Caroline Yodice April 13, 2021 | 05:11:20

PR Tips for Planning a Virtual Panel

As most PR agencies know, a speakers program is an excellent tactic for building thought leadership and brand recognition in the B2B space. A well organized panel discussion around a key industry issue or trend lets a leadership team showcase expertise to clients, prospects and often trade journalists. By targeting prospects, it can also help fill the sales funnel.

However, putting together a panel can be complicated at a time when most of us are still staying put at home, juggling childcare, work, and life all at once. While many elements are the same, there are some key differences to consider when developing a panel that will be hosted online as opposed to in-person.

Here are some tips for PR professionals to plan and successfully execute a virtual panel for their executives.

Schedule it during the work day

In the old days before the pandemic, most people would attend industry panels after office hours in order to network. It was a fun way to catch up with colleagues and contacts, learn something new, and grab a drink to decompress after work. That is not the case today. People are tired of screens and want to sign off after work to be with their families or just relax (the Clubhouse trend aside). To accommodate zoom fatigue, virtual panels may attract more attendees when they’re scheduled in the afternoon.

Diversity is pivotal

This point isn’t limited to virtual panels, but the problem of all white male panels —sometimes known as “manels” — has come to a head during the pandemic. No one wants to be part of a discussion in front of a Zoom screen filled with people who look exactly the same. A lack of diversity will detract from the topic at hand and could even have a negative impact on the reputations of those involved. 

Diversity isn’t limited to race and gender either. You also want panelists of different business backgrounds who can offer a variety of viewpoints. In ad tech, for example, we (ideally) want to include the perspectives of analysts, agencies, vendors, publishers, and brands to get a full understanding of a topic.

Start promoting early

Your panel will be competing with other online events and work responsibilities. The best way to get ahead of that is to promote early and often so people remember to make the time to listen in. This means your companies’ social handles should promote it, all of the panelists’ social handles should promote it, and it should go out to your email distribution list at least two weeks before the event. An email reminder one or two days before is also recommended.

The power of the prep call

PR should set up a prep call for all panelists to make sure everyone is comfortable and has an idea of what the moderator will ask in front of the audience. It benefits the moderator as well, who is more likely to get an informed answer if panelists can prepare. Preparing also includes making sure everyone’s tech works. No one wants a Zoom audio issue! 

Plan for unforeseen circumstances

We’re in an unprecedented health emergency and things can come up, so it’s important to be prepared and flexible. Get the contact information for all panelists in case something arises at the last minute, whether an ill family member or a technical problem. This is also why it’s smart to secure four diverse panelists (in addition to your executive) in case one has to back out. That way you still have a robust panel. 

Interactivity is key

The potential for attendees to multitask in an online panel is much higher compared to an in-person event. The panel needs to be able to hold audience attention, which makes engagement key.  Consider the use of topical virtual polls to keep the audience focused throughout. In addition, encourage audience questions and have the panelists answer them.

To that end…

Ask panelists to keep answers brief

Attention spans are short so having panelists keep answers brief will ensure that the audience stays engaged. It will also ensure that the panelist’s messaging is heard, making the most of the panel opportunity for them as well. 

Record the conversation

Ensure that the panel is recorded so you can repurpose the content in several ways. You can send the recording to everyone who couldn’t make it, including reporters, who can hold onto it for future articles. PR and marketing can also use the insights discussed to develop other content such as pitches, bylines, blog posts, and more.

Think about providing extras

If you have a little extra budget, it’s a nice touch to send out a small gift card to the attendees. This shows them that you appreciate their taking time to engage and fosters a positive relationship. You could also have the panelists provide company swag to attendees who ask questions. There are different ways to be creative with this.

Vaccines are rolling out, but we aren’t yet at a point where we can return to in-person gatherings. If your execs are eager to speak to audiences, we highly recommend a virtual panel with a timely topic. Reach out if you’d like help putting the event together!

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