29 January 2009


BC Liberals and Northern Voice? Ew.

Northern Voice 2009, Feb 20-21

I love the Northern Voice conference. I've been part of it every year since it started in 2005. But while my wife Air and I were among the first to register for the conference itself this year, and while she put together one of the panels, neither of us will be attending the February 19 opening-night dinner (tickets for that go on sale tomorrow) because it's sponsored by the BC Liberal Party.

UPDATE: This has turned into an interesting discussion in the comments below, at the blogs of Jen Watkiss, Duane Storey, and Tris Hussey, and on Facebook and Twitter.

The sponsorship makes us uncomfortable. I'd like to think that we'd feel this way if it were any political party, but it's hard to know. That it is the BC Liberals, for whom neither of us has never voted, and that there is an election coming right up this spring, both add to our discomfort. When my wife mentioned the sponsorship to me, my immediate verbal reaction was a simple, "Ew."

I know almost everyone on the Northern Voice organizing committee, and I think they do a great job, but I also think that accepting this sponsorship was a poor choice, regardless of whether (or maybe especially because of) the current economic circumstances, which make sponsorships hard to find right now. And had it been a provincial or federal government ministry, or the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee, or some other government organization rather than a political party, I think I would have been fine with it.

Sponsors are supposed to promote themselves, but a political party sponsorship in advance of an election feels like an attempt to buy my vote, and seems cynical, especially from a party that hasn't been at the vanguard of blogging and podcasting up to now. So Air and I will be at UBC for the main conference, but we'll skip the dinner. If there are others who feel similarly, as I expect there are, maybe some of us will go out for beer elsewhere that night.

Labels: , , , ,


I'm not on the organizing committee this year, so I'll let somebody else officially on behalf of the conference.

I'm curious--is your objection to this particular party, or to the inclusion of any political party as a sponsor? If it's the former, then that's totally fair. If it's the latter, I'm not sure I agree.

Again, I can't speak for the organizing committee, but I expect they'd accept help in obtaining sponsors (in that I think you've helped already--didn't Navarik sponsor a few years back?) or drafting guidelines for them for future conferences.
I meant to add--and this is neither here nor there--that I gather the BC Liberals sponsored WordCamp Whistler as well.
As I said in the post, I think I would object equally to having any political party sponsor the event, especially in the run-up to an election. Even the Greens or another party with no elected members, or the Bloc Quebecois, U.S. Democrats, or others that have nothing going here in B.C.

But having it be a party I don't like gives me an extra "ew" factor. Would they (or another party) offer the sponsorship were there not an election soon? Probably not. That doesn't sit right with me.

And I never planned to go to WordCamp Whistler, but if I had, the same sponsorship might have swayed me not to go.
I don't know if the BC Liberals' sponsorship is purely tactical or not, but (based on my own experience doing sponsorships) they're not alone in that approach. I've heard from several sponsors who support geeky events specifically because they want to promote particular time-sensitive products, services or what-have-you.

How about non-profits and charities? They're often political, and sometimes have considerable sway with the government. Would you object to them being sponsors?

I should emphasize that I totally respect and support your decision to, uh, not support the political party for which you don't vote (though, you know, we'll be sorry to miss you at the party).

Ours seems to be a philosophical disagreement about "who should and shouldn't be permitted as a sponsor?"
Yeah, I think it is, though I'm not sure I can put my finger on why political party sponsorship bugs me in particular. Had Air told me that the dinner was sponsored by the BC NDP or the Greens, I might not have said, "Ew," but I might still have said, "That doesn't seem quite right."

In part it might be the (somewhat unfair) subconscious association I have between "political party sponsorship" and "scandal." At the very least, participants at NV have a variety of political views, and this sponsorship could cause (uh, I guess has caused) some friction. I guess there are other examples that might be questionable. What if the sponsor were the Church of Scientology, for instance?

Though I recall some vegetarians were upset about the suckling pig last year, too, so you can't please everybody. The BC Liberals must be my corollary to roast pig on a spit.
Indeed, you can't please everybody all the time. You want to, but you can't.

In this case, it's quite an achievement to raise $15K in sponsorship for a little non-corporate, volunteer-run conference in the current economy. No Liberal party probably makes it a $50 dinner or no dinner at all. Those are the decisions the organizing committee gets to weigh.
Perhaps not an easy call for the organizers, but I applaud your willingness to take a stand. Good call Derek.

We'll have to organize a different dinner!
Thinking about this some more, my fundamental problem is that accepting sponsorship for a conference like Northern Voice implies a mild endorsement of the sponsor, even if they have no influence on the event -- the conference organizers are saying, "hey, these are reasonably cool people who've given us some money to run this thing."

There are some sponsors no one would accept, regardless of how much they were willing to pay. Others cause no one any difficulty. In between is a grey area that raises questions. Military recruitment? Tobacco companies? Fur trappers? Religious organizations? Political parties? Firearms manufacturers? Yes or no? The line lies somewhere, and you know where ours is.

