Responding to a pandemic: acting fast, being transparent, and moving online

16 April 2020

The fourth annual OTT Conference was meant to be held in Berlin from 30 March to 1 April 2020. At the end of February we consulted with our advisory board and conference partners about the possibility of postponing the event: the health emergency situation was fast-changing, and we needed a contingency plan. 

At the start of March, a week before the COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, we emailed everyone who had registered to attend the event in Berlin and asked for their advice. Many were determined to attend but many others were concerned about travel bans: as governments responded to the threat of a major outbreak in their countries, the possibility of border closures was very real (as was proven shortly after). This meant people could be stuck either on their way to Berlin, or in Berlin, without possibility of returning home. 

We considered the advice from our advisory board and partners, input from conference attendants, and the implications of postponing on our organisation. We think it’s OK to say that a lot of sleep was lost while deliberating. On 8 March, three weeks before we were to meet in Berlin, we decided to postpone the conference. Less than a week later, governments all around the world (including Peru), announced travel bans or altogether shut their borders. 

We initially set a new date for June, which was quickly updated to September. Two weeks later we had to postpone again without a definite date. 

Nevertheless, we did not want to miss out on the chance of seeing our colleagues and friends, so we decided, without hesitation really, to organise an online conference on the same dates as the Berlin meeting. Although we’ve been holding webinars for several years, an online conference was unchartered territory for us. We were cautious to announce that the online event would be a pilot and on a much smaller scale than the real conference would have been.

Next we had to decide where and how we would hold the online event. Our advisory board stepped in again (this is why having good boards is important) and a Twitter call for advice from Ruth Levine led us to After an initial inspection, Hopin turned out to have the online versions of the spaces we create at our conferences. 

The OTT community stepped up too. We asked some of the would-be keynote speakers and session conveners if they would join us for the pilot and they all agreed. This was really motivating for us: we know that times have been very hard for many people as we have all had to adapt to new rules and ways for working. 

The OTT team and our close partners responded right away too. Our programme manager worked around the clock repurposing months of planning and dealing with the tireless efforts to minimise our losses from canceled flights and hotel reservations. 

Agreements and plans with research and communication partners had to be cared for as well. Our Berlin hosts, DGAP and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, embraced the online idea and supported us all the way. Our funders, Open Society Foundations, Mercator Stiftung and the Hewlett Foundation, were reasonable and flexible; even before their organisations had made the decision to cancel their own events, they supported ours. 

Finally, our audience responded too. With three weeks to go, many participants would have already booked tickets and hotels, so this change of plans would have been a problem for many. In the end, of course, the conference would have been canceled by the lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions imposed by governments all over the world, but at the time we were ahead of the curve (no pun intended).

Read a report of the OTT Conference 2020: the online event

What we’ve learned

Transparency is paramount

The first lesson we take from this saga is that in the face of uncertainty, the best approach is transparency. This can be difficult when we are trying to communicate with multiple stakeholders, but our sincere efforts to keep everyone informed and engaged helped to generate support for our decisions across the board… even if we had to go back on some of these. 

Online is not the same as offline

We were lucky to find an online tool that replicated our essential conference spaces: keynotes, parallel sessions, spaces to network, and a place for participants to show or talk about their work. But this doesn’t mean that the transition was seamless. 

OTT is a digital team (all of us work remotely) so we are used to seeking spaces to exchange ideas online. However, we hold one annual conference, and there’s a reason for this: we see value in meeting face-to-face with our community. Whilst there are many pros to an online event, the biggest loss is the informal or impromptu spaces to talk and meet new people. Our conferences allocate time for long coffee breaks and long lunches, and we encourage evening drinks and networking, so people can find time for these informal discussions. 

We also found that some of our usual facilitation techniques don’t always work online. As online events are likely to be the norm for some time to come, this is something we’ll have to work out.

What we have now is a window of opportunity to get our community on board to new technologies and digital spaces. But we have to tread carefully: whilst we all find ourselves in the same boat, not all of us are acquainted with the platforms or are that digital savvy. 

Our online event was intended as a pilot (we made sure to make this clear!), and it was a closed event, so we were joined by close colleagues. This meant that mistakes were expected to be made (as with every pilot), and feedback was encouraged. But as this becomes the new normal, your audiences might be less forgiving with technical glitches, so be prepared to solve these or address them on the go. 

Plans change: be prepared

At the start of February we were in Geneva for the WinterSchool for Thinktankers and the possibility of postponing our event in Berlin two months later wasn’t on our minds. When we got back from Geneva in mid-February, we were discussing this possibility, and by the end of February we knew we had to be ready to make a quick decision, soon. We weren’t prepared for this, but we knew what we had to do: seek advice, communicate, assess, look at our finances, weigh out our options, lay it all out, make a decision and prepare for all the possible outcomes. 

A time of crisis that requires a sharp change in direction is a time when personalities will show: the doer, the planner, the worrier, the optimist, the pessimist, the overachiever, the skeptical, etc etc etc. Leadership here is key. Get everyone on board, capitalise on their strengths, and adapt. Postponing our face-to-face event had implications at every level: operational, financial, strategic, communicational. We have always said we are an agile and flexible team, and this had to be truer now more than ever. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all adapt to new ways of working, both as organisations and as individuals. A lot of these lessons should become the framework for future contingency measures: how you make decisions that have an impact on your plans, what tools are available and what purpose they serve, how fast (or slow) you can switch your team to digital, how to maintain colleagues in different parts of the world engaged, and how to prepare financially for external shocks. 

Social media is your ally

For us, social media served the same purpose as with an in-person event: a way for participants to make connections with other participants, increase their visibility, and to share what they are doing with their wider networks (i.e. those not at the event). As with all our conferences, participants were tweeting that they were taking part in the event, live tweeting sessions and connecting with peers. Perhaps this idea of Twitter as a space to connect played a more important role in the digital conference. Think of Twitter as an extension of the conversations going on in the event chatbox.

Of course, you will no longer have photos or videos of your event, so be creative with Facebook and Instagram. Ask attendants for content for your blog and LinkedIn articles. 

It takes a village

Transparency helps when one needs the help and support of others. We think that it was easy to solicit and incorporate advice from our advisory board, the OTT team and our funders and partners because we were open about the concerns we had and the steps we were taking to address them. 

We genuinely did not know what to do. We would not have been able to get through this alone, without help from others whose knowledge and experience proved to be invaluable. 

Without the members of the OTT community who enthusiastically shifted their plans from a face to face conference in Berlin to an online event our pilot would have been a failure. In fact, we had more registrations for the online event that we had for the original conference. Some participants invited their colleagues to join! 

Finally, the contributions of the keynote speakers and the conveners of the parallel sessions were central to the success of the online pilot. 

Going forward

We still have a great deal to learn. The crisis is not over and the effects on the think tank community, our partners, associates and friends will be felt for many more years to come. We need to be mindful of the challenges ahead and try, as much as we can, to turn them into opportunities.

Please join us as we attempt to learn together: On Think Tanks COVID-19 response