2021 Session Prep Toolkit
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Key Takeaways:

  • While the shift to online government affairs industry conferences is a necessary response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it dramatically alters how attendees interact with one another during these valuable events.
  • With traditional in-person networking now unavailable as an option, the best mediums for educating attendees, establishing presence, and highlighting issues at virtual conferences is through panels and workshop opportunities.
  • Since this year is the first time most organizations are hosting their major conferences virtually, expect there to be some functional learning experiences for the hosting groups and participants alike.

The state policymaker conference season kicked off last week with the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Annual Meeting. Initially scheduled to be an in-person gathering, ALEC moved to join other state government organizations by making their annual gathering a completely virtual summit. While the shift to online conferences is a necessary response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it dramatically alters how elected officials and government affairs professionals educate, engage, and interact with one another during these valuable events. 

Having recently participated in ALEC’s Virtual Annual Meeting and similar online gatherings, I want to highlight what attendees of similar conferences can expect from a participation perspective and how best to maximize engagement opportunities to help your organization and issues stand out from the crowd. 

Don’t Just Watch — Engage 

It’s very easy to slip into the role of “silent observer” during these virtual conferences, especially if you are working from home where focus can be impacted by distractions and complications that are otherwise nonfactors when attending an in-person meeting. Prepare as if you were there in person with the added understanding that engagement and interaction takes an even greater level of importance than ever before — and likely a little more work too. Identify the breakout sessions, meetings, and presentations that you need to attend and fully commit the time to cover them. 

If the events are held in a Zoom meeting-style format, it is important to have your video feed on when possible. This ensures that participants see one another and encourages attendees to actively pay attention and join the conversation. 

Finally, be mindful of the communications mediums available during the events, and make the most of them when necessary. Is there a chat function? Recent events have showcased the value of having real-time discussions with all or some conference participants through chat features to expand on video conversations and presentations, share contact information, or link to presentations or supplemental resources.  

Participating in Feature Panels and Workshops

With traditional networking out of the window, the best mediums for educating attendees, establishing presence, and highlighting issues at virtual conferences is through panels and workshop opportunities. 

For at least this year, state policymakers and government affairs professionals won’t have the opportunity to make their presence known at conferences outside of the plenary sessions, task force, meetings, and workshops. For this reason, these types of educational sessions now take on a heightened level of importance and are truly the only ways to absolutely guarantee some level of exposure for lawmakers, organizations, subject matter experts, and their priority issues.

Learning As We Go

Since this year is the first time most organizations are hosting their major conferences virtually, expect there to be some functional learning experiences for the hosting groups and participants alike. Though everyone hopes for a seamless experience, complications prevalent in video and conference calls such as connection issues, multiple participants speaking at the same time, video delays, and other technical issues will be a factor in these online meetings. Everyone involved should factor in some level of grace as all parties learn how to make the most of the virtual experience. 

For example, as ALEC’s Annual Meeting progressed, the organization and participants incorporated format modifications and helpful platform features into the event, such as using webinar formats with all attendees muted in plenary sessions, relying on chat functions to queue up questions for speakers, and utilizing polling functions to administer Task Force votes and essential meeting procedures. Expect a similar trend at other online conferences as host organizations explore ways to filter communications and foster dialogue between attendees, which is essential in an environment without in person social queues.

A New Type of Engagement 

While lawmakers and government affairs professionals are unable to meet in person for state policymaker events, active participation is more important than ever, particularly as the major policy debates of 2020 play out across the country. 

Attendees at these meetings should take the extra effort to be active in the virtual state policymaker conferences this year. Specifically, participants should look for ways to be involved in featured sessions to highlight their issues and represent their organizations. These gatherings also serve as learning opportunities to better understand how to engage in the public policymaking process through virtual conferencing platforms.