Event safety and security deserves to be a top priority for meeting professionals. However, a recent incident at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Annual Clinical & Scientific Meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center provides a cautionary tale, revealing the limits of a planner’s control and underscoring the importance of advance preparation.
On May 20, during a breakout session featuring a panel of doctors, a man came out of the audience and assaulted one of the doctors physically and verbally.
In a viral video of the event posted on Twitter, the man walks up on the stage, slaps the panelist several times, and alleges that the doctor sexually assaulted his wife several years ago. The recording shows the audience member aggressively yelling at the doctor for more than two minutes on and off the stage. Session attendees shown in the video look anxious, while one calls out for security; another is heard saying, “Not the place, not the time.” The video stops when the assailant leaves the room.
ACOG responded to the incident by sending a statement to all members. Reprinted by MedPage Today, the statement read in part: “Security protocols were followed, and the situation was rapidly addressed by plainclothes security and eventually the Baltimore Police Department. We apologize to those who may have been affected by the incident or subsequent exchanges. ACOG does not condone violence in any form.”
The association also followed up with two tweets, writing: “We are aware of a recent video posted of an incident that occurred at ACOG’s Annual Clinical & Scientific Meeting. We want to make clear that we take every measure possible to create a safe environment for our members and do not tolerate violence of any kind. We recognize that those who witnessed the incident in person or online may have experienced trauma as a result, including many of you who have experienced sexual assault or other violence in the past.”
What to Do
While risk management should be a routine part of the meeting-planning process, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or foolproof. Planners with multiple breakout sessions, like ACOG, can work to have a monitor in every breakout space and provide those representatives with information on the best communication channels in the event of an assault, a medical emergency, or any other disruption.
However, for Kevin Coffey, a travel and meeting risk-reduction expert, the work starts at a more basic level. “It’s about having conversations,” he says—not just the far-reaching “what-if” conversations about the various risks a meeting might face, but also conversations with the venue and the host organization to understand the security resources that are available and how to access them. “You should utilize and maximize all of the resources at that facility and understand how to contact them, how to respond, and what to expect.” He adds that planners should be clear on what the host organization expects the risk-management responses to be in various situations.
Alan Kleinfeld, another event risk-management specialist, agrees, noting that safety should part of the RFP process, site visits, and pre-con meetings. “Learn about the venue’s security staff, their training, and how they can have more of a presence at your event.” If it’s not practical to have someone from the event staff in each session, security can roam the event and be nearby if needed. “Security can also monitor security cameras to spot something happening or about to happen,” he says.
Both Coffey and Kleinfeld advise planners to drive the security conversation and resist complacency. “If you’ve already taken steps regarding safety and security, review and revise them. If you don't have a risk-management plan, work with experts to develop them now,” Kleinfeld urges. “We've seen an increase in active threats and mental-health issues, and they’re likely to increase in the coming years as a result of the pandemic, the media, and the political climate.”
The ACOG story echoes at least two conference incidents in 2022: the stabbing of Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution and the non-violent but disruptive event at the National Association of Theatre Owners event, where the keynote speaker was served divorce papers on stage. From the information released to the public, it’s unclear if the assailant at the recent ACOG event was a registered attendee.
For meetings with registration required, Kleinfeld suggests collecting as much attendee information as possible (address, email, mobile number, company name, title, etc.) and requiring name badges to be worn at all functions. “Should something happen, you'll have a record of who was there, and if an incident occurs where police are called, they may need the information to help them respond to the situation.”
For events open to the public, planners need to budget for extra security and consider having metal detectors, screenings, and bag checks, says Kleinfeld, “especially if the program or speaker has had a lot of recent media focus. With current events the way they are and with so much divisiveness out there, it's wise to prepare.”
The ACOG incident also reminds planners of the social-media dynamics at play when something unexpected happens. While a disruption may or may not involve law enforcement, it almost certainly will find its way to Twitter, LinkedIn, or another social channel. Planners should understand and follow their organization’s communications strategy in terms of responding publicly about any kind of on-site emergency.
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