Blog / "The best and worst news you could ever hear": Fellows Forum with Melissa Werner, Director of University Ceremonies and Protocol Officer

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“The best and worst news you could ever hear”: Fellows’ Forum with Melissa Werner, CSEP

In March 2015, we had the pleasure of speaking with Melissa Werner, Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP), Director of University Ceremonies and Protocol Officer at ASU. Our one-hour discussion with Melissa helped us realize that her role at the university is not only extremely important but also highly intensive. Our team asked her questions about her experiences in her position and what kinds of logistics and planning were involved when President Clinton and President Obama had visited ASU. We were enthralled by her vivid recollections and stories of higher-level event planning, and at the same time, we were amazed by her skills and ability to regularly operate in a space where parts are not just constantly moving but always moving at a very fast pace. From graduation to smaller gatherings and meetings amongst leaders, Melissa is an executive producer of ceremonies and major events on campus, and she serves as an advisor on protocol, which includes etiquette, manners and precedence.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Jaws dropping: The magnitude of Melissa’s work is incredible, especially considering ASU’s sheer size. Our team members paused in near disbelief when she said that her staff consists of herself and her assistant. “I rely extremely heavily on other people in the institution. From higher-ups to volunteers, their active participation is crucial to my ability to orchestrate a highly complex event down to the second.” Perfect food for thought about how we, at UI, approach our own cross-unit dependency in some of our larger-scale projects. 
  • Information Galore: Melissa brought with her several books from her much larger office library, and this really helped us get a better grasp of the enormous amount of information that focuses on protocol, etiquette, manners, procedures, etc. One book was her favorite book about military ceremonies and another was her go-to for information about religious protocol. These books were not pamphlets. They were hundreds of pages thick and packed with handy information about how to avoid all kinds of blunders with different types of guests. 
  • “The best and worst news you could ever hear.”: Did you know that Melissa had only 80 days from the day it was announced to the day of execution to orchestrate President Obama’s May 2009 commencement visit? “I was on vacation during Spring Break, and all of a sudden two things happened that just never happen: 1) My boss asked me to come to the office for a very early emergency meeting and 2) I was told that the date of commencement had changed.” She said that commencement is a life event that people often plan well ahead of time; you just don’t change it…unless the President is coming. “I tell people it was the best and worst news you could ever hear,” she said. “Very few of us had much sleep that Spring, but I can’t imagine that any future event could top it.” 
  • Money for a sudden Construction Overhaul: Having the President of the United States be part of graduation was, believe it or not, both expensive and not part of the budget. ASU’s stadium was not designed with a speaker system that would effectively convey sustained speech. Therefore, in addition to the costs of needing new staging and lighting, Melissa said, “We had to build great delay towers and augment the audio in the stadium tenfold in order for everything to be heard even in the upper corners of the stadium.” It was exceptionally intriguing to hear how Melissa found creative ways to cut deals and raise funding with companies and other entities in our community to make sure that ASU could lift this endeavor off the ground. 
  • Secret Service: It was equally interesting to hear about her experience working with various levels of the Secret Service to redraw maps, draft a contingency plan, secure a panic room, etc. If you find certain pictures of the May 2009 graduation, you can find some snapshots of snipers in the stadium. “It was either the safest place to be or the most dangerous place to be. You get anxious when you’re in an audience with 68,000 people and unusual things happen, like planes flying over the stadium when they are not supposed to.” 
  • Gifts: Melissa also explained how her office often is tasked to make sure that ASU conducts itself appropriately when giving gifts. She shared with us some stories about how she and the Office of the President selected gifts for former President Clinton and his family when they visited ASU for the Clinton Global Initiative University in Spring 2014. “You have to think about gifts for an individual vs. a couple, making sure that the physical stature of the gift is larger for the higher-stature figurehead making sure that you are sensitive to cultural interpretations of the gift selection.” Depending on the culture and context, for example, a watch could be seen as a formidable countdown to death and a letter opener could be seen as an act of aggression. 
  • A high-value resource to the university and a model for building on experiences: Our office is very grateful that Melissa accepted our request to speak with her and learn more about her and her work. For me, personally, I felt particularly appreciative about Melissa’s visit because my parents effectively forced my siblings and me to attend a summer etiquette program when I was in high school, and I remember feeling rather discontent for what seemed at the time was the inculcation of obsolete knowledge, particularly on topics related to place setting, envelopes and gifts. Although my appreciation for protocol grew slightly when I worked with higher ed administration in undergrad, working at ASU and seeing full-fledged, high-level protocol in action has truly solidified my appreciation for this realm. It is so much more apparent to me now how protocol and ceremonies matter greatly in relationship building and in the smooth functioning of a large knowledge enterprise with a cross-sector and international reach. “It all seems quite daunting. So, what I want to do is to try to be a resource for everyone at the university,” said Melissa. “People sometimes give themselves a hard time, but you have to remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. Even as a protocol officer, I believe there is no way to know everything, but always evaluate how you can do something differently next time. Mistakes are some of the best opportunities for learning that you can ever have.”
Blog / Fellows Forum With Melissa Werner