Making a good conference call

A conference can provide a positive atmosphere in which to display thought leadership to industry peers. David Ward learns how to make the most of this opportunity

A conference can provide a positive atmosphere in which to display thought leadership to industry peers. David Ward learns how to make the most of this opportunity

As the cancellation of this year's Comdex demonstrates, the economic slowdown of the past few years has certainly taken its toll on traditional major trade shows. But, surprisingly, it's had only a modest impact on the host of smaller industry-specific conferences taking place across the country.

"A number of the older technology conferences may have failed in the past few years, but, that said, there's still plenty of options," notes Michael Busselen, senior partner and general manager of Fleishman-Hillard's San Diego office. "If there were a dozen relevant to your client before, there are still eight or nine good ones going. And the invitation-only events have not fallen off at all - in fact the invitation-only conferences are even bigger that they had been before."

But helping clients prepare for a conference requires a different type of PR strategy, one that is almost counter-intuitive to the product-specific messages that most companies deliver at trade events.

"With trade shows and industry expos you can really articulate your product messages, but when you're at a conference, whether it's on a panel or delivering a keynote speech, you really have to take it to the next level," says Laina Minervino, account supervisor with Stern & Associates. "The goal there should be more to position an executive as a thought leader within an industry and make sure you're reaching the people who ultimately will be able to drive your business."

Even at those conferences that have a distinct product focus, there is real resistance to the hard sell. "The audience doesn't want to hear product marketing messages from speakers," says Chris Shipley, executive producer of the tech-centric Demo and DemoMobile events. "They want to hear about plans and directions, they want a bit of controversy, and they want to understand how the speaker's view is going to affect their product decisions."

This is especially true for the high C-level conferences, where only the industry elite is in attendance, says Busselen.

"As a general rule, when thought leaders are getting together to discuss trends, it's not the best place for a product announcement," he notes.

But Busselen adds that many conferences evolve from year to year, so each should be reevaluated annually. "I do think one thing an outside agency can do is help analyze things, so it's not the, 'Well, we go because we've always gone,' scenario," he says. "Instead it should be, 'What did we really get out of it last year, what was the feedback from the executive, do we need to up-level the executive or take it down a notch and figure out if it's more of an opportunity for a vice president or director?'"

Once you've made that decision, Jennifer Colton, SVP with Hill & Knowlton's San Francisco office, recommends reaching out to the event organizers as early as possible, in some cases eight to 12 months before the conference. By doing that, she says, "PR can really play an important role in helping to define the agenda, to the point where you're not just offering up executives for a panel, but you can actually pitch the panel to them or help the organizer identify trends in the marketplace and areas the audience wants to learn about."

Shipley, for one, says she welcomes these ideas, but stresses, "I certainly will entertain speaker proposals, but will be able to accept very few of them." She also notes that unlike traditional trade shows, conferences are not designed to be media events.

"The media are treated as attendees, and, as a result, they deeply engage with the presenting companies," she says. "We don't distribute the press list prior to the event, and the press tells us that they see this as one of the great pluses in covering the conference."

That's not to say that there shouldn't be a media strategy heading into a conference, only that it needs to have a lot of built-in flexibility. "It's not about pitching a company strategy," Colton says. "It's more about providing an opportunity for the media to have a one-on-one meeting with an executive where the reporter doesn't feel that they're being pitched."

"A lot of times we counsel executives, saying, 'Of the media that we are interested in, here's five folks you might want to keep your eyes open for,'" adds Busselen. "We may provide the attendee with a little background and a few articles by those reporters, and tell them, 'If you meet them, buy them a beer.'"

Minervino says the lack of an obvious media opportunity doesn't mean you shouldn't have a few press kits on hand. But she suggests that a better strategy is to make sure the client's relevant information is included in the binders most conference organizers hand out to attendees. "It's a good thing to contribute something, even if it's not your full presentation," she says.

As far as the tools an executive needs at a conference, the only major advice is not to rely too heavily on presentation tools, such as PowerPoint. Shipley specifically prohibits the use of PowerPoint and slides at her events, saying, "PowerPoint and its kind do more to stifle communications than to support it."

Busselen agrees, saying, "A PowerPoint is a bit of a crutch. Keynotes don't use PowerPoints - at least the good ones don't."

For the top-tier "Captains of Industry" conferences, including those held annually in Davos, Sun Valley, or Aspen, Busselen says the best advice for clients is to have a patient, long-term view.

"Some of those require a certain apprenticeship cycle where you would attend for a couple of years and guide the attendee, and, ultimately, the hope is to attend to the dais and participate," Busselen says. "Those who get to speak at the most prestigious events are either the best known or the best organized, and the communications support executives have the opportunity to provide that structure that can elevate your client from participant to speaker."

Technique Tips

Do reach out to conference organizers as early as possible to suggest speakers and panel themes that are relevant to the industry and involve your client

Do make sure you get any relevant company material in so it can be included in the binder that most conferences give attendees

Do annually reevaluate conferences, not only to make sure they're beneficial to your client, but also to make sure you're sending the most appropriate executive to each event

Don't let clients give a hard sell when either delivering a speech or participating on a panel

Don't focus too much on the media at a conference. Most journalists prefer to be in the background at conferences, and there will be opportunities to engage them in informal background interviews

Don't let clients use a PowerPoint presentation at a conference, if possible. It's a crutch that doesn't allow an executive to demonstrate his or her mastery of the industry as a whole

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