Homeless Hotspots? What Could Go Wrong?

12 Mar
Update 3/14/12: Interview with the Homeless Hotspot creator, Saneel Radia of BBH Labs and program participant, Dusty White via Marketplace.org (see below).

The PR for one thing. Hoo boy, where to begin…

As reported at Buzzfeed then ridiculously blown up by Gizmodo and expanded upon at Wired, homeless people of Austin are earning some cash by providing wi-fi access at the South By Southwest event. On the surface, it seems legit: money and jobs for the homeless who provide a service in demand. But wow, has it backfired:

Homeless Hotspots

Hyperbole much, Gizmodo?

What’s this doing in the Horror section? It’s not like these people are actually being turned into routers – they’re just carrying routers around. We aren’t living in The Matrix (yet… or are we?). Point is: this headline and its categorization give the story just enough spin to evoke plenty of Internet ire.

The Matrix - We are not there... yet

The Matrix - We are not there... yet. Image credit: sector930.com

What Went Wrong

For the record, I think this is an okay venture, but really bungled from a public relations perspective. It sure doesn’t help that it has a lighthearted name like “Homeless Hotspots.” Or that it was created by the well-intentioned-yet-vaguely dystopian-sounding BBH Labs, who refer to it as “an experiment.” Or that BBH Labs is actually a division of marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty. It’s common enough for marketers to be cast as insidious without fodder like this, whether justified or not.

In fact, if you read the comments at the above article, they overwhelmingly call out Gizmodo on the casting of this as some twisted bionic procedure, pointing out the actual benefits, something BBH Labs is now having to play fireman on by defending the effort. Says Saneel Radia, creator of the idea:

“Basically the seed was to try to help the homeless during SXSW. Our goal is to reinvent the newspaper model. It’s intentionally attention grabbing.” He stresses that they’re not advertising anything – except perhaps BBH itself – and that the money goes directly to them.
-via BuzzFeed

If it’s attention they wanted, well, congratulations are in order. But what didn’t work at all here was the execution. Setting expectations ahead of time to diffuse the ensuing sensationalism would have gone a long way, something BBH Labs is no doubt realizing now that they’re in “full damage control mode.” It’s a damn shame their energy is now being put into damage control rather than furthering the core idea, but hey, at least they’re getting attention, right?

What They Should Have Done

  1. Watch The Matrix
  2. Brainstorm every sensationalist headline that could result
  3. Then don’t do anything to further that along

Simple, right? Do you think that happened here? Doesn’t seem that way. It’s PR 101: anticipate the negatives. By doing this, 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. The focus could have been more on the project than putting out fires. Developing pre-game strategy in this case might involve things like:

  • Not calling it an “experiment”
  • Not advertising for BBH Labs
  • Telling the stories of how the project came together
  • Tapping the SXSW blogosphere for coverage
  • Distributing QR codes taking customers to a mobile-friendly site at purchase explaining the cause and enabling them to donate to Front Steps, the organization that helped BBH Labs put it together.

These are just the first things that come to mind in the time it takes me to type them. For all I know all this happened and more. If that’s the case, then it’s a sad commentary on the snarky nature of online discussion blowing things out of proportion.

If this did not happen at all, it’s a strong case for having your PR together before initiating a venture that could bring backlash, especially with a project involving connectivity… at a conference on technology… given the snarky nature of online discussion to blow things out of proportion.

Update – Homeless Hotspot Creator, Saneel Radia, and Participant, Dusty White, Speak:

Hear directly from the program’s creator, Saneel Radia in an interview at Marketplace.org. Radia does state they anticipated some blowback, and are learning from the endeavor:

It would be naive not to think that this is going to be debated. By putting this model out there, and letting people debate — this is what worked in their program and this is what didn’t work — we’re actually uniquely qualified to say, we can take our licks for whatever we got wrong. What we’re motivated by what the people who adopt it get right as a result.
-Saneel Radia, BBH Labs, via Marketplace.org

Marketplace also interviewed a Homeless Hotspot participant, Dusty White. That interview is here. Kudos to Marketplace for giving broader voice to the idea behind and to an actual participant in this program. As they aptly state, there’s “way more to the story than met the ear.” And Mr. White goes on to say, “it’s not what you achieve in life, sir, it’s what you overcome.”

What a great takeaway from this entire endeavor.

Homeless Hotspot Participant Interview

"It's not what you achieve in life, sir, it's what you overcome." Interview with Homeless Hotspot participant, Dusty White at Marketplace.org.

What do you think? Could any amount of PR have made a difference here? Is this in fact a decent idea that was poorly handled? Or is the idea just not a good one whatsoever? Let us hear from you in the comments!

7 Responses to “Homeless Hotspots? What Could Go Wrong?”

  1. patticoll March 17, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    Such an interesting concept. I can’t read the comments on my phone because they are white on grey. I think being that it seems totally an issue of pr then I have to go to my gut on the issue of homeless hotspots. I don’t know what their compensation is but I think it an interesting idea and way to create jobs. It’s not hurting anyone as long as the people are William participants and getting compensated. I find it interesting the comment above by Mr. White. Out of curiosity it would be interesting to give a person without a home a recording device be it only sound or both visual and sound and see what people say to people without homes. The daily things people say to them must be a lot to endure. It would be an interesting study of human interaction.

  2. skemper March 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    I think the intentions were good, but calling it an experiment may have been a misstep. Allowing Front Steps (the affiliated nonprofit) to play a more prominent role in the situation would have helped, and I wish they would have made the effort part of a larger, more sustainable education/outreach program. I saw one very inspiring tweet saying something to the effect of “Give a man a hotspot, you feed him for a day; teach him to code, you feed him for a lifetime.” Something more oriented toward ongoing technology education would have been less sensational and probably more effective.
    Kerry (Talking A Lot!)

    • rsmithing March 13, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

      Yes, having the local agency more involved and just stepping back as a less prominient facilitator would have been my call here. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of opportunities for the firm to make its good work known after the fact — blogs, case studies, follow-ups… but I think they just didn’t fully weigh the negativity before pursuing the “controversy” angle.

      Thanks very much for commenting, Kerry. Everyone: go read her excellent post on the coverage, where she recounts actually being in Austin attending the memorial of a homeless community figure there (and where I call her “sir” in the comments… so smooth).

  3. preachersa2z March 13, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    You raise such an important point – and one which applies in so many walks of life. A good idea can be undone by poor PR, just as a moderately good one can be improved by it. BBH should have been wise to this, I would have thought – cast as PR people often are as sharks swimming in waters of unwary fish. Better luck next time…

    • rsmithing March 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      I’m right there with you on the power of PR, and it definitely works both ways. Thanks for commenting, Richard!


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