Behold The Power of Events: Occupy Your World

It’s been 35 years now (yikes!), but I still remember being blown away after seeing a new movie called Network, where Howard Beale (an inspired Peter Finch) exhorted us all to go to the window, stick our heads out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  Here’s what he said: “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street…all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad!”  In the movie, his unscripted live TV rant inspired millions of viewers across the country to throw open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell!” out into the street.   It was a commentary on the power of the mass media to mobilize people to action.  Who knew that, a few decades later, social media would help produce the same kind of results?

Fast forward the DVR of your life to 2011. You see similar dramas playing out, no?  Only this time, it’s not fiction. First it was the historic events of the Arab Spring.  Then London got in on the act. Now it’s our turn in the US:  Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy LA.  Occupy Boston.  In case you missed it, last Wednesday it was Occupy Colleges Day.   I got a heads-up that morning from Elaine Young, a faculty colleague who is our resident social media expert, that a walk-out and rally had been scheduled for noon that day on the Champlain College campus here in Burlington, Vermont (as well as at 71 other colleges across the nation). As it happened, I was in class about an hour before that was to take place with a group of Event Management students, so I casually asked if any of them was planning on walking out.  Turns out only one of them had any clue what I was even talking about.  So I used it as an opportunity to talk about Occupy Wall Street and the wide variety of event offspring it was spawning.  There were a lot of unanswered questions.  We wondered about who the event planners were, what their objectives were, how they had managed to attract so many participants, whether anyone was really in charge of the “program”. We speculated about how they might define whether their event was successful—the ROI, to put it in current professional lingo.  What were they hoping to accomplish, exactly?

This reminds me of an editorial I read in the New York Times a couple of days ago about Occupy Wall Street. Here’s part of what it said:

“If you stopped by Zuccotti Park in New York and asked 10 protesters what their goals were for Occupy Wall Street, you might get 10 different answers…One protester said he and others were calling for “more economic justice, social justice — Jesus stuff — as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.” Another protester, a former Marine who was elected by Occupy Wall Street participants to speak for them, told NPR that he wanted to overthrow the government and reconstruct it.”  Now we have labor unions and other established interests joining forces with Occupy Wall Street, adding their own demands.  And that’s just New York—look at all of the variations in other cities around the country.   As the editorial points out, “This has led some reports to call the group unfocused, but that may be normal for an emerging movement.”  I’ve heard it suggested that the “We are the 99%” call is simply a way of establishing solidarity, a feeling of sharing a common purpose.  But at this point, the reality is that no one can say.  What we do know is that people are mad as hell.

Back to the classroom: after kicking it around for a bit, I got back to the business of talking about building an event budget, our topic for the day. Then–shortly before noon—all but three of my students stood up and walked out.  At first I felt a little insulted; after all, I’m busting my butt trying to offer them something of value here! Don’t they know this stuff is important to their futures?  But then I realized that they were motivated by honest curiosity, by the desire to find out what this event was all about.  And that’s really at the heart of education, in my opinion.  They were taking advantage of a unique opportunity to be part of something as it unfolded.  I still don’t know who organized that little event on our campus, although I did stop by the gathering in the courtyard about 20 minutes later (and yes, most of my students were still there–listening, absorbing, processing).    What I do know is that whoever initiated the event was successful at engaging a number of students, some of whom were inspired enough to take a turn speaking their minds to the small but intent crowd.  Oh, and the local TV station even showed up (perhaps because of a well-placed tip from our PR guy, Stephen Mease? Or does credit belong to the anonymous event organizers? Or someone monitoring social media channels?) to film the goings-on and help spread the word.

At this point it’s hard to tell what the outcomes of all of these Occupy events will be.  From an event planner’s perspective, they have been highly successful in attracting an audience–both the participants and the media reps who are telling the story as it plays out.  But so far “the stories” (as is the custom in modern-day infotainment) have focused mostly on the camera-friendly human dramas being played out, not about any particular issues or solutions to the problems people are saying they’re mad about.

It remains to be seen whether these events will lead to any lasting changes.  Events can be powerful tools for engaging people, harnessing their energy and ideas, and moving them to constructive action.  And as event planners, we know that it’s a colossal waste of time to go to all of the trouble of pulling an event together if there are no measurable results when it’s all over.   If you were in charge of the “Occupy” movement, what would you do to move these events beyond simply venting frustration?

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About Peter Straube

educator, experience designer, writer, speaker and explorer, specializing in the power of events to create positive change View all posts by Peter Straube

12 responses to “Behold The Power of Events: Occupy Your World

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Chuckling, Peter – we were clearly inspired by the same movie – and walk-outs and protests. A blog I wrote today is about starting a meetings revolution – about making our industry meetings more experimental, experiential. (bit.ly/nKvscV )

    Did you also read about Occupy Wall Street how they had set up the park – with an area for media, one for medical, one for feeding, and that, on their web site, anyone could donate to have food delivered to the park? Brilliant.

