Event Design

The Clintons and Mayim Bialik — PCMA Doesn’t Shy Away From Controversial Speakers 

The Clintons on stage

Skift Take

President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and actress Mayim Bialik were all keynote speakers at PCMA Convening Leaders 2024. Were these controversial choices worth the risk?

American politics are more polarized than ever, so many were surprised when the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) announced that President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would be speaking at its Convening Leaders in San Diego on January 7-10, 2024.

Just days before the Clintons took the stage, unsealed documents were released from a lawsuit involving alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein that revealed the names of many prominent people, including former President Bill Clinton himself. Undaunted, the former President joined his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on stage during PCMA’s Convening Leaders in San Diego.

Audience Response

But it seems the gamble paid off. Many in attendance found the Clintons to be inspirational and insightful. “I thought the Clintons were amazingly neutral, which I appreciate because I think we need more of that from our politicians,” says David Jefferys, executive director of the Global Diversity Alliance, dedicated to connecting, educating, and advancing DEI and LGBT professionals in the meetings industry. 

The exchange between the Clintons and moderator Holly Ransom focused on the importance of connection and how loneliness, the silent pain that plagues so many, has been weaponized. Further, the couple urged the audience to recognize our shared humanity and learn from diverse perspectives, a necessity in today’s environment.

The audience erupted in laughter and applause when Secretary of State Clinton declared: “Women have to be perfect, but men just have to be men.” Not only did she touch upon the double standards that exist in public life but the Israel-Hamas war, the spread of AI, and Vladimir Putin’s disdain for her.

Such high-profile speakers led to some understandable logistical challenges, such as long lines to check bags and clear metal detectors. Early birds who arrived early for the keynote session were disappointed to discover many of the front rows already reserved.

Shaking it Up

“Keynotes are an opportunity to shake things up a bit,” said Howard Givner, senior vice president of knowledge and innovation, PCMA, during a session with Ken Holsinger, Freeman’s senior vice president, strategy and research, entitled, “First Look: Exclusive Data on Attendee Motivators.” 

Givner’s goal was to address leadership and global concerns, and he thought the Clintons could be a fit. “We picked the topics we wanted to address and then the speakers. Too often, it is done the other way,” Givner explained during the session. 

“Big Bang Theory” Star Faces Backlash

The other high-profile keynote speaker at PCMA Convening Leaders was actress, TV host, and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, who stirred up controversy in October when she read a final text message from a victim of the Hamas attacks in Israel. Many felt this did not support those under attack in Gaza. Shortly thereafter, she was dropped from Jeopardy! causing a firestorm on social media accusing the show of antisemitic behavior. 

During her PCMA talk, Bialik steered clear of this contentious issue and focused instead on mental health. 

Are Celebrity Speakers Worth the Trouble?

Some in the industry avoid hiring celebrity speakers. Nicola Kastner, founder of The Event Strategist, posted this sentiment on LinkedIn, which inspired many planners to weigh in. 

“In my years of working with senior executives, the topic of hiring a celebrity speaker to boost event registrations has been a recurring theme. Fortunately, my former CMO and I firmly believed that celebrities weren’t the secret sauce for event success. Convincing our stakeholders, though, was another story,” she wrote.

The 2024 Freeman Trends Report reinforces Kastner’s premise. “The facts are clear. Celebrities are not event game-changers. In fact, only 1% of survey respondents considered them important. Attendees want to hear from industry experts and innovators — not celebrities,” she wrote. “Let’s put an end to the celebrity obsession and focus on what truly drives value to our attendees — expertise and relevance.”

For keynotes, content comes first, the study confirms. Attendees want substance, not celebrity. “A thought-provoking, relevant topic will outweigh even the most prominent speaker,” says the Freeman study.

Attendees still want to hear about innovation from industry leaders. “Unless they’re experts in a relevant vertical, celebrities don’t drive behavior or outweigh what really matters,” the report states. It also highlights the most important factors to keynote attendees: topic, type of speaker, session format, duration, and relevance.

Matching Event Objectives With Speaker Selection

The hottest speakers shouldn’t be the favored choice, says Seth Dechtman of The Keynote Curators. The best keynote speakers align with an event’s objectives, understand the audience, and deliver a compelling message that has a lasting impact, he says.

Dechtman recommends two dials when choosing a keynote speaker. One is motivation, inspiration, and name recognition, and the other is content and takeaways. “How much the client wants to turn each dial is where the curated content will fall,” he says.

Attendees value and want professional expertise about employment security, community, and loyalty, Dechtman concludes. 

Photo credit: Jacob Slaton / Whatever Media Group