As audiences increasingly expect organisations to communicate with them on a direct and individual basis, so conferences and events are a powerful and memorable part of the PR toolkit.
From launch parties, press briefings and corporate announcements to meetings, seminars and top-tier conferences, a live event offers a unique opportunity to present messages in a face-to-face environment, engaging all the senses.
'Conferences and events can provide an important platform from which to communicate directly with stakeholders, inject valuable human contact into the dialogue between client and delegate, explain complex information, develop corporate positioning, share sensitive information or showcase new products,' says Grayling's specialist events arm Grayling Face to Face managing director Paul West. His agency has worked on projects ranging from Panasonic's annual meeting for its dealer network to the release of Lord Laming's report following the Victoria Climbie Inquiry.
However, as a potentially expensive exercise, such activities should not be undertaken lightly. And one of the stiffest challenges is persuading people they need to attend.
At the forefront of attractions for a live event is the guarantee that delegates will walk away with a new understanding of an organisation, product or issue and, in the case of media delegates, gain access to exclusive information. For example, Roche UK holds a range of events from satellite symposiums at established UK and international health forums, to media roundtables, where journalists can learn more about particular disease areas, such as coronary heart disease.
To ensure these events are of interest to journalists, the drugs giant lines up guest speakers who are experts in their field. In April, at the British Cardiac Society Meeting in Glasgow, Roche held a symposium for medical experts featuring Dr Roger Boyle, the Department of Health's 'heart czar', who unveiled plans that the Government intended to prioritise heart failure within the DoH. 'We ensured we had a speaker that journalists would want to hear, and we made him available to those journalists looking for a strong news hook,' says Roche UK PR manager Susie Hackett.
Likewise, IBM runs a programme of public seminars and conferences covering the latest hot topics in the tech sector, including e-business, data storage, security and managing innovation. Meanwhile, BUPA holds two big annual events: the Health Debate and the BUPA Foundation Awards, to ensure that as a private health provider, its voice is heard within the public health debate.
'We find these events work very hard for us with good journalist attendance at the Awards, while we build awareness and news hooks around the Health Debate each year, using MORI research findings,' explains BUPA senior communications consultant Suzanne Kelly.
Attracting media attention
However, while creating issues-led events works well for the healthcare, B2B and corporate sectors, catching the attention of the lifestyle and consumer media is trickier. For example, the gadget press are likely to shun a launch event in favour of a one-to-one briefing and a product trial in their own offices. Similarly, London-based fashion, beauty and shopping journalists are well known for never travelling anywhere that involves getting on the Tube - unless offered an incentive that is specifically tailored to them.
In February, Danone Activia invited consumer health journalists to The Chelsea Club, to launch the clinical studies behind its probiotic yoghurt, which support the claim that Danone Activia makes 'your digestive system work more effectively'.
This event incorporated three briefings, including a morning, lunch-time and tea-time session, in what was a relatively new and aspirational members-only club. The venue boasted the added allure of many of its members hailing from the next-door Chelsea Football Club.
To add to the appeal, Danone's PR agency Cohn & Wolfe arranged a bespoke spa treatment, including colon therapy, for each journalist. This resulted in 16 key media attending the sessions, including The Sun, the Daily Mail, Metro, Zest and Health and Fitness.
'The Chelsea Club not only fitted the bill, being minimalist as well as luxurious, but we also depicted the brand's health messages in a clear and unusual way,' claims Cohn & Wolfe marcoms director Claire Mann.
This event also highlights that as media outlets task fewer staff to cover more topics in less time, journalists are unlikely to turn up to any event without good reason.
'These days, you can't guarantee media attendance, so nine times out of ten, coverage is secured in advance,' says Braben Company managing director Matt Bourn.
His organisation has publicised events including a special conference held last November at the British Museum to unveil the findings of ITV's 'TV and The Brain' report, a study into why TV is the most powerful medium for advertisers. Likewise, in May, the agency helped publishing company Emap raise the profile of its Digital Radio Seminar, an event run on the back of the first published audience figures for digital radio by RAJAR.
'Both these events were very much about targeting customers - media planners, buyers and other media professionals - then positioning the content as interesting enough for the trade media,' says Bourn.
To this end, individual journalists were given exclusive access to research data up-front, while ongoing debate was stimulated in the trade media by opinion pieces written by event speakers and letters from attendees.
Tailoring the event
Is it true that journalists are also becoming less enthusiastic about joining the herd in an all-singing and dancing media event, preferring to rely on special one-on-one relationships with brands and services?
'Showbiz-types parties are still as popular as ever, but you need a really high-profile celebrity, such as Kylie (who attended the Body Craze launch bash), or a more flexible structure that accommodates a range of different audiences,' says Borkowski PR business development director Larry Franks.
