by Agatha Gilmore | November 10, 2013
In March, a female attendee of the Python Conference (PyCon), an annual convention for the programming language, complained on Twitter about what she found to be sexually offensive comments coming from two male attendees sitting behind her in a breakout session. The incident escalated into the eventual firing of one of the male conference goers, as well as the firing of the complainant herself.

Obviously, that’s not what the organizers of PyCon had in mind when they integrated social media into the event. Today, using social media before, during, and after an event is not only encouraged, it’s expected. But it is a double-edged sword. The social media world can be extremely harsh and volatile. With social media, it’s very easy for organizers of an event to lose control of the tone of the meeting.

And if nobody is paying attention, it can snowball into a disastrous meltdown — with angry attendees banding together to vent their frustration on a live Twitter feed, for example.

“The opportunity for something to go very, very wrong is not only there, but can be exacerbated by the number of followers that any attendee at the event might have,” explains Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation. “That runs the gamut from statements that are negative about the event or off topic or off brand, all the way to the opportunity for somebody to be inappropriate or vulgar.”

Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, haven’t created a Facebook page, and still can’t figure out Instagram, your attendees are using and conversing through these channels.

“Just because it didn’t happen last year, don’t assume it won’t happen this year,” says Jessica L. Levin, president and “chief connector” for Seven Degrees Communications. “This is something we hear more and more — that planners think [attendees] are not using technology, but [in fact] they’re starting to.”

Therefore it’s in every host organization’s best interest to get out in front of social media and create a strategy upfront to prevent, manage, and recover from any kind of mishap — while also leveraging the tools for added benefit.

Pre-Event: Set the Social Media Tone

First and foremost, meeting owners should ensure that the event has a robust, skilled, and knowledgeable social media monitoring team that is aware of the company’s priorities, says Sam Stanton, chief experience officer of, a company that provides social media strategy and management services. There will be a lot to keep an eye on, and these people should be trained not only on the ins and outs of sites like Facebook and Twitter, but also in the fundamentals of public relations and crisis management.

Next, you’ll want to be proactive in setting attendee expectations — letting attendees know what you are using your social media outlets for — and crafting the tone. The best way to do that, says Tamara Mendelsohn, vice president of marketing for EventBrite, is to take charge of the Twitter hashtag early, populate it, and reach out to attendees before the event.

“A good example is the SF Music Tech Summit,” says Mendelsohn, referring to a periodic convention in San Francisco that brings together professionals from the music, business, and technology industries. “The moment that I register for that event, someone reaches out to me from SF Music Tech on Twitter. This is a 500- to 600-person conference, and not everyone registers on the same day, so it’s a manageable load for a social media manager.”

The tweeter who reached out to her, she explains, welcomed her to the conference and suggested she follow the event’s Twitter handle for updates. The Twitter handle was active, with moderators posing questions (such as asking attendees who they would like to hear speak at the conference), sharing YouTube clips and articles from the previous event, and gathering feedback about what attendees were most excited to see and learn this time around.

Jen Cohen Crompton, CEO of Something Creative, a content and marketing agency, and a conference producer for the Global Strategic Management Group, says she actively encourages attendees to use Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms as “a way to communicate with the conference producers, and also to share ideas and things they’ve learned so other people who aren’t at the event can see what’s happening.”

Additionally, reaching out early can help quell any issues before the event even starts. Oftentimes, as Levin points out, you can identify potential rabble-rousers beforehand and nip any problems in the bud.

“You’re going to be able to see that [these people] are active, and you can sort of tell by [their] tone. The best thing you can do is address them early,” she says. “You might be able to prevent a meltdown by talking to them and trying to make them happy early on.”

Mendelsohn agrees. “Pre-engagement is the best way to prevent a social media meltdown. You set the tone for how social media will be used, and how conversations will be had,” she says.

Stanton recommends one final consideration for pre-event social media planning: If possible, get buy-in from senior executives. It helps add significance for attendees and gives the social media strategy more weight.

Top 3 Social Media Threats

According to Stanton, there are three major types of content that the team should be monitoring on social media sites: redundant, irrelevant, and inappropriate.

By far the most common problem is redundancy: numerous tweets, posts, or photos about the same thing. It particularly clutters the live feed, if there is one.

“During a corporate event, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the content will be curated out. And it’s not because of bad words,” Stanton explains.

Next is content that’s irrelevant to the con-ference, but which has been given the conference hashtag or posted on the conference Facebook wall.

“Say we’re launching the next vehicle for Ford. Chevy acquires the event’s hashtag and says, ‘All we need to do is add that hashtag and we can talk about how great Chevy is.’ We call that social piracy,” Stanton says. His team will filter those comments out of the live feed.