Please note that I'm not discouraging anyone else from going to the party, only saying why my wife and I won't be. We'd rather have paid $50 each, honestly.
I have to say, when I saw that the same party was sponsoring WordCamp Whistler, I was taken aback but didn't really have much say in the matter and had already committed to speaking at the event anyways. Similarly when I saw that the NV dinner was going to be backed by the same party, I again had the same 'ew' feeling as you did.

I don't know what is says about me personally, but I have been at numerous events that were (at least co-)sponsored by what I would call slimey (non-political) companies & organizations and happily participated, ate & drank their offerings, etc because the reasons I was there outweighed my distaste/dislike/whathaveyou for the people or companies (directly or indirectly) behind it. Sometimes you don't become aware of the involvement of those parties until you're already at the event, function, etc.

Knowing that a large portion of my friends would be there also factors in...which I'm sure has given you guys (Derek & Air) some pause in making your decision.

I find that many of the events around town are great networking opportunities but there is almost always some kind of 'business-y' string or catch in those meeting of the minds. The NV dinner is pure social and fun.

I'm not a marketing guy so I'm not sure how much value they receive in return for sponsoring an event where there is a high likelihood of most attendees not liking their policies or platform.

Will a free event or subsidized dinner sway my vote? No...especially in the context of NV where I believe the intent is for everyone to be empowered to speak their minds using the tools we all talk about at the conference.

That said, like others have mentioned, I applaud your stand on the matter...I guess I just don't feel as strongly about it in this context and perhaps I should.
When we were approached by the BC Liberal Party about a sponsorship for WordCamp Whistler, I was a bit hesitant as well. I talked to all the organizers, and even called the keynote speaker in Oregon to get her take on it. Lorelle (the keynote) thought it was absolutely a great thing, since it showed that government was interested in social media. I was worried that the BC Liberals might try to use the event as a political soap box, but the truth is, they did the exact opposite, and simply showed their support for the event and for social media, and we were glad to have them on board.

There are lots of companies that end up sponsoring these events that I would never give my business to. And yet, we seem to all allow them to be a part of these events and give their elevator pitches and what-not. At the end of the day, while it is politics, it's hard for me to justify excluding any group or organization that shows a genuine interest in the event, commercial or political. In fact, I think turning down anyone that wants to be involved somehow goes against the spirit of web community in Vancouver.

In addition, after being approached by the BC Liberals, we also reached out to the other political parties as well and offered them a chance to sponsor WordCamp Whistler. None of the other parties were interested, but we felt like it was a bit more fair that we at least extended the offer to them.
I have the same reaction as you, Darren. It just doesn't feel right to have a political party sponsoring the event. And hell, if you're going to take Campbell's money, you might as well take enough to make the event free.

I was at WordCamp Whistler, and didn't notice anything pro-Liberal, not even any gimme tees or stickers. I don't think I even knew they were a sponsor. It certainly wasn't obtrusive.

But you're right, it just doesn't feel right. If the conference is supposed to be apolitical, can we not make the sponsor list apolitical as well? I am fully aware that this makes things more difficult, but sometimes the difficult thing is also the right thing to do.
These conferences are also supposed to be anti-commercial in that you're not supposed to give commercial plugs during the presentations. So should we stop allow commercial sponsors as well?
@Raincoaster I'm pretty sure you agree with 'Derek', not 'Darren'.

There are no guidelines or bylaws on whether the conference is apolitical or not. Perhaps that's something the organizers should consider doing in the off-season.

As a founder, I'd always envisioned NV as politically-inclusive as opposed to 'apolitical'. For example, we've had sessions on social media for social change in the past. They were probably politically charged, and the speakers definitely had particular political agendas. That's something I welcome, as it makes for a more robust event with more diverse viewpoints.

To half-answer Derek's question, if more mainstream conservative organization wanted to sponsor the conference, I'd probably have no objection.

It's an interesting thought experiment to talk about how this discussion would go if the party were the NDP, Greens or federal Conservatives instead. Or, alternately, a Christian-based NGO like World Vision. Would you object to those sponsors as well?

I keep beating this drum, but if you'd like to help shape next year's conference as an organizer, the committee always seems keen for more help. Just send an email to info@northernvoice.ca.
Darren, you are correct. And I obviously need more coffee.

I'm glad this discussion is happening now; it's a learning experience for the entire community. We haven't had a crisis of meaning like this in some time. As there are more Changecamps, Wordcamps, Drupalcamps, Barcamps, etc it will become even more relevant.

I don't expect every organization to make the same choices, even if they have the same people on their committees, because what's appropriate will differ. But there does need to be clarity and disclosure, because as we can see, political sponsorship is a material fact which influences attendance decisions.

Who IS answering the info email at Northern Voice? I've never had a response; it all seems to go into the Void.
It's just a big can of worms, isn't it? It's also the sort of situation that can generate many obscure red-tape rules about what kinds of sponsorships to accept or not, and I certainly don't want that.

