Using a Google+ hangout for an online press conference
On 15 July, campaigners from the worldwide Tibet movement became the first activists to use Google+ hangout as a platform for a press conference. The occasion was the visit of China's future President, Xi Jinping, to Lhasa for galas and grand speeches to mark a major propaganda event - the 60th Anniversary of what China likes to call the "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet". The Tibet Autonomous region was closed for over a month so that China could make sure nothing would mar these events, with no foreign journalists permitted to go to Lhasa.
The International Tibet Network, a global coordinating body for campaigns on behalf of the Tibetan people, had been talking to some of its most prominent Members for a couple of weeks about an appropriate response. Given the impossibility of being either in Tibet or China in person, and the uncertainty about what was actually going to happen in Lhasa, an online press conference seemed the most practical and flexible way to ensure the media knew about our perspectives on the anniversary and on Xi Jinping as China's future leader.
With participants in India (Tibetan Women's Association), the United States (Students for a Free Tibet) and the UK (the Network Secretariat), we needed to practice both the technicalities and our message delivery at some length.
Our first thought was to use Skype video calling between the participants, and to broadcast it simultaneously using Livestream or Ustream. We tested it repeatedly but the video frequently froze. Bandwidth was our main enemy....as much a challenge in rural Suffolk as in India!
Our technically-savvy colleague Nathan Freitas of the Tibet Action Institute was the one who hit on the idea of trying Google+ Hangout. Most of us were only just responding to invitations for Google+ and hadn't experimented with its features before.
Early tests were very positive. The platform was more stable, and there were a number of features, such as being able to mute both microphone and video, and the automatic selection of the person speaking to occupy the main screen, that seemed pretty attractive. Juggling everyone's schedules, it took about a fortnight to get ourselves to the point where we felt ready.
As rumours of Xi's visit began to circulate in Lhasa, we felt confident enough to start sending Google+ invitations to key journalists in Beijing. News of the proposed "hangout" was received pretty enthusiastically. A few journalists were as intrigued about our choice of platform as about the subject matter of Tibet, and China's propaganda. One struggled to get to grips with Google+ and told us we were trying to be too clever for our own good!
We accepted journalists on a first come, first served basis to join us in the hangout, and when we were "full' (capacity being 10), we told others to watch a live broadcast on UStream, asking questions by email or Twitter. This latter ingredient was key to the success of the whole exercise. Without Nathan's technical expertise, using his computer to bridge between the hangout and the UStream public channel, it would have been a very select event. Nathan tells me that Google and YouTube are working on combining this all into one service, so at some point in the near future it will be much easier.
For us, a major advantage was being able to share the hangout space with journalists in Beijing, without being troubled by the "Great Firewall". We told those joining us in the hangout that we would be re-broadcasting, and gave them the option of muting their video cameras if they preferred to be anonymous. Some did, but others were happy to be seen to be part of this "event".
We were very satisfied with the outcome of the event (Press Release). With good press participation, our coverage was fairly strong (notably a Reuters piece that went everywhere), and the novelty of the event got us some write-ups in the "techie" press which were re-tweeted numerous times.
Over 50 people watched the broadcast on UStream live, which considering we didn't publicise the event widely (lacking some confidence in how the technical aspects would work out), was excellent. There have been over 2,000 views of extracts of the broadcast since, and an archive of the whole press conference is still available to view.
And the technical aspects? With boosted bandwidth in India, and good protocols, such as muting our videos when our participant in India was speaking, so her internet connection was not trying to stream our video as well as her own, it was virtually flawless.
We'll definitely be using Google+ hangout again, and are planning on sharing the experience with our 180+ Member groups at forthcoming conferences, to try and encourage them to try it too.
Alison Reynolds is Executive Director of the International Tibet Network.