National Capital Chapter

With Conference Season Looming, Prepare to Pivot

By Karen Addis, APR, and Lisa Fels Davitt

It’s only May, but fall conference season is in full swing….at least it usually is this time of year. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a conundrum for businesses that hold in-person events. While it was clear that spring conferences needed to be rescheduled, canceled or go virtual, it’s too soon to tell what fall may bring.

Conferences have many stakeholders: attendees, sponsors, vendors, company employees and board members, and often investors, analysts, and media. At the very least, they need to know what to anticipate.

We are not writing today to predict the future of the pandemic or advise organizations on whether they should hold their scheduled, in-person conference. However, we offer six best-practices for communicating about your event during a global pandemic:

  1. Have a plan. Create a conference communications plan that considers who will care about the conference, and specifically what they need to know. Include scenario planning and risk assessment, like a crisis plan would. The plan should name leaders who will make the final decision about the conference format, and the date a final decision will be reached. Hint: Ideally, make the call several months ahead of time so your marketing and communications teams can have sufficient time to maximize their impact.
  2. Have a plan B. Consider developing two communications plans in parallel – one for an in-person conference, and another for a virtual event. While creating two plans takes more work on the front end, this ultimately could save time by helping you deploy the plan far more quickly when the time comes.
  3. Establish regular communications. Using your communications plan as a guide, communicate regularly and honestly, even if just to say you are still actively monitoring the situation. Your stakeholders want to be kept informed. People understand you aren’t always going to have definitive answers, and that’s okay. Share key updates, post an FAQ section on your website, and keep that FAQ current.
  4. Don’t overpromise. Unless you are 100% certain that your conference will be held in San Antonio the third week of November, for example, hold off buying that Texas-themed swag bag and establishing discounts for early hotel registrations. Course-correcting can be very labor- and price-intensive and could frustrate your stakeholders (see #5 below!).
  5. Consider what’s at stake, including brand reputation. As one of our clients says, “Science may move faster than the population.” Scientists may indicate that it’s completely safe for hundreds of meeting participants to sit, mask-free, at tables in a hotel ballroom, but will people want to do that?! If fear – or company travel bans – inhibit attendance, the ballroom that seats 10,000 may only have 150 in attendance. How’s that for optics? More importantly, the health, safety, security, and comfort of conference attendees should ultimately drive decision-making (in addition, of course, to guidance from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local government agencies). If those are in jeopardy, so is your reputation.
  6. Tap into your networks. Remember, this is new to everyone. Poll your peers to find out what they are doing, and determine what’s most important to your stakeholders. That should help guide your event planning process and associated communications.

As we all know, these are unprecedented times, and all businesses are trying to make the best decisions possible given the evolving situation. Organizations that will come through this crisis best are those that leverage all their resources: tapping into their networks for ideas and guidance; planning alternatives in the event they need to quickly pivot; and communicating often and authentically based on the information they know at the moment.

We have more than 25 years of communications experience, including managing PR for both large-scale and niche conferences and meetings. If your organization needs assistance with developing a communications strategy for an upcoming event, or support for communications needs in general, contact us for a complimentary consultation.


About the Author

Karen Addis, APR, is president and CEO of Addis Communications and a member of the PRSA-NCC Board of Directors. 



Lisa Fels Davitt is founder and CEO of Succession Communications.