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Reflections on the 2020 Eastern Mediterranean Region Tobacco Control Leadership Program


by Stephen Tamplin
Associate Scientist

The Institute for Global Tobacco Control – part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - has trained more than 2,000 professionals across the globe in its Tobacco Control Leadership programs, which began in 2007. These events bring together tobacco control advocates, public health practitioners, and other key stakeholders in country-specific or regional events in order to increase their effectiveness in working toward eliminating tobacco-caused death and disease.

The recent 2020 Eastern Mediterranean Region Tobacco Control Leadership Program should have been old hat for us. After all, it was the 31st time we organized one of these programs. But the global effects of the pandemic made us feel like relative newcomers as we had to move the entire program online for the first time ever.

We have all adjusted in one way or another to meetings over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other live streaming services. But checking in with your director or co-workers is vastly different than bringing together 65-some professionals from almost 20 countries to take part in seminars and interactive exercises led by speakers spread around the world.

Our programs normally feature five days of in-person learning, team building, and social gatherings. We could not replicate the cultural dinners so many people enjoy or the small conversations that make any professional gathering extra special. We could, however, make the event more accessible to those who might not be able to attend in person and less disruptive to the lives of everyone involved.

So here are three of the important lessons we have learned in taking an in-person event online these days and making it a success:

1. Stretch it out: We doubled the number of days to 10 by moving from eight hours a day to one two-hour webinar a day. Zoom fatigue is real, and our participants are still dealing with their jobs while taking part in the leadership program. One session each day makes it a lot easier for participants to commit. We scheduled them in the late afternoon for participants so they could plan around work and family responsibilities.

2. Avoiding Problems: We can’t guarantee that anyone’s internet connection will remain perfectly stable all the time. That’s why we had all presenters record their session beforehand to present during the program. The speaker was available for live discussion afterward. Not only does this avoid losing a speaker mid-session, but it also allowed us to share all presentations after the fact for participants who may want to re-watch or had an unavoidable conflict.

3. Make it worthwhile: While we knew that the participants were accomplished and motivated professionals, we also knew that logging into 10 lectures while juggling other responsibilities could seem daunting. We worked to encourage full participation by collecting an esteemed panel of speakers, some of whom might not have been able to attend an in-person event for various reasons. We also kept the discussion going after the event by having speakers answer questions they were unable to get to in the session.

Nothing will replicate the experience of an in-person professional meeting! Until those kinds of events become safe again, we are excited that we can continue to create the leaders of tomorrow through virtual events.

To develop events like this, you must remain flexible and open minded. Not everyone has the same technology. Some people have few distractions at home while others must juggle parenting, work, and more. Time zone issues will force presenters and attendees alike to think creatively about their involvement. But it can be done.

We know we still have a lot to learn about how to make events like these as beneficial as possible, mindful of the advice we give our program participants: “Never Stop Learning Because Life Never Stops Teaching!”. Hopefully, we are building connections that will flourish in the future when in-person events can resume.