    So what are the lessons? Is it about really paying attention and speaking up if one is dissatisfied with the status quo? Is it about “showing up” in life and ensuring you participate in a (meaningful?) way? Is it about growth and sustainability of a movement — just as in Egypt and Yemen and Syria –and here with “Occupy” — that people really want change? Is it about being informed?

    Or all of the above and more?

    Oh the conversations we need to have.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    For the participants, I would imagine venting frustration is a measurable result, so I’m not sure you should dismiss it so quickly, despite the obvious opportunity for these events to affect the greater good in potentially more significant ways.

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Jeffrey – I concur and wonder if you think the Arab Spring would have been as effective if it had been only venting and no change were seen? If “Occupy” continues and no changes are made, then what? Will venting be enough? If the Tea Party had not seen support in Congress and in State Houses, would their rallies have meant as much to them? (Ok..asking you to put yourself in the position of a Tea Party member .. maybe a stretch.) – Joan

  • Peter Straube

    Thanks for your thoughts so far, Joanne & Jeffrey. Today I ran into a few ways that MoveOn.org has been using “Occupy” to drive their agenda and gather more folks into the fold–which is targeted at more specific outcomes.

    Also note this statement read by Keith Oberman on Monday, which articulates the Occupy position, at least in NYC: http://front.moveon.org/the-occupywallstreet-statement-as-read-by-keith-olbermann/

    And this afternoon, a campaign to draw others into protesting the impending eviction of protestors from Zuccotti Park:

    http://www.civic.moveon.org/defend_ows/?rc=homepage

  • Johanna

    Great post. Certainly an event that could be affective with a defined objective and clear message. But it’s more then that. It’s affectivy communicating to their audience and how they deliver their message that will determine whether they’ll be heard. I’m not their audience, but I’m not sure I fit the 99% either. I’m an opportunist. I seek opportunity, and if I don’t find it, I create it. Occupy Vancouver and the world had my attention until I started to see a beautiful city, my home, being destroyed with more motivation then I’ve seen to make it a better place by the occupants. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but from my perspective, it’s not going to drive the change they are looking for unless they put forth more effort and thought. If you want to be heard you have to be the change. Your actions will speak for you, and so far, the message isn’t positive. I hear the problem, I’ve yet to hear a solution.

  • Peter Straube

    Thanks for your thoughts here, Johanna. I agree that, to be successful, any initiative towards change eventually requires constructive action, not just identifying the problem.

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    It occurs to me that the “Occupy” movements are all open-space/unconferences, aren’t they? Designed by those who show up — and in Open Space .. “whoever shows up are the right people”, “when it starts it starts”, “whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened”, and “when it’s over it’s over” .. and of course the law of motion and responsibility (formerly the law of two feet) applies.

    So let’s view it this way: let’s say you’re gathering people and they all have different POVs. Will some be disruptive? Of course! Will you want to make some go away? You bet! Will all opinions lead to something? Yep .. something .. tho’ it is not known.

    I concur that violence and destruction have no place in any movement. Then again, as the late Andy Rooney felt about war .. it was easy to be a pacifist before he went overseas in WWII and realized that there must sometimes be war. (I, a pacifist, want all things to be settled peacefully. I also know that the toppling of evil sometimes requires more.)

    Rambling at this early hour before a flight. Think that we could look at whether open space can bring something to the Occupiers — tho’ they seem to be doing amazing work in consensus building.

    • Peter Straube

      Love the connection of Open Space to Occupy, Joan. In both cases, we need to give up some measure of control of the results in order to let ideas emerge…but that can be scary, because it’s unpredictable. And when people (like planners) are focused on ROI, that is going to feel risky.

  • deephealing

    About the media: Thanks for your informative post and thread. A point of clarification that seems to be lost on the general public. Network was actually about exploitation and voyeurism. IMDB summarizes the movie thusly, “A TV network cynically exploits a deranged ex-TV anchor’s ravings and revelations about the media for their own profit.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/. The media is primarily interested in attracting viewers. Nothing sells like controversy and, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Occupiers rightly doubt the media’s ability to portray the movement accurately, “The Revolution will not be televised.”

    That being said, the Occupy Movement could really use the help of professional event organizers like you. Please consider pitching in if you can!

    • Peter Straube

      Appreciate the thoughts, deephealing. I suppose this is no different than any PR/publicity strategy: you may court the media so that they will shine a light on your story, but you can’t control the way the story gets told. However, you CAN influence it…

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    I think “Occupy” is a whole different model – maybe a more relevant model – than ‘traditional’ demonstrations or certainly than conferences. People are gathered together because it matters to them individually and collectively.

    If professional event organizers were involved, @deephealing, I fear some passion would depart and it would be another .. political convention. I’m fascinated by how it is playing out and find, w/o corp. sponsors (like the Koch Bros. for the Tea Party) it is doing remarkably well.

    What can WE borrow from the Occupy model?

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