Making “Digital Democracy” Work



Amid the taco trucks, bare trees, and Frisbee-tossing students on the Drake University campus, One Smooth Stone was thrust into the world of politics and current events November 12 when we produced “Digital Democracy: The Yahoo Conference on Technology & Politics.” The event explored how technology is shaping the future of the democratic process. This blog post gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how we pulled off a fast-moving event with a client on the cutting edge of content creation and news commentary.

For “Digital Democracy,” One Smooth Stone managed the strategy, planning, and execution of the event’s production and visual branding. We helped Yahoo create a game plan for managing an agenda that needed to stay fluid until the day before show time (as we discussed on One Smooth Blog November 11). We planned for some special challenges unique to this particular event, including working on a university campus that lacked a dedicated event management staff usually found in hotels, convention centers, and arenas. In the 24 hours leading up to “Digital Democracy,” we were in full-blown implementation mode, but we were frequently strategizing in the moment, as the following post demonstrates. As we reflect on our experiences producing “Digital Democracy,” three key themes stand out:

Adapting to the Unconventional

 “Digital Democracy” was unconventional in a few major ways: first, Yahoo hosted the event on a college campus. And befitting the university setting, “Digital Democracy” supplemented our professional staff with 18 Drake University student volunteers. Working in the student union rather than a more conventional, dedicated event facility meant adapting expectations related to responsiveness, flexibility, and singular focus; and leveraging contingencies accordingly. We planned ahead for this reality by carefully training and supervising the volunteers, who provided logistical support ranging from registration to VIP wrangling.

What the volunteers lacked in experience they made up for with their enthusiasm and ambition. For them, managing “Digital Democracy” was a chance to get real-world experience in the callings that they plan to pursue after college, such as politics and journalism. They also wanted to be part of an event that is one touchstone in the 2016 presidential race.

As volunteer Aaron Feldman, a junior majoring in political science and data analytics, said, “If someone asks me, ‘Were you there?’ I don’t want to answer, ‘No, I missed the event because I was in class.'”

Bridget Fahey, a junior in graphic design and creative advertising, was one of the ushers. When she was asked what attracted her to work on the event, she responded, “What wouldn’t attract me? This is an opportunity to work with a huge news organization and a professional event production team on a global event.”

For One Smooth Stone, working with student volunteers gave us a chance to do a little teaching, too — not in a formal way, but by doing our jobs as we always do.

Real-Time Production

As we discussed in an earlier blog post, preparing for “Digital Democracy” meant planning for the unknown. In the days leading up to November 12, the event agenda was largely undefined, by design. The agenda had to be fluid order to accommodate the possibility that presidential candidates might show up late in the planning. Not until the day before the event did we have a confirmed agenda, after candidate Rand Paul confirmed his participation.

While onsite, we needed to prepare for real-time content. The agenda consisted of panel discussions, which, by their nature, rely on the spontaneity of real-time conversation. Consequently, panelists had no formal presentations to rehearse. Our strategy was to provide enough preparation so that the panelists were familiar with each other before they went onstage. We set aside private time and specially designed space throughout the day for each group of panelists to meet privately, which helped them get more comfortable with each other’s conversational styles.

We managed many other real-time moments, including one that was part of national news. After the event broke for lunch, a cluster of students in the foyer outside the general session room staged an unannounced demonstration to express solidarity with University of Missouri students who had been protesting racism. Since “Digital Democracy” is an inherently political event being held on a college campus, we had already planned for the possibility of a protest of some type occurring for any number of reasons. We had beefed up event security and discussed contingency plans depending on how disruptive a protest might be. But student demonstrations don’t follow a playbook; there is no cookie-cutter approach for anticipating a demonstration. As it turns out, the student demonstration, while vocal, was peaceful, respectful, and orderly to the credit of the demonstrators. Our approach was to watch it play out while being ready to act should the demonstration become too disruptive.

A Tale of Two Audiences

Two audiences attended “Digital Democracy”: those in person and those watching via the Yahoo News live stream.

We appealed to an in-person audience in many ways. For instance, we transformed Drake’s Olmsted Center from a student social hub into the physical space for Digital Democracy. Doing so entailed the use of signs, digital screens, wall-and-window wraps, free-standing boards, and step and repeats, among other environmental elements. The environmental elements were crucial for creating word-of-mouth interest in a building that draws heavy student foot traffic. We also designed an elegant stage that relied on a simple furniture arrangement to put the focus on the panel discussions and to create an intimate vibe between panelists and attendees.

Managing for an audience watching via live stream meant treating the event like a television production. It was not enough to ensure that the panelists were well prepared and that we attracted an audience with our onsite branding. As with any broadcast, we also needed to make sure all the filmic elements were carried out correctly, including, of course, capturing the panelists with the best camera angles to depict the same intimate vibe that the in-person audience was experiencing.

“Each Event Has a Life of Its Own”

“Digital Democracy” was one of many events we produce in a year. In many ways, all events require the same level of planning, and indeed providing a level of consistency in our approach ensures high standards of quality are met. And yet, one of the reasons we love our jobs is that each event is fresh — even the ones we produce each other. Each event reveals its own personality and makes its own mark.

Perhaps One Smooth Stone Senior Vice President Mark Ledogar summed it up best. “Each event has a life of its own,” he said. “We make sure we manage them well, but you can’t control them completely, nor should you. An event belongs to the audience. The experience belongs to them. And all the planning and preparation that we put into an event is really for the purpose of allowing that real-time dynamic between the event and the audience to flourish.”

For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing


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