For four days last month, Bill Clinton convened an elite group of heads of state, business leaders and celebrity activists for the annual meeting of his Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Each year CGI picks a theme, and the focus of this year’s gathering was the empowerment of women and girls in developing countries.

The impact of the gathering was considerable, and it garnered the usual attention from the mainstream media. But this year CGI also made a concerted effort to invite bloggers to its proceedings. As one of the nearly 100 bloggers in attendance, I had a unique vantage point. While others have chronicled the impressive work conducted by the annual meeting, I’d like to detail how meetings like this are evolving thanks to the digital media revolution.

Obviously, one thing to acknowledge is that blogs and social media weren’t the primary driver in helping CGI raise the nearly $10 billion in donations. President Clinton’s golden Rolodex represents a network that’s perhaps more powerful than any indexed on LinkedIn. No advocacy website has yet matched CGI’s ability to marshal human resources for positive social change. And it’s not as though this gathering could have been organized on MeetUp or replicated virtually using video-teleconferencing software.

Making the Exclusive More Inclusive

That said, there is an increasingly significant online component to elite conferences such as CGI’s annual meeting. After all, this exclusive gathering of the most powerful people in the world is a bit less exclusive now that anyone can watch the complete proceedings via webcast. More importantly, and more in the spirit of commission than omission, is the fact that people are now able to involve themselves with CGI via the Internet.

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Members of the public asked questions of panelists via YouTube, and others undertook local philanthropic projects in the name of CGI. As a result of these initiatives, CGI’s brand becomes more accessible to ordinary activists around the world, and the annual meeting is endowed with a vibrant online afterlife. President Clinton may have said it best in the conference’s closing session:

There are thousands of people who have been watching this webcast online. They’ve followed the proceedings on Facebook and Twitter…We know that people from more than 170 countries have visited the CGI website this week to follow some part of this proceeding. We streamed the breakout sessions and plenary sessions live and more than 30,000 people tuned into them…Through the postings [bloggers] made, we reached millions of more people around the world. Nasim Fakrat was here from Afghanistan. He was the first blogger ever from that country. And I’m grateful to him and all the other bloggers for bringing proceedings here to there, wherever there is.

Other Conferences Embracing The Web

But bringing offline conference activities online isn’t unique to CGI. The TED conferences started as super-exclusive, invitation-only events “where the world’s leading thinkers and doers gather to find inspiration.” Conference organizers have continued with this exclusive model but, alongside it, they’ve introduced another highly inclusive model.

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After realizing the Internet gives them a way to animate their slogan (“ideas worth sharing”), organizers have packaged video footage of some of the most compelling presentations and made them freely available to anyone with access to the web. In doing so, they’ve not only opened the gates to their proverbial walled garden, but they’ve publicized and popularized the TED brand to the point that the conferences, paradoxically, may be seen as even more exclusive than they were before. Prestigious universities like Yale University (disclosure: Yale is former client of mine) and MIT have taken similar steps with some of their courses.

The TED conferences are ahead of the curve in their deployment of video assets. As an example, the webcasts located on the CGI website are not quite as viewer-friendly as they could be. But President Clinton and his organization have a forward-looking regard for the role the Internet can play in extending their activities to a broader set of stakeholders and supporters. And by bringing their proceedings to the Internet, they’re acknowledging that the charitable endeavors of even the most powerful men and women in the world can stand to gain from the inclusion of the online masses.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

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