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Burning The Man: Burning Man’s Ticket (& PR) Fiasco

I miss PR. I was good at it. Hell, there was a time when both Fast Company and PR News declared me one of the best. Not because I liked working a billion hours a week, which is what it would have taken to rise to the top of my profession, but because I have some weird instinctual ability to know how people want a story told to them. I particularly love Crisis PR. That’s some fun stuff. It’s the greatest challenge, but can also have the greatest rewards. In the short-attention-span, high-adrenaline way that I like to live, that’s the juice.

Last week was a distracting orgy of PR catastrophes. Between Burning Man and Komen,  some smart people were doing really dumb things. But, at my heart, I’m a Burner, and I really want to fix this. I can’t, because it has nothing to do with me. I do have friends who are involved in BMORG (the organizing offices of Burning Man,) and I think the world of them. They are good, smart, well-intentioned people who, collectively, really screwed the pooch on this one. They are feeling, understandably, attacked and therefore defensive. They have been noticeably silent in all the social media hubub about the ticketing fiasco, except to throw the occasional barb on my (and other friends) Facebook walls when we bitch about the new ticketing process. I can’t say I blame them, I’d feel attacked too.

But there are ways to fix this. Yes, it started as a disastrous change to how the event is ticketed, but now it is a full-blown PR disaster, and ignoring it will only make it worse. On the upside, the ticket fiasco seems to be taking a back seat. On the downside, distrust, anger and dissolution are now in the driver’s seat. You cannot sit quiet on this one.

So, if I were doing PR for my beloved Burning Man (or anyone else in a PR crisis,) here’s what I’d tell you to do. And how. This is good PR advice for anyone, take it. Use it. Really.

1. OWN IT!  So far, all we’ve heard from BMORG is, essentially, “chill, there’s not really a problem.” Well, if the vast majority of your constituents are telling you there is a problem, then there is a problem. And they are telling you what it is.

Are you tempted to say, “eh, it’s only a couple hundred people on Facebook?” Generally speaking, it takes 1,000 readers to get 1 comment.  So for every 1 comment you see, there are about 1,000 people who agree with it, but aren’t saying anything. On both sides.

When everyone is telling you that there is a problem, and you tell them that there isn’t a problem, you are essentially telling them that you do not trust or value their opinion, and that you know better. That is an especially large problem in this case since your constituents told you, leading up to the change, that there would be problems. This was predicted by your followers, and you told them they were wrong. Now it’s all happening, and you’re telling them it isn’t happening. They are not stupid, and by not acknowledging the reality of the problem, you are telling them that you think they are. 

You simply have to acknowledge that there is a problem. Fundamentally, you cannot have a dialog with a group of people if you can’t even agree on a starting point for the discussion. That starting point is the foundation of the solution and you MUST go where your constituents are. They are having a problem, you must have it with them. Without that, any solution will fail. It will make the problem worse.

Dear Burners, we, the BMORG, really messed this up. We had the best intentions, and it just plain didn’t work. We are as frustrated as you are, as confused as you are, and are really trying to find a way out of this mess. Many of you don’t have tickets, and without you, none of us have a Burning Man. We get it. Yes, we should have seen it coming, it’s not like you didn’t warn us, but we didn’t. It’s kind of like we were over protective parents – we had the best intentions, but we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t ask for help, and now we’ve gotten our whole family lost.

2. FEEL THEIR PAIN. Ultimately, you want your users to trust your brand. (And don’t give me this “community” and “family” crap right now. You are a brand, and you are dependent on your users to trust and use your brand. Then, and only then, can you go back to calling us all a community and a family.)

You need to show actual empathy for the constituents that are alienated by your current policy decisions. Acknowledge that you know this is more than a vacation, more than a week in the sun, more than some humpity-hump to the wumpity-wump. Acknowledge that you have violated the trust of your users, and that you understand how that makes them feel.

So now we have to get us un-lost, and we know that’s going to be extra hard because you don’t trust us anymore.  You feel like we let you down, and frankly, we kind of agree. We know that Burning Man is more than a party, it’s a lifestyle. It’s an act of generosity in which you go all-out to create art and others go-all out to appreciate it. We know that, without you, we have nothing. And we know that we’re at risk of losing you. No matter how good our intentions were, we’ve left you, quite literally, out in the cold, all dressed up with nowhere to go. So why would you believe us if we asked you to trust us, and come to our party anyway?

3. BE HUMAN. Right now, by pretending that there isn’t a problem and that you did nothing wrong, you are furthering the rift between you and the community that you are actually trying to serve. The relationship between a brand and it’s consumers is no different between that of two lovers. Imagine that you caught your lover in a lie that caused a great deal of damage to your relationship, and they just looked you in the eye and said, “I’ve done nothing wrong, I know what I’m doing, what are you worried about?”  It would likely end your relationship. This is no different.

Instead, be honest and human.