There don't need to be such rules explicitly, because I trust the judgment of the organizing committee on what they will accept. I'm not sure I even think it's fundamentally wrong on principle to accept sponsorship from a political party, though if the Liberals or others had done it in all the previous non-election years, I might look on it more kindly.

But right now, making the Northern Voice dinner effectively part of the 2009 provincial election campaign gives me enough of the willies personally, regardless of which party acts as a sponsor, that I don't want to attend the pre-conference event. I might feel the same even if several parties were sponsoring it at this specific pre-election time.

But that's me -- and, to be honest, if the BC Liberals (or another party, or several) were identified simply as one of many sponsors of the entire conference rather than of this one side event, I wouldn't bail out entirely. I'd still have misgivings, but being at Northern Voice itself is too important for those misgivings to keep me away.

See, I'm pretty milquetoast in my protests!
@raincoaster Various people get info@northernvoice.ca. Maybe the committee needs to revise how incoming communication is handled.
I hope the BC Liberal sponsorship of this event will not only cover "two drinks per person", but a cab ride home if needed. I'd hate to see someone arrested for DUI!
Raincoaster: Darren and I are confused for one another often enough (by name, by appearance, by voice) that if we had a nickel for each time, we could sponsor the dinner ourselves.
Great comments. My $0.02 here: https://www.worldwidewatercooler.com/2009/01/30/you-say-camp-i-say-well-this/. Also, if it's not obvious, I mostly agree with Derek.
im glad you posted this derek, I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way.
Please let me know if there is an alternate gathering happening for this night!

I think the offer of support from the BC Liberal party demonstrates acknowledgment that social media is a growing medium that deserves their attention. Maybe I'm naive but it seems to be an attempt to engage and be part of the online dialogue. They have some young candidates running in the upcoming election and they have been encouraging the party to communicate/interact with the public in new ways.

Is that a good or a bad thing?

Some might dismiss their online platform as window dressing, while others might take it at face value as an attempt to reach people in new ways.

The fact that their involvement has even stimulated this discussion is a good thing.

Considering people often complain that government and politicians don't listen, it would be ironic if a growing community of online communicators chose to decline their participation.
Frank, one of the good things about the Liberal involvement (from my perspective at least) was that they made no attempt to engage directly with attendees. There was no pressure. I am not even sure I knew they were sponsors until afterwards.

They did not use it as an opportunity to engage in discussion; they used it more as a way to fly the flag and be "the guys who get it" in a generalized way. Which is clever on their part. The Tories in the UK have done much the same, with great success.

Here's the thoughts of the organizing committee. Thanks for giving your perspective on the matter, and I'll see you at NV!


Travis, since you're going around posting about the NV response, I'm going to follow you around asking when the comments on the NV blog are going to be posted? I left one several days ago asking where party tickets could be purchased, and it hasn't shown up.

Regardless of how one feels about the sponsorship issue, as bloggers and active commenters I think we all have a pretty strong pro-commenting stance, no? Can we either post the comments or disable commenting altogether? Posting comments into an unresponsive void is bad for that whole goodwill thing.
Oh, hey, les voila! But why did it take a big controversy and the better part of a week to get comments posted?
Very interesting comments everyone.

One of the reasons for the "ew" factor is a holdover from the day when people couldn't so easily communicate one-to-one as we do today. Sponsors could secretly influence events and no one would be the wiser.

Now we can all speak out. If you object to the Libs sponsoring you can simply say, "I object, and will not attend for same reason."

This will send a message to NV to more carefully consider their selection process next year. They may still accept money from a traditionally controversial source, but at least they will think about it carefully.

At least it is out in the open, and today it really shouldn't matter to anyone where the money comes from because you can voice your opinion and actually do a lot of damage simply by speaking up (like you do here). For example McDonalds sponsors the Olympics, and it hurts their brand on some levels, but not enough that they care, because MOST people don't see fast food as a problem.

The tables have turned, and today sponsors are the one's who have to be careful where they spend their money and are seen. They can actually place their brand in a situation (like here) where they may be challenged to defend their position. If they say nothing, like in this thread, they simply look guilty to many people, and that hurts their brand, but maybe not enough for them to care.

It's a numbers game.

The sponsorships we should be truly concerned about are the ones where it is done surreptitiously.

For example, how many people know that the IOC/VANOC pay news media companies like The Vancouver Sun and The Globe and Mail to sponsor and tell the Olympic side of the Olympic story to our community?

News media sponsorships of events paid for using tax dollars are unethical, and the fact that all concerned, for the most part, keep the arrangement hidden is worrisome.

At least you know The Libs are sponsoring NV, but when you read an Olympic story in the local newspaper most people have no idea the publication is being sponsored and paid for by the IOC and VANOC. It's not a coincidence you don't see the 5 rings at the top of each article.

What you don't know will hurt you.

Maurice Cardinal
Editor: www.OlyBLOG.com