By Gabrielle Johnson, NSUN’s Communications and Membership Officer
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the number of virtual events, meetings and workshops surge abruptly, and with them, the translation of in-person challenges – meeting ‘crashers’, conflicts and harmful behaviour – into a virtual setting, which brings its own digital challenges.
After experiencing some of these challenges first-hand, we have been thinking about online safety and conduct processes to enable our team to feel equipped, and participants and facilitators to feel safe to engage with our virtual event spaces. Below, we share some ideas and recommendations for preparing, organising and delivering online events while prioritising event safety and conduct management. We hope this guide may be of use to user-led groups within and outside of our membership – particularly those whose work focusses on issues of injustice and marginalisation – who are using virtual platforms to deliver events.
Preparing for your event
Key team members: All members of staff involved in the delivery of the event should play a role in preparation
It is important to acknowledge the potential challenges of your virtual event from the very first stages of development, and particularly, consider whether you plan to organise an invite-only or open-access event, which will determine both the risk and potential procedures to have in place. You can use the three points below to help shape your decision about the structure of your event and facilitate as safe a space as possible.
- Consider the purpose of the event and who needs to be there
Is the event informative (more about sharing information) or collaborative (more about starting conversations and making connections)? If the former, does the event need to be open access rather than invite-only, which may allow the event to feel safer, and if the latter, what pre-sign-up process could allow your team to filter any “bad-faith” sign-ups from people who may wish to maliciously disrupt the space? This could be for example a short question on a sign-up form which asks participants’ motivation for joining the event.
If your group/organisation works on (and is run by people with experience of) issues of marginalisation and oppression, or the subject of the event is often met with hostility or trolling, such as discussions around racism and transphobia, you might consider opting for an invite-only event (where you are limiting access to specific and trusted people), a webinar (where you can limit the extent of audience participation), or a pre-recorded event, to ensure you and your guest speakers and participants – whose safety and comfort should be prioritised – feel safe attending and engaging with the event.
- Consider the extent to which attendees should be able to participate
Whether you move forward with an invite-only event with full audience interaction, an entirely open access event or anything in between, meetings can take place in various formats with varying degrees of audience interaction. Your options on Zoom include a webinar, allowing participants to join and watch the event with optional access to the chat and Q&A functions, or a pre-recorded event which you can record on Zoom and publish elsewhere later (for example on YouTube), which removes audience interaction and could also be provided only directly by a password-protected link, minimising the need for conduct management and engagement moderation entirely.
- Consider staff member safety in terms of who is supporting the event, particularly for the chat moderation role and the event live-tweeter (if applicable)
If your event is necessarily more of a collaborative, live space, you may not be able to manage who is on mute when, what is going on in the chat, or even who can access and use the joining link. In this instance, make sure that you have prepared as a team for potential challenges or risks (more on this below) and named a staff member to manage both the event chat (and, for example, live Tweeting) who ideally does not have lived experience of the topic in question, and so may experience a less personal form of harm in the event of malicious engagement. This helps ensure that both your event attendees and internal team are protected from risk.
Preparing a conduct agreement
Key team members: The facilitator and members of the team responsible for moderating the chat box and handling the removal of attendees.
In the instance where a pre-recorded or webinar-based event isn’t what you want to do, you can communicate your group’s expectations for attendee behaviour via a conduct agreement. This ensures that any expectations for the event have been clearly communicated and agreed by each attendee, and that the conduct agreement can be referred to in the instance where an individual is removed from the event.
Just remember to make acceptance of the conduct agreement mandatory when participants sign up to the event, making it possible for the internal team to exclude any attendance requests where the person signing up is not willing to agree to the agreement. On Zoom, you can add the agreement to the event description, create a mandatory tick box that asks for attendees to agree to it, and make registration approval manual rather than automatic, so you only send the joining details to people who you can see have checked the agreement box.
We would also suggest providing a reminder of the conduct agreement both verbally and in the chat at the beginning of the meeting, and once again in the chat ten minutes in, after which you may want to consider not allowing further attendees to join.
