In 2010, I was invited by Her Majesty's government to speak at the launch of PM David Cameron's Neighborhood Challenge grant. I found myself on a panel of very established British leaders, including the UK's Minister of Civil Society Nick Hurd, as well as the CEO of WRVS (the UK's oldest volunteer service organization), the CEO of Big Lottery Fund (which was funding the grant), and the CEO of NESTA (the government agency administering the Challenge). There I was, the only foreigner sitting among a panel of high-profile, old-school British leaders talking about how a new grant challenge would essentially try to fill the gap left by huge budget cut implemented by the Cameron government (well... they didn't frame it that way, of course, the audience did... as you will find out).
My role was to talk about how volunteer neighborhood organizations could use social media to enhance their work to improve their communities. I talked about using social media to organize volunteers and to influence the public policy impacting neighborhoods... my usual stuff.
As you might imagine, the event had a hashtag. It was prominently displayed on the sign next to our table. As I am sure many of you would do in my situation, I opened up my phone's Twitter app and loaded up the timeline for the hashtag. But, just a few minutes into the panel, the NESTA moderator passed a hand-written note down the table to me asking me to turn off my phone. I couldn't argue, as the panel was in progress. So I turned off my phone, cutting myself off from the audience and its live tweet stream.
Unfortunately, as the panel progressed through the Q&A session, I was unable to gauge the reactions to our answers. If I had been monitoring the hashtag, I would have seen the growing discontent from the audience as they noted the lack of direct answers coming from the other panelists. The audience wanted to address the fact that the grants were only a bone thrown to neighborhoods that had just lost a tremendous amount of government funding.
But as the only social media expert (hell, probably the only competent social media user user) on the panel, the panelist continued on oblivious to their failure to connect with the audience. Whether intentionally keeping themselves unaware of the audience's reactions or doing so out of incompetence, the result was a massive failure. The more the panel went on, the more upset the audience got. In the end, I doubt most of the panel was ever aware of how they lost and angered the audience.
Since then, I have heard many others share similar stories. Usually, the people who shut down those monitoring a hashtag stream are some combination of much older than everyone else in the room and/or unaware of how social media has changed how we conduct ourselves at public events (as a man over 50, I know some of us older folks do get it).
One of my favorite stories on the other end of the spectrum happened at SXSW 2008. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was being interviewed in a keynote session. Behind him and the interviewer, Sarah Lacy, was a screen streaming the session's hashtag.
During the interview, the audience became restless as Lacy threw too many softball questions. They wanted Zuckerberg to discuss Facebook's recently exposed Beacon program, which had been universally criticized as a major violation of Facebook users' privacy. When that didn't happen a few folks in the audience, including Michael Bassik (now president of Burson-Marsteller's Proof Integrated Communications), started tweeting the questions they wanted answered. The number of tweeters joining in from the audience exploded and they took control of the interview.
The contrast of these two sessions highlights both changing expectations about how speaker events work and the costs of not responding to the audience. As many social media strategists have told their clients, the conversation about you takes place on social media regardless of whether you see it or not. If you hope to exert any control over that conversation, you must engage it. But to be influential, you must know what people are saying about you before you say anything. It is pretty basic advice, if you think about it.
I would love to hear your experiences on both ends of this spectrum. Have you ever been told not to use your phone during a speaking gig (usually they think you are checking email, not monitoring the audience)? Have you ever been in an audience that effectively changed the direction of a panel's discussion using Twitter or other social media channel? Please share your stories in the comments below. I am anxious to read them.
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.