Event Design

What the Rushdie Attack Can Teach Events About Better Stage Protection

Skift Take

When Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage in full view of the audience at a speaking engagement at the Chautauqua Institution, it was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks during public events. What can event planners do to ensure this doesn't happen at their gatherings?

Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage in full view of the audience at a speaking engagement at the Chautauqua Institution — the latest in a series of high-profile attacks during public events. New York state gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin was attacked while on stage at a campaign event in western New York; comedian Dave Chappelle was attacked while performing at the Hollywood Bowl; Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the nationally televised Oscars. These incidents, happening all too frequently, exemplify the importance of taking the proper precautions to keep events secure.

“The Rushdie attack just continues to serve as more evidence why you cannot take security for granted at events anymore,” said Tyrha M. Lindsey-Warren, managing director, L.A.I. Communications, a strategic communications agency that also produces events. “Last month, at the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame 2022 Induction Ceremony that I produced, we took the time to put a security plan into place with all of our stakeholders, including the Cincinnati police, Hamilton County, and our venue,” she said.

The L.A.I. Communications safety plan included “making sure metal detectors were used, and proper personnel to staff them were in place, to manage a 3,000-person audience.” They also discussed properly managing parking since the Cincinnati Reds and two other major events happening simultaneously were all using the same parking garages. “Additionally, we had to have security and other protocols in place for all of our talent who were being inducted into the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame as well as for all of the local, county, and state officials who attended our event,” she said.

In light of the Rushdie attack, the Chautauqua Institution website now prominently states, “Grounds access now requires photo ID,” and offers this statement, “As the Chautauqua Institution community recovers from the August 12, 2022 attack on Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese on our Amphitheater stage…..we ask for patience and understanding as we continue to work with law enforcement and other officials to restart operations.”

Paul Susko, a lawyer who attended the lecture, told the Erie Times-News, “There was no security stopping us from getting to the stage. There was zero security visible around the stage at the time of the attack. The lack of security for a guest who is the subject of a fatwa was shocking.”  Attendees couldn’t bring in food or drink, but that was all, he said, adding, “maybe screening for weapons with a wand or walk-through metal detector would have been more helpful. This never should have happened in my opinion.” 

Robin Wolfson, president of The Robin Wolfson Agency, a speakers bureau that represents high-profile speakers, said, “The Chautauqua Institution always has had people of stature like Rushdie speak there. I am sure it was a huge shock to them.” When her agency sends clients to universities for speaking engagements, she notes that it is up to the venue to check in with the local police. “Before someone of prominence shows up, they sweep the hall as they have a sense of what could potentially happen. Sadly, we just don’t know what these unpredictable situations will bring for these large gatherings, particularly with this political climate we are living in,” Wolfson said.

The Wolfson Agency’s security practices include checking in with venue security, and the local police to learn about the profile of the community.  In addition, she “wants to see that her speakers are met at the airport and escorted by security from the minute they arrive to the minute they leave. That’s how it is done,” she said.

A 54-year veteran in this space, Tony D’Amelio, principal of the D’Amelio Network, a boutique speaker management firm, manages a select group of experts. “The attack on Mr. Rushdie at a speaking event reinforced to all in our industry that vigilance at events must be constant. It’s easy to become complacent, but the consequences can be terrible.”

As public people are evermore at risk these days, D’Amelio notes, “It’s important to not underestimate risk at a time when too many troubled people are looking to act out or make a point.”

He described a recent event in San Diego where the venue deployed enhanced security, including hand wanding for metal. “Two security people were stationed at the front of the stage, and access backstage was limited. These things are vital to assure safe events,” he underscored.

“It is incumbent on anyone planning a meeting now to engage with public safety professionals, whether they be private or law enforcement, and involve them in the build-out of the event,” Phil Andrew, co-founder and principal of PAX Group, said. Andrew previously served as a special agent with the FBI with expertise in violence prevention, counter-terrorism, crisis management, hostage negotiation, and behavioral analysis.  

He outlined critical pieces in planning that include, “Have there been credible threats? What is local intelligence? Look at the mitigating circumstances. Look at the design of the venue as well as the more traditional security measures.”  

There is overlap, he noted, with the same kind of advance planning that goes into any public event for general attendees. Natural disasters, health concerns, Covid protocols, are all issues that event planners should have plans in place to deal with. 

Regarding Covid, “we have muscle memory for thinking through how we manage people and space, and it has ancillary benefits including the safety of participants,” Andrew said.

Some event planners are shying away from high-visibility speakers due to increased security costs.

“Security for speakers is never a concern for us, although we would have to pay for it for very pricey, prominent speakers, which I try to avoid,” said Scott Ehrlich, chief executive officer, DTC Perspectives, producer of the Xpectives.Health conference. When he inquired about engaging President Bill Clinton as a speaker, he discovered the high cost of security for his Secret Service detail, and he passed.

It is the responsibility of event planners to keep attendees and speakers safe.  “It is always better to be safe than sorry when producing events, whether large or small,”  Lindsey-Warren said.