As Covid-19 made its way around the world in the first few months of the year, Kaarle Nordenstreng, chair of the Tampere LOC, IAMCR’s unofficial historian and a member of the association since the 5th conference in 1966, was suddenly catapulted from his role as active observer to central actor as Tampere University became the host, first of a face-to-face and then an online conference. What follows is an account from his perspective of how things developed.
Diving into the IAMCR folder of my email inbox, shows how fast and intensive have been the turns of history over the past five months. Here are main signposts in a roadmap:
- January 24: Executive Director Bruce Girard publishes alerts in the International Council Plus mailing list and on the IAMCR 2020 website that the Executive Board (EB) and the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) in China are closely monitoring the recommendations by the Chinese health authorities following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
- January 31: In a circular to all members the IAMCR Secretariat in Montevideo repeats the alert, while announcing that the IAMCR 2020 Call for Proposals deadline for abstract submissions remains unchanged at February 10. The Election Committee also informs voters about the timetable for the executive board and international council elections.
- February 5: I email to Bruce and President Janet Wasko: “Is there any plan B in the pipeline?” adding that I just made preliminary inquiries about the availability of facilities in the Tampere Hall (the largest conference centre in the Nordic countries) and at the Tampere Tourist Office; both confirmed that there were vacancies for meetings and hotels. Bruce thanks me and says that EB and LOC are considering various options, assuring me that “any decision to postpone, cancel or change the venue must be made soon”.
- February 11 (the day after the deadline for abstract submissions): Bruce informs us that LOC has agreed not to hold the conference in Beijing this year and that they are very pleased to hear about the Tampere option; final decision to be made only after consulting the international council (IC). Bruce also tells us that they received over 1,800 abstracts from nearly 80 countries (some 30% of them from China).
- February 12: Bruce sends, on behalf of Janet, a message to IC members and heads of the Sections & Working Groups (S/WG), informing them that Beijing has been postponed from 2020 to 2022 and about the possibility of an alternative venue, specified in the attached brief proposal, to organize the 2020 conference in Tampere; feedback is requested by February 15.
- February 15: A circular to all members from the EB, the LOC in Beijing and a new LOC in Tampere, announcing that the Beijing conference will be postponed to 2022 and that IAMCR 2020 will take place in Finland. At the same time an extraordinary reopening of the call for papers is announced, with a deadline of March 2.
- February 25: Bruce sends a second circular to all members with updates about the change of venue from Beijing to Tampere, also announcing the new conference website.
- March 3: The day after the extended deadline Bruce informs the S/WG heads that the total number of abstracts received is over 2,400, of which 57% are resubmissions for Beijing and 43% new submissions. He also raises with me and my LOC colleagues the question of a possible “plan C” in light of the spread of Covid-19. Meanwhile, plans for a conventional conference continue with the number of participants expected to be at the level of 1,000–1,500. Treasurer Elske van de Fliert joins the discussion with budget options.
- March 12: Secretary General Gerard Goggin sends a message to S/WG heads asking whether they would like to participate in a virtual conference, requesting responses by March 15. The International Communication Association (ICA) had already decided to convert its conference in late May to an entirely virtual model.
- March 13: Nico Carpentier replies to Gerard’s message on behalf of the PCR Section’s leadership, addressed to all S/WG heads, supporting a virtual alternative and also discussing issues in light of ICA’s shift to virtual. I respond to this circular by telling everybody that Tampere LOC is looking for alternatives to a physical conference with buzzwords “virtual” and “hybrid”. I passed on to the S/WG heads Bruce’s idea of two possible tracks for such an alternative: (1) high-quality video presentations, one by each Section and Working Group, and selected plenary sessions; (2) online conference paper panels.
- March 16: Responses of the S/WG heads tend to be either hesitant or opposed to the virtual alternative, with just a few like Nico clearly in favour of it.
