Dear ICA attendees,
It has been heartening to see the support given to the victims of two incidents occurring the area surrounding our conference hotels this week. I have met with the attendees involved in the incidents on 25 and 26 May, to take down detailed reports of each incident and offer the organization’s practical (and my personal) support.
The details have been shared by the attendees on ICA’s social media so there is no need to recount those here and retraumatize the victims, but briefly (for those who did not see the prior posts made via the ‘unofficial’ version of the ICA Facebook page), on the 25th of May two female ICA attendees and the adult daughter of one of the attendees experienced racially-based harassment and a repeated ethnic slur from an adult male who bore a swastika tattoo (contrary to some reports, this was not a group of men, it was a single aggressive and erratic male with long hair wearing an undershirt and khaki shorts). On the 26th, one of the same attendees was briefly touched inappropriately by a male with blonde hair who was leaving one of the clubs in the area, and the event was viewed by a group of young men with shaved heads leaving a club across the street who bore swastikas on their sleeves, the presence of which caused the victim to leave the area rather than have a confrontation with her assailant.
WHAT WE’RE DOING IN RESPONSE:
First, I have filed a detailed incident report with the security and upper management of both hotels, with Hilton’s international corporate offices, with the Prague Police (in coordination with the hotels), and with the Prague convention and visitors’ bureau.
In situations like this, I look first to make sure those affected are taken care of, and then to our own procedures to ensure we do everything we can to make sure nothing like this happens again.
To the first point, I offered to move the attendees from their Airbnb lodging into the conference hotel, but they reported they were already checking out the same day we had the meeting (27 May), to travel elsewhere within Europe. ICA will refund their registration fees for this conference, give them registration fee waivers for their next conference, and guarantee them both headquarters hotel placement for the next conference each of them attends, with a few other practical bits of assistance added.
To the second point, I believe ICA can do a better job as an organization of preparing attendees for each host city and its unique challenges. It is important to note that the victims of these incidents did nothing wrong, and these events could not have been foreseen or avoided with any defensive action they might have taken. However, when I met with one of the victims she agreed that we can and should do more to remind attendees of safety precautions while traveling in any city that is not one’s home. I have developed a number of steps moving forward, but I welcome further suggestions as well:
- ICA will add clearer safety considerations to the newsletter articles leading up to conference, as well as to the “need to know” email that goes out immediately before conference with last minute tips, plus a separate push email just for safety tips specific to the host city
- ICA will develop a one-page flyer as well as signage regarding safety, to be handed out and displayed at registration for all attendees. Tips will include traveling in groups, taking a car if going through unfamiliar streets or traveling alone after dark, mapping your route in advance, and removing your conference badge when you leave the hotel so you are not a “mark” as a tourist. It is important to note that NONE OF THESE TIPS is related to the incident that happened this week in Prague; the victims didn’t do anything wrong. These tips are general safety tips for attendees.
- ICA will provide signage, handouts and social media posts that share the local emergency contact information. In the first incident, the victims did not know what number to dial in case of emergency, so they couldn’t call on their own. This information—along with the security information for both hotels and what to do if you experience harassment or another emergency—will be made clearly available to attendees.
- While we already contract with local security in our conference hotels, we could also do a better job of making that known and visible as well as providing a means of contacting those personnel.
- Hotel staff assert that these events were not typical for this neighborhood and that the area is typically safe; nevertheless, we recommend exercising caution when moving around any unfamiliar city.
- ICA has a policy in place that states: “It is the policy of the International Communication Association to contract for its meetings in locations where its members would not be subject to discrimination on the basis of age, gender, marital status, national origin, physical ability, race, religion or sexual orientation under country, state or city laws. Language stipulating this as a non-negotiable factor will be included in the final contracting.“ I take this policy very seriously. That said, there are often considerations that exist more in local customs—or in newly popular attitudes trending globally—than in the official laws. We will continue to make every effort to discover environmental and societal factors prior to contract signing, and where serious ones exist, we will not sign a contract with the venue. In the case of attitudes in a host country changing after a contract is signed, we will continue to make every effort to discover those concerns and warn our attendees about them prior to arrival, or to eliminate them where possible. For this conference, for instance, we were not told in advance that local bars stay open so late, and often are letting drunken revelers out into the streets just as our attendees are walking to 8am sessions. This is crucial information and the type of thing we will dig for in the future when meeting with hotel staff.
Most of our 68th Annual ICA Conference in Prague (#ica18) has been a positive and engaging experience. I am grateful to the two affected attendees for their bravery and selflessness in sharing their experiences on social media and their patience in rehashing those experiences with me in detail, one on one, so that I could get every detail correct in my report to the authorities listed above. While I cannot protect over 3,500 people in a major metropolitan area, it is my duty to ensure that we do everything we can to arm our attendees with the information they need to be safe.
Thank you to everyone, again, for your concern for the two professors who had these experiences, and for your ideas regarding how to move forward. I welcome further suggestions: please find my email on the ICA website. It was wonderful to see everyone this week, and I wish you all a safe and uneventful trip back home.
LAURA SAWYER, CAE
International Communication Association