commscamp: my first unconference

Unconferences are events where the agenda is set on the day by attendees. Ideas are shaped, coffee is drunk and cakes are eaten. They're hot-houses for innovation. But as one comms person says don't be daunted. They really work. 

by Kelly Parkes-Harrison

Normally I approach conferences with mixed feelings, hope that I might be inspired by something and fear that there will be role play.

The notion of an unconference filled me with trepidation as I had no idea what to expect or how it would work without descending into disorganised chaos.

Commscamp 13 was my first unconference and I was quite relieved to find most of the people joining us on the walking train from Birmingham New Street to Digbeth were also unconference virgins.

My PR skills were called upon earlier than I thought as Si Whitehouse (@siwhitehouse) led the walking train through the backstreets of Digbeth. As we trundled past empty warehouses, derelict factories and graffiti in the drizzling rain, I gamely explained that Digbeth was the creative quarter of the city.

My fellow passengers smiled politely as I pointed out the beauty of Moor Street Station (someone remarked it looked like a Starbucks). Just when some of them began to fear they had been lured to a mass mugging, we arrived at the venue.

From the minute we arrived there was a very different buzz about the event, it was informal, relaxed and welcoming. And a man with a large stuffed toy dragon was taking our names at the registration desk.

There were obviously quite a few people there with far more knowledge and experience than me, but it was clear that everyone had come to share, engage, learn and improve.

For those who have never been to an unconference before, the idea is astoundingly simple. A group of like-minded people get together, a few brave souls go up and pitch their ideas for a session and then the people decide which session they want to go to.

The sessions were refreshingly different. Loosely led by the people who had pitched the idea, the sessions were an opportunity to share ideas, experiences and best practice. Like a therapy group, we sat in a circle and people shared their troubles, hopes and fears. I was so absorbed that halfway through the day I realised the only thing I had managed to tweet about was the homemade cake (which was fantastic by the way).

Listening to other people’s opinions and experiences was both inspiring and reassuring. It is not just me who struggles to find time to plan effectively and proactively. It is not just me who sometimes feels like they are teetering on the edge of the social media abyss. It is not just me who wonders if the things I am doing are worthwhile and effective.

So what did I take away from Commscamp 13?

There was so much good stuff to digest, but points that resonated with me were making sure my organisation recognised me as a professional voice.  Don’t just write a press release because that is what is expected, if it is not appropriate then advise on alternatives. Do we even need press releases anymore? (one for you Dan Slee (@danslee)). This sparked a really interesting discussion about why we still treat the media separately to our key audiences. Especially when there are many different ways we can reach our key audiences directly.

The main thing I took away from Commscamp 13 is that there are lots of amazing people out there trying to find ways to improve what they do. Not only that, they want to help other people to improve what they do as well. Thanks everyone.

Kelly Parkes-Harrison is Press and Communications Manager at the University of Warwick.