Four things John Fisher would have done differently
What a disaster! This month’s UK Tory Party conference was an excellent example of how NOT to manage the client’s brand effectively with an event. All clients whinge about the costs of an excellent conference producer and back-up team. Many do not even have one…’someone from marketing can do it’. But when it goes wrong, it can go spectacularly wrong.

Here’s the brief. We have a main client (UK Prime Minister Theresa May) who is known to be a poor public speaker, suffering from challenges to her authority and required to re-establish her credentials in a speech at the end of a 3-day conference. She also has a heavy cold. Her talk will last an hour or more.

During the speech, she succumbs to a coughing fit, branding slogans fall off the set behind her as she is speaking, a practical joker is allowed to hand her a derogatory piece of paper suggesting her resignation while she is delivering her talk…recorded in full by all the media… and even the offer of a cough sweet by her staunch ally, the Chancellor, makes the whole thing look like a local tennis club committee meeting.

Let’s pick this apart, item by item.
• If your main speaker is ill and unable to deliver, the last thing you should do is stick with ‘tradition’ and force her to do an hour-long speech which relies on stamina and rhetoric. Make the session an interview so that the speaking burden is shared and the compere can react accordingly, if there has to be a pause. When speakers talk naturally, rather than from an autocue they are often perceived as more human, something surely ‘Robo-May’ could benefit from. You might also schedule the session to be 30 minutes, bearing in mind the health of the speaker, possibly interspersed with ‘good moments’ from recent activity on video, to break up the communication and support the brand.
• During the session some appliqued letters fell off the backdrop, in full view of the cameras trained on the speaker. Some people may say this is just bad luck. Not really. If something is stuck on a set, it can dry out after a few days or lose its stickiness and is much more likely to deteriorate than to stay put. Use gobo lighting to project words on a plain backdrop. It also has the advantage of being able to be switched off if it is not an appropriate message for that particular speaker.
• Who let the joker get so close? It is unbelievable in these days of heightened security that someone could approach the main speaker in mid-speech and even be there long enough for the speaker to interact with him (the Prime Minister took the piece of paper from the heckler and put it on the ground before continuing). This is not amusing, just very, very dangerous.
• During the Prime Minister’s coughing fit a senior colleague, in this case the Chancellor, was able to hand her a cough sweet…which she unwrapped and popped in her mouth, with still half her speech to be delivered! Every speaker knows that that you don’t talk and ‘chew gum’ at the same time. What was everybody thinking?

There was applause at the end of her presentation, a standing ovation, in fact. But the feeling in the audience was clearly not so much congratulation but more a huge relief that it was over and that nothing else could now go wrong. This is not the kind of reception the main speaker needs when it comes to assessing whether or not it was a successful conclusion to the conference.

The Tory brand has been badly damaged at a time when the minority Government needs all the bolstering it can get. A good conference producer would have changed the format, shortened the allotted time, ensured that no-one can interfere with the speakers when on stage…and not chosen stick-on letters for the conference theme.

This all goes to show that what delegates remember from an event, any event, is the things that go wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that this conference will be forever stuck with the title theme of ‘when things go wrong, they really go wrong’.

I’m not sure that the Tory brand can recover from this. To put it politely, it gives the impression that the Government could not even organise a “drinks event” in a brewery, never mind a successful conclusion to Brexit.

It could all have been avoided by strong and professional conference event management…well worth the fees, whatever they might have been.