CoronaCon: Lessons learned from the CIPR’s COVID-19 conference

Darryl Sparey shares his experiences of organising a two-day virtual event and the lessons learned.


Like most things you read in the press nowadays, it all started on Twitter. In the very early days of the lockdown in the UK, events and conferences were being cancelled everywhere. For the foreseeable future, a key plank of the standard thought leadership platform – the talk at an industry conference – was disappearing amid the confusion and concern caused by the Coronavirus. But industry bodies like the CIPR and industry media outlets addressing the PR industry still need ways to reach and engage their audience, amidst the chaos, so I asked the Twittersphere if there were speakers out there that were so good, people would pay to see them speak at a virtual conference.


The response was overwhelming. Within a few short hours the very fine folk of the PR Twitter community had curated a list of stellar speakers for me. To his eternal credit, Alex Myers of Manifest (who was nominated as a speaker by more than one person) suggested that if we were to put on a paid virtual event, he would speak, but only if the ticket revenue went to a good cause. So, the seeds of #CoronaCon were sown. We would put on an event for PR and communications professionals to share their experiences of the impact of COVID-19, and talk about what this all means for the future of our industry. And proceeds from ticket sales would go to iProvision, the CIPR’s benevolent fund, and The Felix Project, a food re-distribution charity. Both, as you can imagine, very busy organisations currently.


Fast-forward a few weeks, and over £1,500 in funds raised, over 140 attendees, ten speakers, two events, and one rather contentious trending hashtag later, CoronaCon has been and gone. I am undoubtedly biased when I say this, but I found it to be a really valuable event, with sessions from speakers that were genuinely thought provoking.


A few key trends that I spotted from the presentations:


Reputation is hard-won, and too easily lost – A consistent theme from talks by Sarah Waddington, Alex Myers, Tony Langham and Ronke Lawal was just how important the management of reputation is to a business, and how some businesses have seemingly, wilfully squandered hard-won reputations with poor comms to staff or key stakeholders. Tony Langham looked at the brand-response to COVID-19 in terms of who had has a “good war” and the terminology there seemed apt. And there were some reputations that speakers like Ronke Lawal felt needed more than “just” good PR to save. As Sarah and Alex pointed out, its brands’behaviour that matters, and there’s more awareness and attention being paid to what brands do rather than what they say than ever before.


Powerful digital platforms will continue to accrue outsized benefits and growth in the advent of COVID-19 – Andrew Bruce Smith gave a masterclass in the different digital platforms and what their futures might hold in the wake of the pandemic. One thing was clear: Platforms like Amazon, Google and Facebook will continue to see their scale and network effects accrue even greater advantages to them in the post-COVID world, as more and more business is conducted online. Communicators need to get to grips with these platforms, and use this to their advantage to run genuinely integrated campaigns across paid, shared, owned as well as earned channels.


We still have a lot of work to do as an industry – The CIPR President Jenni Field gave a great talk about the industry’s reaction to Coronavirus. She underlined the duty of communicators to tackle misinformation, and get the right information to the right people, at the right time. She also addressed issues of diversity in PR, which have been rightly raised recently, and talked about how much work we still have to do as an industry to represent the publics that we’re communicating with.


Work has changed forever, and those that embrace this change will benefit

most – Sharon O’Dea looked in detail at the future of work, how we work, and where we’ll work, seen through the lens of the disruption caused by COVID-19. Independent PR agencies in particular have the opportunity to redesign their business models and ways of working to take full advantage of a new world of work, not limited by physical or geographic location, and enabled by technology.


Local government communications professionals are the most under-valued communicators in the industry – Polly Cziok gave a blistering, brutally honest account of how communications around the pandemic had been handled at a national and a local level. One thing became clear quite quickly, as tweets from those watching her presentation started including the hashtag “#PollyForPM” – our colleagues and peers in local government communications cover a dizzyingly huge range of challenges on a daily basis. My eyes were opened to how extensive the range of issues they have to deal with every day is, particularly at the moment.


Perspective helps – Social media analysis from communicators by Vuelio, presented by Natalie Orringe, put some hard numbers against the industry sentiment in the wake of the pandemic. COVID-19 has dominated the discussions of communications professionals in the last two quarters, representing 50% and 65% of all topics of discussion taking place on social media within this comms cohort. However, one of the most affecting presentations came from CIPR Greater London Group member Diane Hinds. She discussed her personal experience of lockdown, as someone with an under-lying health condition. Her presentation was focused on finding resilience in the face of the global pandemic. It puts the concerns about our communications challenges into perspective. As challenging as this all might seem, it’s not life and death in the press office.


I’m not sure we’ll be putting on another CoronaCon. It was a huge investment of time and effort, right in the middle of a heightened time of anxiety for the volunteers who helped to organise it. And we certainly won’t be using the same hashtag again! But I’m proud to have been part of putting on an event that brought together a fantastic panel of speakers, raised some much-need cash for good causes, and helped show that you can put on a virtual conference that people will pay to attend. And whilst the hashtag may have caused a few problems, I’m glad to say that it all started on Twitter.


Darryl Sparey is MD of Hard Numbers and a CIPR Greater London Group Committee member. 

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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