Thursday, January 19, 2012
What Goes into a Presidential Event?
I've had the pleasure of directly planning a visit by President Bush and Vice President Cheney during my career. While the President was obviously the bigger deal, both followed the same path in planning and execution. What I can tell you is running such an event can be extremely stressful. As a political operative all eyes locally and in Washington are focused right on you.
1. You Get Word-- the Big Man is Coming! OH #$%*!!!!
For both of my events I got about six weeks notice. When the call comes in from the White House you get this great moment of joy-- the President is coming to do an event with us! Then reality sets in-- the most powerful and protected person on the face of the earth is coming and you've got no idea what to do.
For the next few weeks you will be working 24/7 to execute the event perfectly. No detail is left to chance. The timeline must be executed exactly as planned. You will at a minimum have two calls per day with the White House and at some point the Secret Service will be showing up at your door step with dozens of agents.
2. Select the Location
You think this would be relatively easy-- find a place that looks good, can fit everyone and make it happen. Oh no it is not that easy. First, you have to consider the security implications of the venue. Can the President easily get in/out? What other events are taking place at that locations the day of and the days before the event? Can the venue give you complete access for several days to set up?
Next, you consider the message the venue sends. Does it align with the speech? Will the press have access? Does the location meet the high expectations of the Presidency?
Finally, how the heck does the President get there? What's the implication on local traffic from the motorcade? Is Marine One an option? Is there place to load/unload the President that is secure?
3. Who is Coming?
Now you get to pick who is coming to the event. This isn't just a list of people who get to come to the speech-- that's actually the easiest part. But who gets to greet the President when Air Force One lands? Who greets him when he arrives at the venue? Is there a VIP reception before/after the event? What message does each individual attendee represent?
Send this all over to the White House. Prepare to have it dissected and re-do it multiple times.
On a side note: I actually got a call once and the staffer said Karl thinks person X needs to be shifted to this portion of the event. They meant Karl Rove... Yes these things go up that high!
4. Hell Descends Upon You-- The Advance Team Arrives
So you are about a week and a half out. You've not sleep for weeks. You found the perfect location, mapped out where everyone up to the locally elected dog catcher will sit for the event, sent out invitations, drank heavily. Then the Advanced Team arrives and life as you know it just got destroyed.
The Advanced Team is a group of White House staff whose job it is to make sure the peons on the ground don't screw up their bosses event. The team is a mix of professionals in event planning, media affairs and the Secret Service.
Your entire plan is reviewed from every possible angle-- the event staff is looking at the overall presentation while the Secret Service is doing a walk through of security protocols for the location itself. This may very well include going back and re-looking at your other event location options because the Advance Team is not happy with the choice. Yes, a week out you may have to relocate your entire event for several hundred people.
If you're lucky one of them might get the idea to build a stage that resembles a Bon Jovi concert.
5. Presidential Pipe and Drape
What's pipe and drape? Its the curtain you see behind the President for most indoor events. I give this its own section because this is one of the most difficult things to do-- and you would not think it is.
See you probably did not know that the pipe and drape behind the President is always the exact same color. Not even a slight difference in the shade of the drape is allowed from the standard "Presidential Blue". Will, I was in a major city and had to call every production company within a three hour drive to finally track down the right color drape-- and then it wasn't long enough. Eventually we found a company five hours away that could bring the stuff in, I just had to get their driver a hotel room for two nights.
Finding this stuff was hell!
6. It's Go time
It's the day of the event. You have been living off of fast food and massive amounts of Diet Pepsi for six weeks. You have had zero sleep. An army of volunteers is deployed to manage a crowd of 500, which includes a VIP reception, 100 person photo line with the President and a 30 minute speech. Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and every regional news outlet is setting up and prepared to go live.
The event day is a true test is thinking on one's feet in a stressful situation. Timing must be perfect, security must be perfect. Walk five feet in the wrong direction without the right lapel pin and you will be on the ground in handcuffs. Lose your cool with one irate and rude VIP and you will lose your job. Lose control of this event and you will be hearing from the White House.
When planned properly the event will run smoothly, or as smoothly as possible given the nature of what you are undertaking. At the end you will be able to say you planned and executed an event with the President-- and you will drink lots of beers!
I also have a group of friends I have been through hell and back with in executing these events. A small group of people I would entrust with any professional endeavour.
Every event was a great experience and one I would do again in a heartbeat-- though I doubt the wife would like to lose me for a month.