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May 25, 2018

Sub-Saharan Africa: All Protocol Observed

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Pieter Swart, of Conference Consultancy South Africa, believes that government events are key to the success of the business event industry as a whole. “If well considered and designed, business events (meetings, conferences, congresses) will contribute meaningful outcomes [to the economy and the sector as a whole],” says Swart.

However, there are a lot of challenges facing planners, venues and suppliers when approaching government. “Some challenges experienced by Professional Conference Organisers (PCOs) are the decreasing deadlines for the planning and management of Government events,” he says. Unfortunately, despite the massive scale of many government events, organisers are not given sufficient time to plan their events. “This has a direct impact on quality of service and the product (the event) and subsequently on the outcomes. Far too often considerable time is spent on the internal event approval processes without due consideration for the time it takes to organise the event,” Swart explains. The massive bureaucracy that faces government event organisers – from the bidding and tender processes to the various additional approval stages, like hiring staff, assigning responsibilities and so forth – can result in events that are not as well-executed as they could have been under a looser management structure.

“Omissions or inaccurate tender specifications frequently cause delays due to insufficient budgets or other complication,” adds Swart. He further suggests: “Although this challenge is not unique to Government events, it is highly recommended that a mechanism be found to support Government with qualified knowledge in this regard.” According to Swart, the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI) can assist planners and government alike to create a smoother process for all.

In the end, government’s rigid and complex bureaucratic system can be seen to be undermining the unique skills and knowledge business event organisers bring to the table. The South African Government Communicators’ Handbook, produced in 2015 by the Department of Communication, offers a rigorous set of guidelines for event organisers and planners to follow. It also poses rudimentary questions such as “What must the event include and what must it not include?” and “Where will the event be held? What are the positives and negatives of this area/venue?” While this sort of micromanagement and bureaucratic ‘efficiency’ could be seen as helpful for those in early stages of their career, they serve to detract from the vast knowledge business event organisers in South Africa already have. It seems ironic that a leading international destination for business events, like South Africa, would feel the need to produce such a basic document.

On the other hand, organisers often lack sufficient knowledge regarding protocol that needs to be observed at government events. This, perhaps, is the most pivotal difference between government events and standard commercial ones. “The importance of protocol knowledge when planning events that are attended by people whose positions are listed in The Official Table of Precedence is sometimes grossly underestimated,” says Swart.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) defines protocol as simply “the correct behaviour of a State/organisation/institution.” It is then divided into two levels: the State Level, which refers to intra-national matters, and the Diplomatic Level, which regulates the diplomatic and consular corps. Often, though, this “correctness” is not researched fully by event organisers. This can pose major problems. “Explained by a dear friend of mine, generally considered to be the Doyenne of Protocol Training in South Africa, Helena Burger, if an etiquette mistake is made, the consequences will always reflect on oneself but when making a protocol mistake, the consequences always reflect on your guest and that is serious, especially in diplomatic circles. Wars have started this way,” Swart warns. No matter how stressful a project, event planners and managers who are working in commercial circles don’t have to worry about starting wars – but those servicing government cannot be as certain!

“Event organisers need a thorough knowledge of protocol and how it applies to official events. Protocol training is available from several qualified protocol practitioners,” says Swart. Helena Burger – mentioned by Swart as a leading expert in this field – is but one such trainer. Other prominent figures include Courtenay Carey, Kane Pretorius and Fraser Carey. If one’s event features anyone on the Official Table of Precedence (or even if an event is simply reflecting government) then having a thorough grasp of protocol is crucial.

What are some of the aspects of an event determined by protocol? “Draping the flag over every- and anything is not permitted,” says Swart. The flag must be displayed in ways that are outlined in the Government Gazette. This means that the flag must never touch the ground or be used as a drape or tablecloth. It can never be used to cover a plaque, statue or corner stone at unveiling ceremonies. It may never have designs, slogans or words of any kind on it. These sorts of details are incredibly important for government event organisers to bear in mind. “Knowing the seniority of office bearers will determine seating plans, arrival sequences, invitations to the guest of honour and understanding the implication thereof,” he explains further. A failure to handle these correctly can result in “serious embarrassment and on the opposite end of that scale, a diplomatic disaster.”

While DIRCO outlines protocol rules in South Africa, these are in line with international standards. International standards for protocol were determined by the Vienna Conventions on Consular Relations and on Diplomatic Relations, both held in 1961. Prior to these conventions, international relations were determined through bilateral agreements, entered into by specific countries. Naturally, such a system would be chaotic in the inter-dependent and inter-connected world of the 21st Century. The international rules for protocol allow for a measure of consistency in government events across all parts of the world; they form a so-called “rulebook” for event organisers to play by, and are especially crucial at the Diplomatic Level.

The government event sector is a lucrative one, and there is plenty for expert organisers and suppliers to do – as long as all protocol is observed.

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