It’s hard work pulling off a conference, of any kind. Even the “cushier” conferences for membership groups (like the PYAH–Put Your Acronym Here) have to take into account that people often pay their own way and must be convinced that attending an event will be worth their while. Hence the struggle/search (some PYAHs have an easier time than others) for big names in the field that will draw a crowd (and money), and build/maintain momentum for the conference as a Can’t Miss Event and help propel attendance in subsequent years.
It’s tricky. I get that. I’ve helped with that at a tiny company that put on an annual large event. You want to get the big names, but you also want to get the big new names, and you have to balance what you can charge for things against what you have to pay for people, and it’s a lot to put together. You also want people to get excited about who’s coming to speak, and they’re often the people who’ve generated a buzz in recent times. And we all know what they say about buzz: Buzz means controversy, somewhere, somehow.
OK. So I’m the only one to say it that way. But you know. If people are talking, it’s because they are saying things to each other, about a speaker, about a book, about an interview, about something that gives a lot of people lots to talk about, which has to include disagreement because people only like agreeing out loud for so long. So you get this of-the-moment notable person to come to your event, and everyone is excited, and they all buy the tickets to hear the keynote speech the very first morning. Victory is yours!
Unless, somehow, embedded in this controversy, is a complaint from a segment of your potential audience about something your big-name draw has said or done that this potential audience finds offensive. This means that this segment does not want to hear anything that this speaker has to say, and they certainly don’t want to contribute to the speaker’s financial well-being with their own money, which they give to PYAH so PYAH can hand it over to pay the speaker to come. And maybe you aren’t even aware of this problem between your audience segment and the speaker before you do your booking, or maybe you are but don’t think it’s a very important issue, or maybe you are aware and think it is important, but that other goals you are trying to achieve are more important (like increasing attendance, say), and you have to prioritize. All of these things are possible, and I think common, and something that conference planners have encountered at least once.
When an organization hires a controversial speaker that may upset some people within the potential audience, the speaker’s controversy and reputation becomes the organizations controversy and reputation. There’s really no way around it. The organization–by going out of its way to recruit, promote, and often pay cash money to the speaker–is lending the speaker endorsement. It has to. If speakers had no guarantee that the organization hiring them to speak would support them, they wouldn’t come. If the organization is presenting a speaker that upsets people within the potential audience, the organization by extension is upsetting people within the potential audience. If people find the speaker offensive, they will find the organization offensive. And they should, because the organization is elevating this speaker to a position of being an authority, or celebrity, or someone that it is expected people within the organization should enjoy or learn something from. It’s the whole point of having speakers. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an event.
So when an organization picks a controversial speaker, they have to decide whether the problems the choice will create will be smaller than the solutions that speaker provides. Often highly offensive speakers are defended as “people who will bring a lot of people to the event.” It is true. They will. Their inclusion is explained as being necessary to grow the event/movement/awareness for the cause/et cetera, and the fact that some potential audience members will be hurt is of less value than the chance to quickly add new recruits to the membership roster. For example, the skeptical community is a group trying to grow, and has used big names as draws to its annual conferences and meetings on the premise that they’ll have crossover appeal, and maybe bring to a secular/skeptical event someone who just likes what a particular celebrity does, or make a skeptic on the fence about attending hop on a plane and fly on over to join the party. And it probably works. Otherwise, why bother? Regular people are easier to book than celebrities, and lots of them would probably do the work for comped rooms and attendance fees.
And when there are controversial speakers some people (such as women) consider too offensive to support with time or money (for example, people who get famous via misogynistic humor or other blatant sexism), they don’t come. And they often say why. And if they are disgusted by a speaker, they are probably disgusted with the organization who booked the speaker. And when they’re told that increasing membership was the most important thing, the offended potential audience members will know that the organization doesn’t care what kind of people it attracts so long as it attracts. And they might call into question the goals of the organization, and wonder if they belong there at all, if the sorts of people who like Controversial Speaker are going to start joining the community in larger numbers and the organization is counting on these newcomers to be the Faces that Save (or Jumpstart) the Movement.
Protests to the contrary by the organization at this point, along the lines of We’ll Tackle Your Problems As Soon As We Get Our Numbers UP, are received, if you can imagine, with some disbelief and also annoyance. Because these potential audience members know that the organization has decided to reach out to fans of the, say, misogynistic celebrity instead of the actual group members who have problems they can explain and justify. And whatever poison this speaker carries spreads onto the organization, and that kind of PR travels alongside the promotion and marketing of said speaker, and the organization has only itself to blame. And if an organization is lucky, the malcontents are a tiny, fringe group within the larger community who speak to a very small audience themselves, and have a limited sphere of influence, and almost no one is the wiser for it. The gamble pays off. And if an organization is unlucky, the malcontents are a large organized group with allies and enough of a head count to do real damage to attendance and membership numbers, and maybe even sour potential new recruits to the whole business. And of course, the problems to solve (like sexism and harassment within the group) that were put off until attendance grew will have likely magnified.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. When organizations choose thoughtful speakers that create buzz without offending swaths of their potential audience, audiences respond positively and take on some of the task of helping the organization market the events. The goodwill speakers bring also rubs off on event organizers, and can enhance a group’s reputation in the short- and long-term. And if the group tries to take credit for having the good sense to find and book these speakers, it has earned it and should be proud of putting on a good show, and should market future events that reference the success of this one. You are who you hire.
When you get comments from potential audience members about your speakers, consider your reasons for hiring them and consider the effect thereof. If the benefits outweighed the drawbacks, congratulations! You have achieved your goals, using your methods, for the audience you valued. If you see ballooning or declining membership, full credit and/or full responsibility is yours. Bask in the glory or brainstorm solutions to problems, but leave the people who did not come to your event out of it.