People often ask me what protocol professionals do. The simple answer is we ensure that things run smoothly so that business can be accomplished and relationships can develop without the distraction of logistics.
We just finished one of my favorite events of the year, the week The University of Alabama in Huntsville hosts the annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, an international gathering of the world’s space experts and next-gen space pioneers who convene to imagine, discuss, debate, and strategize the future of space. It is an excellent illustration of what protocol professionals do every day.
Presented by the American Astronautical Society, the symposium is held on our campus because of Huntsville’s storied history in the space business (this is the place where the Saturn V, the rocket that launched men to the moon, was developed) our proximity to Marshall Space Flight Center, and our status as the anchor institution to the nation’s second largest research park.
One of my favorite aspects of the week is the opportunity to work with public affairs and protocol colleagues from industry and government, many of whom are friends that I see only once a year when they arrive to escort their principals. The Von Braun Symposium brings an impressive international collection of government officials, corporate executives, astronauts (including moon walkers from the Apollo era and numerous Space Shuttle commanders, pilots, and mission specialists), researchers, academicians, and students from other universities. The week includes panels, speeches, debates, private meetings, social gatherings, tours, competitions, and recognitions. It has many moving parts, each advanced by teams of public affairs or protocol officers. We intuitively work together to help each other succeed, because we know success for one, is success for all.
Throughout months of advance planning we have sorted out agendas, routes and parking, we’ve held many phone conferences and numerous walk-throughs. We’ve negotiated what will and won’t be possible. But what do protocol and public affairs professionals actually do during the gathering? Here’s a sampling:
Stand in the cold before the sun is up to welcome a VIP;
Facilitate an important government official’s short notice request for a private meeting space with sophisticated communication capabilities, marshaling staff from across the university only to watch the meeting get cancelled at the last minute;
Find a substitute meal for the luncheon speaker who is also the highest-ranking person in the room when he surprises us all by revealing he doesn’t eat the day’s entrée;
Rearrange flags on stage moments before the conference convenes when one of us notices a serious mistake in the line-up;
Soothe the nerves of an exhausted out-of-state student suffering from 24 hours of delayed and rerouted flights to arrive minutes before her presentation at an important scientific competition that could help shape her future;
Deploy a hospitality team to feed and make her stressed travelling companion, her mother, comfortable;
Noodle together as we sort out the appropriate seating for a collection of distinguished participants who hail from very different walks of life, all of whom are accustomed to being the ranking person in their universes;
Resist the temptation to request a photo or autograph from the famous people with whom we are conversing;
Abandon the first real hot meal we’ve seen in two days because of a changing situation. Return to eat it later in the hallway when it’s cold and flavorless;
Make eight large-sized bottles of Mountain Dew appear immediately for a dignitary’s car;
Facilitate a surprise award for a retiring leader by stalling his departure without annoying him;
Diplomatically redirect important people who are nonetheless “crashers,” from seating themselves at luncheons to which they were not invited;
Work with security details and know when and how to discreetly communicate critical information;
Go home when the moon is high in the sky and return when the same moon is still up;
Understand that your principal is oblivious to most of your efforts, which is as it should be;
Enjoy a great sense of satisfaction from knowing that your behind-the-scenes efforts helped make an important gathering a success.