Making the most of parliamentary receptions

By April 21, 2016Public Affairs

Each year the Scottish Parliament hosts hundreds of events at which external stakeholders, from businesses and trade groups to charities and public bodies, seek to showcase themselves to MSPs, ministers and VIP guests.  We asked Peter Smyth, who leads Indigo’s Public Affairs team, for his top tips on organising a parliamentary event that shows organisations at their best. 

1. Appoint a leader

A good event is like a very polite battle.  If you want to be victorious on the night then you need to appoint an effective general to marshal people and props into position, manage timings and make sure guests are being looked after. It’s a good idea to appoint a single, experienced event manager who has the authority to delegate tasks and take responsibility for the minutiae on the night.

2. Plan everything

This seems obvious, but a good parliamentary reception needs a lot of early planning if it’s going to be a complete success.  Don’t leave anything to chance and make a detailed rolling plan at the outset, itemising every aspect, from speaker invites and guest lists right down to the detail like who’s packing the velcro fastenings for your displays. Leave nothing to chance and you’ll be ok!

3. Be adaptable

You may have done all that planning and have your ducks in a row, but the Scottish Parliament is a working building and it’s amazing how often the ground can shift beneath your feet when organising an event. Speakers can cancel, deliveries can go missing, MSPs’ debates can run over delaying the start of your precision-timed event. So, keep your wits about you and make sure you’re aware what’s going on at all times so that you can adapt and manage any crisis that arises on the night.

4. Pick your timings and venue with care

Competition for event spaces at the Scottish Parliament is fierce, so you have to get in early to bag the best venues and dates.  Think Tuesday or Wednesday evenings, when MSPs are firmly ensconced at Holyrood (not travelling to constituencies), and if you’re expecting a crowd, the Garden Lobby always makes a good impression and guarantees the best chances of having a good turnout of parliamentarians as they emerge from the debating chamber after members’ business.

5. Short speeches are just fine

Most MSPs will be happy to sponsor a reception for an organisation that they supportand in return they will be happy to say a few words to your guests. Also, ministers or senior opposition spokespeople will often agree to share some supportive comments if you ask early enough and hopefully your guests will be interested in what they have to say.  Events like this are a great opportunity for your own senior personnel to share some key messages, but take my advice – unless you have the oratorical presence of Obama or Churchill, keep it short and to the point, or you guests’ minds will be wandering to the canape table.

6. Think about the scran

There are two schools of thought regarding food and drink. They’re the main chargeable expense at the parliament for events like this (room hire is free) so you can go to town and really treat your guests so that they’ll pass on dinner when they get home, or else save some money and pick a non-alcoholic, bird-feed inspired package. If you’re a charity then there’s no harm in opting for the latter option in my opinion, as long as you dazzle on other fronts.

7. Make the most of event with media and social media

The best parliamentary events have a presence out-with the night itself, both on social media and in the press. Booking an experienced photographer is a must, but it also helps to give them something compelling to point the camera at. MSPs love a photo opportunity, so try to oblige them with something interactive like a policy pledge that they can say ‘cheese’ in front of.  Their local papers will love it, as will Twitter and you will maximise the net exposure that your event achieves.

8. If all else fails, remember to enjoy yourself and your guests will too

For the majority of ordinary guests at parliamentary receptions, a trip to Holyrood is a novelty and experience tells me that most people enjoy the grandeur of a Parliamentary reception, not least because the surroundings are nice and they get to meet interesting people. The best events succeed due of the enthusiasm of the people running them and their passion for the messages they are trying to share with MSPs, stakeholders and all their guests. That enthusiasm is infectious, so remember to keep your chin up and savour the experience.