The final type of content that may be undesirable for an event’s social media feed is the inappropriate kind, “stuff that’s not eventfriendly,” according to Stanton. A perfect example, he says, is when he was once doing a major event in collaboration with HP, and there were some adult entertainment clubs down the street from the venue that posted photos of their talent using the event’s Twitter hashtag. Stanton’s team filtered those posts out of the live feed.

Another important consideration when it comes to curating social media is to ensure that you’re sharing the right content with the right audiences, Stanton says.

“Not all of that content is suitable for every screen, everywhere,” he says, explaining that while some tweets are appropriate for the trade show floor — for example, a tweet about what’s happening at a certain booth — other comments are better suited to the breakout room, and yet others are appropriate for the party that evening (“Try the signature cocktail!”). Paying attention to this makes attendees feel that you’re paying attention to them and their experience.

Yet, all that said, how do you balance this kind of filtering of content with the attendee expectation of a free-flowing social forum?

“My response is always this: Forget social,” Stanton says. “If you’re just doing a general conference, and during a general presentation some idiot stands up and says to the boss, ‘You’re terrible,’ how long do they let him talk before he’s escorted out?”

Keep in mind that you should never delete comments — in fact, you often can’t. This advice relates only to what gets displayed publicly.

“We’re not going to restrict anyone from doing anything. We’re not here to be the police officers,” says Crompton. “We ask them to use their judgment in terms of what they think will be appropriate. The responsibility is on the user.”

Besides, says Van Dyke, you’d never want to pull information that’s important for other attendees to know. “If people aren’t seeing how the speaker relates to their particular day job or thinking that the room is too cold — those aren’t things we should be curating [out]. We should be listening to those things,” she says.

Respond Quickly

All the experts agree: The most critical part of any social media strategy is real-time response. Addressing complaints right away often prevents them from snowballing into full-fledged meltdowns involving multiple attendees.

“It’s when people feel like they’re not being heard — they’re frustrated and no one’s paying attention — that it can get out of control,” says Mendelsohn. “If people know they’re being heard, they’re much more courteous and polite and human. If they know somebody’s listening, the conversations tend to be much more productive.”

Requests that are the most common and also the easiest to address often involve the temperature — “This room is too cold” — and the F&B. Van Dyke recalls an incident at an event where the venue brought in food trucks with different culinary offerings; some of the trucks were extremely popular and, as a result, became overwhelmed by the demand. Lines began to form and attendees began to tweet about how they couldn’t get the food they wanted because of the crowds. Van Dyke says the company hosting the event was monitoring its Twitter feed, saw these comments, and supplemented those food trucks with more stations, so the next break ran much more smoothly.

Crompton offers another example of a quick F&B adjustment that had positive results.

“At one of our last conferences, they had Cheetos at lunchtime. Everyone was tweeting about how much they loved the Cheetos,” she says. “We collected those tweets, and we decided we had to have Cheetos [the next day]. So we made an announcement that said, ‘Back by popular demand, we’ve brought you Cheetos today!’”

A slightly trickier kind of comment involves the content — such as tweets about how the speaker is not addressing the right questions or giving the best information during his or her session. If these comments happen during a Q&A session or even in the context of a flexible keynote, the planner can try to communicate this in real time to the speaker to ensure attendees get what they need, Crompton says.

Other times, the organizer can file this important information away to help craft the content during the next conference. Or, if the comments go unheard and unaddressed — as in the case of a large conference several years ago featuring a prominent CEO as the keynoter — the planner can engage in some facesaving by having the speaker issue an apology afterwards, Mendelsohn says.

“[At this conference] the content just event was monitoring its Twitter wasn’t very engaging and people were taking to Twitter,” she says. “The CEO actually read the Twitter feed afterward and he issued an apology. He addressed it head on as soon as he could, saying, ‘I heard you, and you’re right. I apologize to my fans and all the people who came to see me; I’m definitely going to do better next time.” It’s your standard crisis communications playbook: Address it head on, and say how you’re going to change it the future, and be really genuine.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to creating an environment where attendees feel they’re being heard.

“You need to be listening and paying attention, you need to respond instantly, and you need to respond from the brand level,” Stanton stresses.

Post-Event Follow-Up

Social media strategy doesn’t stop when the conference is over. You’ll want to keep the event hashtag alive to help foster a likeminded community of attendees, as this community often self-regulates and ultimately helps keep the Twitter and Facebook feeds focused on appropriate and helpful content, Levin says.

“If you have a community of people on Twitter and somebody is clearly out of line, the community is going to do the work for you many times,” she says. “If people start bashing a speaker, there are always going to be people saying, ‘They’re not so bad, give them another chance.’ People will jump in.”

You can also use social media comments to help promote the next event, as well as use the comments and suggestions as a way to crowdsource the content.