A terse and unhelpful cancellation notice for the MWC (Mobile World Congress) in Barcelona

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona attracts 100,000 international attendees. The organization that runs it, GSMA, just cancelled it due to coronavirus health concerns. Their announcement isn’t at all helpful.

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the withdrawal of some key exhibitors, the mobile operator group GSMA had to cancel the Barcelona show. I can’t quarrel with the decision, as many of the attendees are from China and many others had become concerned about travel and the spread of the virus. (My own experience with a similarly large show, CES, is that it’s a highly effective way for people from all over the world to share novel communicable diseases with each other.)

The challenge is how MWC chose to communicate. Here’s the announcement, which, after two days, is now featured on the show’s Web page:


12 February 2020, Barcelona: Since the first edition of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2006, the GSMA has convened the industry, governments, ministers, policymakers, operators and industry leaders across the broader ecosystem.

With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.

The Host City Parties respect and understand this decision.

The GSMA and the Host City Parties will continue to be working in unison and supporting each other for MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions.

Our sympathies at this time are with those affected in China, and all around the world.

That’s relatively straightforward. True, it’s sort of mysterious who the “Host City Parties” are (presumably, the city of Barcelona and the other government agencies involved in the show). But the statement is mercifully brief and free from self-justifying sympathy, prejudice, or any other undue emotion.

I still have questions

If you paid money to attend the show, will you get a refund? I can’t find that information anywhere.

If you paid money to exhibit at the show, will you get a refund? That’s also missing.

If you’re a paid speaker, will you still get paid? I have no idea.

Will hotels refund money? Unclear.

Until some time today, you could go through the motions of registering for the show on the same site where the announcement of the cancellation appeared. In fact, except for this announcement, the web page is pretty much exactly as it was a week ago.

A cancellation of this type is a huge deal. MWC was clearly not ready to address the communication associated with the decision. There are now tens of thousands of people reading about the cancellation and asking themselves “what do I do now?” There are no links to answers here.

I’m sure all those folks are emailing GSMA, which is almost certainly unable to help most of them.

Stuff like this happens. You can prepare for it ahead of time, so that you have a crisis plan in place (there’s a great book on how to do that, by Melissa Agnes). Or, you can get caught flatfooted as the people running MWC Barcelona did.

Learn from this. It’s a terrible thing when disaster strikes. It’s nobody’s fault. But failing to have an effective plan for communicating is still your responsibility.

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  1. You’re spot on, Josh. One of the biggest mistakes that we see made far too often in issue and crisis communication is a lack of empathy. In other words, the ability for the communicating party to be able to put themselves in their different stakeholders’ shoes and answer the following questions that should always be anticipated:

    – What matters to each stakeholder group (and seek to understand why)?
    – How will they feel?
    – What questions will they have that we can answer now, before they ask?

    These are a few examples and go a LONG way in helping craft meaningful, emotionally intelligent communications that will truly serve and help the organization get ahead of the situation, lead its own narrative, and strengthen relationships with those who matter most to the brand.

    Unfortunately, like far too many organizations, MWC failed at this.

  2. Answer more questions upfront in an announcement= reduce the inundation of repeated questions flooding your telephone lines, email, and social media sites.

  3. Although, I’m not part of the MWC, to listen to that bullshit explanation, I hear a big fat F.U. we’re both screwed! Us mostly, because we should probably return your money (but we can’t) (because we spent it) and this cost us time and effort and now we won’t get our money so WE aren’t returning it to you! So, you are screwed! Figure it out on your own!