Tuesday, January 19, 2010

If You’re Spinning Out, “Gas It!”

“Gas it! Gas it! Gas it!” radioed a spotter to the lead driver as the car went into a sudden spin coming off a corner. It was the final lap. Under full power, the open-wheel, rear-engine race car did a full 360 but somehow emerged from a huge cloud of tire smoke headed in the right direction. The driver held on to win the race. After I happened to see this spectacular save on TV, I posted a little card in my office as a reminder of the vivid lesson it imparted: If you’re spinning out, “Gas it! Gas it! Gas it!”

For live events, the best assurance of a smooth ride is, of course, preparation: careful planning, detailed record-keeping, checklists, review, clear and frequent communication, and practice, such as a run-through of emergency procedures. When unexpected difficulties arise, thorough groundwork can keep a bump in the road from sending the event into a spin.

Luckily, I haven’t had to face a catastrophic emergency at an event, but I’ve had to steer through obstacles like injuries, fire alarms, power losses, and criminal intrusions. Countless small problems can also crop up—shipping errors, bad weather, no-show speakers, staging mishaps, “costume malfunctions,” miscues, AV glitches, drunken or nutty participants, printing errors, missed deliveries, angry VIPs, negligent vendors —but with relentless advance effort and communication, these “normal” problems are less frequent and have less serious consequences. With experience, we can navigate around them.

It’s the really big problems that demand a different approach. The big problems often occur well before the scheduled event, when some key ingredient changes—economic factors shift drastically, a marketing effort falls flat; a crucial player or partner leaves—and things start to go seriously off-course. The more significant the variable that changes, the less likely it is that “slow and steady” will win the race.

When we start to get off track, it’s instinctive to slow down, back off. Sometimes caution works, but we need to know when to put “pedal to the metal.” The right moves may be counter-intuitive. With really big problems, we need to act, experiment, respond, and adjust realistically but dramatically. And fast! Otherwise, we’re just waiting to hit the wall. A radical response may feel risky. But often the greater risk is to stick to the original plan and deny, ignore, or try to hide the developing crisis.

Event in the red? Sell like a maniac! Slash costs! Last year we closed on two sponsorships just a week before a conference. I once threatened to serve peanut butter and jelly at a black tie dinner to get a partner organization to live up to its financial commitment. Key player leaves? Find a replacement pronto or alter the game plan. When you are in deep trouble, don’t idle along hoping for the best. Gas it! Gas it! Gas it!

Other readers will appreciate seeing your comments about how you’ve responded successfully to an event spin out, as well as how you’ve learned the hard way what not to do with problems large and small. And if you need event help right now, don’t hesitate to give me a call at (866) 271-9450.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

In 2010, Think About the Political Economics of Information

You might say it started with event-magic in 2004, the year Facebook was founded. On a cool, damp July night in Boston, a tall, handsome, (secretly) cigarette-puffing University of Chicago professor-turned-politician, skilled in the ancient art of oratory, delivered his first nationally covered speech.

An estimated 15,000 media representatives were there, looking for a good story, when Barack Obama, then a candidate for the U.S. senate, spoke to about 5,000 delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And 9.1 million viewers watched on TV.

Fast-forward less than five years and the boyish face of Facebook founder Chris Hughes was cover art for the April issue of Fast Company Magazine with the cut line “The Kid Who Made Obama President.” The “boy wonder” according writer Ellen McGirt, had “changed politics and marketing forever.”

Media—whether old, new, or yet to be invented—are instruments of power. Power is fundamentally rooted in three forces: production, destruction and belief. Productive power creates; destructive power coerces; persuasive power influences our view of the world. And these forces interact. Productive capacity can create destructive weapons. Coercive power can seize the means of production. Beliefs guide production and destruction. The dynamics of such interactions are the stuff of political economy. And media are right in the thick of it.

Belief, a key factor in political economy, is the real business of the media. With information and exhortation, media influence belief, and so direct the use of time and resources—for better or for worse. Media can help motivate altruism or suicide bombings; set styles; sell products or politicians. So as we start the new year, it would behoove those of us who make our living creating and distributing information and entertainment to be more cognizant of political economics.

Economics alone will not determine the future shape of our media businesses. We have plenty to learn from the story of how our President rose so quickly to the highest office in our nation (hint: the Fast Company story is not the last word). And still more to learn from the unfolding drama of his presidency. In 2010, too narrow a focus on economics and the strictly commercial uses of information might cause us to miss opportunities—social and political as well as economic!

We at the Conference Department wish all a peaceful, productive and EVENTFUL 2010.

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