PR TECHNIQUE: Turning crowds into customers

Meet-ups and flash mobs have had their fair share of ink recently. But are these passing fads, or valid additions to the media relations arsenal?

Meet-ups and flash mobs have had their fair share of ink recently. But are these passing fads, or valid additions to the media relations arsenal?

Earlier this year, New York City began to bear witness to the strangest kind of gatherings. Apropos of nothing, large groups of men and women, mainly in their 20s and 30s, converged on various public places - stores, bars, parks - and performed in unison a seemingly random action before dispersing. The mobs, whose members communicate by cell phone and e-mail, spread to other cities around the country and then, eventually, across oceans. The flash-mob movement, as it became known, left observers scratching their heads and wondering what these apparently meaningless actions said about the participants, if they said anything at all. At roughly the same time, the internet and mobile phones were brought to bear in a different arena - and to very different effect. Howard Dean's then-nascent presidential bid earned front-page coverage for its use of, a website where people who share interests can organize events. The campaign's use of the site was credited for drumming up grassroots interest in Dean, leading to intense press attention and, of course, campaign donations. In terms of the way they've been used and the communication results they produce, meet-ups and flash mobs couldn't be more different. As directionless as the mobs are, meet-ups are pointed. However, their appearance at the same time, along with electronic communications channels in the same vein, like blogs and Friendster, seems to signal another chapter in the use of hi-tech to communicate with others. But with the exception of Dean's political strategists, the main players in this chapter have been hobbyists, enthusiasts, and, in many cases, people with nothing better to do. As a result of the slightly underwhelming promise of reaching niche audiences, dilettantes, and those suffering from boredom, the use of such tools for media relations is anything but self-evident. And professional communicators, for the most part, have steered clear of these techniques, despite the media attention bestowed on them from the start. What some early adopters have noticed, however, is a potential knock-on effect in terms of local media coverage. While most of the interests wouldn't naturally generate ink, a large-scale public meeting of enthusiasts just might. "This is something people should certainly pay attention to, but we're in a wait-and-see mode," says Ray Kerins, SVP and head of media relations for GCI Group, in a representative statement echoed by other PR practitioners, who are anything but leaping at the chance to deploy mobs or meet-ups for clients. Their rationale is a simple one. "Ultimately in PR, we are trying to ensure that we are communicating our clients' messages in the most strategic way possible," says Kerins. "Finding a way to ensure that a message is coming through in a meet-up or a flash mob is difficult." It's easy to see flash mobs as downright Shakespearean in their meaninglessness. If anything's full of sound and fury signifying nothing, it's a bunch of urbanites gathering at a toy store to scream and point at a single toy and fall to the ground - which actually happened this summer at a Toys-R-Us in New York. To put it in McLuhanesque terms, flash mobs are an example of the medium becoming the message, and that doesn't bode well for a communications strategy. Tom Grow, who runs the website, agrees but predicts that this will change as the gatherings are planned better. "Right now, it's just a fad," Grow says. "But I think the potential is there to take guerrilla marketing to a whole new level. I believe that people will use this eventually to promote a new product or event, even political leanings or specific agendas. There's a lot of potential when you can get that many people together." Grow is now looking for investors in a start-up company that would do just this. Contrasting flash mobs to more traditional methods of getting large numbers of people together in one place, he says the power of the mobs is in its spontaneity. "It takes people off guard," he says. "If you know there's going to be an abortion rally downtown tomorrow, you can avoid that. But if you're downtown and all of a sudden people are around you with signs, you're in the middle of it whether you want to be or not." But the chaotic aspect that is at the heart of both flash mobs and meet-ups is what makes them potentially dangerous from a public relations perspective. "Marketing teams need to be careful about how they approach an anarchy-based organization, where there is no actual leader and people are coming together to discuss a topic, because it's very easy to cross the line," says Michael Rosenthal, VP at Netcoms, Hill & Knowlton's online practice. The Dean campaign, which has used flash-mob tactics as well as meet-ups, has been one of the few organizations to be noticed for making them work. Earlier this month, Nokia launched a campaign with a flash-mob component, and Grow himself helped an Australian museum win some publicity with one. But PR people are hesitant for two main reasons: First, there is the potential for backlash in an uncontrolled communications situation, and second, it is difficult to find a client for which these tactics are appropriate. Rosenthal says the most appropriate client is someone with a young, internet-savvy audience. David Collett, a managing supervisor at Fleishman-Hillard, says pharmas could find a use for meet-ups because they often roll out vital products with which customers develop emotional relationships. "It demonstrates the psychology of constituents," he says. "It allows them to come together in an online forum and dip their toes in the water in an anonymous fashion." But, Collett cautions, there is a huge time investment in starting a meet-up campaign. "Once you open the door, you need to be able to continually feed the audience with information and keep them inside, or else they'll get disgusted," he says. One thing all these PR pros agree on is that, for all the media hype, both meet-ups and flash mobs bear close relationships to older forms of communicating. Neither removes the need for a well thought-out PR campaign with a clear set of consistent messages. "The technology is certainly exciting," says Rosenthal. "But you still have to have an interesting campaign." ----- Technique tips Do consider your client's audience. Meet-ups and flash mobs will be most successful in reaching younger consumers Do be diligent in monitoring campaigns that use these tactics because these uncontrolled communications environments can easily get out of hand Do be wary of your messages getting lost in the hype that surrounds the comms vehicle Don't rely solely on these largely untried methods of communicating Don't go into these campaigns without being prepared for a backlash Don't lose sight that a clear messaging strategy is still necessary

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