What to adjust? What to abandon? Lessons on making live events virtual from the 2020 conventions

Balloon drops and cheese hats can’t be replaced. But other aspects of live events can.

President Donald Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention plays at a mostly empty Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
President Donald Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention plays at a mostly empty Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Two weeks of streamed and televised political theater is over after President Donald Trump capped off the Republican National Convention with a speech casting Democratic rival Joe Biden as a Trojan horse for a left-wing agenda. 

Both conventions, with a mix of in-person and pre-recorded addresses, show the challenges of evolving a multi-day event that typically feeds off a raucous, in-person audience. Some elements — think falling balloons  are difficult if not impossible to duplicate in a virtual and scaled-down format.

Some parts of a political convention would have been impossible to reinvent due to COVID-19 precautions, specifically the networking and social events, which are a massive draw for attendees, says Jarad Geldner, VP of public affairs at S-3 Group and a former senior adviser to the Democratic Coalition.

“So much of what happens at those conventions doesn’t take place on stage, and that is what was missing most in the new format: the interaction that happens in the room before, in-between and after,” says Geldner, who has attended about 20 conventions on both the Democratic and Republican sides. 

However, the networking is for a small audience, so it makes sense that it wasn’t a top priority for organizers. “The in-person value is highest for those who are already very well connected, because most of these events are invite-only and thus cater mainly to the establishment,” he explains. “Both parties made the right call in declining to try to replicate that during a pandemic.”

But in scaling back, Geldner says the Democrats wisely didn’t just make the programming a succession of speeches. Pre-recorded video that in the past might have played in between speeches  and that he acknowledges “often nobody usually pays much attention to”  was used effectively to break up the monotony of televised addresses. 

By contrast, Geldner says the Republicans “loaded up so many speeches it became disorienting. The key lesson here is you can’t just talk at people for two hours unless they are already Kool-Aid drinkers. If you’re going to ask people to watch two and a half hours of programming a night, you’ve got to make it more interesting than a parade of speakers.” 

That’s not to say the Republicans didn’t have powerful moments, like when Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old congressional candidate from North Carolina, stood up from his wheelchair for the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet Geldner says such moments were few and far between.  

It also proved impossible to duplicate a raucous live environment, which could have made the speech from Trump campaign fundraiser, and Donald Trump Jr. girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle feel less ridiculous in tenor. Or during the Democratic Convention, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ socially distanced waves might have looked less silly. 

“The feeling in the room was impossible to duplicate,” says pollster Lee Carter, president of Maslansky + Partners. “You don’t feel the enthusiasm. The excitement. There is an electricity about these events that was just sad to miss  things like all the delegates from Wisconsin wearing their cheese hats.” 

What are the lessons learned from the conventions about staging a major event during a pandemic? “Produce it like a television show, not a virtual version of the live event or a Zoom conference call, and make the most of storytelling,” says Carter. “Crop your shots. Use consistent backdrops. Have a theme and through-line. And don’t yell.” 

“Produce the event for the medium you have, not the venue you were supposed to be at,” she says. 

Noting that Trump is a former reality TV star, at least one agency executive says the president was smart to leverage the White House for key speeches. The incumbent’s team also flouted COVID-19 protocols by allowing thousands of people without masks on the South Lawn of the White House for Trump’s acceptance speech. 

“The ability to showcase the president in action at the White House and the first lady speaking from the Rose Garden are unparalleled backdrops,” says Aaron McLear, Edelman’s U.S. chair of public affairs. McLear was also a press secretary for former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, press secretary for the RNC and communications director for former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign in Ohio. 

“Has anyone ever been better suited to direct a four-day informercial about his own genius than the president?” he asks. “He instinctively understands marketing and the power of visual storytelling so this couldn’t be more in his wheelhouse.”

However, critics charge that using the White House as a campaign prop was a likely violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from using their authority to affect the outcome of an election. 

“The backdrop was just plain gross. It’s clearly illegal to host a political event like this at the White House and to involve so many federal employees,” says Geldner. “Sadly in Washington, when a barrier breaks, it almost never gets repaired.”

Yet McLear doubts it will “be a top issue for most voters, despite the harrumphing from DC pundits.” 

Despite the policy chasm between the two parties, political conventions have long had the same goal: rally base supporters and make sure they turn out at the polls while reaching out to undecided voters. Yet in moving from a sports arena to pre-recorded segments and live speeches, the two conventions look less like one another than ever. 

KayAnn Schoeneman, SVP and director of corporate affairs and public affairs at Curley Company, who considers herself a moderate with Republican roots, notes the differences in the parties’ roll calls. 

“The norms were so different that you wouldn’t even know that you were watching two sides of the same coin,” says Schoeneman. “The only thing that was maintained between the two was the VP and presidential nominees accepting their nomination. It really shows the lack of collaboration and cohesiveness between the two parties right now.”

Brandon Neal, senior director at APCO Worldwide and former DNC political director, says the old playbook of political events are being shelved, at least temporarily. All events are in “a new normal,” political or otherwise. 

“I think companies can learn by seeing how the conventions reduced and scaled back a lot of the pomp and circumstance of what they would have previously done,” he says. “What you see is a streamlining for efficiency in terms of scaling back to move forward.” 

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