State Policy Network
Maine Policy Institute attracts lawmakers and new audiences with virtual events

On March 18, 2020, Maine’s Governor issued her first of many executive orders to address the coronavirus outbreak. The situation unfolded quickly, and Mainers wanted clarity on what these executive orders meant.

Maine Policy Institute saw an upcoming happy hour as an opportunity to help Maine residents get the answers they needed.

Connecting during coronavirus: MPI grabs a virtual drink with supporters

Every month, Maine Policy Institute holds a happy hour event, called Maine Policy Pours, at a local brewpub in Portland. MPI typically sees 25-35 attendees, most of whom are supporters in the greater Portland area. As their March 25 happy hour approached, MPI didn’t know what they were going to do, but saw a growing need for answers on the state’s coronavirus response. Not wanting to let their supporters down or let COVID-19 stop their meaningful work, MPI decided to move their happy hour to a virtual setting.

MPI answers Maine residents’ coronavirus questions at a virtual happy hour on March 25, 2020

MPI sent an email invitation to their supporters and marketed the event through Facebook and Twitter. MPI also tried something new—they created Facebook and Instagram stories to promote the virtual happy hour, hoping to attract younger attendees. MPI encouraged participants to bring their own beverages and order takeout from their favorite local restaurants that were still offering takeout or curbside delivery. Maine’s legislative session abruptly came to an end due to the coronavirus, so MPI asked attendees to come equipped with questions about what the legislature accomplished on the last day of session, as well as other questions people had about the state’s coronavirus response and the Maine Governor’s executive orders. 

The virtual happy hour was held in a Q&A format over Zoom. Some supporters submitted questions using Zoom chat, while others who had their cameras enabled asked their questions in front of the whole group. Twenty-seven people attended, including two Maine legislators. While this was the normal number of attendees for their in-person happy hours, the audience was much more diverse. The virtual setting allowed MPI to connect with people from across the state, not just Portland.

MPI holds additional virtual events to help Mainers through the coronavirus

After the success of the virtual happy hour, MPI decided to hold more of these events and serve as a resource for the people of Maine. On March 20, 2020, the state closed schools and sent students home. MPI received several questions from supporters and parents on teaching advice now that their children were at home. On top of working from home, if they hadn’t lost their jobs, parents now had to homeschool their children. Many schools sent students home with packets of work, but without instructions or guidance on how parents should teach.

To give parents the resources they needed to succeed and help their children learn during this challenging time, MPI decided to hold a virtual event where parents could ask questions related to homeschooling. MPI reached out to Heidi Sampson, a state representative and long-time supporter of the organization. Sampson was the first homeschooler to be appointed to Maine’s State Board of Education. Sampson, along with three other homeschooling and online learning experts, agreed to provide homeschooling guidance for parents through this virtual event.

MPI’s CEO Matthew Gagnon introduced the homeschooling experts and then opened it up for questions. The event helped parents navigate this new reality of homeschooling in Maine. “We’re trying to build brand equity in terms of a trusted resource,” said Jacob Posik, MPI’s Director of Communications. “We want people to feel, especially under our new brand, that our organization can be trusted and we’re here to answer questions about anything related to the coronavirus or policy in Maine.”

A time for more engagement, not less

“What we’ve noticed, and other state think tanks have probably noticed too, is that people are even more engaged now than they would be on a regular basis,” said Posik. “The coronavirus sent Americans indoors, with limited options of what they can do. Now more than ever, people want to be in the loop with what’s going on in their state.”

MPI has another virtual happy hour scheduled for April 14, 2020, featuring Scott Wellman, Chief Financial Officer of Puritan Medical Products, one of the top two companies in the world producing testing swabs for identifying COVID-19. Marketing for the virtual event is aimed at small business owners, and the event will focus on what they can do to stay afloat during the coronavirus.

MPI’s advice for state think tanks

When holding events in a virtual setting, MPI recommends state think tanks purchase Zoom Pro and ensure attendees have a way to ask questions before and during the event. If state think tanks are on the fence about jumping into the world of virtual events, MPI urged they take the leap.

“Go for it,” said Posik. “Almost any sort of programing that a state think tank does can be moved virtually. People love to see that you are not letting everything that’s going on stop your organization from fulfilling its mission. We were unsure at first whether going virtual would be successful, but it’s clear to us that people want to remain engaged and think government has become opaque and hard to follow during this public health crisis.”

Key takeaways for state think tanks

Categories: Policy Issues
Organization: State Policy Network