AS PLANNERS, WE TAKE ENORMOUS PRIDE IN our abilities to orchestrate complex meetings with perfect attention to the tiniest detail. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, the unexpected interferes. And in the last year and a half, terrorism, war, and the onslaught of the SARS virus have made meeting uncertainty something to plan on.

Canceling a meeting is the most challenging, thankless part of our job. But it is also an outstanding opportunity to show our professionalism. We must be able to unravel our fine tapestry with the same precision and professional attitude that allowed us to weave it in the first place.

Always Have a Plan

Just as we create a timeline and a communications plan for the rollout of a meeting, we must also create a disaster action plan to prepare for the unforeseen. Taking steps in advance will help take some of the emotion out of unravelling your event.

“It is unfortunate to have to acknowledge that disaster is a very real possibility in today's global environment,” says Alberta Fitzpatrick, executive publishing director for professional and consumer newsletters at the Massachusetts Medical Society. Her group had to cancel its global women's health meeting shortly after September 11. “Having a plan and a timeline for decision making is critical to being able to graciously remove yourself from the meeting while maintaining a relationship with sponsors and registrants that will ensure future meeting success.”

As part of your disaster plan, establish a core team of decision makers. Keep this team small and effective. Select fact-based reasons for canceling your meeting, and avoid emotional statements. Develop a Question & Answer document to address as many situations as you can imagine; base your answers on the key messages you develop around your rationale for canceling.

Decide who is responsible for communicating the message to which audience, and stick to that decision. It is very important that you speak with one voice to all audiences about why you are canceling. Let your staff know that any questions about the cancellation must be directed to a core team member so that you can avoid confusion.

Before you begin communicating the cancellation, know exactly what concessions, if any, you are prepared to offer to your various audiences: sponsors, speakers, hotels, and attendees. Are you willing to reimburse non-refundable airline tickets? What about airfare for an incentive winner's spouse if a company wasn't paying?

For Every Audience, A Different Need

Your communications should follow a strict order to protect your meeting protocol. It can be a double disaster if attendees learn the meeting is canceled before your speakers do. Each audience requires a different approach.

Senior management of your company (this would include any executive committees or advisory boards) should be informed first, through personal phone calls from a top-level organizer. These phone conversations should be followed by an official written communication.

Speakers should also receive a personal phone call, as it sends a better message.

Staff should receive a communique from top management. Be sure to praise your staff for the hard work they did to prepare the meeting. They need to know that they are valued, even if the meeting didn't take place. Refer questions back to the core disaster plan communications team.

Sponsors or corporate partners can be particularly difficult. Again, know exactly what you are prepared to offer as concessions before you call. A letter from your company's top management with an apology or explanation can help smooth the relationship, increasing the chance that a sponsor or partner will want to work with you again.

Attendees should be told as proactively as possible, to avoid anger and a public relations backlash. It may seem expensive to send a letter to each attendee by overnight express, but you will have a record of receipt (potential legal protection) and the peace of mind of knowing that you informed your audience quickly. A blanket e-mail can support that communication but should not replace it. You might also want to establish a link on your Web site, a dedicated e-mail, and a hotline to answer questions. These communications should always follow with Q&A developed by the core team. Remember, some of your audience may include major consumer newspaper journalists. Always speak with one voice to avoid being misunderstood.

Finally, keep in mind that your staff is probably very distracted by the same event that caused you to have to cancel your meeting. If war is breaking out, or a national disaster has just taken place, it will be very difficult to keep your staff focused on the task at hand. Having a disaster plan in place will help you execute the cancellation quickly and efficiently. It may be a thankless task, but your audience, speakers, and partners will remember your professionalism when the time comes to try again.

Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, an international medical communications consulting agency.