Sep 17, 2013 Minding P’s and Q’s: Protocol and Corporate Event Management
Protocol: it’s one of those topics that every corporate event planner knows instinctively they should care about, but few feel they really have a handle on. Is protocol just another term for etiquette, or is there more to it? How can we appear elegantly polite without getting bogged down in rules?
To find answers to these and other protocol questions, Wilsonwest interviewed my friend and go-to protocol gal, Mary Byron. Mary was fortunate enough to live and work at an overseas U.S. embassy in the 1990s. Her experiences as a Community Liaison Officer forced her to learn quickly the importance of rank, etiquette, and customs in the realm of events. She now shares some nuggets of wisdom with you.
WW: Can you explain to the relative layperson why protocol matters?
MB: In today’s global business climate, one faux pas is too many. Protocol is a vital element in making and keeping successful relationships. That’s why it’s essential for planners to understand the need for protocol as they begin the event planning process.
The more information you can learn in advance of an event, the less the chance you’ll land in an embarrassing situation. For example, it’s essential to know a guest’s full name, title, and appropriate use in salutations and introductions. You’ll also want to know about their country, rank, flag, cultural considerations, and hosting etiquette. You’ll then use your knowledge of these key points throughout the event planning process.
WW: So, how should event planners tackle the challenge of preparing to make a dignitary feel welcome?
MB: Think of protocol as your guide to the rules, etiquette, and customs of a specific dignitary’s country—a guide that helps you set the right environment for that person. In that sense, protocol is about respecting cultural diversity. For each visiting or attending dignitary, you should make sure you understand protocol on the front end of event planning, not just on the morning of the event!
Whether you’re working with a country president, a diplomat, or Her Majesty, your major concern will be to make sure that person is represented appropriately in that particular environment. The protocol specifics will mostly be communicated by that principal’s organization or country liaison. I recommend that event planners reach out to the liaison at the very first juncture of the planning process, because the protocol information they provide will help determine arrangements related to guest rooms, meals, introductions, dais seating, social seating, flag placement, gift exchange, and much more. All of these factors will impact the success of your event.
There’s no substitute for preparation and practice. I can’t even estimate the number of practice curtsies I did before a very brief meeting with Her Majesty, the Queen of England. It all paid off. She was shorter than me and our eyes met as I went down!
WW: What are some of the top protocol pitfalls in corporate event planning?
MB: We’ve all been there: you’ve carefully planned an event and think you’ve left nothing overlooked. But then suddenly, you’re surprised and embarrassed because you were unaware of the presence of a dignitary. Oops—why didn’t you know you needed a translator? Oops—why didn’t the CEO host have a gift for the gift exchange? Oops—why was that U.S. flag placed on the left side of His Excellency’s country flag? Oops—His Excellency was not seated with the CEO host, and somehow ended up at the back table with his staff. Oops—His Excellency prefers a guest room on a low floor. You end up thinking, “Can I just crawl into the janitor’s closet and hide for a few hours?”
So, it’s crucial to examine those guest lists carefully, and to think through all the ramifications and requirements of having Someone Important in the house. Keep in mind that speakers may bring guests who have earned titles of respect—do you know what those titles are? Many guests of honor will bring their spouses—do you know their full names and how to pronounce them?
And on top of all that, there’s often a precedence of persons to keep in mind as you introduce speakers or other guests of honor.
WW: How can paying more attention to protocol help event planners produce more effective events?
MB: I’d urge all planners to keep a few simple principles in mind. First, all’s well that starts well. Knowing the right titles for introductions can make a major difference in the way an event or meeting starts off. Have “Mr. President,” “Madam Secretary,” or “Your Holiness Dalai Lama” on the tip of your tongue.
Also, think through seating carefully. What’s the best way to place speakers on the dais? What about dinner guests around the table? And speaking of dinner, keep in mind that there are often religious customs that dictate the timing of a meal and what that meal should contain.
You can’t go wrong paying more attention to the little ways you can make your dignitaries feel comfortable. You’ll want to contract a green room or other pre-event hospitality room solely for a big-name guest. Also, consider hiring security if you have reason to think the guest will attract unwanted attention from media or protestors. And if your guest of honor is traveling with an entourage, be sure to include those people in your food and beverage counts.
Of course, it’s not all about people. The respect (or neglect) we show to a guest’s national flag can make or break an event as easily as the words we use to introduce them.
Thank you, Mary, for this exclusive look into the world of event protocol! May we all be as graceful as you are in handling our most important guests with courtesy and respect.