5 TIPS FOR COLLABORATIVE EVENT PLANNING
by: Mark Nardi and Arshia Sultan
In October 2017, PRCC (Public Relations – Corporate Communications) student Mark Nardi was given the opportunity to run a mock press conference for a media relations class at Seneca College. It was a stark introduction to the fast-paced lifestyle of an event planner. Despite 20 emails, 10 hours of planning, 12 phone calls, and three different spreadsheets, his press conference did not run seamlessly. Mark was surprised to find a mariachi band in the precise location he had booked over a week in advance. Panic-stricken, he cobbled together an emergency plan and taught himself the first lesson of event planning – setting up contingencies. The event was fine, and he had gotten his first taste of the adrenaline rush that is, event planning. As Professor Holly Cybulski, an experienced publicist and instructor in the Seneca School of Media explained, event planning is about organized chaos and being able to roll with the punches. That’s it.
Event planning is an critical facet of the public relations field. Whether it’s coordinating a press conference or organizing a marketing event, all PR practitioners can expect to throw their hat into the event planning ring at some point in their career. It’s an exciting and rewarding affair and it always leaves you with a strong sense of accomplishment.
Last week, on January 23, a group of six PRCC students was afforded the first-hand opportunity to apply and challenge their event planning skills by hosting Vern Oakley, CEO and Creative Director at Tribe Pictures in New York City. The opportunity to bring in a high-profile guest illustrated the importance of meticulous planning, cooperative teamwork, and effective adaptability in the face of the unplanned. Under the guidance of media relations instructor and veteran communications practitioner, Professor David Turnbull, this small task force of students assembled to handle all facets of planning this event. PRCC students Arshia Sultan, Marissa Tiano, and Sharmela Brown found Vern’s e-book so relevant to the field of PR, that they jumped at the opportunity to help organize his guest lecture. They were soon joined by fellow PRCC students Mark, Sandra Stanisavljev, and Samantha Younan, making it a team of six public relations students who were, at that point, all relatively inexperienced in event planning.
Under David Turnbull’s guidance, the guest lecture turned out to be a tremendous success and offered excellent insight into all facets of the event planning process. Building on this insight, we’ve put together a list of five tips for event planning that we’d like to share with you:
1. Do your homework
Public relations practitioners specialize in reputation management. That goes with all aspects of PR, including event planning. From the start, our event planning team recognized that we needed to act as brand ambassadors for Seneca College. Our goal was to portray our college in a positive light by making sure our guest, Vern Oakley, was happy to speak to students at the School of Media, and that students were just as content attending the event. With this goal in mind, that’s when we focused on picking an ideal date, time, location, guest list, menu, and then working backwards from there (figuring out what worked and what didn’t).
2. Play to each other’s strengths
The best teams ensure that each team member can contribute their special talents to the group. With planning Vern’s lecture, each team member had a specific role to play. While some members wanted a public speaking role (as practice for a future PR position), others wanted to handle logistics, marketing, or ensure that Vern was settled in before he spoke at the venue. As aspiring professionals, this gave us all a chance to challenge ourselves while finding the aspects of the field that drove us to be our best.
One team member, Marissa, took on the role of introducing our speaker. However, this proved to entail much more as she familiarized herself with Vern through phone interviews, research, and by speaking to colleagues. This also involved applying the correct protocol when thanking a speaker. Sharmela and Sandra, two other team members, took on the bulwark of the event planning roles by organizing logistics, co-ordinating room set-up, and ensuring that the refreshments were pre-ordered for the event. Arshia and Mark worked together to promote the event, a task which involved circulating word to all PR classmates, drafting emails, and designing signage for the event itself. Lastly, Samantha acted as Vern’s liaison, ensuring that he was able to find the venue and that he was completely ready to present. This role involved training as Marissa’s understudy while being briefed on the entire event timeline.
3. Maintain professionalism
Event planning can be stressful, but that’s no excuse for being unprofessional. In fact, it’s imperative for event planners to maintain professionalism, since (as mentioned earlier), reputations are at stake. That doesn’t just mean dressing professionally for the event — which, of course, is still a must. That means being careful in the way you treat your team members, supervisors, volunteers, and guests. Throughout the entire event planning process, the six of us made sure we were respectful to each other during team meetings, which took place every few weeks. We also maintained that same level of respect outside of team meetings, i.e., within our group chat.
4. Pay attention to detail
While we were excited for the prestige of hosting the CEO and founder of Tribe Pictures, we needed to realize that no one was above the hands-on work. If there was, quite literally, a single crumb on the floor of the venue, the entire professional atmosphere that we worked so hard to establish would be put at risk.
Working together allowed us to be just as meticulous when editing each other’s work. By making sure there were several people who could review each person’s work, we could ensure there weren’t any typos or inaccurate information on the printed posters, or that Vern’s introduction only contained the most relevant and accurate details.
5. Hope for the best, plan for the worst
While the Oakley planning team went to great lengths to ensure that the event went down seamlessly, we needed to plan contingencies in the event of the unexpected. In terms of safety, we needed to prepare an emergency strategy for a fire or lockdown. As planners, we assigned ourselves emergency roles and rehearsed our plan. We also addressed how medical emergencies would be handled. Furthermore, we had to prepare for seemingly minor, but nonetheless catastrophic issues such as technical glitches. If a projector failed or the presentation wouldn’t load, the entire presentation would be moot. To prepare, AV was double-checked, then triple-checked. Vern’s team was contacted to have a backup copy of the presentation arranged, and members of the IT department were put on standby.
We were lucky to avoid any serious issues, but there were some definite challenges for the event. Despite every aspect of the event being preplanned, the unexpected happened. Despite visiting the venue the night before and confirming that it was fully set up for our lecture, we arrived at 7:30 in the morning to see that the room had been completely rearranged. As event planners, we were the first and last line of defense in the event of the unplanned, so we rolled up our sleeves and began rearranging the hall ourselves. To do this, we had to collapse 20 tables and move them to a separate storage site. Kindly assisted by the caretakers, the crisis was averted. This kind of manual labour wasn’t on our job description, but it needed to be done. Furthermore, our refreshments didn’t show up on time and we were required to track them down. These are the sorts of concerns that, regardless of how meticulous you are in your planning, no one can predict.
In conclusion, every public relations practitioner needs to get very comfortable with all facets of the event planning process. To be a truly effective event planner, practitioners need to be meticulous planners while keeping a cool head and staying flexible during the event itself. This isn’t easy and requires close cooperation with teammates and constant practice. As our team learned firsthand, no event planner works in a silo. We were thankful for the help of our colleagues and Seneca employees, particularly the caretakers who worked so closely with us to ensure the success of this event.
Mark Nardi and Arshia Sultan are both Public Relations – Corporate Communications students at Seneca College. Mark has a Master’s degree in Irish History from Queen’s University and is a competitive bagpiper. Arshia has a BA in International Studies from York University and enjoys exploring Toronto’s food scene in her spare time.