Literary Distancing Led the Way

Filed in Just In by March 24, 2020

Scone was well ahead of the curve in implementing social distancing best practice during the Scone Literary Festival. While, gatherings like this have now been banned and the number of people allowed in a room has changed, president of the Festival Janie Jordan was kind enough to share how they adapted to the guidelines at the time.

By Janie Jordan

“May we all live in interesting times,” says our Patron Phillip Adams when officially opening the 2020 Scone Literary Festival last weekend.

Interesting times indeed for Festival organisers such as ourselves, particularly when you decide to proceed and stage a booked-out event with people coming from all over the state.

We decided, after much consultation, discussion and research, to go ahead with our sixth Festival but we could really only do that if we adopted the World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for face to face gatherings.

We had to.

Otherwise, we couldn’t honour our commitment to the attendees of the Festival. We had committed to them and to our team, including a band of volunteers, to do whatever we could to help ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all of us at the Festival.

This is what we did to honour that commitment and implement the guidelines that stated, amongst others to:

  • Have seats a metre apart. (Now four-metre square.)
  • Encourage regular hand-washing, cover their face with bend of the elbow or a tissue.
  • Supply tissues.
  • Display sanitisers.
  • Build trust, for example an ice breaker, to practice ways to say hello without touching.
  • Have a social isolation room stocked with appropriate supplies, such as sanitiser, tissues, face masks, gloves, and first aid kit.
  • Have a plan and know what to do if a Festival participant is tested positive after the meeting.
  • Develop and agree a response plan involving local, public health authorities.

We also adopted the advice of NSW Health, in particular Hunter New England Population Health and implemented the two-hour and fifteen minute guideline; no more than two hours for people in a confined space and no more than fifteen minutes in close congregation.

Clearly, communication is the key the success (or failure) of any major event. And as the WHO guidelines state and, as I knew from my many years as a crisis communication consultant, we needed to keep in regular contact with our constituency, our audience, many of whom come year after year and trust us to do the right thing by them. We had a duty of care to our participants and we needed to be extra diligent, cautious and proactive given we had made the decision to proceed.

We also kept in very close contact with our major partner, the Upper Hunter Shire Council, plus local health practitioners and authorities including consultation with Scone Hospital.

Whenever we made a major decision, we stopped and asked this vital question. We’ve made a decision, who needs to know? And then we communicated, Sometimes it was a quick text, sometimes a carefully crafted email to everyone who had booked, a phone call to our sponsors and partners or a post on Facebook.

One big decision to honour the one metre rule was to move the main Festival venue – from Scone Arts and Crafts to Scone Grammar School (SGS). We are incredibly grateful to Paul Smart and his team at SGS for their generosity, flexibility and support. Not only was the new venue a short, easy five minute walk away, the backdrop to the festival talks was a whiteboard with wonderful literary sayings from SGS school children. Couldn’t have been more perfect, if we’d tried.

Inevitably, we had drop outs and cancellations, but we also received many last minute bookings and very generous attendees and presenters stepping up to take on a multitude of different roles.

One such example was the staging of a special coronavirus panel on Sunday morning. We had originally planned Words From Winx with her official biographer, Andrew Rule in conversation with Kate Mailer. Andrew was ‘scratched by order of the stewards.’ Initially, we were devastated but quickly realised that we actually had an opportunity on our hands. We could confront coronavirus head on, and we did!

Thanks to the generosity of many we pulled it off. Kerry O’Brien graciously came back on Sunday, David Dale, who was attending as a guest, stepped up to host it.  Alexandra Joel, one of our authors who just happens to have a background in psychology, gave us that perspective, particularly why people were panicking about toilet paper, local medico, Dr Richard Abbott who gave a medical perspective, plus yours truly. I shared some of the aspects of our crisis management for the Festival plus the wider context of crisis leadership.

So my advice to anyone concerned about holding a f2f meeting or small gathering (say, ten people or less) think twice before cancelling – our community needs the financial support. Of course, the guidelines and advice being given by the Federal Government are critical and must be considered, and strictly adhered to. Do consult widely, particularly with partners, sponsors and key participants. We gave our Festival attendees the choice (to stay away) and we took every measure we could to help ensure everyone’s safety, wellbeing and health, as well having an amazing experience.

Here is the latest from the Government on gatherings.

As they say a week is a long time in the pandemic world of ours. And we know that if the festival was this weekend, it would have been cancelled. There would have been no choice.

We were very fortunate that we had the opportunity to proceed and bring some economic stimulus into the Upper Hunter.




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