You can find our Online event conduct agreement here to use as an example. It focuses on explicitly describing the type of behaviour that will not be tolerated, including discriminatory, offensive, or hateful remarks.
Facilitating your event
Key team members: All internal team members involved in the organisation and delivery of the event.
Internal group chat
Before the delivery of each event, you could set up a group chat (using Slack, Teams or similar) to allow immediate communication between people delivering the event (such as the chat ‘moderator’ and facilitator) if an attendee needs to be removed from the event. Group members should make sure to keep their notifications on, unless they are facilitating the event and might find the notifications distracting. In that case, you may want to consider alternate methods of contact, like direct WhatsApp messages.
While the prospect of and decision-making involved in removing an individual from a virtual event can feel uncomfortable, with the right preparation and communication in place, your internal team can feel confident in knowing they are acting according to protocol and ensuring the wider group safety. We really recommend approaching this with the idea that these are your spaces, and you should have the right to decide what you do and don’t want to allow to happen within them.
You will probably want to decide who will have primary responsibility for removing participants from the virtual event, which should take place immediately if the individual is in clear breach of the conduct agreement, or after private conversation on the group chat if the context is more nuanced and less straightforward (see below section). It can be really helpful to have this clarity in responsibility so that people on your team know what they might and might not have to do during an event, to prevent stress, uncertainty and delays in your response.
We suggest acknowledging someone’s removal in the chat to avoid participant confusion or discomfort. Again, you might want to decide what you may say in that scenario before the event itself to help prevent the stress of trying to deal with it on the spot. The person moderating or looking after the chat might want to apologise for the behaviour and say that the person has been removed because it breached your conduct agreement, which is in place to keep your online spaces as safe as possible.
If they feel comfortable doing so and have been briefed on the potential occurrence of an individual’s removal before the event, the facilitator can also acknowledge the disruption and removal verbally. They might use wording along the lines of “There has been some disruption in the chat. This was considered inappropriate, and the person has been removed from the space. We apologise for the distraction.” To make this possible, the method of communicating with the facilitator (e.g., via private WhatsApp messages if they will not have notifications on the for the team’s group chat) should have been established so that the facilitator can be informed of any occurrences in the chat that they may have missed while facilitating the event.
When it is less clear whether an individual should be removed from the chat, team members could refer to their group chat to make a collective decision on removal as soon as possible. If the decision is made not to remove the participant, you may find the following wording useful as a template to adapt to challenge the situation: “This debate/discussion is not what this space is for. We welcome discussion in the chat, but off-topic conversation can be distracting for the speakers and facilitator. We ask that attendees keep in mind our group agreement. Anyone considered to be in breach of our conduct agreement will be removed from the space.”
Key team members: The internal team working on the event, along with anyone else from your wider team you would like to be there to provide mutual support
Supporting your team
In the event of the removal of an individual from the virtual event, it is important to create a follow-up space for your internal team to debrief and check in. This can also act as an opportunity to discuss next steps for communication with the individual who was removed from the event, if you wish to do this (to explain that they were removed because of a breach of the conduct agreement). You may also want to consider reaching out to the facilitator or guest speakers, if external, to provide them with support they may need. This check in should happen as soon as possible after the event, so if you are planning an all-day series of workshops, make sure to allow time in between events when scheduling.
Communicating with removed people
If your event was one session of a longer series, you might want to consider not allowing someone who was removed from a session to attend following sessions, and this should be communicated with them as soon as possible following their removal. This should also be communicated with whoever is or will be responsible for admitting guests to meetings to ensure they are fully up to date with the name and details of the individual who was removed from the meeting.
We hope this short guide can support you in managing your online events and creating a safe and welcoming environment for your attendees. We also recommend reading this guide on “dealing with disruptors online” from Training for Change, which considers some of the technical settings on Zoom you may wish to utilise (such as muting people, turning off file sharing and screen sharing, etc). If you’re interested in more about facilitating online spaces (beyond just conduct management), you may want to take a look at this guide on “leading groups online” by Daniel Hunter and Jeanne Rewa.