Claire Beale: The real social media lesson learnt at SXSW
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: The real social media lesson learnt at SXSW

Of all the topics you might have predicted would dominate debate at this year's SXSW conference, Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York and homelessness wouldn't feature. Yet the agency's Homeless Hotspots initiative has generated more ferocious comment than pretty much anything else in Texas this week.

Perhaps that says something about the overload of blather coming out of SXSW (Christ, have you seen all those blogs and Tweets? Of course not, there’s thousands of them and who cares that much?). But it’s also another cautionary tale of an agency finding itself at the centre of a social media storm.

To recap: BBH Labs, the agency’s digital innovation unit, equipped homeless people in Austin, Texas (where the SXSW digital mêleé has been going on) with mobile Wi-Fi to sell on to delegates. The homeless vendors, wearing T-shirts declaring themselves "a 4G Hotspot", were allowed to pocket any money they made by selling the 4G service. But critics have lambasted the scheme as being exploitative, degrading, unconcerned with the long-term problem of homelessness and more interested in a quick publicity hit for BBH.

You might agree. Or you might think the most important thing is that Labs has put homelessness in the spotlight, helped homeless people earn some money, and forced some of the comfortable SXSW delegates to confront an issue that too many people would rather ignore.

Whatever your view, no-one should be surprised at the strength of feeling swirling online. The democratisation of publicly expressed opinion has meant the loudest voices are often critical ones. So you don’t use vulnerable people in your clever-clever initiatives without careful thought and an understanding that ferocious backlash is at least a possibility. And you are ready to deal with it quickly.

In the end, Labs handled the ensuing storm with a degree of dignity and calm reason. But – unless putting the agency at the centre of online attack was an ambition – why didn’t Labs work harder to avoid the situation in the first place? Why didn’t it think more carefully about the wording on the T-shirts to avoid objectification? Why didn’t it plan for a clear legacy from the idea that would do some longer-term good?

How many more social media shit-storms do the world’s best communications companies have to endure before they learn how to anticipate public opinion and deal with the consequences of their work?

Cilla Snowball has just clocked up 20 years at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. In that time, she’s proved that women are perfectly able to run the industry, helped keep AMV at the top of the agency league (page 17), earned herself a CBE and won admirers from all quarters, who cite her professionalism, dedication and dignity. And she’s remained resolutely charming, approachable and interested, which may well be her biggest feat.

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