On today’s event in London
“Oh Hai Pooffles, would you like a copy of the Working Socialist?”
Having my hands full with a big dragon fairy meant I was able to dodge that one. Every so often I’ll stumble into such gatherings of students and seasoned activists. What put this one into such sharp focus for me was attending a conference within the Westminster bubble the day before. The type of people were striking by their contrasts, and the nature of one of their big problems was striking by its similarity – that being “How do we reach out beyond our usual audience?”
I was able to make reasonable contributions at both events – for the record the Climate against Climate Change’s ‘Alternative Rio Summit’ and yesterday at the European Parliament London Office summit of think tanks and the latter’s relationship with social media. I also turned up to both events with Puffles in tow – which raised more than a few eye brows.
Conferences – the format
During my civil service days, I was a speaker or contributor at a number of such gatherings. It’s a bit of an ego-boost to see your name at the top of a list of speakers, but given the fluid nature of government policy and the limited tenure of ministerial lifespans did make me wonder at a couple of them just how long something would remain government policy – especially where it was a minister’s pet project. But hey, it was my job and I got on with it.
In terms of format, it was – and is a case of cramming everyone into a theatre or cabaret style conference room where delegates would listen to speech after speech, broken by a tea break and some short Q&As. I can’t pretend I found the format particularly inspiring – you don’t really get to know people and the time slots listed as ‘networking’ feels utterly artificial.
What I liked about the Alternative Rio Summit
For a start I got to meet a number of Puffles’ followers & followees for the first time – including London Assembly Member Darren Johnson of the Green Party. I also got to meet some lovely people too – including Neva Freche of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Deborah Doane of the World Development Movement and Fiona Brookes, who I mentioned earlier.
One of the things gatherings such as these (which link academia with activism) tend to have is a line-up of more than half-decent speakers. One of the reasons I went along to this one was that I knew a couple of Puffles’ followers – such as Derek Wall and John McDonnell MP (who kindly responded on Twitter to a question I put to him that the chair didn’t allow him to answer!) – were going to be speaking there. One of the things I’m consciously making the effort to do at the moment is to go along to gatherings where I know some of Puffles’ followers will be – in particular those that I’ve not met before.
It was also an opportunity to engage and get a feel for what was going on within the student movement and climate activism generally. Useful given the number of students that follow Puffles and who read this blog. Making an effort offline to stay informed? Guilty as charged. Generally people attending seemed to have come away in relatively good spirits despite the relatively depressing nature of the issues we were discussing. It’s ‘The world is going to end’ stuff and it’s very difficult to get people inspired by that sort of message. As someone said, Dr Martin Luther King didn’t inspire people with a speech titled “I have a nightmare”.
Room for improvement? Lots
But that shouldn’t put people off. I had an interesting discussion with Fiona Brookes of the Campaign Against Climate Change with some thoughts about this, and promised her I’d write them up in a blogpost. This is that post.
For those that don’t want to read the full long detail, the summary is as below
- Alter the format. Don’t have a day full of pre-planned pitched speeches with a few Q&As. Throw in some time for open-access workshops that are decided spontaneously on the day, but ones that have a specific problem to solve or are teaching a new skill.
- Careful with the timing of the event. It’s exam season. That’s one of the reasons why there were so few undergraduates and college students there. A fluid social media presence interacting with (in particular listening to) a diverse audience could have picked that up.
- Choose your language wisely. Jargon and long words might make us feel special and ‘elite’ but if it’s reaching out to audiences far beyond your bubble that you want to achieve, communicating as you would to a knowledgeable specialist audience won’t work. Pre-event you risk putting off people from attending, during the event electronic gadgets provide more than enough interesting distractions from dull monotone speakers using words with multiple syllables.
- Make it social media friendly. That means having free wifi access available on the day. It also means setting up your Twitter hashtags and liveblogs up in advance or getting things going on your facebook fan pages.
- Make it accessible to people who cannot make your event. This is not just the social media broadcasting, but allowing contributions from people outside to be incorporated into the event. This might be live-streaming it through UStream or putting a selection of questions from outside social media users to people inside the building.
- Make it accessible to people who cannot attend any event beyond their locality - esp people with disabilities, family commitments or financial constraints. You saw the size of the social media movement around the Welfare Reform Bill protests and the Spartacus Report. By not considering accessibility, you are not only missing out on helping people who might need it, but you are missing out on their often very valuable contributions.
For those that want to read the full detail, here it is
It was all a bit ‘safe’
The conference followed a well-trodden path. Organise a ‘national’ conference at buildings in and around the University of London in Bloomsbury, decide all of the topics and workshops in advance, invite various groups to have ‘stands’, invite well-known speakers, produce lots of literature and advertise.
In terms of whether its standard objectives were achieved, given the numbers and the strength of applause at the end of each session, the answer is probably ‘yes’. Most of the people who came along would probably say it was worthwhile in coming along. For me it was worthwhile coming along, but not because of the reasons perhaps many of the others would give.
It’s a bit like those big trade union marches. People march from A to B, shout loudly, sell lots of papers and go back home again. It reminded me of the big trade union march last year. Thousands of people turned up. Ed Miliband spoke on the platform – which I missed because I and a few others broke off to go to the pub instead rather than stand in Hyde Park – while a handful of Puffles’ followers were busy getting arrested in farcical circumstances in Fortnum and Mason (most of whom having charges against them dropped). What was the Coalition’s response? Business as usual. Which made me think: “What was the point of all of that?” Just as one-off A-to-B set piece marches by the ‘usual suspects’ seldom achieve anything of substance, does the Alternative Rio Summit risk the same with a ‘same as before’ approach?
