The Realities Of Virtual Party Conferences

While some are breathing a sigh of relief that they do not have to attend the party conferences, the reality is that unless other activity is put in place then a valuable engagement opportunity has been removed.

The virtual conferences will certainly be different but, carefully considered, they can still help play a role.

The cancellation of the ‘in-person’ conferences does not mean that the conferences are not going ahead.  Instead, the parties are planning for virtual conferences. The shape of these has yet to be fully decided but there are some immediate consequences of moving online – the lack of a captive audience, less of an attention span, the loss of networking opportunities, and the inability to bump into people for a catch-up.

So what other considerations are there and what might you need to do. Arranging a Zoom fringe meeting is one thing but how can you replicate the full party conference experience and get the most from it?

The fundamentals of a good fringe will remain: whatever the format of the fringe the fundamentals need to be in place. In other words, you need a diverse panel, at least one political speaker, a relevant and interesting topic and a Q&A that draws people in. It is probably not the best idea to make a party conference fringe your first online event so make sure you have done a few practice runs.

Who is your audience? this is really the heart of the challenge this year. Normally a fringe event will benefit from having an audience comprising party members, officials, interested stakeholders, elected representatives and other stakeholders. If you are thinking about a virtual session then you need to work out who your intended audience and how to get to them involved.

Timings: the parties are all still working on what a virtual conference means for them. All being well there should be some clarity soon but the longer before they make decisions, the less time you have to organise your session. As we get closer to August, the less likely it is that politicians will be able to respond to invites. So that could mean that we only have a few short weeks in September to really pull things together.

Advertising: the parties may well offer ‘fringe listings’ of one type or another, potentially at a cost. However, you are also going to have to consider how else you get information ‘out there’ about your virtual session.

Party events: the parties are considering if and how they can work on their own events so there will remain choices about the options available to you. It could be that you think seriously about attending business events rather than holding your own session.

Rather than just thinking about the downsides of virtual sessions there are some upsides as well. You can, for instance, record the session and make it available as a permanent resource. There is also the prospect of potentially a lower cost being involved but if that is the case then be careful to assign the saving to other parts of your engagement rather than risk losing it.

We are working with a number of organisations to help them plan this year’s activity so would be happy to talk to others as well. This is all new so no-one has all the answers but it offers the prospect of being innovative and different. Who knows, maybe some of what happens this year will become standard practice at future party conferences as well.

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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