By Amanda Jackson, chair of the Lancashire subgroup of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and part of the CIPR’s North West committee.

Events are the lifeblood of the CIPR. They are where we meet, network, learn and explore new opportunities together.

But in common with everyone else who had grown used to an in-person meeting format, the onset of the pandemic forced our committee to think again.

Moving our events online felt like a significant shift, but we had a plan. We wanted to continue our meetings in some way of course; but we also wanted to find a way of actively supporting the PR community in Lancashire – both professionally and personally.

We immediately took this decision: where previously we had charged a small fee we pushed to make all our online events free for members and just £10 for non-members.

To enable us to cover costs we sought sponsorship, and we remain extremely grateful to Ace Media and PR Max for believing in our vision and getting on board to become engaged and supportive partners.

So began our series of monthly webinars on a huge range of topics. Our entire committee stepped up to the plate; drawing on its collective little black book of contacts to secure diverse speakers while also getting involved in the events themselves in a variety of ways.

The most immediate and dramatic change was in our reach. Numbers registering for each event increased fourfold on pre-pandemic numbers. Where our Lancashire branch might once have seemed a bit of a trek for those in Manchester or Liverpool, now our events are attended by people from across the North West and further afield.

Hundreds rather than dozens of people are now gaining access to our recent sessions while topics have spanned everything from measurement and reporting to resilience and mental health; all delivered by our expert speakers.

At a time when getting together in person has been an impossibility, we find we are building an engaged online community with a real energy about it.

Here's how we’re doing it.

13 quick tips for a successful webinar:

1: Our webinars are team events so it’s important that their organisation isn’t monopolised by one or two people. We distribute roles across the committee, with a different person handling:

  • Inviting/communicating with the speaker - usually, it will be the person who knows/suggested them
  • Putting the event listing together
  • Coordinating social media
  • A role in the webinar itself (which we’ll get to in a moment)

2: We place event information on our Eventbrite page, in the CIPR weekly newsletter and on social media. Sponsors feature prominently in the publicity, as well as during the webinar itself. We’ll always invite sponsors to the event itself, too. It’s much easier to protect and build the relationships we have than repeatedly go in search of new ones – so we keep communicating with them throughout each webinar ‘cycle’.

3: Every member of the organising group commits to sharing, liking and commenting on social media. That’s really important because a) if your own committee isn’t engaged by the event, why should anyone else be? And b) you extend the organic reach of your event by tapping into your own immediate networks to promote it.

4: We ask for a speaker pre-meet 15 minutes before the webinar is due to start. That gives us a chance to welcome him or her informally (something speakers value and which gets things off to a friendly and relaxed start). It also ensures technical aspects are resolved. In the early days of the first lockdown, when so many of us were new to Zoom, that helped avoid numerous ‘the mic’s off’ moments, or occasions where a speaker would sit in front of a window and appear in mysterious silhouette.

5: Ahead of each webinar I print a list of registrations and tick off those who attend, which I can also use as validation of sponsor involvement. It’s sometimes hard to identify people from there screen names, but we just private message them to ask.

6: Our webinars last a strict 45 minutes, long enough to explore topics in some depth, yet short enough to maintain attention when everyone is feeling over-Zoomed and has plenty of other commitments. And 90% of the feedback we receive confirms this length is about right.

7: Each session starts at a quarter past the hour and in the early days of the webinars we discovered people were assuming an on-the-hour start, arriving at the waiting room early and then wandering off again when they found no-one there. To avoid this, we now have an onscreen message for anyone arriving early, confirming the start time.

8: We usually record the meetings so anyone who registered, but couldn’t make the live event, doesn’t miss out.

9: In the webinar itself, we split duties to maintain the collective involvement. I’ll do the introduction. Then I’ll hand over to the speaker who will present for 35 mins or so and we ask guests to post questions via the chat facility as we go. As time is tight, all questions are held until the Q&A towards the end of the session so that:

  • The speaker maintains flow without interruption
  • We can curate the questions – ensuring the most asked questions get an airing
  • The curator (another role assigned to a sub-committee member) can distil questions to avoid any rambling

Following the Q&A another sub-committee member handles the ‘coming soon’ part of the session, briefly showcasing upcoming events. Then I round things off by thanking speakers, sponsors and attendees.

10: When I’m presenting my sections, I’ll always have a loose script onscreen so I don’t have to look away from the camera to check my notes. – or rustle papers. Also, try to look directly into the camera when you are speaking or presenting; it makes a more personal connection with those participating.

11: As the guest speaker begins, I post a link, in the chat, to our online feedback form (which again namechecks the sponsors) for delegates to complete and return by the end of the session. That increases the number of responses and enables me to give immediate feedback to the speaker which is always welcome.

12: Every event, we ask attendees what they would like to see next. By sticking to the most preferred options, we know there’s already an inbuilt level of interest for future events.

13: At the end of the webinar guests leave, but the subcommittee and the speaker remain on the call so we can quickly review what went well and what needs to be improved or revised in time for the next event.

We continue to evaluate the impact of our work, but we know already that over the past year we’ve created a real buzz about our webinars. That’s hugely rewarding because we know we’re making a difference to our members. We’re seeing the effects of increased engagement. And we’re providing some extremely good reasons to renew memberships.

The lockdown has certainly been a challenge, but it has given us the opportunity to review the way we engage – to the benefit of everyone.