By Mark Fowler, Vice President, PR (Earned) – RPG London

It’s hard not to jump to conclusions. This is particularly true in PR where we learn revolution, not evolution makes the headlines. As such, we can sometimes get caught up in the possibility of what things could be rather than they already are.

And with that unsubtle caveat, I’d like to suggest that MWC this year is more significant for the fact it isn’t happening than it would have been had it gone ahead.

More than 100,000 people representing 198 countries and territories (of 251 total, for those keeping count) were set to descend on Barcelona for the mobile industry’s favourite fiesta. But then the Coronavirus happened and under substantial pressure, the GSMA cancelled the event, less than two weeks before it was set to begin.

First things first, I don’t intend to pass judgement on that decision. Once the dominoes started to fall, it was a matter of when rather than if. What is interesting is how companies planning to attend have and continue to respond.

Should I stay or should I go?

MWC is much more than one week. It’s the culmination of months of planning and one of the first dates on the marketing calendar, no questions asked. But once the wellbeing of attendees was called into question, that assumption was cast into doubt.

The fact there wasn’t one uniform response shows how unprecedented this turn of events is. Amazon, Ericsson, Facebook and others decided to cancel their attendance. Others chose to scale back their attendance either by reducing the number of people travelling, cancelling press conferences or both. Others, persevered, restating their commitment to MWC.

A quick look on Twitter suggests the commitment has seen the spirit of MWC 2020 live on. A smaller, almost homage to MWC seems to be underway in Barcelona. Looking at Twitter, there are fewer panicked dashes from one end of the Fira and a slightly less packed news agenda for those brands still in Barcelona to contend with.

Mobile World Congress, the Coronavirus and PR in a pandemic

Back to the drawing board

The ones who stayed home can be thanked for the lighter news agenda. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they got a week off. Instead, months of planning would have been reworked with an eye on salvaging whatever they could.

As a result, we’ve seen global launches take on a lower-key flavour. With International travel is still a sticky subject, big press conferences have been replaced with smaller satellite events and video links. More emphasis is being placed on local activations too. This requires a whole different kind of coordination, in many ways more challenging. The upside is that brands have potentially increased the reach of their events to much wider audiences.

A forced rethink

It's worth noting this is still unfolding around us – we won't know the long-term ramifications for some time. Yet, it would be a surprise if companies of all sizes didn’t rethink their industry event strategy moving forward.

For start-ups and scale-ups, the past few weeks have shown the gamble of putting all your eggs in the one basket. For the big names, being forced to go it alone might show that the mega-events aren't everything. You could argue that this is already the case. Apple always saves its big news for WWDC and big brands are skipping major events all the time: just look at Sony and E3.

Another conversation that gained some traction throughout this MWC episode was around the sustainability of events like MWC. The climate crisis brings into question whether the sheer waste and air miles of events of this scale can be responsibly justified. This is perhaps a question for another day but it adds weight to the argument of whether events like MWC may have reached their peak.

Or not. Maybe I am jumping to conclusions.

There will always be a place for these industry events; nothing will ever be able to replicate their ability to bring people together, face to face. I’d say it’s a safe bet that some of the mobile industry’s biggest deals have been made or put in motion in the cavernous halls of the Fira.

Still, after this year I don’t think MWC will be quite the same. Brands forced to rethink out of necessity will see that there are different options open to them. Options with a greater emphasis on local activation and sustainability, which can only be a good thing.

About the Author

Mark Fowler

Mark is a Vice President in RPG’s London office, working with the technology team. He has ten years of experience in technology PR, having worked across leading B2C and B2B brands including Huawei, ARM, Auth0 and Barclaycard.