Threats Create Dilemma for SXSW Organizers

As I prepare to head off to Dublin this weekend to attend Web Summit, I’m reminded of another overwhelmingly large gathering of geeks (and those who wish to profit from them). I’m talking of course about South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, which today finds itself in the proverbial PR pickle.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 4.53.44 PMBefore I delve into SouthBy’s current woes, I should remind you that Web Summit also almost landed itself in PR hot water following a post by its founder with the perhaps ill-advised title “Is Web Summit a Scam? – Setting the record straight”. Paddy Cosgrave wrote:

“If you’ve got a differentiated product that people seem to like, eventually and understandably, incumbents won’t like it. Some incumbents have decided to copy us. From Tokyo to Istanbul to Munich, we find folks who’ve cloned our entire website or elements of it, who’ve copied our stage design, mimicked our pub crawls or even replicated our custom designed booths.”

Web Summit's Paddy Cosgrave
Web Summit’s Paddy Cosgrave (Photo: Con O’Donoghue)

As a long-time PR person, I’m not sure bringing attention to the conference in this context was such a wise idea. I suppose after a relatively influential online outlet took the first shot, Mr. Cosgrave was obliged to respond, which in turn elicited a response to his response (“Is Web Summit a scam? Well, if you have to ask …”), and so on and so forth. Get my drift?

Probably best to leave well enough alone, especially given the ephemeral nature of media nowadays (plus the curmudgeonly nature of so many tech scribes). FWIW: Web Summit is completely sold out, and the speakers this year look to be first rate.

As for SXSW, its headaches are just beginning. Apparently, the conference organizers unilaterally decided to cancel two online gaming panels due to outside threats of violence:

“South by Southwest Interactive announced Monday it had canceled two panels at the Austin-based media festival related to gaming and online harassment after receiving “numerous threats of on-site violence.”


One of the cancelled panels was titled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” and while it “was not specifically about Gamergate, a movement known for harassment of women in the online gaming community, it was filled with women panelists who had previously been targets of harassment, including Randi Lee Harper, Caroline Sinders, and Katherine Cross.”

This decision didn’t sit too well with two of the most influential (digitally native) media sites publishing today — Buzzfeed and Vox. Both announced they would pull their reporters and panelists from attending the annual interactive affair, unless the gaming panels were reinstated. From Vox sister site Re/code:

“BuzzFeed has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016,” the company’s email said. “We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment.”

Also from Re/code:

“In a statement, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said it “will not be participating in this year’s festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.”

If you’re not overly PR- or media savvy, you might advise the organizers to fuggedaboutit. If you are, you will do everything in your power to persuade the organizers to resuscitate these timely (and not unimportant) panels — in some form or fashion — in order to preserve a Buzzfeed and Vox presence come March. My guess the latter option will prevail.