Events

The politics of political events: lessons from The White House

Designing an event with international relations and cultural sensitivities in mind is a big task.

The Business of Events spoke to Laura Schwartz, the Director of Events for the White House during the Clinton Administration, about her time organising events for heads of state, and how we can learn from her work for our events in Australia.

Hosting NATO events

Perhaps the biggest event of Laura’s career was organising the anniversary event for the 50th anniversary of NATO, which included the largest gathering of heads of state at any one event.

As anyone who’s ever made a seating plan will know, there’s a real skill and delicacy that’s required to make everything work. Power balances are even greater when you’re working with some of the most important people in the world, and making someone feel less important than other guests or world leaders could have major implications.

Laura explains, “How do you decide who sits at which table? If a president at table three thinks ‘Why am I not at table number one?’ it can really dicey. Hillary [Clinton] came up with a brilliant idea. She came up with a half-moon table. The [US] president and Hillary were in the middle and then it just went out in NATO protocol order.”

“There were great seats for the interpreters to sit behind the heads of state and the spouses of the heads of state, and it didn’t block the servers.”

“Because we want conversations at the table and the whisper interpreters to be heard, instead of an orchestra or a quartet we just had a single piano player and it was wonderful. You have to take into account not only the protocol and the order of seating, it’s the myriad of languages and the interpretation that may be needed. These are very rare, sensitive, unique and powerful opportunities when these heads of state get together.”

Events bring people together

No matter what differences people may have, there’s always something that we have in common. There’s perhaps no clearer distinction than in US politics, where Democrats and Republicans are fiercely opposed on many matters.

Laura gives this example. “Every year there’s a shamrock exchange at the White House for St Patrick’s Day. At night, there’s a reception for the prime minister, and there’s Irish music and some great Irish beers and you show this great collaboration from these two countries.

“That’s a great day to celebrate heritage whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. All the Irish members of Congress were absolutely invited. ”

“You try to either break up the headiness of politics with great social functions. They can let their guard down and realise that there’s more that brings them together than divides them.”

Sometimes events need a focal point to bring people together, and an organised meal can do just that.  Laura says, “You never know when the next conversation is going to change your life but instead of happening in the boardroom or the Oval Office, it happens over a meal. Curating that meal to be something special and symbolic is vital.”

“Highlighting items that represent the country that’s visiting and highlighting items that represent the country that’s hosting, are always great at play. If a good chef has that information they are able to create a menu that showcases the best of the host’s cultures as well as the guest’s cultures and do a neat fusion.”

Communication is key

When you’re organising an event and you’re expecting attendees of different cultures – which, in this day and age, should be every event– it’s important to be sensitive of different cultures.

Whether you’re debating menus, the serving of alcohol, the use of interpreters, how you greet someone or anything else, it’s much better to ask ahead.  Laura said, “Go ahead and ask the assistants to those people coming in from foreign countries. You get a lot of respect by asking questions before they show up so that invited guest knows how much care you’re putting in.”

“There’s no cookie cutter event when it comes to cultures, you want to get it right. Having that conversation before you set something in stone makes all the difference. You get buy-in from all the parties and it makes it that much stronger an event.”

Communication isn’t just for external stakeholders, but also for your team and contractors.

Laura added, “I think a good relationship goes a long way. I, for example, had a very good relationship with the Secret Service. There were many who tried to fight them a little bit; I found that if you respected what they did, they respected what we did.”

“Oftentimes, you’ll see the president and the spouse get out of their vehicle to shake hands with the crowd. That’s very planned and what you don’t see are all the snipers on the rooftops and in the hotels and offices. The Secret Service takes over.”

Events promote social and cultural changes

Events are a microcosm of society and the more that organisers can help minority voices have a platform to speak, the more belief it gives to people.

Laura said, “Political events absolutely promote social and cultural change just by the visuals. Let’s find people of different ethnicities, genders and identifiers, to show what is happening, don’t just affect one type of person.”

For more advice from Laura Schwartz and her time at the White House, keep an eye on our blog where we’ll have further snippets from our conversation and news of upcoming podcasts.

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