How to Think About Events During the Rest of 2020

With many opportunities changing due to COVID-19 and public health concerns, here’s how you can reimagine your efforts.

Natalie Pridham
Senior Vice President

First published in PR Daily, a news site that delivers news, advice, and opinions on the public relations, marketing, social media, and media worlds. Reprinted here with permission.

In the 1980s, “Another one bites the dust” was a chart-topping hit by Queen. Today, the saying is used to describe the current state of the events industry.

It seems like we can’t go a week, or even a day, without hearing about another event’s plans to cancel or postpone. And rightly so, as we are in the throes of a health crisis, something no one could have predicted or planned for a year ago.

Before COVID-19, events provided an engaging environment for attendees to connect with customers and prospects, expand their network, reconnect with old colleagues, rub elbows with media, and in some cases even enjoy some great live music. For PR, events have always been great venues for client speaking engagements, making news announcements and meeting with reporters in-person (especially for companies whose leaders don’t live in San Francisco or New York).

That is not the case today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the events industry on its head. Event organizations are having to rethink their programming and determine whether they can go on as planned, cancel, postpone, or pivot to a completely online experience. Companies are scrambling to figure out how they can engage with their customer base and generate new business leads without meeting up in person.

Coincidentally, the trends and changes in today’s events industry perfectly align with some of Queen’s lyrics. Here’s what I mean:

The show must go on…virtually.
Early on (in pandemic time), Collision made the decision to go fully virtual. Since then numerous other events have followed suit like CNBC @Work and VentureBeat Transform. While virtual events overcome the challenge of social distancing rules, they can lack the level of engagement that in-person events offer.

The more organizations pivot to online, the more the trend provokes a question: Will virtual events become the new norm even after COVID-19? We won’t know the answer to that question for a while, and certainly not until we see organizations successfully pull off a completely online format.

Until then, these virtual events still present good platforms for thought leadership and speaking, and the same vetting rules from pre-COVID-19 days still apply. Before recommending a virtual event to a client, PR professionals should ask themselves:

  • What is the caliber of previous and current speakers?
  • Does the event theme and topic align with your client’s narrative?
  • Does the event hit the key audience?

If you have a positive answer for all of these questions, then you have a strong recommendation. Yet, even if you don’t check every box, it might be worth taking the risk, because the bar is lower right now (no down time, no travel costs, etc.).

Crazy little thing called…COVID-19
While many conferences still maintain the same focus as before, expect COVID-19 to find its way into programming.

I recently spoke with Richard Smith of TechCrunch, who said the Disrupt mainstage will be similar to last year’s and include major themes like enterprise, AI, hardware, and more, but we can expect to see a few sessions on the Extra Crunch stage related to the current climate, like how to raise during a downturn and “how to pivot during a pandemic. Similarly, Money 20/20 has maintained similar themes as years past but has also acknowledged the changing world.  For example, one of the nine questions it’s organizing its conference around is “Macroeconomic Disruption: Will you survive?

Even if a specific session isn’t related to COVID-19, speakers should expect questions around the pandemic and economic downturn. As PR professionals, we need to make sure spokespeople are prepared to answer these types of tough questions or imply “no comment” without saying “no comment.” One great way to pivot from a hard-hitting question an executive is unable to answer is, “I can’t comment on that directly, but let me tell you…”

I want to break free…
The way that some companies used to conduct business doesn’t work in today’s environment. For example, retail has pivoted to delivery or curbside pick-up to survive. Similarly, event organizations are breaking away from the traditional event model and trying new and creative approaches.

We are seeing more and more events take a series approach, rather than a one and done virtual event. The Next Web launched “TNW Couch Conferences,” a series of online events to address the changing environment and strategies for success. TEDXpivoted its in-person, two-day conference to a two-month event series, and The Wall Street Journal recently announced plans to redesign the “Future of Everything Festival as a virtual series.

These new virtual conferences are also playing around with new ways to network. For example, The Wall Street Journal is looking to foster networking at its future virtual events with breakout sessions and private chat rooms. We’re also seeing the growing popularity of virtual event platforms leading the virtual events revolution with interactive, live experiences that create spaces to learn and network.

All in all, the way we work and live has changed over the last few months and it’s uncertain whether and when we’ll ever go back to the old ways. But one thing is certain—change is happening and this change may leave long-lasting effects on how we work and live in the future—even after COVID-19.