Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar tonight 6pm PDT, Wed., July 13

You’ve worked long and hard on an art project or theme camp. How do you make sure that others learn about your work? Academics and artists alike eventually realize that toiling quietly in obscurity rarely results in public knowledge or recognition of hard work. On occasion, someone might literally trip over your work and be thrilled. But if others haven’t heard about your work, it’s likely that your work will languish like a gift that’s forgotten in the back of a closet – a great discovery, waiting to happen. You have the additional task of letting others know what you’re doing so that they can share your gift.

Tonight, Burning Man and the Los Angeles & Chicago communities are co-hosting a seminar on how to do public relations (PR). People can participate in a webinar or in person. Here’s the original announcement:

“Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar

Dear Burning Man/BRAF Artist:

For several months, we have been helping Burning Man honorarium recipient and BRAF grant recipient with public relations strategy and tasks. Now that we are in July, we want to invite you to the first ever Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar.

It’s important to provide for good public relations when your art becomes real in the desert (or in your home town). Yet, many artists are so busy solving problems and managing their builds they lose the chance to shine the light of good PR on their work and teams.

Please join us on line next Wednesday, July 13, at 6pm (Pacific time; 9pm Eastern time) for a special web cast to help you keep your date with fame.

Live from Los Angeles, Athena Demos will moderate a panel of experts who know public relations and know the playa.

We will also have conversations with Burning Man mangers and experts who can help you think through your strategy for pre-burn PR, on-Playa efforts, and post-burn communications to your team, your support base and the world.

Tune in by going to www.laburningman.com on Wednesday at the appointed time.

Or join us LIVE in LA at The Red Loft. Doors open at 5:30pm. Bring snacks to share. 440 Seaton St., Los Angeles, CA

You may want to be sure you have a team member also watching, because you may want someone watching out for your PR opportunities while you lead your team.

This is a production of the Burning Man Media Team, the LA Burning Man community and the Chicago Burning Man Community.

This is a gift from all of us to you.

Thank you for all you are doing right now.

See you Wednesday.”

Los Angeles Times covers researchers and research on Burning Man

A colleague in Los Angeles alerted me to a Los Angeles Times news article about researchers and research on Burning Man. The article starts off with Wendy Clupper’s research on the traditional Critical Tits ride, continues with the ongoing documentary work by Stanford B-school Prof. Jim Phills (both of us trained under Harvard Prof. Richard Hackman, albeit at different times), my research on the organization behind Burning Man, and Lee Gilmore’s research on spirituality and ritual at Burning Man.

One of the article’s unattributed quotes (“One professor concluded that Burning Man is an “organizational mutant,” not quite a business or a nonprofit…”) is by University of Arizona Prof. Joe Galaskiewicz, who was one of the first sociologists who wholeheartedly supported my efforts to study Burning Man.

Dealing with heightened expectations

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Burning Man’s policy on rights to images taken at the Burning Man event. This criticism led to a heated discussion on boingboing. Burning Man representative Andie Grace, aka Actiongrl, has responded on the Burning Man blog here, which has been linked to a follow-up post on boingboing here.

While I can’t comment on the legal aspects of this matter since I’m not a legal expert, I can point out what I find fascinating about such controversies. People have opinions about what they think an organization should or shouldn’t do, including what legal form and practices an organization should adopt. And, people state their opinions, irrespective of whether or not they have any experiences with a particular organization, as demonstrated by comments on the boingboing discussion threads.

Expectations for “appropriate” activities are heightened for organizations like Burning Man, which depend on volunteer labor, pursue distinctive missions such as social change, and have high visibility because of media coverage. When confronting such expectations, organizations have to make a decision – do they address, much less acknowledge, such expectations? If they don’t respond to criticisms, they may lose their legitimacy from their constituents or the general public.

In responding to criticisms, the Burning Man organization has made a number of changes, including publishing their finances and making activities more transparent. On the other hand, they have also defended policies that they believe are needed to protect the Burning Man event from co-optation by other interests.

What would life be like if people demanded similar accountability of all organizations, and organizations responded? Northwestern B-school Prof. Brayden King discusses how this process works (and doesn’t work) here.

Who is the “average” Burning Man attendee?

Thanks to Prof. Caroline Lee, a sociologist whose expertise includes the professionalization of participatory practices, I recently gave an invited lecture at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Among other questions, students asked what kinds of people attend the Burning Man event. In particular, they were curious about participants’ finances.

Answering these kinds of questions is only possible because of survey research.* One of the first surveys administered at Burning Man was run by a theme camp called the Ministry of Statistics. Passers-by to the theme camp, which was located in the Central Camp area, were invited to complete the survey, and the Ministry of Statistics posted statistics on the collected data  during the event. The media reproduced several of these statistics, including one about drug consumption, in print, much to the dismay of Burning Man organizers who were concerned about the event’s legitimacy.

Since then, the Burning Man organization has gathered demographic information via a convenience survey administered during the event.  The collected information is available in the AfterBurn report on the Burning Man website.  For example, information on salary, home ownership, etc. of surveyed 2007 Burning Man respondents is available here.

Here’s of a photo of 2008 participants diligently completing the survey in the Center Camp Cafe:

2008 Burning Man participants complete survey at the Center Camp Cafe

In other years, the Burning Man organization has also gathered self-reported data on how much participants spent on local businesses; such information was intended to show that the event benefited local Nevada communities.

*Also, the idea that one can quantify the “average” person is a relatively recent phenomena.  See historian Sarah E. Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.


One challenge of discussing the development of an organization with an “unusual” output (i.e., a week-long arts community devoted to countercultural principles) is having to explain what the organization produces. In conference presentations, publications, and even casual conversation, I always have to explain what Burning Man is about since my audience usually doesn’t know much, if anything, about the event.  Even then audience members are mystified, “Burning what?  They burn a person?!?”

The media has had similar difficulties. In earlier years, past media accounts tended to describe Burning Man with terms that public relations volunteers found undesirable or problematic – Woodstock, paganism, rave, etc.

In contrast, in recent years, Burning Man has assumed a level of taken-for-grantedness such that it no longer requires explanation or description. Imagine my surprise when reading a recent New Yorker article (“Lost” by Ian Parker) about the economic meltdown in Iceland.  The article combined three words that I had never dreamed that I would see together in the same sentence: Burning Man and Tiananmen.

Congress, the Media, and Legitimacy

The recent brouhaha over AIG’s bonus compensation illustrates two issues pertinent to all organizations:

(1) If you accept (or are forced to accept) funds from the government, be prepared to kowtow to conflicting demands and face intensive grillings by ill-prepared politicians.

(2) If you want to maintain your legitimacy as an organization, be prepared to deal with the media. The media plays a crucial role in framing issues and making issues more or less salient. For instance, why has recent media coverage focused on the $165 million in bonuses that AIG paid out, as opposed to other alternative stories about how our taxes are allocated, such as the $515 BILLION used for military spending?  Or how an estimated $1  BILLION  in governmental subsidies help ensure that Wal-Mart earns $12.8 BILLION in profit while its workers do not have a living wage or health care?