Virtual event safety is an interesting concept to grasp. Attendees participate in a virtual event from the comfort of their homes or offices, so why should event professionals concern themselves with their physical safety, security, and wellbeing further than providing an engaged and connected experience? Also, should something happen online, like a speaker getting injured (or an attendee experiencing a medical emergency), what liability will fall on event organizers and other event stakeholders like tech partners?
Since the onset of the pandemic, incidents have been reported in online formats, including a professor passing away during a Zoom lecture, a woman being fatally shot by a toddler in a virtual work meeting, and even violent crimes like a stabbing and a shooting being witnessed remotely. While these scenarios may be extreme and not specifically event-related, the format and delivery mode remain the same for most virtual events — regardless of whether the event is a company town hall, product launch, online expo, or brand activation.
And with the increase of digital events, online meetings, and hybrid and remote working environments, event professionals need to consider the world of virtual event liability and responsibilities. This includes understanding how an event professional can best respond in an online emergency. Due to the sheer number of online interactions happening, an emergency is bound to occur eventually.
Ultimately, as event professionals, we are responsible for delivering safe experiences to people in general, including our suppliers, speakers, clients, and ourselves. This responsibility should extend to the virtual event world too.
What this means and how we achieve this goal is what we are looking into in this post.
Virtual event liability
To fully understand the virtual event safety space, we first need to grasp the scope of responsibility and potential liability of event professionals online.
In a workplace setting where a corporate planner may be organizing multiple remote meetings, would the planner have a legal responsibility to establish lines of communication for reporting emergencies? What about organizers at public events?
Steven A. Adelman of Adelman Law Group, PLLC, and vice president, Event Safety Alliance, thinks not. “I cannot think of any source of a legal duty on a virtual event organizer to create emergency communications when every person is in constant communication as a function of the virtual event,” he explains. “For example, if you and I talk on the phone, you do not have to provide me with a video link just in case someone breaks into my house and attacks me. In other words, as witnesses to an incident that could be recorded — within either a professional setting (workplace meeting) or a public one (virtual live stream), no legal obligation exists,” Adelman elaborates.
Further, virtual event planners have no legal duty to collect emergency contact information for use should an emergency arise. “The law is sometimes slow to catch up to technology,” Adelman adds.
What about liability in terms of privacy when it comes to medical emergencies and crimes witnessed online? These incidents could easily be recorded by anyone connected to the video conference or live stream, and then be shared on any number of social channels after the event. According to Adelman, when video conference platforms show a message to all participants alerting them that the meeting is being recorded, it is legally sufficient notice.
And should something criminal take place with a camera on, Adelman advises that planners should comply with the requests of law enforcement regarding footage: “A court order can compel production if someone thinks voluntary production is not in their interest. No different than when an incident takes place in a brick-and-mortar public venue that has CCTV. This legal issue is not new but a recent application of an old one.”
Interestingly, some insurance providers now offer virtual event insurance — even though it is not mandated. Options include cover for speaker no-shows, last-minute event cancelations, technical disruptions, equipment damage, and, in some cases, event liability for accidental injury. But even insurance companies, while offering cover, admit that they are only just beginning to understand the complexity of virtual event issues.
Generally speaking, virtual event planners cannot be said to have caused any incidents in an online environment (with rare exceptions like failing to provide a warning before seizure-inducing strobe lighting). As a result, they are not legally responsible to action anything. Nor can they be held legally liable.
However, do virtual event planners have a moral and ethical obligation to do so?
AN ETHICAL DILEMMA
At this point, virtual event safety is partly speculative and partly a question of setting new protocols/best practices, with little to no actual legal responsibility in terms of preventing or responding to emergencies. Liability aside, perhaps we should instead be asking ourselves if we have an ethical obligation to provide virtual event safety and what that might entail.
Speaking with Bob Hutchins, VP of Digital Marketing at 5by5, and an author with a background in organizational psychology, Hutchins says that we have an ethical obligation to safeguard the virtual event space due to the potential consequences.
“What we’re discovering about these online engagements like Zoom, or larger events, is that this is relatively new for human beings. And when I say that, I mean that there are ways of being and communicating in person that are natural for us. And now, we’ve introduced something on a global scale, and it’s almost like one big science experiment — no one thinks about someone breaking into a house and shooting a presenter and what effect that would have in the context of an online world and the people witnessing the incident.”
– Bob Hutchins, VP of Digital Marketing, 5by5
Hutchins adds that while organizations and event professionals may see these issues as something new with minimal responsibility, evidence suggests otherwise from an ethical perspective.
THE IMPACT ON WITNESSES
Beyond immediate concerns of responding to an emergency while it is happening, there are also legitimate reasons to consider the impact it could have on witnesses. A study on the Boston Marathon bombing was conducted a few years ago exploring the effects (like PTSD) caused by witnessing traumatic events digitally versus live. The study involved professionals speaking with people physically there and people who witnessed it online via news channels, social media, etc. Trauma effects were, in some cases, heightened in people that saw the incident virtually.