- March 19: Gerard sends to S/WG list a position of the EB, Secretariat and LOC, whereby “we will not hold an onsite face-to-face conference in July 2020, we will not postpone the 2020 conference until later in the year, we believe that we should organise online activities in 2020 and that we have a proposal that we think is experimental, realistic and attractive”. Two models are proposed: (1) Online Sessions and (2) Online Papers. A Yes or No answer is requested on each of these by 23 March.
- March 25: Janet’s letter to all members announcing IAMCR 2020 goes online, also published in the conference website. The letter outlines the two models Online Sessions and Online Conference Papers.
- March 30: All members whose abstracts have been accepted are requested to confirm by April 4 whether they want their papers to be considered for inclusion in the Online Conference Papers.
- April 7: Bruce informs the SWG heads that 1,050 submissions have confirmed their abstracts for the online conference. Consequently, they will be reviewed and, if accepted, should be submitted as conference papers of 1,000–4,000 words.
- April 21: Abstracts accepted for Online Conference Papers are published in the conference website.
- May 10: The structure of Conference Programme is published in the website.
- Later in May: The contents of the programme are under intensive preparation not only for the paper panels but also for the online sessions, supported by resources in the website. In addition, opening and closing plenaries plus four thematic plenaries are scheduled to be recorded in June.
This roadmap from January to May lists only the main signposts, at the crucial turns from Beijing to Tampere and from onsite to online. Each of the 18 signposts was preceded by innumerable exchanges by email and several zoom meetings. In hindsight, the process has been amazingly smooth thanks first and foremost to the skill and acuity of Bruce and his staff with such wonders as Valeria Zamisch. It is amazing how a totally decentralized Secretariat, with Bruce in Geneva and the Montevideo staff working in their homes, has succeeded in keeping together both the complicated conference preparation and simultaneous conduct of the elections, in addition to regular membership management. I have also been impressed to witness how the smooth running of the Secretariat is supported by the troika of Janet, Gerard and Elske working as an efficient team for steering the management.
The Tampere team has had a minor role in the process: we have mostly just made promises of potential facilities. Of course these promises were crucial in February, when Beijing could no longer continue to host the conference, but since then the whole process has crucially depended on the Secretariat and the IAMCR leadership behind it. My closest associates in Tampere are three women: Sinikka Torkkola, Iiris Ruoho and Teija Waaramaa. Sinikka was the one who urged me to propose Tampere as a rescue venue; Iiris ensured institutional support for our private initiative; Teija has taken care of practical questions – first those of the physical facilities and later those of the virtual facilities.
It would doubtless have been much easier to organize a conventional onsite conference. There is a long tradition of physical conferences with well-established practices for the organizers as well as for the participants. Moving it online means unforeseeable challenges for both. It was therefore understandable that the initial reaction of the S/WG heads was sceptical of the option of holding the conference online – especially given the stressful situation in mid-March, when the pandemic led to the lockdown of universities. Still, the replies of the S/WGs to the question of whether or not to go online can be seen to reflect more a conservative preference for business as usual than a mindset open to innovations. If Bruce, myself and Nico had not been keen to go online, the IAMCR 2020 may well have been cancelled (the first time in IAMCR history for a biannual statutory conference).
As written in Janet’s message in late March, our online option is “experimental, realistic and attractive”. After some armwrestling we agreed to enter an experiment. It was forced upon us by the pandemic, but sooner or later we would have needed to move into online conferencing even in our regular business – not completely, but, for example, with hybrid meeting with both face-to-face and virtual components, or even virtual meetings every second. Covid-19 forced our hand in 2020, but neither the environment nor the economy will permit the old models to continue forever.
So we are making history, however (un)elegant the experiment may be. The Tampere team believes that we shall succeed and that 2020 will usher in a new era in the development of IAMCR. (For the development so far, see https://iamcr.org/history)
This was published in the June 2020 newsletter. Read the rest of the newsletter at https://mailchi.mp/iamcr/june-2020