Political Sponsorship and Web Conferences

Last modified on January 30th, 2009

I was over at Derek’s blog this morning reading his article about the BC Liberal Party and their sponsorship of the Northern Voice social. Given that the BC Liberal Party was also a sponsor of WordCamp Whistler, and that I was one of the organizers, I thought I should share my thoughts on this.

First, I want to point out the logistics of an event like this. Organizing WordCamp Whistler was literally two months of solid work. A few days prior to the event I was fielding well over 100 emails a day trying to keep the boat afloat, and pull everything together so that the conference would be successful. There was no money pit under WordCamp Whistler — it was bankrolled by my own personal savings account. Had the conference run in the red, I would have been paying for it myself.

The cost of WordCamp Whistler (and I’ll post an official budget once I’m done paying it all off) was around $9,000. That includes food for everyone, drinks at the social, audio/visual equipment rental, toques for all the attendees, several coffee breaks, and the rental of the venue space itself. I was also contractually obligated to fill ten rooms in the Fairmont, once again with financial penalty if people hadn’t booked.

We started the ticket price at around $35, which was about $55 below our cost, simply because we wanted the conference to appeal to everyone in the true spirit of WordPress. That obviously meant that the remaining $5,000 needed to come from somewhere else, in this case, sponsorship. If you’ve never tried raising $5,000, especially in the current economy, I suggest you try it out, because it’s extremely difficult.

A few weeks prior to the event, the BC Liberal Party asked if they could be a sponsor of WordCamp Whistler. Before saying yes, I talked it over with the other organizers, and even the keynote speaker, Lorelle VanFossen. I asked the BC Liberal Party why they wanted to be involved, and they said they simply wanted to show their support for the event and the social media scene in British Columbia. We collectively decided that to be fair, we would email the other political parties in British Columbia and offer them similar sponsorship opportunities. At the end of the day, the BC Liberal Party was a great sponsor, and there was no political presence the day of the event. Their only contribution was the verbiage I posted on the main blog, where they embraced social media and were happy the conference was taken place. Contrast that to some of the web companies I’ve seen sponsor these events (one of which even scattered their own swag out at WordCamp Whistler, even though they were not an official sponsor of the event), and it was a fair more attractive and cooperative sponsorship package.

While I respect people who don’t want to see politics intermingled with web conferences, I personally don’t really see the distinction between politics and some of the corporate sponsors these conferences take on. I’ve seen a lot of shady businesses be sponsors of local web events, and yet everyone seems content to attend and consume the free beers that goes along with the sponsorship. Nobody really voices a concern when these companies are given elevator pitches, or when they walk around introducing themselves and handing out cards.

So I am actually curious why so many people object to political sponsorship of these events. I personally would love to see every major party in our province get behind social media, especially with the Olympics coming and some of the grassroots initiatives taken place with regards to social media for the event. I have to ask, are people upset that the BC Liberal Party is showing support for social media, or that their own political parties are not? Because I think it’s a valid question.

I definitely respect people’s opinions on the matter, and would not think less of anyone who wouldn’t attend an event because of a particular corporate or political sponsor. That being said, the web is really all about bringing people together, and I don’t see how that can happen if certain segments of our society are alienated from these events, either as attendees or sponsors. Ultimately, it’s up to the organizers to accept or reject sponsorship, and up to the attendees to either vote with their wallet or against. But as we are moving into a new era of politics intermingled with social media (and if you question that statement, take a look south of the border at what Obama is doing with social media and his presidency), I would urge people to move forward with an open mind. If political parties are genuinely interested in social media and supporting these conferences, then I personally have no problem with that, and welcome their involvement.