How not to name a conference: remembering Trop Con 2020

A year ago today, we named a conference ‘TropCon’. It was a unique name for a unique conference. Combining the subjects of the Trop(ical) and Con(servation) special interest groups of the British Ecological Society, we set out to create two exciting days of scientific tweets and idea sharing online. It turned out, however, that there was a reason the name of our conference had never been used before.

Waking up the morning after we put the name online, we discovered our conference announcement was trending in France!

‘Trop con’ was the French for ‘too stupid’ and the irony of tweeting academic research under #TropCon20 had not been lost on the francophones of the world.

There’s a saying that all publicity is good publicity and, on balance, I would retrospectively agree. For that one day however, it seemed like the whole conference might fall apart. We needed to do some damage control and we needed to do it quickly.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with something going wrong publicly will probably have an idea of the stress we were under as we tried to put everything back to rights. For everybody else (you lucky people!), I am happy to share this visual annotated representation of my initial anxiety attack and subsequent adrenaline high in beats per minute (BPM) of my heart, as I talk through what happened.

A graph of my heartrate during the Trop Con incident. Sharp spikes are shown in the morning and early afternoon (explanation below).
  1. At around ten o’clock, the night we had announced our conference, I spotted the first French tweet about our choice of name: « Psst, les francophones, on leur dit ou pas? ». I chuckled to myself, realising the mistake for the first time but, thinking that probably only a few people would notice, I was not overly concerned. If it made a few people laugh then all the better but surely nobody would really care. I decided to go to bed anyway and check back in the morning. In the meantime, I had an unrelated panic attack while trying to get to sleep, which might explain why my heartrate graph started so high the following day.

  1. When I woke up, it was no longer just one French account who had noticed our mistake. Instead, TropCon had started trending on French Twitter. They found it hilarious. One tweet was liked over six and a half thousand times and shared by more than one and a half thousand people.

  1. It was at this point that I started panicking and a series of rapid emails and instant messages flew around the organising team and our French colleagues, trying to ascertain the extent of the faux pas and what we should do to fix it.

  1. I volunteered to write a public statement on behalf of the organising committee, explaining and apologising for our error. We also needed to announce that we would be updating the conference name to TropiCon instead (a name which I made sure to personally vet via Google Translate and which had no possible translations except ‘I fell with’ in Spanish, which seemed kind of appropriate, but which still reminded everyone of a delicious tropical fruit drink). Writing was a frantic process but I tried to explain our error and apologise authentically. I signed it personally, with my own name, on behalf of the organising committee, instead of apologising as a faceless organisation.

  1. When the statement went live on the tropical group blog, I finally breathed a sigh of relief; action had been taken and my anxiety finally had a route through which to escape. It was also notable how suddenly the tone of the Twitter conversation changed after that. Instead of laughing at us, people began laughing with us. We became a part of the conversation and most tweets even incorporated English language messages to actively include us, where before they had been solely in French. My anxiety was further eased by a wave of compliments that came in regarding the statement itself. From ‘thanks for the laughter’ to ‘I love it so much I’m at least twice as likely to attend’, the new wave of comments made me feel much better about the situation and I began to calm.

  1. Over the next few hours, I just kept tweeting on behalf of the tropical group, signposting newcomers and previous tweeters towards the official statement. We were back in control of the conversation.

  1. Finally, I was able to properly relax and let my anxiety fade away.

  1. I realise that, having seen the graph, you will be assuming something else went wrong at this point, causing my heartrate to spike. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The crisis was mostly over and, to burn off the rest of my anxiety, I went and climbed a tree.

  1. For the rest of the evening, I didn’t need to intervene all that much online. I just kept an eye on things and reposted the statement whenever new people found the hashtag and started laughing at us. We had successfully avoided disaster.

I was rather pleased with how it all turned out and, as the anxiety totally died away, I was left happy that I now had a great story to tell about the pitfalls of naming decisions in an international community.

If there are two pieces of advice I can now give to anyone wanting to run a conference of their own, they are 1) check the possible translation of anything you put on social media, and 2) when something inevitably goes wrong, try to be human about it. Accept your faults and make your apologies in earnest but also give a glimpse behind the scenes of the team giving up their time to make the conference work. Be willing to laugh at yourself and social media will be willing to laugh kindly with you.

A couple of months after our day of notoriety in France, we successfully ran the #TropiCon20 Twitter conference. Hashtag analytics reckoned our TropCon mistake had been seen by 634 522 people, but the conference itself gained a potential audience of 802 366 accounts! We were thrilled to have it do so well and for things to run so smoothly on the day. TropiCon was a big learning experience for all of us and I am grateful that the errors we made were treated with such wholesome humour.

#TropiCon21 will take place on the 3rd to 5th of November 2021 and abstract submissions are now open for research within the theme of spatial and temporal scales in tropical or conservation ecology: https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/event/tropicon21-twitter-conference/

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