Hutchins explains that the logic behind this is that when someone is at an event, and something like that were to happen, our bodily reaction would differ from that of someone online. For example, you might be able to help someone injured, you could run and hide, or you could call emergency responders — these are all reactions that, in real life, function as your body’s response to trauma. And as a result, you work the trauma out to a degree through your body. “That is how we evolved to deal with trauma,” says Hutchins. “We were not made to sit and hold trauma in our minds continually.”
So, while people who witnessed the event online wanted to respond similarly, the actual reaction was akin to swiping to the next piece of information — essentially compounding traumas that we see online.
Comparing these mass-media channels to the virtual event space, we have evolved to mini-broadcast scenarios and could expect similar results should something go wrong. These virtual event ‘what-ifs’ translate to our responsibility to the person affected and other people involved. Because of this, we cannot just walk away and say, “Sorry it happened.” Instead, we have to do something about it.
Hutchins concludes that these are issues that we are on the very cusp of now, as we have never had to deal with them on this scale. The phenomenon is already being seen on social media, and the damage the platforms can do when not managed ethically. Interesting to note is that virtual event platforms have recently been likened to the social media platforms of the future.
Further, should an incident occur during an enterprise-level virtual event, the amount of brand damage could be astronomical.
The importance of virtual event communications and safety
Virtual and hybrid events lack the physical contact of an in-person event — meaning event professionals have limited control regarding safety and security for virtual event stakeholders. Online emergencies could take the form of a medical emergency, like a heart attack or seizure, or dangerous situations like a violent crime. Each is unique in its response needs.
Should an emergency occur, it is unlikely that others on the event platform will have access to a location and contact details to send help. Further, people online may not have the necessary training to deal with a crisis.
These circumstances left unmanaged could result in extreme feelings of helplessness, increased danger and delayed assistance to the person experiencing the emergency, and trauma for all involved upon witnessing the incident.
Because of this, a comprehensive communication structure is vital to ensuring adequate virtual event safety, and it must be set up in advance.
Some suggestions for navigating virtual event safety could include:
Before your virtual event, collect the contact information of attendees, suppliers, clients, colleagues, and event team members. That way, should an emergency arise, you have a list of emergency contacts and possibly even a location to organize the appropriate response.
Creating procedures for handling a virtual emergency should form part of your planning and could include safety checklists for contact information, the process of emergency response, and dealing with post-emergency consequences (think trauma counseling, debriefing, or refunds).
Because of the nature of virtual events, certain team members could take on a secondary role as safety officers in case one is needed. In addition, you should look at providing training to key event team members, while also covering the basics with other event stakeholders when necessary. Recommended training includes explaining different types of emergencies, how to respond, who to call, and signs of an impending emergency.
Another aspect event professionals may consider for virtual event safety is online privacy. For example, if someone experiences a medical emergency, their privacy must be respected, meaning no screenshots or clip sharing. This situation could (potentially) be rectified by requesting attendees or teams to sign a simple NDA when providing contact details.
Virtual event safety is not as straightforward as in-person event safety. Event professionals will have to grapple with new elements that may not yet be solvable such as:
Different event stakeholders
Online safety will require a different approach from each stakeholder. While event teams will need to understand the ins and outs, attendees may only require a brief explanation at the start of an event or in pre-event comms.
Different locations could mean different emergency contacts and procedures.
Reluctance to give information
There may be a reluctance from virtual attendees to share personal information like their physical address.
Large global events
Large public online global events that don’t require a ticket purchase for entry could cause issues down the line due to their lack of readily available information.
According to a post by Gartner, technology can play a critical role in managing online emergencies in a remote working environment and internal meetings. The post explains that in the United States, emergency services are sometimes able to locate an individual based on their cellphone number alone (assuming the phone is on and receiving a signal). Gartner also introduces the concept of a panic button embedded within systems that employees can then use should a problem arise.
While Gartner specifically addresses mobile-app based systems and IP-based Next Generation 911 (North America only), a similar solution could also be provided by event tech companies and may be an avenue of exploration in the future. Event professionals could, for example, request a panic button feature on their virtual event or meeting that allows attendees to activate the emergency signal that would then access the relevant location and contact information stored privately on the system — only for use under this circumstance.
Additionally, event tech providers could integrate a safety database (similar to a CRM) that stores emergency information, updates it automatically according to new info gathered, and uses it next time an attendee logs on to the same platform or app.
Creating safe virtual event experiences
The realm of virtual event safety is a mixture of fact versus fiction at the moment, and in some cases, purely speculative. However, because of the rise of digital engagement in the event and work worlds, it is a topic that we must consider.
As event professionals, we know an emergency can occur anytime during an event. And virtual events are no exception to this rule. By understanding the ins and outs of handling a virtual event emergency, event profs can offer safer online event experiences.