Franks has organised events ranging from the launch of Japanese toy Tamagotchi to Action Man's 30th birthday party, and the recent Body Craze experience at Selfridges.
Last October, Franks's organisation managed the consumer brief around the launch of Vodafone Live. Throughout the course of one day, this involved breakfast briefings, a morning photocall, a lunch for analysts and City folk, plus an afternoon media visit by a Vodafone Mobile Media Centre (realised by rebranding Irish boy band Westlife's tour bus) to London's leading magazine houses.
Activities were topped off in the evening, with a Vodafone Live party at Ingeni in Soho, attended by Boy George - who designed some Vodafone Live ringtones - and celebrity photographer Terry O'Neill.
'We needed a five-pronged event to get across different messages to different audiences and to cater for the fact certain media like the low-key approach, while close contacts expect an exclusive angle on a story,' explains Franks.
In addition, Borkowski designed the evening party as a 3-D replication of the services available on Vodafone Live, while the event capitalised on the link between the telecoms provider and Boy George - who was DJ for the evening - and O'Neill, who taught party-goers how to take a good picture on their new handsets. 'Events have to have a logic behind them and reflect the product or service you're trying to promote,' adds Franks.
The venue and timing of an event also play a key role in persuading journalists to attend. 'We have a W1 rule in the agency, to ensure that any event is held within walking distance of the major magazine houses,' says EHPR deputy MD Leigh-ann Wilson.
For example, in February, Wilson's consultancy created an event for 50 key beauty journalists to launch a Hairomatherapy range of shampoos, conditioners and treatments for the celebrity Nicky Clarke hair care brand.
In this instance, the choice of venue was integral to the launch, as it had to reflect the brand's designer image, yet meet the logistical needs of hosting a drinks reception and a private luncheon, and also provide a breakout area for trade interviews with the celebrity hairdresser.
More pertinently, it was important the event was held at a place and time journalists wanted to attend. As such, EHPR selected the fifth floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols, which had just reopened after a major three-month overhaul.
'We were mindful of journalists' time, so made it clear on the invite the event would start promptly at 12.30pm, with lunch completed by 2.30pm,' says Wilson. 'This then allowed for journalists to have a look around the department store before they headed back to the office.' As a result, 62 journalists attended the launch from titles including Vogue, Tatler, Cosmopolitan and Glamour, to The Financial Times and The Guardian.
However, in these economically uncertain times, many claim that events are not only becoming less exuberant but also more intimate. 'Conferences and events are still very valid, but there are increasing drivers in the marketplace for people to be marketed to on an individual basis,' says Burson-Marsteller director of brand and integrated marketing Suzie Warner.
B2B PR, conference and events specialists Marketforce Communications MD David Saunders agrees. 'We've found that people are being more discerning about expenditure and very careful to ensure they are involved in events that attract the right sort of people in the right numbers,' he says.
As an example, he cites a conference on retail banking that his organisation has run for the Institute of Economic Affairs for the past six years, which in 2002 attracted two headline sponsors but this year was backed by 12 sponsors.
'Individually, companies are spending less per event and the emphasis has switched from brand building to relationship building,' he explains.
This serves to underline the importance of working the audience and networking at an event. 'Conferences are much underrated in terms of making announcements and speaking to what is essentially a captured audience,' says Brands2Life co-founder Sarah Scales, who runs marketingdesktop.com, an online speaker bureau service for the IT and telecoms market across Europe.
She notes that at top business events - conferences run by the likes of The Financial Times and Business Week - organisations are reluctant to announce partnerships or new initiatives, while many fail to make the most of networking with their peers and attending journalists.
'From experience, I know that journalists from Reuters and the nationals are going to these events to hear what organisations have to say that's newsworthy, and they are bitterly disappointed when this doesn't happen,' says Scales.
Things are markedly different, however, at the next tier up - the big annual industry showcases - where everyone has a new product, service or story to sell and being heard above the crowd takes a highly efficient and effective press operation.
For the past 16 years, head of Jane Larcombe Communications Jane Larcombe has run one of the busiest annual press offices in the UK for the world's largest B2B travel and tourism exhibition, World Travel Market.
In 2002, this Reed Travel Exhibitions-owned event found a new home at ExCeL in London's Docklands, which Larcombe claims provided the ideal opportunity to review the facilities and services offered to journalists and exhibitor PROs.
Last November, to service the 2,600 media representatives from 184 countries, a nine-strong PR team - including French, German and Russian speakers - worked with the venue's IT department In Touch, to provide 20 computers with internet access, an online picture library, plus faxing and copying facilities.
To keep journalists up to speed with the exhibitors who were breaking stories over the week, the PR team produced a daily newspaper, while a media diary provided an overview of events, enabling journalists to more easily identify new products and services, plus industry trends.
