The flurry of comments on my recent column about climate change, “Opryland Under Water,” pointed to the communication pitfalls that await any meeting whose message runs too far out of control.

The column itself was straightforward, or so I thought when I filed it. After a summer of severe weather, all consistent with predictions for human-made climate change, I suggested that planners, facilities, and CVBs think more seriously about emergency preparedness and carbon reductions.

Columnists thrive on readers’ reactions, but the record hit count on this column, and the large volume of comments to the MeetingsNet site and my own e-mail inbox did not produce thoughtful debate. The intense response stepped outside the bounds in two important ways.

  • Passionate debate should still be factual. Most of the reaction to the column—outside of the silly accusations that I’m a Marxist bent on one-world government (SRSLY??)—took issue with the settled science of climate change. What could have been a useful discussion about climate solutions was hijacked by extremist claims that climate change is itself a myth.
  • Most of the comments, and I’m sure most of the hits, came from outside the meetings industry.

By the time the furor died down, I had acquired a new layer of respect for climate bloggers like Joe Romm, who presumably deal with this kind of unsubstantiated pushback every day. But I also wondered what happens when a conference tries to foster debate and test opposing viewpoints, only to have good-faith dialogue bogged down by a toxic mix of ignorance and hidden agendas. (Oh. Wait. Those two may be one and the same, particularly in the manufactured debate over climate change.)

The first response should always be to “open up all the doors and windows, to err on the side of too many friends and not enough adversaries.” That quote, from a participant at a conference we covered more than 20 years ago, expressed an ideal for on-site dialogue that anticipated the growing use of real-time blogging, Twitter, and other social media that live beyond the boundaries of standard spin control. Last week’s column looked at the synthesis of live content, virtual access, and social media at a hybrid meeting that worked. But on the same day that I attended EventCamp in Minneapolis from my desk in Ottawa, MeetingsNet was dealing with the kind of fierce, relatively anonymous attacks that feed many planners’ fears about open access.

When that same dynamic shuts down genuine debate on site, even the act of deciding which voices are legitimate puts a host organization on a very slippery slope. Deciding not to decide might mean abandoning hope of a timely, thoughtful discussion. And what if the apparent obstruction comes from a paying participant, or a member in good standing?

I don’t see an easy answer, apart from keeping watch for the kind of hostile takeover that briefly afflicted this column. If you’ve dealt with this issue at your own meetings, this is a topic on which I would welcome intense deliberation.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., (http://www.theconferencepublishers.com/) Ottawa, Ontario, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.