There’s an old adage about war that says plans for battle are essential but are often worthless as soon as the first shot is fired. The notion is that while you need to know what you’re doing and where you’re going and what your objective is, the chaos of battle throws all of that up in the air as leaders need to improvise and think on their feet.
That mindset always came to mind in the last five years as I was preparing to cover San Diego Comic-Con for DC Entertainment, a client of mine when I was still at Voce Communications. SDCC was one of the biggest moments of the year and so necessitated a lot of planning and coordination between myself, my team and the folks at DC Entertainment. The level of coordination only grew over the years.
The first SDCC I was part of was in 2011 and came at a watershed moment for DC. The New 52, the line-wide relaunch of all its super hero books, had been announced just a couple months before and was just over a month from appearing on shelves. Initial artwork had already been shared, but more was revealed during panels at the show, along with interviews with editors, writers, artists and others. This was the first chance fans were going to have to ask about the books and find out more information and so was pretty important for DC. They faced both excitement over a big shakeup and consternation from fans who were upset over years of continuity, along with several favorite characters, being removed from the stage.
I covered it on my own with a laptop and my iPhone. That’s it. I was posting to two Twitter handles (DC and Vertigo) and several Facebook pages from throughout the show. Working with PR and Publicity teams from DC, I single-handedly covered over a dozen panels and provided coverage from the booth on the show floor, where there were talent signings, fan-centric events and more. It was a trial by fire, to be sure, but with the help of those on the ground with me, as well as my one Voce team member who was helping from time to time remotely. The great thing is, I nailed it. I was less than a month into the relationship with DC and was still meeting people and getting used to their style, so there was a lot of figuring things out as we went along. What were the priorities? Where should I be? What can or can’t go out over brand channels? 25% of the program rules and guidelines that would be developed over the next four years came out of this first SDCC.
Over the course of the next four years things would only get hairier. In 2012 I brought another Vocian with me because there was no way I was doing all that on my own again. So we worked out how to divide and conquer, each of alternating between panels, the booth and other events. It was also the first year we had to coordinate with another Warner Bros. division because of the upcoming debut of “Arrow” on The CW. What’s funny is that as much of a hit as the show is now, that year star Stephen Amell made a pretty low-key appearance at the DC booth, without much in the way of an entourage or security, just with a couple agents and handlers.
That would change over the next few years. In 2013 the on-the-ground team included myself and two other people, though in 2014 and 2015 that would fall back down to just two of us to be more budget-conscious. And the TV and theatrical coordination only increased as more shows like “The Flash,” “Gotham,” “Supergirl” and “Constantine” were announced, leading to not only more signings but also off-site events and activities that needed to be covered. In 2015 the DC booth also hosted a signing and appearance by the Batman v Superman cast, which took over much of that day’s schedule to make sure everyone was aligned on ever-changing details and more. We never did get access to the Hall H panels for that or other big WB movies like Suicide Squad, but that didn’t mean we weren’t on the hook to amplify news and announcements. It just meant we needed to make sure we were ready to do that in addition to whatever panels or other events we were covering.
There was always a lot going on at San Diego, not only during the day but also often at night as DC and WB hosted events that needed to be covered on social. Coverage began Wednesday with pre-show events and Preview Night and went through Sunday afternoon, usually wrapping up with the “Meet the Co-Publishers” panel with Jim Lee and Dan DiDio. I can’t speak highly enough of the DC teams i worked with in that time, the the execs who helped us coordinate schedules and make needed arrangements to the booth team that always made me and the others feel at home and welcome and not like the interlopers and intruders we really were. And after half a decade of being there, in addition to covering other events like New York Comic-Con, C2E2 and WonderCon – not to mention doing this same thing for other clients – I developed a few handy tips:
Always Have a Plan
Yes, it’s largely going to be useless a half hour after the doors open, but you still need one. That’s going to provide the template for where everyone needs to be and when they need to be there. It should also represent the agreed-upon priorities for the coverage team that are based on corporate goals. So over the years our priorities shifted from comics to TV shows and video games as those became more and more important. If you don’t have an initial schedule you don’t then have anything to pivot off of as circumstances and environments change.
One of the things we did was have check-in meetings each morning of the con. That allowed us to get caught up on what things had changed in the last 24 hours as artists shifted their signing schedules, panel talent changed and so on. We brought our schedules and a red pen with us to update where everyone was going to be going. These meetings were invaluable.
Set Publishing Guidelines and Rules
With so many different social channels to publish to, we needed to know what kind of material was going to go where over the course of the long weekend. So a picture of a high-end statue about a character might go on Twitter and that character’s Facebook page but that’s it. Bigger brand news would go on brand channels. Announcements from a comics-centric panel might just go on Twitter. Those rules were in flux to be sure and were subject to being bent if not completely broken based on either our own gut or a request from DC execs. But we needed to go in with some sense of what we were doing, otherwise every single post becomes a moment of questioning and that slows things down immeasurably.
Know Your Brand Voice
We wanted to have fun at the show, conveying the sense that while we had an authoritative point of view we were also having as much fun as the fans were. I and the rest of the team worked hard hitting that balance not just for the show but also the program in general. That meant it was not only alright but encouraged that we get hyped for a really cool cosplayer or when a secret was shared on a panel. The best way to get people excited is to be excited. That was easy for me and much of the team that joined me since we were already comics fans, but it’s something to work for no matter what your level of familiarity or comfort with the business area your working in.
Know What You’re Reporting Ahead of Time
If you know what you’re going to be held accountable for after the event is over, you can gear your content toward that. So if you know engagement is an important metric, then you’re actively seeking out engaging content, stuff you know your audience will react well to. If you’re trying to drive sweepstakes signups, then make sure you’re including regular calls-to-action in your publishing routine.
Adjust The Rest of Your Ed Cal as Needed
Just because you’re at a special event doesn’t mean the rest of the ed cal can just go to sleep. But you may need to adjust other, non-event features that are part of the publishing program to other dayparts to clear things out. You don’t want a scheduled tweet like that going out in the middle of an exclusive, important event. Or you may want to put everything on hold for the duration of the show and pick up after it’s done. Either way, look at the elements of your program that constitute core content – the everyday posts that keep the trains running – and adjust as appropriate.
Remember Your Audience is All Over
How much of the content you’re planning and posting is aimed at attendees? How much is meant to be read by fans who aren’t there? The latter group almost always outnumbers the former, but the former can be activated more easily to attend events at the show. You have to know what audience you’re speaking to with any post and adjust the call-to-action or tone accordingly. Some content will be for one or the other, some for both. It’s a fine line and takes work to get right since the potential to honk one of those groups off is pretty high.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask/Bluff/Fake It
There were countless occasions where my name or the name of my team hadn’t been given to someone we needed to talk to in order to get access to an event of some sort. But I needed to get in there. Many times my DC-branded pass would get me in with just a little bit of pleading, sometimes I needed to go full Jim Rockford and bluff my way in with a clipboard and bit of fast-talk. These always made for the best stories later on but you need at least a bit of confidence – or at least the desperation that comes from knowing you’ll be dropping the ball for an important client if you don’t get in that damn room – to make it happen.