Flash Mobs – Not in Public Relations/Marketing

September 28, 2012

On Saturday, Sept. 22, hundreds of police confronted rioters in a small Dutch town where a girl’s 16th birthday party invitation on Facebook spawned a gathering of an estimated 3,000 person turnout for the event. At least 36 people were injured, including one police officer.

According to CNN, the mayor had persuaded the girl’s family not to hold the party and unsuccessfully urged revelers not to attend.

Tom Scott actually predicted a similar scenario to this incident back in March 2010 in his Excite presentation (Similar to TED Talks). His two-year-old video predicts the worst case scenario of a riot that can spawn from a viral video, but the scenario is too similar to ignore.

I once attempted to organize a flash mob with astudent organization on campus. The invites were sent on Facebook and we had about 45 people confirm they were going to attend the event.  Everything was planned for a quick five minute pillow fight club/flash mob.

Unfortunately, only 15 people showed up. Five of those were people who planned the event and the camera we brought didn’t take any decent shots. The plan was to used branded pillow cases to get our name out there or at least get a decent shot to submit to the school newspaper and put up on websites. It didn’t work and everyone involved lost interest.

Flash mobs do not work in a public relations setting. There is no way to predict what people will do. The larger the group of people, the harder it is to predict. Plus, there is no way to guarantee that people will actually attend. It is an easy way to set yourself up for a lawsuit.

There are too many variables. Even if everything comes together, there is no guarantee that you will get any press for it.

This is not to say  staged events can’t work. On the contrary, the American Airlines Center did one recently to set the world record for the Largest Shaving Cream Pie fight  to promote the Ringling Brothers Circus coming to town. It was fun. People showed up and everyone was as safe as a pie to the face can be.

Last week I wrote about Cain’s Arcade. At the heart of it was a flash mob gone right. There was no way to predict the magnitude that a cardboard arcade could grow into. A little bit of heart, a lot of social media and one filmmaker’s dedication developed one child’s idea into inspiration and learning for other children.

Not all flash mobs are bad. At the best of times they spread goodwill and put smiles on peoples faces.  The incident last weekend was the culmination of a worst-case scenario and a few ring leaders inciting problems. Some truly are benevolent… or at least bring some smiles.

One of my favorite groups is Improv Everywhere. They describe themselves as a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. Check out the video where Improv Everywhere turned a little league baseball game into a professional quality production.


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