Lesson from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: Mission and Members First

Last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner generated a lot of heated debate. Regardless of your political viewpoint, for associations, the dust-up is a good reminder that your event needs to serve your mission and members before anything else.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) is always a hot topic here in Washington and in media circles. It attracts a parade of A-list celebrities and, traditionally, the president of the United States (though President Trump has opted not to attend), so interest tends to reach beyond the Beltway. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you know that the 2018 dinner, which took place last Saturday, got people a little riled up.

And while much of this week’s conversation has centered on comedian Michelle Wolf’s monologue, that’s not where this post is going.

That’s because for most Associations Now readers—people who work for associations that host events to celebrate their industries, as the WHCD is meant to do—the takeaways are a little different.

Like the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which hosts the dinner, your association has members to serve and a mission to uphold. And when you lose sight of either, you’re likely to find yourself in a difficult position.

For example, as stated on the WHCD website, the goal of the annual dinner is “to salute the First Amendment, honor award-winning journalism, and recognize scholarship winners.” But many, including WHCA members, have argued that as the event has grown to more than 3,000 attendees over the years, it has moved away from celebrating the industry and instead become focused on the glitz, glamour, and celebrity of those in the room.

Plus, some say that the current political and social environment, which includes increasing attacks on the media and growing political polarization, is increasing the need for change.

“You need to make it an event that boosts trust in journalism by showing the important work that journalists do,” said Katty Kay, Washington correspondent for BBC World News America, on Morning Joe.

Hearing this criticism and calls for change, WHCA concedes that it may be time for something new.  “As somebody who has said for a very long time that the dinner should be ‘boring’—that is to say, focused on journalists and the work of good reporters—I am very open to suggestions about how to change it,” the association’s incoming president, Olivier Knox, said in an interview with CNN on Monday.

Among the new format options mentioned so far: Hire a singer instead of a comedian as the featured performer; invite two comedians, one liberal and one conservative; or have the dinner focus on the journalism industry and freedom of the press. Others suggest ending the dinner altogether.

That last idea may be the least likely to happen, as WHCA faces a reality that will sound all too familiar to other associations: The event brings in a lot of revenue that the organization depends on to remain financially viable. “Any conversation about the future of the dinner has to reflect the fact that revenue it generates keeps our association running,” Knox said to CNN.

Honestly, who knows what the 2019 WHCD will look like? But given the outcry from WHCA members and the public, I think it’s a safe bet that  it probably won’t look like last Saturday’s event—something Knox himself acknowledged.

“My goal is for the center of gravity of the dinner to be reporters—not the president, not the comic,” he said.

If you don’t want to find yourself in the position Knox and WHCA are in at the moment, I offer this suggestion: If you have an annual event that you think is past its prime, if it’s lost sight of what it’s intended to celebrate, or if you’ve received feedback from members saying it needs to be reinvented given what’s going on in the industry at the moment, now’s the time to start working on it.

After all, you have your members to serve and a mission to uphold. It’s up to you to figure out how to stay on course.

The scene at the WHCD before Michelle Wolf took the stage. (YouTube screenshot/C-SPAN)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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