As the song goes, “back to life, back to reality”. August 2011 has been an eventful month and (social upheaval aside) repeated a long-time trend. For those working in PR and communications, August is rarely ever slow; more often than not, in our profession, August is often breathtakingly frantic. This is due to a number of factors: picking up the slack for colleagues on holiday; end of fiscal year planning cycles; pockets of unused budget being assigned to last-minute projects; and proposals (that you submitted in the spring) finally getting sign-off for immediate implementation.
This is obviously a good thing for business, but the challenge for all communicators, whether you’re in-house or agency, is giving yourself enough thinking space to plan ahead for even busier periods. Because what’s ahead is autumn/winter, and if you work in the b2b or technology PR world, September marks the beginning of conference silly season.
For one client alone, Firefly is assisting with content for the Intel Developer Forum, IFA, Salon de la Photo and SMAU shows – a real, international event smorgasbord if there ever was one, with the events taking place in San Francisco, Berlin, Paris and Milan, respectively. And this is in addition to the big daddy of consumer technology events, CES, which rears its all-singing, all-dancing head in Vegas come January 2011.
It’s a given that content planning for major conferences should kick off months before opening day. But the need for smart planning even earlier in the process (e.g. six months of more) is becoming more critical because of dwindling attendance numbers coupled with a real need to prove event ROI. Furthermore, new UK bribery laws shouldget more PR teams thinking about whether old ways of drumming up journalist interest in their company’s products/services – including certain types of entertainment, freebies, etc. – are now outdated or even illegal.
Here are a few our quick tips for surviving conference silly season:
Before the event
Don’t skip the editorial planning meetings. Solid news planning is one of the toughest but most rewarding parts of the job, and it can’t happen in a vacuum. Establishing a steering committee with a handful of motivated team members – with a bulldog’s approach to getting content– is a must before setting your conference news agenda. Within this, it’s helpful to have a couple of personality types contributing to the process, whether they are internal to your team or on agency-side.
Agenda driver: keeps the end-goals in sight, even on days when it seems that breakthrough is never going to come.
Editor-in-chief: the one with the nose for news, whose editorial savvy will keep your news agenda in shape, and who will always draw you back to the “bigger picture”, despite calls for a dozen press releases.
Aggregator: the one who’s most effective in the field, actively sniffing out content ideas and bringing them back to the group for exploration and development.
Inspiring, confident writers: they definitely mustn’t be forgotten.
Know your NEWS from your “news”. Let’s face it, it’s tough to get a look-in at these shows without hard news; and when you do have timely, compelling news, make sure not to dilute their impact by bundling them with second- or third-tier “filler” content. This can be a difficult conversation to have when the content owner is urging you to press-release their stuff; but do have the conversation about using other, more appropriate avenues for soft news.
For example, can content be re-cast as:
One-to-one spokesperson interview content that doesn’t necessitate a separate press release?
As a roundtable debate topic, if you’ve got the resources to set this up as an adjunct event to the main conference, with a select group of spokespeople and key journalists?
The night before is usually a good time to check your gear for business cards, adapters, USBs, PC power cords and cables, chargers, your Flip recorder, multi-directional microphone, tripod and all manner of helpful gizmos. But the gadget that has proved helpful for me time and again is a simple digital recorder. I’ve used this on occasion when a foreign journalist is interviewing a spokesperson in English language, but hasn’t brought a recorder him or herself. Back home, they may want the recording as back-up to make sure they capture bits of (often idiomatic) English and can make sense of it for their story.
At the event
Have an early breakfast every day. Use this opportunity not just to re-fuel, but to catch up with your team, discuss any breaking news and whether that news impacts the day’s agenda. In between bites of muesli, disseminate any key emails to spokespeople – even if it’s a one-liner about competitor or other news they may be asked to comment on, and what your recommended approach is. This is one of the best times, if not the only time, to make sure your team is exchanging intelligence from the night before and arming itself with new insights for the day ahead.
Do sweat the event assets. Yes, journalists are sniffing around for concrete news – that’s a given. But the event itselfcan be a good platform for generating valuable PR content. For example, we recently designed a survey that we conducted on-site at the Institute of Fundraising event, which generated great responses about the future of charitable giving in the UK. We had two major opportunities for coverage: headline news on day one of the event, followed by media pitching of the survey results on day three. The result was much-maximised coverage and exposure in print and online channels.
When it comes to conferences, planning is paramount. So get your whiteboard, dry-erase markers and excel spreadsheets fired up: it’s going to be a bumper-crop autumn.
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