Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cheers to the event planner

Today’s Michael Jackson memorial extravaganza at the Staples Center in Los Angeles was watched by millions around the globe, effectively taking over television and the Internet. Interest in the event was so high and so pervasive that The Wall Street Journal was liveblogging the livebloggers covering it.

In the PR major at Red River College we do a unit on special event planning, one of the many skills of the PR pro. As any event planner knows, the key to a successful event (after a solid concept and event strategy) is a detailed critical path, which sets out every little detail that needs to be handled – plus who will handle it, and when. The event planner is the quarterback, and calls the plays based on that critical path: every detail needs to be considered, documented, and handled, on time and on budget.

Michael Jackson’s memorial was produced by Ken Ehrlich, the event planner behind the Grammys. Just imagine the details he and his team would have had to anticipate and handle within a very short period of time to put on today’s global spectacle.

First, of course, they would have needed to brainstorm the concept, the elements that would comprise the stage “show” (likely in consultation with a mourning Jackson family and potentially others close to them), and then create a full event plan. The critical path flowing out of that event plan would have had to include, among many, many other things:

- Media relations (publicity for the event + encouraging Angelenos without tickets to stay home, in an attempt to reduce gridlock in downtown LA)
- Ticket production, lottery & distribution
- Dealing with Staples Center to secure use, arrange setup & logistics
- Dealing with the Ringling Bros. circus, who have shows in the Staples Center tomorrow
- Dealing with the city government – extra police, blocking off streets, motorcade routes, parking, paramedics, not to mention budget…
- Event security staff, usher briefings
- Motorcade vehicles & staff
- Staging: all equipment, lighting, sound, giant screens (need to accommodate different musical acts), draping
- Screen show (titles, photos, accompanying music), coordination with pastor
- Flowers
- Memorial programme – content, writing, design, production, distribution
- Transportation for casket, family, special guests, celebrities
- Coordinating with celebrities & their handlers
- Coordinating special messages to be read from celebrities who can’t attend
- Signage, posters
- Rehearsals

This show, put together in a matter of days, had to give the world an outlet for its grief over the loss of Michael Jackson, while celebrating his life and achievements – and somehow avoiding the sticky topics that garnered the majority of the media interest in his later years.

Juggling all of those details, the planning team would have to have been careful not to let the event appear:
- Too over the top
- Too commercial
- Too opportunistic

But would have had to ensure it was appropriately:
- Admiring
- Respectful
- Mournful
- Celebratory

… and ensure that in the end, the service addressed all the major facets of Jackson’s contribution to his generation. Not easy things to do, much less simultaneously. All in all, this event was a tall order – and from the commentary I saw, it seems to have mostly hit the right notes for Jackson’s mourners around the world.

I’m sure Ehrlich and his team haven’t had much rest in the last week – I hope they put their feet up tonight.

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