historical reference
How to submit public comments
You can begin by visiting your city’s official administration website. For the City of San Diego, that is sandiego.gov. There, you can find upcoming and recent meeting agendas, as well as any revised agendas. Cities are required to share this information with the public.
Once you locate the meeting you want to submit public comment on, you can do so in three different ways:
1) Speak during a live meeting
- Review the general instructions and overview on public commenting
- Join a meeting via Zoom or phone
- Pay attention to agenda item numbers, and make sure you know the number of the item you’re speaking on
- Make sure you’re unmuted when they call on you to speak
- (And remember, don’t wear pajamas or workout clothes!)
2) Comment via webform
Submitting web comments is oftentimes the most accessible way for people to advocate. This is a great option for folks who are in meetings all day and don’t have much availability in their schedule.
- Write your comment being mindful of the character/word limits
- State your full fame, position on the issue, and your comment (NOTE: Remember this becomes part of public record for all to see, so stay professional)
- Provide a convincing, concise comment
- You have the option to only submit an e-comment the day before the meeting, OR you can submit an e-comment and also speak during the meeting
3) Comment via email or USPS
- Be mindful of the posting deadline
- For email comments, you can submit attachments
- For USPS, be sure to address your comment to the City or County clerk
Toolkits and talking points for public commenting
Usually, organizations like Business For Good provide their own public commenting toolkits to their advocates to make the process super easy.
Toolkits are documents that organizations circulate a few days before an upcoming public meeting that provides info about the specific campaign, action, or policy they are seeking public comment support on.
Organizations know that their supporters are not expected to be experts on every issue. Therefore, toolkits are an effective way to save volunteers and activists the time of in-depth research and crafting their own talking points. The toolkit includes:
- A main “fill-in” talking point—A scripted, fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to make your point
- Curated phrases—Blurbs of the main points they want you to highlight at the meeting; key talking points of why they are important
Where can you find toolkits?
- Email newsletters—These often include a link to the toolkit and facts
- Social media—Most commonly found in a post on organizations’ Twitter or Facebook accounts
- Blog posts—Blogs are a great way to inform and educate in an accessible way, and usually include a link to a toolkit
If you can’t locate a toolkit, always reach out to the organization you’re speaking on behalf of and ask. They will be happy to help you.
How public commenting works on the day of the meeting
All public meetings closely follow the agenda that they post a few days prior to the meeting. While the action items vary, the structure of the meetings remains the same.
Here is what to keep in mind the day of the meeting when you’re going to offer your public comment:
- Show up early—If you’re going to the meeting in person, show up early. Public commenters will need to fill out a form before the meeting starts. And if you’re joining virtually, you’ll usually need to fill out an online form first too.
- Locate your action item number—All action items on the agenda are numbered. Be sure to read through the full agenda first to locate your action number so you recognize it when it’s called.
- Meetings often begin with Non-Agenda Public Comment—After roll call and the pledge of allegiance, public meetings usually start with non-agenda public comments. These can include any topic within the council’s jurisdiction that isn’t on the agenda. (NOTE: If they happen to call your name to comment during the non-agenda public comment session, be sure to tell them that you’re actually here to speak to your specific agenda item.)
- Speak up if they forget to call you for comment—If you’ve taken all the proper steps to submit a public comment live during the meeting and they skip to the vote on your agenda item without calling on you first, SPEAK UP. Wave your arms, and alert them to their oversight.
- Pay attention to the timer—Most meetings allow each commenter between 1-3 minutes to make their public comment. Sometimes the time limit is announced in the agenda information ahead of time, but don’t count on it. We recommend you prepare three versions of your public comment—to fit 1, 2, and 3-minute comment limits—so that you’re prepared no matter what.
Crafting your message
Speaking of the time limits involved with live public commenting, it’ll take a bit of time and forethought to craft your message ahead of time.
Time and attention at these meetings are short. So the best way to make sure your public comment is compelling and interesting is to simply sit down ahead of time and write it out.
Write out your comment in full
- Write the whole thing out, not just an outline—When you write out the whole text, you have an accurate idea of how long it will take for you to actually speak. You also won’t get stuck in the middle of your comment, struggling for what to say, which might happen with an outline.
- Print it out big and bold—So that you can clearly see and read it without issue
- Emphasize with caps—Use all caps for words you want to put emphasis on so you won’t forget
Who are you, and who are you speaking on behalf of?
- Introduce yourself—Give your full name and a succinct description of the organization you’re speaking on behalf of.
- Make sure you’re authorized—On that note, make sure that if you are an employee of an organization, you are authorized to speak on their behalf.
- Lead with your position on this issue—It might sound obvious, but you want to begin your public comment by clearly stating if you are for or against the action item you’re speaking on. Don’t wait until the end of your statement to make this clear.
- Consider your extended audience—Yes, the main goal of your public comment is to persuade your elected officials to vote in your favor. But remember you’re also trying to influence a bigger audience: your community and everyone else who is present at the meeting.
- The press might be looking for a sound bite—If you’re publicly commenting on a hotly contested agenda item, there may be members of the press at the meeting looking for a sound bite to use in their articles. Particularly thoughtful public comments can be picked up by national news outlets, so you might find that means yours!
What to say in your public comment
If you don’t feel like writing your own comment or don’t have the time, don’t worry. It’s perfectly acceptable to use a talking point or scripted blurb from an organization’s toolkit.
But if you are looking to craft your own statement, we’ve got some great advice on how you can make it one that has your audience all ears.
- Keep it simple—Public meetings move very quickly. There is no time for complex, in-depth arguments. To make your message punchy and memorable, write a brief statement and use inflection as you speak. Elected officials may be distracted, so keep them alert.
- Be intentional about the message you are conveying—Comments that are loaded with statistics and facts tend to make eyes glaze over. Instead, try to center your comment around emotional impact and use facts sparingly. Consider sharing a personal anecdote to invite listeners into your own perspectives. Emotional impact is a very powerful tool.
- Practice, practice, practice—This is probably the most important takeaway about public commenting. Practice reading your comment aloud several times and time yourself to get an accurate idea of how long it really takes. We also recommend that you:
- Have 1, 2, and 3-minute versions of your comment so that you’ll be prepared to get your point across no matter the time limit allotted in the meeting
- Strip unnecessary words like adjectives and adverbs
- Bring the most important idea to the top of your comment and lead with that
- Go with your most unique angle on this topic to avoid repeating what you’re sure others will say on the topic. Make your comment stand out.
- Speak at a normal pace when you talk—don’t rush it, or drag it out too long
- Get rid of tongue-twisters
- Avoid acronyms, unless you’re certain the audience is familiar with them (CIA, FBI, etc.)
- Ask for specific and honest feedback from friends or family when you practice your comment. What sections felt dense, unclear, or otherwise off-putting to them? Then revise accordingly.