A Tale of Two Video Calls: Watching and Learning from Public Relations Professionals

With coronavirus moving the workplace from the office to the home, legal professionals, like many others, are suddenly being called upon to be adept at joining meetings and running webinars on video platforms like Zoom and GoToMeeting.

As someone who has worked from home for the last dozen years, I am quite comfortable with using video to communicate with clients and colleagues and deliver educational programming for groups. After watching two live webinars in the space of 18 hours, I was reminded that, understandably, that’s not the case for everyone. The webinars I observed provide several lessons that can help you become more effective at using video as working from home becomes the new normal.

The Two Webinars

The first webinar (the “Law Call”) was conducted by a group of suburban small-firm lawyers and the second (the “PR Call”) was conducted by public relations and marketing professionals. The featured experts on both calls were highly competent and possessed deep knowledge in their subject areas. Each of them had obviously spent tremendous time and effort to deliver valuable and impactful content related to the coronavirus crisis. Nevertheless, the experiences for the observer were markedly different.

Prepare in Advance Before “Going Live”

As attendees logged into the Law Call, some of the panelists asked each other questions about how the webinar would be conducted, discussed how to use their video and mute buttons and wondered aloud about other logistical matters, such as how many people were registered for the webinar. Several of them seemed to be completely unaware that they were already on camera and that everyone in attendance could hear them.

On the contrary, the PR call was “on hold” until one minute before the start time and began with complete silence and rapt attention from the panelists while the moderator welcomed participants and kicked off the proceedings. Whatever conversation or prep they did in advance was invisible to the viewers making the presentation seem professionally and seamlessly produced.

Takeaways:

Learn the technology well in advance of the call. If you are new to video (or even just to a particular video platform), make sure you’ve taken a quick tour of the platform you are going to be using. If you are struggling, ask your moderator in advance for help or do an online search for a short YouTube video that can show you the ropes.

Spend a few minutes to ensure that your webcam is connected and your microphone is working. Find the mute button and the button that turns your video camera off and on and practice activating and deactivating both. It may be worthwhile to do a practice call with someone on the panel or at your firm so you are capable and confident for the live event.

For educational webinars, consider using the software’s settings to set up a “waiting room” so that those signing into the call will be met with a welcome screen but will not see or hear panelists until the call is ready to start. Doing so is not necessary or appropriate for small team meetings.

If you are going to be using video calls for internal meetings of your team or practice group for the first time, consider sending a brief “how to” guide to participants before your first call.

Pay Attention to What Others See and Hear

During the PR Call, I was struck by how organized and pristine the “frame” on the video appeared. Each participant’s camera was at an angle that allowed me to see him or her straight on rather than at an odd angle. Panelists were clearly at home, but the rooms they had chosen for their calls were simple and tidy. In addition, the panelists on the PR call sat still for the entire 75-minute webinar without interruption, barely moving unless it was their turn to participate or they had a valuable comment to add. With no visible distractions, the viewer could easily concentrate on the speaker and follow the thread of the program.

On the 90-minute Law Call, while one panelist worked hard to convey timely and valuable information, a couple of others could be seen doing everything other than paying attention to their co-presenter.

I observed one panelist walking away from the screen several times, another standing up and stretching (so all we could see was his midsection), and still others speaking with someone offscreen. One panelist left his desk, walked down the hall (which was fully visible for about 15 feet), disappeared from view briefly and returned with a snack which he then ate with his face very close to the camera.

I must confess to being distracted by the snacker’s tendency to put quite a bit of food on one side of his mouth, making him look a bit like a chipmunk. While I found his onscreen chewing to be distasteful, it also struck me as immensely disrespectful to his colleagues on the panel, particularly the one who was speaking.

Takeaways:

Everyone on the call can see you! And they can see everything your webcam can see. It’s up to you to preserve your own privacy and ensure that the image you project is one you’re happy with. Before doing your next video call, turn on your webcam and take a look around. Can you see a pile of laundry waiting to be folded? The open door to your bathroom? Point your camera in the right direction and narrow the field of view, if necessary.

Don’t be a distraction and don’t be disrespectful to others. Do your best to stay in one place and pay attention to what’s going on. If you must walk around for some reason, consider turning your video camera off for a few minutes.

Use the mute button as your default. Because the Law Call and the PR Call were in “listen only” mode and attendees were muted, attendee distractions were not a concern. For calls that are not in listen only mode, however, everyday sounds like dogs barking, doorbells ringing, fire engines going by and spouses and kids with questions are unpleasant distractions for others.

A Few Final Thoughts…

We are living in unprecedented times and have had to adapt quickly to all manner of frightening and unexpected change. Things are far from perfect at the moment and there’s no need for you to make yourself crazy trying to achieve perfection. No one is going to be surprised if the occasional pet or child walks in on a call or if you struggle briefly with technological glitches. It’s happening to all of us, so I encourage you to be patient with others and with yourself as everyone learns new skills.

Many of the marketing and PR professionals I’ve referenced have likely received “media training,” which has prepared them to be interviewed on camera. In addition, because media and communications are their business, it’s their job to be aware of how things look to others. There is no need to develop that level of skill in front of the camera unless you really want to; instead, take a few hints from those in the field of communications so you can convey whatever image you choose, whether it’s professionalism, the voice of experience, confidence, warmth or some other quality.

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