When Emma Cookson, the Chairman of the New York branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), an award-winning ad agency, and her team concocted an innovative marketing program called Homeless Hotspots, they genuinely had no sense of the furor that they’d be facing when the project launched.
The Homeless Hotspots program was meant to serve the needs of the super digerati who attend the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Inspired by the established model of homeless people earning money by selling homelessness-focused newspapers, BBH’s idea was for homeless people, wearing T-shirts printed with their names and identifying themselves as 4G hotspots, to sell connectivity (an issue for conference attendees) by means of small handheld Wi-Fi routers.
Bad early-March weather kept the program mostly invisible until the third day of SXSW, when appalled commentary began to roil the Twitterverse. Cookson found herself in the unexpected position of having to react to a media tsunami — fast.
I sat down with her to explore what she learned from the experience, which she was able to distill into five lessons:
# 1. Comment Precedes Knowledge
As Cookson was putting her kids to bed the evening of Sunday, March 11 in her Brooklyn home, her Tweetdeck started “blinking very loudly,” with her team on the ground in Austin alerting her that something alarming was going on. Individuals had begun negative tweets about Hotspots that cascaded into a cycle of news stories (See articles from ReadWriteWeb, The New York Times and Wired) and what started out as a small brush fire suddenly scaled up to a full-blown firestorm. The speed at which it all happened was unprecedented, given that it was generated by the tech community gathered at SXSW, and not some other big gathering.
With the event now solidly in her rearview mirror, what does Cookson understand about the situation that she didn’t know at the time? “I don’t think I realized how large the volume of comments without information could be,” she says. “The overall effect during the first 24 hours was a very big and very noisy, but largely empty echo chamber. Most of the initial commentary got all of the facts wrong. Nobody knew that all the money (a daily minimum of $50 for up to six hours of work) was going to the participants themselves, nobody knew there was no sponsor or brand connected to the program, nobody knew how the participants felt — there were a number of pieces of missing information.”
#2. You Get One Chance to React
On Monday morning, Cookson was looking at a voluminous and overwhelmingly negative set of public comments. “Obviously, the big question for us,” Cookson says, “was how do you face that first storm? Do you just stop, exit and apologize? Or, do you carry on and try to explain? We had to make that call really early on — and it’s a big call, because once you act on the decision, you can’t go back. We decided that we needed to address the comments head-on.”
#3. With New Facts and Openness, The Story Can Change
“The reason why I chose to continue,” she says, “is because we thought there was a new perspective to bring to bear.” Cookson knew, for instance, that nobody had actually heard from the homeless participants whose voices were going to be credible and powerful. Participants like Clarence Jones, a 54-year-old homeless survivor of Hurricane Katrina, or Jonathan Hill II, who reported that he liked being a hotspot better than “his usual work doing manual labor at music venues, largely because it offered him a chance to talk to some of the thousands of the attendees at the program, who normally ignore the roughly 6,000-strong homeless population in Austin.”
Cookson describes a clear trajectory in the coverage and believes that, unlike some big corporation with a crisis management team, BBH’s decision to talk to everyone proved helpful, finding “that in one-on-one conversations, people were almost always positive.” She adds, “What started off on Sunday as primarily negative was by Tuesday hotly debated with new pieces like those on The Atlantic Wire or NPR’s Talk of the Nation, where the majority of the call-in comments during the show were supportive and recognized the delicate tension between empowerment and exploitation. It was still a controversial story, but much more balanced. I’d say we made the right decision.”
#4. It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Cookson says they made a deliberate decision in the planning stages of Homeless Hotspots that they needed to make the fact that the participants were homeless apparent upfront in the name — thus, Homeless Hotspots. “But,” she says, “it’s not a surprise to someone who works in advertising that what people respond to is not just what you say but how you say it. I work in the communications industry — the execution, the style and the expression are a vast part of what people respond to. The T-shirt message was received very differently when stripped from its original context and broadcast as tweets.”
#5. There’s Real Value in Clear Leadership
One of Cookson’s big lessons was in experiencing the value of her corporate culture through the prism of a crisis. There was a small team of people involved, but she was the decision-maker. “While I was facing an extremely high-volume challenge and criticism externally, I realized after a while that I wasn’t facing criticism internally. When the story went big on Sunday night, I e-mailed the global leadership to tell them what was happening and what we were doing about it, but then, I was pretty much left to manage it. What I didn’t have — that I think many companies would have had — was any internal challenging or questioning of my judgment.” Cookson says that not having to deal with that bureaucratic operational complexity was really critical, because it was a very fast-moving situation. “If’ I’d had to keep reporting back, it would have been disabling, and it would have been further disabling if I’d been distracted by a worry that I or my team was being judged internally. We talk about needing to embrace risk to do fresh, innovative stuff,” she says, “and this was a living embodiment. Lots of companies talk about embracing risk but don’t mean it. How we reacted was a validation that we meant it.”
What Would You Do Differently Knowing What You Know Now?
Cookson says she still finds it hard to answer the question of whether she would do anything differently in hindsight, and has thought a lot about how controversy drove the story. Businesses generally don’t like controversy, but to Cookson, Homeless Hotspots proved that controversy has enormous power — driving the comments, the outrage, and the conversation. “If you ever need to get a message through, controversy cuts through like nothing else.” Then, of course, you have to judge the costs and benefits, deciding whether you want to endure the downside in order to get the upside.
Also posted June 18th, 2012 on the Harvard Business Review HBR Blog Network