The nature of the workshops – what happens after the applause?
People come away maybe having learnt something, or said something…but that’s about it. Are people going to carry out a specific action? (No, “building for the revolution” does not count as a specific and measurable action). Is there some behaviour or practice that they are now going to do differently?
During the workshops, as I stated lots of people were there with pens and paper – striking contrast with the power-suits and touch pads at the event I was at the day before. That’s not to say the former did not have mobile phones – many did: they just weren’t using them for the conference.
Workshops – what happened inside them?
At the European Parliament event we had a live Twitterfeed on the hashtag #LondonThink projected up onto two screens. This made for interesting live feedback – especially when Puffles and Jon Worth gave one speaker (I won’t name him) a kicking by using the opportunity (in our opinion – or mine at least) as an advertising opportunity for what his company was doing.
It wouldn’t have worked here – hardly anyone was using Twitter. Again not necessarily because no one was on it, but rather a mixture of poor reception in the buildings along with lack of publicity at the start on what the hashtag should be. Lesson for next time? Ideally hold such gatherings in venues that have free public wifi access and to publicise the hashtag in advance and on all publicity.
Why bother with social media?
For a start it makes it very difficult for any one person to dominate proceedings. If someone behaves in such a way in the room, a Twitter stream from people in it will soon shred them to pieces and will very quickly feedback to the person concerned. Secondly, it allows people who cannot attend the event to follow remotely and even feed into the debate. This is essential for people who struggle to attend – whether because of finance or access. (I cannot afford to attend lots of events in London I’d like to attend, so people tweeting from them are essential for me).
Using social media in a manner that is open and transparent also sends out a wider message – that the event (and the wider movement) is an open and transparent one receptive to people’s positive contributions.
One of the things I made clear in a contribution was that social media gives people the opportunity to answer back in a manner that many organisations are not used to. That goes for those at the top of campaign groups as well as government and corporations. If social media users don’t like something, they’ll say to – publicly (online). It’s far easier to do so that way than standing up in front of an audience of people and do so. Thus you are more likely to get a feel for what people in the audience (as well as those following online) are really thinking.
What about the traditional publicity – everyone loves a flier don’t they?
Do they? I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it – they can make for nice reading at lunchtime or on the way back home. But with some of them it the design and the language was so….’last millennium’ that I didn’t bother reading them. Shouty headline plus a wall of small text and a blurry badly-photocopied image doesn’t really work so well in a world where digital video on mobile devices is becoming the norm.
With that in mind, my recommendation to those working for charities (or for those who can afford it) is to get along to some of the Media Trust’s training events – in particular Make videos on a shoestring and Pitching to journalists. This is not because they’ll turn you into a slick corporate marketing machine of an operation, but because it will tighten up what you do to the extent where people will sit through and watch your digital video (because you’ve not messed up the sound and you’re shooting from various angles) to getting your piece in whichever publication in the first place because you’ve got a feel for media news cycles.
A day full of passive participation is the recipe for a yawn-fest – no matter how good the speakers.
By the afternoon I was flagging. A 1 hour session where much of it is taken up by speeches and contributions from a panel – no matter how expert, is hard going. Even when it comes to the dreaded Q&A, the interaction is between the person asking the question and the panel. The wider audience may as well not be there.
When it comes to the Q&A session, despite the usual pleas from facilitators there will always be someone – usually from the far left (but not always) who takes the opportunity to read from their latest essay. An extended diatribe with lots of long words and no question at the end-sort-of-thing. If you want to reach out to people, that’s not how to do it. You may as well be speaking in a foreign language.
The unConference style of doing things in my opinion allows for much greater participation with shorter, sharper and more focused contributions. Not so good perhaps for an intellectual conference or discussion, but essential if you’re discussing activism with a view to doing stuff. This is the sort of dialogue that gets people using their brains productively to solve specific problems or to put something new to the test. With a good wifi and an organised social media operation up and running, things can be shared instantly. Want to direct someone to a website? Tweet it on the event hashtag or post the link in a liveblog. It informs you at the time when you need it – while the discussion is still happening. You don’t need to write it down and hope you’ll remember to get back to it later on.
Now that I am no longer living or working in London, I have a better appreciation for what things look like from the outside. I’ve seen what it’s like not knowing that such bubbles existed, I’ve lived inside the bubbles and now I know what it’s like outside of the bubbles knowing that they exist.
It’s understandable wanting to host things in London – it’s central to where the greatest number of people can get to. But all too often people outside of London are frozen out (not least because trains are not cheap), and those organising things don’t really want to venture out.
Bloomsbury and Westminster are reasonably nice and safe areas in which to host such things. Dare you venture out and host such an event at a community centre or a school on a deprived inner city estate – one where you also made it open to people in and around that estate? Last year I went with a couple of people to one such social media conference. I can’t pretend that I felt completely comfortable on the walk there or the bus ride back, but I’m glad we did it – not least because the school made some money from hosting the event and we all got an insight into the day-to-day lives of the children (and the education system their in) just by looking at the wall displays.