Conference Codes of Conduct: Making Safer, More Welcoming Experiences

MnSearch Summit audience watching keynote speaker on stage

Over the past few years, I’ve participated in the digital marketing conference circuit in multiple capacities: as attendee, speaker and organizer. Last summer, I had the unique experience of holding all three roles across the span of two months. In one of those capacities, I experienced a code violation. I went through the fear and anxiety of reporting it and the uncertainty of what would come next.

This post isn’t about my experience last summer, however; I’ve written about that elsewhere and will share it with anyone who wants to read it (DM me on LinkedIn). What this post is about is the strong calling I felt to take a negative situation and turn it into a positive: to make conferences a safer, more welcoming experience for all.

My Conference Experiences Up ‘Til Now

I admit that I didn’t pay much attention to codes of conduct before my experience this past year. But having witnessed such vast differences in the way codes were handled from this past summer and throughout my conference experiences, I realized there was much room to improve.

  • As a conference attendee, I saw a variety of codes in action across the US—as well as some conferences where a code of conduct was never mentioned. And my experience being a victim of a code of conduct violation gave me clearer insights into how much we ask of those who report code violations.
  • As a conference speaker, I participated in numerous conferences and didn’t have a consistent experience of being alerted to a code of conduct or how it applied to me.
  • As a conference organizer, I played an instrumental role in running a regional digital marketing conference (the MnSearch Summit). I know firsthand what we did well, what we missed and how much further we have to go.

You know the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”? Well, these experiences led me to know better. And now it’s time for me to share that knowledge to help us all do better.

The most logical place to start being the change I wished to see is by rewriting the MnSearch Code of Conduct. But before I felt I could make strong recommendations for our code, I went on a research mission to identify various codes of conduct at other digital marketing conferences.

A Review of Digital Marketing Conference Codes of Conduct

In my review of the codes of conduct of numerous digital marketing conference websites, I sought to identify what was included, what gaps might exist, and which codes had unique attributes. Here are the events where I was able to locate and read their codes of conduct:

I reviewed more than double this number of websites. There were many codes, however, that I couldn’t locate. In searching for these codes, I took steps I believed a reasonable individual would take before giving up:

  • Check the main navigation
  • Look at the header and footer navigations
  • Click into submenus
  • Review the main landing page of the event site and the About page
  • Read through the FAQs

If I couldn’t locate a code after all these steps, I considered it too hidden to be useful and stopped my search.

Highlights of My Review

Throughout my review of these codes of conduct, I noticed how varied they were in some key areas:

  • Website visibility: Where the codes were placed on many conference websites seemed like an afterthought. Most had them linked in the footer of their site. A couple had them in a drop-down menu in the top navigation. A few others only had inline links on internal pages (an agenda page or an FAQ page). And, as mentioned above, there were many sites that didn’t have links to them that I could reasonably find.
  • Audience/application: Several codes spoke only to attendees, staff and, sometimes, volunteers. Most often, they didn’t mention speakers, sponsors, vendors or anyone else related to the event.
  • Next steps: Some codes of conduct failed to provide clear steps for someone to take to report a violation. Many did not provide contact information or details of who to speak to at the event.

There were, however, a few event sites that stood out from the crowd by doing some things superbly well:

  • Confab’s code of conduct was written in a conversational, approachable tone.
  • BrightonSEO linked to their code from the site’s main navigation.
  • MozCon’s site gave a thorough review of the steps event staff would take to follow up on a report.

In addition to this review process, I also spoke with a few other members of the digital marketing community who had experiences with reporting code violations. With all this information in hand, I identified a variety of elements that I felt were necessary to include when crafting a comprehensive event code of conduct.

I took what I learned and revised the MnSearch code accordingly, submitting it to our attorney for review and the full board for approval. Find the new-and-improved MnSearch Event Code of Conduct here. (Hey, if you like what you see in our code, you’re more than welcome to use any or all of it for your own events!)

My Recommendations for Event Codes of Conduct

It’s imperative that all event organizers include strong codes of conduct in their event materials. But having a well written code is just the start, as the “if you build it, they will come” adage simply doesn’t apply. 

Once you’ve created your code, you must make it easy to find, put it front-and-center for all participants and ensure that it applies to everyone involved. And then, of course, you must enforce it and be ready to stand behind the actions you take.

To that end, here are several recommendations for ways to improve the ecosystem surrounding codes of conduct.

  • Have a well written code of conduct that includes prohibited actions, steps to report code violations and possible consequences of violations.
  • List the code of conduct in a visible location on the conference website.
  • Require ticket purchasers to agree to the code of conduct at the point of purchase.
  • Have board members, vendors, sponsors, staff and volunteers all sign agreements that include a code of conduct clause.
  • Share the code of conduct in a standalone email to all conference participants in advance of the conference.
  • Communicate the at the opening of each conference day and identify the individuals to report to so folks know who to go to during the day with any comments, questions, concerns or reports.
  • Train conference staff and volunteers on how to handle code violations and how to interact with the individuals who report them.
  • Offer a safe, quiet space in the conference venue for those who need it.
  • Provide more than one point of contact so victims can approach the people they feel most comfortable speaking with.
  • Ask victims what they need to feel safe, whether they want to remain at the conference, and what you can do to support them.
  • Don’t burden the victim by asking for their input on what the offender’s consequence should be.
  • Take every report seriously and move swiftly to address each one.
  • Keep the person who reported the issue in the loop with continual updates on how things are progressing.
  • Report to the broader community on how the code of conduct was at play during the conference, while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved.

This list is far from complete. I welcome additional recommendations to help build this out and create a stronger code of conduct that everyone can trust in.

What’s Next?

I believe conferences and other professional events provide an incomparable learning and networking experience that you cannot get elsewhere. It’s on all of us to ensure the safety, well-being and enjoyment of those who participate so we can keep these events open to all.

A Note of Appreciation

I’m grateful to the MnSearch Board of Directors for being willing to take a hard look at our Code of Conduct and review my recommendations. It’s all well and good to have intentions and ideas, but putting all of that to work is even better. Thank you, all of you, for your commitment to being the change. I appreciate you! 

Cari O’Brien (fka Cari Twitchell) has been part of the MnSearch Board of Directors since January 2019 and has been President since October 2019. When she’s not MnSearching, she’s running her digital content marketing agency, Custom Content Solutions. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *