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How to run a virtually perfect parliamentary reception during COVID

19 February 2021

COVID has meant lots for campaigning in the charity sector. Advocacy has never been more needed; things have never moved faster. But we’ve all had to think differently about traditional campaigning tools and how to make them work for now. How can we influence as effectively without meeting face-to-face?

At Scope, it’s a critical question. Disabled people have been hardest hit from the pandemic. Two thirds of those who’ve died from coronavirus were disabled. So we launched our We Won’t Be Forgotten campaign to get decision-makers to include disabled people in plans.

By Autumn, we’d spent months campaigning online and holding virtual meetings with one MP at a time. However, the economic fallout of the pandemic was already disproportionately impacting disabled people’s employment and we were seeing disabled people falling out of work faster than non-disabled people. The cause of these issues couldn’t prevent us from lobbying for solutions. We needed to engage as many MPs as possible with our calls to fix disability employment and get them to speak directly with disabled people about their experiences.

Essentially, we needed a parliamentary reception and we had to run it virtually, so we did and here’s what we learnt:

Planning a Virtual Reception

  • Think how best to run it
    We wanted to ‘host’ lots of MPs simultaneously but avoid people either talking over each other or not talking at all.  So, we decided to use Zoom for its breakout functions, and funnel MPs from the ‘waiting area’ into one of three breakout rooms. This enabled us to welcome many MPs and lead more direct, meaningful discussions.
  • Choose what to engage MPs with
    We created a disability employment gap map that we could screen share to highlight our urgent calls to improve disability employment. MPs could search their constituency and compare disabled constituents’ employment rates against the national average.
  • Include storytellers
    For us disabled people sharing their experiences of employment is an essential part of allowing MPs to understand the reality behind the statistics. Scope’s Storytelling team build relationships with disabled people through services, campaigning, and sometimes even Twitter. We approached more people than needed, and offered opportunities based on the time they had available to give. We provided clear briefings in advance and had them arrive 15 minutes before MPs to get settled.
  • Get MPs in the virtual room
    We enlisted our 35,000 campaigners to invite their MPs and followed up with Twitter action the day before the event. We contacted existing parliamentary champions to promote the event among colleagues and 39 MPs RSVPed. We were a bit nervous how we’d manage the flow during our two-hour reception. It was a good but daunting position.
  • Running a Virtual Reception
    We had a run through to rehearse the technology and ensure each person knew their role, and when we faced hiccups like virtual backgrounds failing us, we found a workaround and just got Scope branding in with old school banners instead. Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for colleagues across the lobby and three breakout rooms also allowed us to have frantic behind the scenes conversations, while the event ran smoothly.

The event itself was intense but fast. We spoke to 30 MPs and their staff in two hours, taking them through our employment gap map, local statistics, our calls for action, and giving storytellers the platform to talk through their experiences. MPs engaged and left with a photo (screen grab) and some asks from us.

Top tips

As to be expected, some things went right, some things went wrong. Our top tips for running your own virtual reception are:

  1. Think carefully about staffing. Planning the event virtually took as much time as planning an IRL event and hosting it required a lot of calm staff. We had three breakout rooms with two colleagues in each, and two colleagues in the main lobby. You wouldn’t be able to have meaningful conversations without.
  2. Breakout rooms are key. It’s all about managing the flow from the lobby.  At times a breakout room had up to three MPs, but between our WhatsApp group and the lobby, we were able to manage the flow.  Ideally, four breakout rooms would have alleviated some pressure to wrap up conversations quickly.
  3. Make sure people know their roles. Do lots of early briefing! Shaping breakout rooms so each one had a host, a policy expert, and a storyteller, alongside the interactive map, helped to structure our conversations.
  4. Internet will fail, have a back-up plan. Two staff in every room meant if one person’s internet cut out the other could manage the room while urgent tech support took place.
  5. Engagement tools are needed. MPs commented how clear the problem was, and our calls to fix it, thanks to us laying this out on the employment gap map. Running an event virtually doesn’t mean you don’t need to think of interesting ways to engage MPs once they’re in the room.
  6. Pace yourself. One two-hour session was a lot. With a steady flow of MPs, it was draining for those running the event. Breaking this into two shorter sessions, working around the parliamentary schedule, could make it less intense for staff and allow more MPs to join.
  7. Storytellers are vital – but talk to them early. People have multiple commitments. As much warning as possible allows you to confirm with and brief people to avoid last-minute panics.
  8. Make it accessible. You can have better control of virtual accessibility than changing centuries old parliamentary rooms (especially with the help of The Big Hack, Scope’s campaign to improve digital accessibility). Running it through Zoom meant we could make sure it was accessible for everyone attending, including one of our storytellers who is deaf blind.

For Scope having a Virtual Reception offered us a chance to talk to 30 MPs across four political parties – with a further ten requesting copies of Scope’s employment recommendations briefing and their constituency’s disability employment gap data after. Behind that, over 1,000 campaigners invited their MP to the reception, reaching 489 MPs.

We had positive feedback from MPs and storytellers and post event, MPs have tabled 12 written Parliamentary Questions, and asked five oral questions on the disability employment gap and our employment recommendations.

While we’re doing things virtually for the foreseeable future, The Virtual Reception has given us a meaningful way to engage MPs and campaigners to progress our campaign calls in parliament and it might be worth considering for you too.

To hear more about how they ran their virtual reception Jessica and Matt will be speaking at our Campaign Network – Campaigning Virtually event. Find out more here.

Image: Recal Media on Pexels

Jessica Leigh

campaigns and mobilisation manager, Scope

Jess runs Scope’s campaigns and storytelling function, mobilising disabled people and the public to influence social change. Jess has been working in the charity sector for 14 years, in campaigns and fundraising roles. Before Scope, she led campaigns at Guide Dogs, the National Autistic Society, and the Children’s Society.

Matt Corby

political strategy manager, Scope

Matt is the political strategy manager at Scope, the disability equality charity. Matt is responsible for leading the charity’s political engagement and influencing work and has been at Scope for two years. Matt has seven years of experience working in politics and public affairs, including working in several public affairs agencies and in an MP’s office.