Searching for a bold way to fulfill the Core Standards community outreach requirement, the 2,400-member Cape Fear REALTORS®, N.C., created an initiative to strengthen community bonds by providing public education on important local issues.
The first event in the association’s Public Square initiative set out to address the contentious issue of offshore oil drilling and featured speakers from each side of the debate. The goal was to provide the community with a forum for conversation while modeling civility, specifically for students.
The forum, planned for Oct. 17, 2017, featured international experts Jean-Michel Cousteau, oceanographer and environmentalist, and John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Co. Together, they would discuss the issue “To Drill or Not to Drill?” for oil off the coast of North Carolina. Although this is a touchy issue in the media, a Cape Fear REALTORS® survey showed 40 percent of its members had not formed an opinion on the issue and neither had the association.
“Going in, we knew there were groups strongly opposed and others strongly supporting this issue,” says REALTOR® and civic adviser Tom Gale, one of the forum’s originators. “It was difficult to get a balanced view of the pros and cons, so we selected it as the topic to educate on both sides of the issue. REALTORS® often act as the information gateway for people coming to the Cape Fear region; thus, it is important for them to be informed on critical issues like offshore drilling.”
Three weeks before the event, the association had sold only 35 tickets for a venue that holds 1,557 attendees. The association and its cohosts had invested tens of thousands of dollars for the speakers, venue, security, marketing, ticketing, and related expenses. Two weeks out, ticket sales increased to an encouraging 244. A week out, the number swelled to 723. One day away, ticket sales soared to 1,259 and on event day, it sold out.
The timely topic and well-known speakers proved to be an effective allure for residents. But in today’s environment of hyperpartisan political debate and ugly liberal-conservative clashes on social media and television, how would Cape Fear REALTORS® pull off an event that had the potential to turn into a heated confrontation, or worse?
“We took great care to deliver a program that was educational. It was not a debate,” says Cape Fear REALTORS® COO Shane Johnson. “We avoided things that might incite people.”
The program began with a five-minute video on the importance of civility, with messages from Jose Sartarelli, chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington; Amanda Lee, president of Cape Fear Community College; and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, a REALTOR®.
“The Public Square has grown from the need for more respect in the public arena,” said Saffo. “When present, respect allows us to understand our differences while we focus on commonalities.”
Next, the emcee, Jon Evans, a well-respected local TV anchor, took the stage and explained the importance of being respectful. He stood at the edge of the stage, looked out at the audience and said, “This isn’t Facebook!” Two police officers were posted on the main floor of the auditorium as visual deterrents.
“We also took great care in inviting everyone,” says Johnson. “In fact, we handed out tickets to the 50 protesters outside the venue, inviting them in to participate, respectfully—and they did! We did not have a single outburst or incident.”
The event stands as the largest in the association’s 95-year history, earning hours of media coverage and a social media “explosion,” says Johnson.
Yet the journey to this successful event was not easy, says Johnson. “It took several years to bring the program to fruition. We collaborated with influential community leaders, partnered with major media outlets, and connected with other organizations willing to promote the forum to their memberships.” In fact, both the local GOP and Democratic parties promoted the event to their memberships.
“Beyond all the other positives,” says Gale, “this event resulted in a substantial boost for the REALTOR® brand and image in the region, which is one of the end goals of Core Standards.”
To watch the Public Square promo and civility video, visit vimeo.com/250805218.
By Carolyn Schwaar