We all hope to avoid PR issues when planning a large conference or event. Although we hate to admit it, some things are out of our control and even the best-laid plans can go awry. We might find ourselves having worked on an event for years, only to get blindside by a controversy, like union strikes or North Carolina’s recent HB2 legislation, which forbids LGBT anti-discrimination protections. Amid all the uproar, meeting organizers can suddenly find themselves having to choose between moving a meeting or taking a hit on attendance.
It is understandable that organizers are worried about attendance. In response to HB2, a handful of states and localities have announced bans on non-essential travel for employees to North Carolina. Such bans probably won’t affect most types of events, but for events that rely heavily on public-sector attendees, like the Bus & Paratransit Conference of the American Public Transit Association (APTA), the effects could be huge.
Official travel bans may not be an organizer’s only worry. High Point Market, the state’s largest annual economic event, stated in a press release that the law meant “hundreds and perhaps thousands of our customers will not attend Market this April”, causing “significant economic damage to High Point Market and the North Carolina economy.”
Neither APTA nor High Point Market can relocate their meeting—APTA for contractual reasons and High Point Market for geographical reasons. Other groups, however, have decided to take that route. The Charlotte News & Observer reported that as of April 21, over 20 groups had dropped plans for holding meetings in the city. (One group, B Lab, has provided an insightful accounting of the process they used to come to their decision.)
Whether deciding to move your event or stay put, here are some Pro Tips to help you handle a PR disaster that threatens to affect attendance:
- Acknowledge the issue. It is unprofessional to bury your head in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong. Make a public statement acknowledging the situation, apologizing when necessary, and explaining what actions have been and will be taken in response.
- Clarify your position. If your business or organization has an official position on the issue—even if that position is neutrality—state it clearly. If the issue is important enough to your organization or attendees, consider taking a more active role supporting allied organizations and/or encouraging attendees to do the same.
- Focus on what change you can control. If possible, work with the event venue to get around the controversy—for example, by making bathrooms gender-neutral—even if just for your event.
- Support those who can’t attend. If the purpose of your event is information distribution or creative exchange, then consider how you can do so via the internet. Consider bolstering your online content by live streaming, live blogging, and live tweeting sessions and keynotes. Webinars and podcasts are also good options. (Note that podcasts can be offered for free or for a download fee.) All these options allow for information distribution to still occur even if your physical attendance is lower than originally anticipated. If membership is a focus, offer it and benefits at a promotional rate during the conference and for a short time before/after online to incentivize new memberships. You could also offer additional online content throughout the event in a “member only” section of your website for those who cannot participate in person.
We would love to hear from you about additional strategies for maintaining good face in light of a PR disaster. Has your association or business been affected by a controversy that was beyond its control? Share your experiences or ideas in the comments.