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Of PR and protest: The Times They Are A-Changin’

‘Occupy Wall Street’ teaches PR lessons — and risks of rushing to judgment

Walking past the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest in New York City, as I did last week, it would be easy to dismiss its relatively small size, incoherent message, and messengers who (for the most part) don’t look and sound like mainstream America. To do so would be a mistake. There’s a level of public relations sophistication at work here that could have unpredictable consequences.

Case in point: following the October 1st arrests of some 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, a PR battle ensued:

  •  Image from ProtestThe protesters immediately claimed the police had tricked them by letting them onto the bridge where they could be arrested. This was reflected in the initial coverage on October 1st.
  • The police responded that they had issued clear warnings for demonstrators to use the bridge’s walkway, not the roadway. The New York Times updated its online story to reflect this.
  • On October 2nd, as we’ve seen so often following clashes between police and protesters, ‘day two’ stories focused on the release of videos by both the police and protest organizers, each claiming they had acted properly.
  • On October 3rd, the Times found itself in the protest movement’s crosshairs, as a clever PR piece compared the newspaper’s initial protester-friendly lede (“After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested dozens…”) with an update that ran 20 minutes later (“In a tense showdown over the East River, police arrested hundreds…after they marched onto the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway.”).

The PR piece went viral, attracting thousands of page-views, tweets and retweets – most expressing outrage about the Times’ alleged bias. It also fed a narrative about powerful forces colluding to supress democratic expression.

In the Times’ defence, while the initial report reflected the protesters’ argument, the updated story focused on the facts that were not in dispute and then allowed each side to air its perspective. While this may be fair and ethical journalism, such nuances were lost in the rush to judgment that happens so often on the social web.

So, what do we make of this? Here are three lessons:

  •  Image from Protest Communications power has shifted, perhaps permanently. Those who master the tricky task of both harnessing and unleashing the power of the social web can become truly powerful. While it strains credulity to compare the Wall Street adventurers and their imitators in other cities to the courageous multitudes who challenged the dictators of the Arab world earlier this year, they are using many of the same strategies and tactics: start with a legitimate public concern; mobilize resources, people and messages through social media; attack the credibility of traditional sources of authority; drive media coverage with a sophisticated sense of theatre; repeat and grow.
  • Grassroots movements attract the powerful. ‘The first one now will later be last,’ Bob Dylan wrote almost 50 years ago in The Times They Are A-Changin’. His pen was both poetic and prophetic. Today, traditional sources of power scramble to associate themselves with grassroots movements — or to respond to them. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ now has pro-bono support from a high-end Manhattan PR firm, and opinion leaders of all stripes are using the protest to advance their own views and interests — from Michael Moore to big unions to columnists. Even the Tea Party movement — itself an example of this phenomenon in its near-takeover of the U.S. Republican Party — is getting in on the action. It’s only a matter of time before this agenda finds its way onto an even bigger stage.
  • Rush to understand, but don’t rush to judge. Thoughtful observers should seek to understand what is happening — not just the news, but also the strategies, tactics and sources of power that shape today’s headlines. No claims should be left without scrutiny — whether they come from police, protesters, pundits or presidents. It’s worth thinking critically before tweeting, retweeting or forming a hard-and-fast opinion that one may have to change later.

In this fluid and fragmented environment, it’s worth consulting a range of sources of information — ideally trusted sources with a reputation for airing both sides of an argument fairly. It may be hard, but it’s critical. What sources do you trust the most?

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October 4th, 2011 | Posted in Ideas | 1 Comment

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