All Atwitter in Austin

PR People Have to Understand the Mob Now Uses BlackBerries

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
Last week was spring break in Austin, which means South By Southwest. SXSW started in 1987 as a music festival. It has now grown into an internationally known entertainment industry event and conference. More than 500 bands from around the world playing all day and night for four days. In addition, there are also highly regarded film and interactive festivals in the early part of the week.

The keynote of the interactive conference this year was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg interviewed by BusinessWeek tech writer Sarah Lacy. If you are at all geeky, you heard about this. There's a good rundown here.

As interviews go, it was awkward to say the least. Lacy didn't ask questions as much as she made comments and waited for Zuckerberg to respond, which was the wrong format considering he's a bit dull and not really very candid.

She also wasn't shy about flacking her upcoming book ("available for pre-sale at Amazon.com") and trying too hard to buddy up to her interview subject. Flirting, many people called it. Whatever it was, it contributed greatly to the crowd turning on her.

It started with a low murmur that escalated into outright heckling. "Talk about something interesting" was one of the comments shouted. Lacy got defensive, agitated and generally bejibbered.

Stay with me; I'm going somewhere PR-related here. There were lessons to be learned: Lacy didn't seem well prepped for the interview. She did not seem to know the audience well (which she admitted in a later interview). Those are cardinal sins, and, ironically, common criticisms reporters have about PR people.

She also wasn't prepared when things turned south. She knew she was losing control of the interview, and she responded by being arrogant and inflexible. Again, another sin for which clients are routinely roasted. She blamed the crowd and whined that "you should try doing what I do; it isn't easy."

Maybe most importantly, she ceded control to the audience, both during the program and, more regrettably, afterwards, where she really did nothing to mitigate the damage and instead let pretty much anyone else shape the story.

Those were obvious issues. But the more interesting thing to me was something the significance of which I haven't completely grasped. It was the technology-fired lynch mob that grabbed my attention. The pitchforks and axe-handles of the day were Blackberries and iPhones.

The E-Mob
The most intriguing aspect of the affair was the speed at which the action moved from the stage into the ether-world, mostly thanks to Twitter--the "tell the world what you're doing this very second in 140 characters or less" social communications network.

The interweb offers us a place to express ourselves and share diverse views and opinions. But in some cases, like this one, it's nothing more than a cyber-mob. Social media, in this case, was decidedly anti-social; the 21st century equivalent of throwing tomatoes. And the intended target, Lacy, wasn't even aware they were being thrown.

I admit, I don't really get the whole Twitter thing. In my opinion, it's both an exercise in vanity--does anyone really care what I'm thinking while I'm in line at Starbucks?--and a reminder that our lives are filled with a lot of mundane activity, hopefully punctuated with the occasional interesting event. And it's a good place to gossip.

Don't get me wrong; I like gossip as much as the next guy (In fact, you won't believe, what I heard about the next guy...). It's not like people are getting their news from Twitter. But there's no denying that it was a starting point and played a major role in the spread of this story.

As the meltdown was taking place on stage, "real-time" coverage was beginning as fast as the audience could react, first via Twitter, text messaging and old-fashioned cellphone calls. Then it quickly moved to blogs, then to the more "mainstream" media such as Wired and CNET.

So What?
I'm not really sure what to make of something like Twitter as a potential PR tool. In fact, I'd welcome any comments to that effect.

But you can bet on a couple of things: I'll be following the post-mortem on this incident, and any others like it I can find, so just in case any client walks into a similar situation, we'll be better prepared.

And I won't be so quick to turn my nose up at things that potentially impact my business, just because I don't happen to find them interesting.
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