PR crisis at SXSW: Media slams firm for ‘Homeless Hotspots’

The campaign, which turned homeless people into Internet hotspots, gained attention—lots of it, but failed in execution, said one PR professional.


The big story out of this year’s South By Southwest Interactive Festival: Homeless Hotspots—and if the backlash is any indication, it might go down as one of the biggest PR disasters of the year. Here’s what happened:

New York-based marketing firm BBH Labs equipped homeless people on the streets of Austin with devices that made them wireless hot spots. Internet seekers then paid what they wanted—in cash or via PayPal—to access the Web. The homeless men and women kept all of the money.

The media wasn’t amused, and now BBH Labs is licking its wounds.

ReadWriteWeb slammed BBH Labs, pointing out that these are people, “not helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure.”

The T-shirts that the people participating in the campaign wear say:

I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME]
TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
www.homelesshotspots.org

Wired referred to it as something out of a “darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”

Gizmodo said it’s “categorically awful, and all for the convenience of SXSW’s widely well-off patrons.”

The backlash on Twitter was similarly harsh, with people using words like “horrifying” and “dehumanizing” to describe it.

The company, which is part of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, went into full damage control on Monday. Saneel Radia, the man behind the idea, told BuzzFeed he’s sticking by the idea.

“The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware,” he said, “but frankly, I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t believe otherwise … we’re very open to this criticism.”

In an update to a blog post on the campaign, Radia wrote:

“Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. It’s unfortunate how much information being shared is incorrect (an unresearched story by ReadWriteWeb, which has now been updated is the epicenter of that misinformation). So, without being defensive (we welcome the educated critiques), we wanted to share a few key facts …”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Front Steps, the organization in Austin that helped BBH Labs carry out “Human Hotspots,” stood behind the program, telling BuzzFeed:

“I think the fit [with Front Steps] is in the empowerment, education, and encouragement of the client to earn an income while saving the majority of those earnings with a goal of moving to safe and stable housing.”

PR practitioner Richard Smith said the campaign succeeded in gaining attention, but failed in its execution.

“Setting expectations ahead of time do diffuse the ensuing sensationalism would have gone a long way,” he wrote on his blog rsmithing.com.

Smith offered a few suggestions for what BBH Labs should have done: “Watch ‘The Matrix,’ Brainstorm every sensationalist headline that could result, Don’t do anything to further that along.”

By anticipating the negatives, “the creators could have generated some pre-buzz or gotten their story out there first with must-airs that take on what is now coming at them left and right,” he added. “The focus could have been more on the project than putting out fires.”

BBH Labs made headlines last year when a group of interns gave smartphones to four homeless men in New York, paid for their data plans and encouraged them to tweet. The campaign, Underheard in New York, won praise from advocates. Word is BBH Labs, which shuttered the program, is planning to make a reality TV series on this premise.

BBH Labs called “Homeless Hotspots” a modern version of the street newspapers homeless people often sell on the streets of big cities.

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