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Does size matter ?
We will start this blog with a story.
A few years back whilst planning for an event; and defending them against objections, we were tasked with proving that the space being used would be safe. In this case a large open outdoor space that would have entertainment and suitable facilities introduced. We created our plan, but went a step further and created a use of space report. That being, created predicted use of space and measures to control higher risk areas. As part of this we asked for the cctv locations and provided 3d images of the predicted crowd at varying density. Come event day, we are asked through the course of the day to suggest the attendance. What was interesting was that we were challenged on this several times; a rare thing these days. After introducing the pre planned images, the doubts were calmed and agreement of the numbers provided agreed.
After a long day, we gave an attendance figure; with the understanding that due to not being able to see the full site at the peak of the event, this was only a prediction. All agreed to the figer and accepted the margin of error, but that the figure seemed a realistic number. On reading press coverage the next day, it seemed that someone in their wisdom had decided to double the figure we provided.
The purpose of this story is as a way of introduction, that we have some experience in working with large crowds and prediction of attendance when in open spaces without entry counts. This experience is always interesting and challenging, along with being exciting and frustrating. This frustration, generally comes when your hard work is ignored for the benefit of increasing the profile of the event.
In recent years, we have paid attention to the media coverage of large crowds and the attendance figures attached to them. Sometimes they make us smile; at the blatant fibs being told and other times a raised eyebrow in confusion as to why a count of the crowd is being provided.
Through our involvement in planning for events large and small, we take it upon ourselves to understand the use of space, where people will gather, areas of higher risk, variations of density, ingress/egress routes, use of circulation space and a good few other reasons. Not at any point has this been carried out to assist promote the event. Involvement with the press is the last thing and the first thing on our mind. What do we mean by that?
Your work on an event is to create a safe environment, remove risk from those attending. The last thing you would want is to be in the press for all the wrong reasons. A classic and ongoing case of this is the Love Parade Disaster; which we run ongoing coverage of the court case, of an event where the planning and understanding of crowd movements went wrong in the planning stage. This is an example of when press interest is not positive or assist the event continuing going forward.
In 1995, we seen (in our mind) the first high profile debate over the estimated attendance at an event. This was the Million Man march, taking place in Washington D.C. to promote African American unity and family values; surely an amazing effort of organisation and solidarity. From that day though to this, there is disagreement on the amount that attended, from a few hundred thousand people to over the million person estimate. In our innocence from far across the water, we were confused by the debate and why would people question such a worthy effort. Then the penny drops, the understanding that this debate is political, has racism at the core of it and turns a positive message into an accusation of failure.
From then we can see from time to time, the prediction of crowd attendance. This is mainly at political rallies and religious gatherings. Possibly the highest profile debate was in 2017 at Donald Trumps inauguration. Self proclaiming this event to be the highest attended presidential inauguration ever, divided the nation and world, where pro and critics debated the size of the crowd; much of it with great humour.
What the majority seen as funny; the internet loves poking fun at the world, others seen as controversial. The darker underbelly of political one upmanship and manipulation of the press, circumvents the accuracy of understanding a crowd attendance.
Why is it important to understand an event attendance; this is our list of reasons.
- Monitoring of crowds for increased risk through unpredicted use of space
- Assessment of the planning predictions
- Continued learning of crowds at the event
- Assist in future planning for the event
- Continued improvement for licence conditions
As you can see, there is no inclusion of press relations. Our reasons are simple, you cannot win. If you provide an accurate figure, it has to match what was predicted in the planning stage. Why do we say that.
- Underestimation of crowd attendance: This can lead to questions over the event planning from licencing. Where more people attended than planned, did you have the safety measures to remove risk, can the space accommodate the attendance.
- Overestimation of crowd attendance: This can be a PR disaster and financially. Looking at finance first, a lot of money may have been wasted on facilities and safety measures that were not required. PR – the event would look like a failure, especially if there is an announcement of the predicted attendance before the event.
One of the roles of public relations is to assist promote the event in a positive manner. If you say a number, they want to increase that number; in their minds bigger is better. They may not consider that an exaggeration may cause post event issues for the safety planning team. As they say, go big or go home (so we have heard anyway). That is why we always take the press release of attendance figures with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, if this comes from the planning team (in the UK normally fronted by the police) this is more that likely to be factual. After all, what benefit do they get from telling a white lie.
Recent years have taught us that crowd counting is heading down a path that distracts from its origins. We fully understand that there are occasions when overestimation of an attendance can bring positive results; psychological fo those that attended and promotion of the event. Unfortunately in this day and age there is always someone out there that wants to spin this into a negative or manipulate it to suit their needs. The internet provides the world with a voice and that can be either positive or negative.
Does size matter?
If we judge the success of an event by the amount that attended, we have lost our way. If you feel the need to justify that attendance, then again we would question the motivation behind this. In our mind, prediction of crowd size should be purely based on safety reasons.
The continuation of crowd estimates for press relations only adds fuel to a fire, that in the long run you will not control. You may be accused of inaccuracy, lying, falsehood or being unprofessional. We are not saying that it is wrong to do it, far from this. We are saying that your best intentions may be used in a way that you can not control and not in a positive manner. As long as this is understood, then we hope your calculations are right.
Workingwithcrowds.com 26th August 2018