Let’s face it: No one’s heart starts beating faster at the mention of the phrase “panel discussion.” Five or six talking heads yammering on from behind a table? What could be a bigger yawn? But if you’ve ever been to Comic-Con, you’ve seen the blocks-long queues of fans who line up hours in advance for the chance to witness certain panel discussions—so what gives? What turns a panel from dull to dynamite?
This week, the 1990s TV series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, will be the subject of a panel discussion at New York Comic-Con, as the stars of the original voice cast (including Ed Asner, who played villain Hoggish Greedly, and Captain Planet himself David Coburn) reunite with executive producers Barbara Pyle and Nick Boxer to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary. Captain Planet was a pet project of mine when I was a publicist at Turner Broadcasting.
This got me thinking how valuable a successful panel can be to a brand of any kind in any industry. A good discussion can also establish a panelist as an expert in his or her field and create outstanding opportunities for press coverage for years to come. I’ve organized and publicized many panel discussions over the years, and I thought it would helpful to list a few tips on how to maximize the moment when your client has a panel opportunity.
Get a move-on. Pitch and secure your panel early in the process so you can take full advantage of perks like best time slots and advance publicity. Some conventions begin their planning six months to a year ahead.
Key in to a news peg. Your panel has to be topical in order to have any reason to exist. Obviously, that includes the release of a new movie, TV show, or other project. Recognizing a major anniversary, such as Captain Planet’s 25th, also makes a panel newsworthy. But keep in mind that you can only celebrate a major anniversary and cast reunion once every five to 10 years.
Link every panelist to the news peg. There’s nothing worse for the overall success of the panel as well as for a panelist him- or herself than to have nothing to say. Everyone needs to have something to contribute and to be heard. That’s why you should probably limit your line-up to four or five people plus the moderator.
Focus on your key player. Is it the moderator? Or the lead actor in your show, or the producer of the project? Try to confirm that person first; their name will not only help wrangle the other participants, it will assure you of a good slot on the panel schedule.
Then, be selective. Once you’ve got your headliner, think carefully about your goal for the panel. Do you want publicity first and foremost? Then the panelists must be newsworthy and quotable. Do you want sparks to fly? Pick people with opposing views. Do you want the audience to leave with warm fuzzies? Pick people who are great at connecting with a live audience. No matter what, you want a diverse and lively group.
Give ’em something to look at. Audiences can get bored with talking heads, even if they are the most entertaining of talking heads. Nostalgic montages (like Captain Planet is using), sizzle reels, animation sketches, bloopers, sneak peeks, product demonstrations—all of these can help spice up a panel.
Prepare—better yet, over-prepare. Give your panelists possible questions and topics ahead of time. Provide contact info for other panelists so they can connect in advance, and/or set up a conference call. Show them a preview of the visuals. Offer wardrobe suggestions and parking instructions. The last thing you need is a no-show because they couldn’t find parking!
Live-stream it. Unless you’re trying to create an exclusive experience and build buzz slowly, there’s almost no reason not to make your panel available to as wide an audience as possible. These days there are many options for providing a live stream and even taking questions from people thousands of miles away.
Publicize before and after. You can’t rely on the convention organizers to do this for you. Get the word out through trade publications, fan sites and social media. You also can’t rely on the media to show up, so it’s imperative that you provide them with an updated press release, photos, and a video or transcript within hours of the panel’s ending.
A bunch of people sitting around talking may not sound exciting, but a well-organized, cleverly constructed, and thoughtfully moderated panel discussion can actually be a huge promo for your brand or client, making everyone want to be, as Hamilton says, “in the room where it happens.”