June 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2003 Current Issue
June 2003 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics

By Nancy Friedman


What to do when important news breaks during your event

Considering the volatile world we live in and a ravenous news media poised to cover it, the chance that an important story will break during a meeting is higher than ever.What should a planner do when the imperatives of current events intrude on the orderly progress of a planned agenda?

For those running the event, the options are:
 Say nothing and move on the attendees will find out soon enough;

 Stop the meeting and allow everyone to discuss what’s going on;

 Announce the news, move on and keep updating as information becomes available.

Of course, the appropriate steps to take will largely be determined by the nature of the news.

“The severity of the announcement would dictate how quickly to interrupt or adjust the scheduled program,” says Carol Batte, an administrative assistant in the tourism marketing department at the Virginia Governors Conference on Tourism in Richmond, Va.Many planners feel that an event of the magnitude of 9/11 requires instant reporting, even if it means interrupting a speaker.

“The audience deserves to know,” says Charlie Wallace, executive director of quality service contractors for the Falls Church, Va.-based National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors.

Indeed, Wallace says the interruption will happen with or without you. “If we didn’t tell them right away, their cell phones would be going off with calls from someone alerting them,” he notes. “You shouldn’t sugarcoat it.”

Under such circumstances, sources agree, it’s best to cut the meeting short and allow attendees to digest and cope with what has taken place and perhaps to contact worried loved ones. Furthermore, meeting planners need to be ready to assist anyone who has an urgent need to return home.

Short of a national emergency, a number of planners say the best route is to announce the news and then continue on with the meeting. But conveying details about an event such as the Challenger disaster or the Columbine shootings requires a certain savvy and sensitivity.

“When you need to interrupt a session, it’s very important for you to be prepared,” says Linda Olenschlaeger, executive director of the Missouri Bar in Jefferson City, Mo. In this case, being prepared means verifying as firmly as possible that the “breaking news” behind the excited talk in the corridors is real. Nothing can kill a productive meeting more quickly than wild, unfounded rumors making the rounds. As Olenschlaeger points out, “Bad news seems to filter into meeting rooms quickly, so attendees will appreciate your letting them know as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”

For the planner, delivery is key. “You must be able to keep your composure and offer some sort of appropriate response,” says Olenschlaeger. For example, if an important person has died suddenly, besides giving the sad news and as much information as is available, it might be appropriate to mention a few comments about the person and his or her important contributions to the company or the world, depending upon the situation. Then, perhaps suggest a few moments of silence in respect for the departed.   

Before returning to the agenda, assure attendees they will be advised of any new developments in a timely manner. “Certain announcements,” Olenschlaeger adds, “like exciting sporting events, should be saved for breaks.”

Nancy Friedman, the St. Louis-based Telephone Doctor (www., speaks on communication and customer-service training.

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