Most importantly, with over 5,000 exhibitors in attendance, the press centre was divided into three clearly defined zones: a working area, an information area - with press packs organised by geographical region and sector - and a relaxation area, where exhibitor PROs could chat with journalists.
Clearly, the people who get the most out of events are those who pre-brief, post-brief and think beyond what happens on the day, to maximise the opportunities for building trust and relationships.
And as Brodeur Worldwide business group director Lena Ahmed sums up: 'Companies need to define a conference road map of who they want to speak to, what they want to say and how they're going to say it, so they integrate their conference presence with other components of their PR outreach.'
The Venue finding the perfect match
Like buying a house, hosting an event is all about location. The venue needs to be consistent with the brand image and the messages being presented, while meeting that all important requirement - enticing people to attend.
As most PR events tend to be held over a day or less, ease of access is the critical issue, with London-based destinations the hot favourite.
And as Marketforce Communications MD director David Saunders highlights, the smaller the venue, the greater the choice within a tight timeframe.
'With the big venues, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, you're looking at a lead-time of over a year, so if you need to cancel your event six months out, you could lose up to half your money,' he says.
Instead, his organisation prefers venues that boast an added draw. 'Over the past year, we've used the Mario Testino exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the Dali Universe exhibition at County Hall Gallery and the Audi Forum on Piccadilly,' he says.
While anonymous hotel venues are generally not favoured by PROs, London's more glamorous hostelries are in high demand. APCO managing director Stephen Kehoe rates breakfast at Claridge's, while he says that hiring a private room at the Dorchester or The Savoy provides the necessary intimacy, 'and reflects the serious nature of a client's presentation or meeting'.
Likewise, Jackie Cooper PR held breakfast briefings at The Ritz for the launch of PlayStation 1. 'It was great fun to juxtapose a whole load of gaming journalists sporting three-quarter length trousers and goatee beards with waiters in tailcoats, serving kedgeree and champagne,' says JCPR co-founder Robert Phillips.
Healthcare PROs prefer to launch new products at the appropriate prestigious medical institution. These range from the Royal College of Physicians to the Royal College of GPs in Kensington.
However, Cohn & Wolfe favours parliamentary venues such as Portcullis House for healthcare policy events, while the agency recently took a team of journalists on a tour of a virology laboratory for a briefing on influenza.
Sourcing a venue can also be about more practical considerations, such as breakout rooms, and space to accommodate any photography and filming requirements. In these instances, 33 Portland Place, which is the old Sierra Leone Embassy and spread over three floors, can house lots of events in one venue, while The Car Park in Old Street - an old BMW car showroom - benefits from a large forecourt, providing good outdoor space.
Most PROs agree that technical support is not a big issue, as, for reliability's sake, they use preferred suppliers. However, if the latest hot destination within striking distance of W1 is your thing, forget Sketch in Conduit Street, which was recently knocked off the 'must go' list by a BBC1 Holiday: You Call the Shots feature. Head instead for The Hospital in Covent Garden, a collaboration between former Eurythmics member Dave Stewart and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen - although you'll have to wait until early next year for the restaurant and members club to open.
DOS AND DON'TS OF EVENT MANAGEMENT
- Be very clear on objectives and what you want attendees to take away from an event.
- Focus on communication, not just the organisation.
- Select a venue easily accessible by the greatest number of invitees.
- Consider the appropriateness of the venue, although a funky brand does not necessarily preclude a classic venue, nor vice versa.
- Use your preferred suppliers for technical, catering and other support, unless you're 100 per cent sure a venue can provide exactly what you need.
- Be aware of the general media agenda when choosing a date for an event, to avoid potential competition in the coverage stakes.
- Check out the food and drinks menu at an established venue - people pretend they don't care, but they do. It's also crucial that any venue caters to special needs - dietary and disability.
- Discuss with media contacts whom they would be interested in hearing talk when considering speakers. This rule applies when looking for the latest hot venue.
- Avoid 'death by PowerPoint' at all costs.
- Make a contingency plan for every potential disaster. Whatever goes wrong, that's the bit people will remember.
- Hold an event unless you've got something worth saying or experiencing and there is no better way for people to hear or experience it.
- Forget that journalists will not turn up to their own funeral if it clashes with a deadline or a press day.
- Be scared to ask venues and suppliers for credentials and don't shirk at checking them out.
- Get bogged down in the detail or gimmicks and ignore the real purpose of the event - communication.
- Book a venue and then plan the event around it, that's akin to booking the church, then finding the bride.
- Assume people will attend, it's up to you to make sure they want to come.
- Forget that people have different needs, different agendas and in most cases, different levels of understanding.
- Try and organise the whole thing yourself. When in doubt, hire a professional.
- Position food and drink as the main attraction.
- Forget to have fun.