Here’s why you should trust us again, or still. We are human. We were faced with incredible change at Burning Man. We sold out for the first time last year, we changed our organizational structure, we increased the size of our board. Really, it was a time of great change for us – and we are just a bunch of people. So, we did what a lot of people do, we put our heads down, shoulders forward and plowed through with brute force. As a result, we didn’t listen as well as we should have, and we didn’t think things through as well as we should have. And although this is a mess, we have realized how much you mean to us, how much our actions impact you, and that really, we are lost without each other. We will fix this, together. We don’t know how, but we know we don’t want to lose you, and it should start with us listening to you.

4. MEET THEM WHERE THEY’RE AT. If your users are bitching on social media, meet them there. Don’t stay in the ivory tower of your own web site and make them find you. If people are having protests in the street, don’t take out print ads. If people are in the South, don’t head for safety in the North.

The classic PR example here is British Petroleum’s less than awesome “Beyond Petroleum” ad campaign in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.  That stunk of green-washing and created backlash. Sadly, y’all are doing that too. They should have been having town halls in the Gulf, feeding the people, cleaning the beaches and literally holding hands. You guys should be on Facebook, engaging in the dialog. You should be really listening, connecting, talking – get yourself back into the community before the rift is so great that it cannot be bridged.  Don’t have enough staff? Get ambassadors, now. Find the people who are being reasonable and engaging in the dialog and reach out to them.

You guys have something that most brands don’t have – true love. Use it.

To start fixing it, we’re going to find some Burners, people who aren’t part of the BMORG, and are actually part of the pissed off masses, and work with them to be a bridge between BMORG and the rest of the community.  It’s clear that we can’t fix this alone, but we also can’t fix it without some orderly dialog that generates actionable ideas. We’re listening to you, and scrambling to fix this, together.

5. TAKE YOUR CUES FROM YOUR PEOPLE. It’s a mess, right?!  You don’t know how to make the angry masses not be angry, right?!  Wrong. They’re telling you what they want. All you have to do is listen to them. The beauty of that is that not only have they offered you solutions – name / photo linked tickets, single price tickets, more ingress lines with fewer greeter antics – by taking their suggestions, you are showing them that you trust them and are actually in it together. What’s more, you’ll get them to DO THE WORK FOR YOU! There have been countless offers for everything from communications work, system architecture, volunteer committees etc….. Use it. Ask for help! Trust your users.

To that end, we are looking into your ticketing suggestions. We think they’re good. Even if we can’t get to it this year, you  have our PROMISE that we will try to do it for next year. We also hear how much you want to be involved in helping us solve this problem. We will be thrilled to work with our community to build new systems that are more efficient, inclusive, and likely to result in the vibrant art and culture that makes us who we are. You can look for those announcements in the next couple weeks. We can’t finish this transformation that quickly, but we can start it. And we appreciate that you’re all in this with us. (Yes, we wish we had done this sooner, but we didn’t, so thanks for being part of it now. )

6. MAKE ACTUAL CHANGE, CAREFULLY. When people are this pissed off, you have to do something. Before it’s too late. In this case, you have two distinct things that probably need to happen:

  1. Change the ticketing system.

  2. Deal with the leadership that got you here.

The ticketing system was screwed from the get-go, and the results have been worse than even the biggest Chicken Littles amongst us would have guessed. You, simply, have to change it. You haven’t printed tickets yet, so really, you could do it for this year. You can attach a name to the bar code, just like you do for early entry passes…..

But if nothing else, do it for next year. But start now.

You have also lost a lot of trust in terms of the leadership that got you here. While no one needs to be fired or publicly shamed, you do need to figure out how it happened and tell people that you understand it. Take a lesson from the Komen foundation. Karen Handel is gone, as of today, which is the best thing that could have happened to them. HOWEVER, it may be too little too late, because people are now looking long and hard into the politics and systems of the Komen Foundation. You guys are in the same boat. So you need to start looking for the things that others are going to find.

We are also trying to figure out how this really happened in the first place. If it’s “just” because of the changes and being overwhelmed, that might be good news, because it means we’ll get better as we go. However, it’s also possible that we are  tired, or in over our heads, or that some of us have been doing this too long and are too stuck in our ways. That would not be good, and we promise to look at that too. After all, solving a problem is no good if we’re just going to repeat it. We promise, no sacred cows. Or, no sacred pink furry unicorns with fire-horns, as the case may be.

Regardless, this will be interesting. I don’t know if this is the end of Burning Man or a new beginning. Maybe this is the dawn of the many regional burns, and the influx of Burner culture into the default world 365 days a year. That would be awesome.

What I do know is that the people who are running Burning Man are good people. They are smart, kind, generous, visionary and to call them names and call “conspiracy” is unfair. They also fucked this up, badly, and for them not to admit it is just as unfair. But we will, one way or another, get through this.

I, for one, will volunteer to do my part. I’d do just about anything to keep the principles – and event – of Burning Man alive. And I know I’m not alone. But BMORG, you have to do your part. I hope this helps you. But, mostly, I needed to get it off my chest. This is my area of expertise, and seeing it go so badly awry was just distracting the hell out of me. Especially as something I love so much is suffering so badly.

And no, I don’t have tickets. I don’t know how I feel about that – it changes on a minute to minute basis.


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