A friend forwarded me this link to a new Unconference, PR Camp , taking place in New York on Friday, November 20, a day after the Web 2.0 Expo concludes in NYC.  Given that I will be in New York, since the Podcamp Foundation is helping to organize the Open Unconference  sessions at the Web 2.0 Expo, I was initially intrigued.  I love Unconferences, and as Director of Operations for the Podcamp Foundation, I love to see how other people put them on.

Now, I have gotten into many interesting debates with people over what exactly constitutes an Unconference, and where the line between conference and unconference lies.  We talk about scale, what elements are crucial to success, and which ones have some flex in them.

For me, the heart of the Unconference is the sharing.  It’s speakers coming to educate, and to learn themselves, to be participants as much as leaders and educators.  The essence to me is about learning and sharing, and that everyone has something to say and teach someone else.

The rules about “The Law of Two Feet” and being able to leave any sessions, to create your own experience, is important.  The rules about “no pitches” and encouraging people to walk out of any session that becomes an infomercial is important to maintain the community spirit of the event.    The rules about “No Rockstars- everyone is an equal” is important too, as is the fact that anyone can sign up to lead a session, which tend to be more discussion and questions and answer based, rather than lectures.

Barcamps tend to adhere pretty strictly to the rule that anyone can present, and the schedule is created that day- people can sign up for rooms and to lead sessions the morning of, not in advance.  At Podcamp, we bend this rule a bit, and while we maintain open space where people can create content on the fly and in the moment, a good portion of the content, sessions and scheduling are set within a week or two of the event.  Why did we make this choice?

After Podcamp NYC, where we had over 1,000 people sign up for the event and over 100 sessions in rooms of vastly different sizes in which to place these people, we decided that having people sign up for sessions in advance was crucial, as was organizing the sessions into some rough tracks, just to make the event logistics a bit easier for everyone.  For example, one room night have great content about online video, while another focused on Search Engine optimization, and another on marketing your projects on the web.  We found that Unconferences can scale, but logistics and fire codes are still important factors to consider!

The advance scheduling of sessions has had another interesting effect-people who typically might be a bit nervous about this Unconference thing attend, because they know a bit about what to expect in advance.  They come and participate, and many have what I would call a conversion experience, where the differences in what they get out of an unconference compared to a traditional conference changes their minds completely about what a conference can be.

One of the things we say frequently about Podcamp is that at traditional conferences, the hallways and social events can be the best part of the event, and we try to turn the whole conference into the hallway.  Chris Penn often says that we provide the canvas paint and brushes, but the experience and art you take away at the end of the day is up to you- you structure your experience to get the most out of it, rather than having it dictated for you.

So let’s take a look at PR Camp.  It’s one day, limited to 200 people.  So far, so good.   The tickets range from $199 to $295, depending on when you sign up.  That’s way out of the league of the charge of most unconferences, many of which are free.  In fact, Podcamp Philly charges $20, but that money goes not to cover conference costs but to a local community charity, to help further support our community- this year was Covenant House.  Likewise, Podcamp Boston charges $50, some of which covers operation expenses not covered by sponsors, and helps cover things like lunch, with any extra funds going to the Boston Foodbank.  I have a hard time, even knowing what it costs to put on an event in NYC, how this pricing structure is in the Community-based, non-profit realm, which is also at the heart of most unconferences.  Strike One.

The confirmed list of discussion speakers is a list of PR Professionals, but there seems to be no room for anyone in the community to sign up and lead a session.  Strike Two.

I see a lot of people I know and who I know know unconferences participating, so I have some hopes that there will be some “unconference” in this event, but from the outside, it looks pretty much like a regular old conference to me.

I know that there are things the Unconference movement can bring to make any old conference better and more productive.  But if you are going to call yourself a “camp”, if you are going to adopt the name unconference, particularly if you are in Public Relations, you have got to realize you are treading in shark-infested waters.  Your PR brethren may not understand the difference, but there are legions of geeks who do who also consult to marketing and PR firms about the social web, and this is pretty much a poor PR move if ever there was one.

And if I think this use of the terms Camp and Unconference is over the line and not appropriate for this conference, being the poster child of the Hybrid Conference myself and constantly getting heat from Barcamp folks about it, all I can say is: batten down the hatches and good luck.  It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.