AFTERBURN REPORT 2007
MEDIA AND PUBLIC RELATIONS OPERATIONS
Media Mecca hit a great stride in 2007 with an improved camp layout, streamlined processes – even a fantastic new surprise thank you event for its volunteers on Wednesday, courtesy of the Carne Armada. While it was no doubt our most challenging year to date – there were record numbers of press thanks to the Green Man theme, and intense media interest in and staff response to the arson early Tuesday morning – the Media Team responded with aplomb; overall, this hardworking team rose to the challenges and their professionalism and cool heads resulted in a highly successful media year.
The Green Man theme generated a massive amount of media interest pre-event, more than any other year before it. To take advantage of the opportunity and make sure the fullest story was told, the Communications Department partnered with the Environmental Manager and the Green team members to proactively push out the message of the 2007 theme to some select publications early in the year. Motivated by a desire to share the theme’s messages of environmental responsibility, and green-minded collaborative art and community, this small but unprecedented proactive public relations effort netted the interest of several publications. It also heralded a positive new relationship with the environmental blog Treehugger.com; the latter went on to cover Burning Man and its environmental efforts a total of four times in the year that followed, inspiring multiple stories in still other mutually referential outlets.
The Jack Rabbit Speaks email newsletter grew to an impressive 75,000 subscribers in 2007. The Communications team brought on an additional Rabbit to help edit the newsletter, sharing the load of this significant effort to keep the legions of Burners informed through these periodic email blasts.
Media Mecca On-Playa
Physically, Media Mecca experimented with a new layout and design for 2007, enclosing more of its space with ground-to-ceiling walls – covered in chalkboard paint for message-sharing among the press – and shifting its observation deck/second meeting space to the opposite side of the lot, by the Artery. Media Mecca is often mistaken for a public WiFi lounge by Burning Man’s participants – despite the fact that Burning Man does not host the public network, nor does its signal originate at the Mecca. This random bandwidth-seeking and couch-crowding can make it hard to identify the media who are actually there to register, and difficult to assist participants who actually come in with media-related questions. The effect of the enclosure, then, was to create a slightly sturdier psychological barrier to the act of wandering aimlessly into the Mecca. Of course, we welcome visitors, but it can be a challenge to create an atmosphere of connectivity and information-sharing between media registrants when Mecca’s couches are filled with shade-seeking participants lounging in its workspace. It was helpful to diminish the not-there-for-business population in the camp, and visitors seeking public WiFi were happily directed to the more spacious and better-suited public venue of the Center Camp Café; thus, the Media Team were better able to serve our mission to protect our participants by welcoming the media and engaging them in pursuing quality coverage of Black Rock City.
Media Mecca also seemed to take on more of a 24-7 presence in 2007. Though previously a day-use-only working camp, a handful of core team members opted to set up their living space on-site for the week; thus they were more often present to keep an eye on things and answer questions after-hours. The glow of many a laptop illuminated reporters’ faces inside the shade structure at night, as bandwidth-seeking journos on deadline opted for the night shift at their “playa press office,” seeking and usually finding a less-congested uplink to the web after the sun went down.
The participant-created content-driven project known as “TV Free Burning Man” returned for another weeklong blast of “pods” from Black Rock City, as well as its live broadcast of the burning of the Man; for 2007, by special arrangement, the Crude Awakening performance was added to TV Free’s live broadcast agreement, and TV Free continued its run as the only webcam approved for live broadcast from the playa (aside from the official burningman.com camera mounted on top of Center Camp). TV Free’s camp, previously located onsite at Media Mecca, increased its visibility and its camp size with its relocation to a front-and-center spot at 6:30 and Esplanade, inviting even more participants in to grab a camera to shoot, edit, and upload their own content and help tell the Burning Man story in Black Rock City’s own words. Their participant-driven coverage of the event has garnered a series of industry awards.
Media Mecca’s traditional daily press happy hours were a big success as well, with some new enhancements. For the first time, DJ’s were added to the mix, furthering the convivial atmosphere. A planned “Green Man” Happy Hour focusing on introducing press to environmental experts was unfortunately derailed by circumstances related to the arson, but the Media Team worked to get those press requests plugged in to the correct staffer or participant via one on one meetings. Cancelled, too, was the Tuesday art tour for the press thanks to the arson-related distractions, but it was rescheduled until Thursday, when it commenced as planned despite a horrific duststorm. In all, Happy Hour continued to be a success, with the team’s signature Rocket Sauce greasing the social skids, and team members on hand to help connect working press with the staff, artists, and participants that they hoped to meet for their coverage.
Tuesday morning’s volunteer training was another casualty of the arson, since staffers were kept up all night handling the event’s aftermath, writing public statements and planning press conferences, rendering them unavailable for the training; however, a pinch hit idea (one-on-one mentorship shifts for training, instead of the planned group format) actually took hold as a very effective training option and may be considered for repetition in 2008.
Our response to the arson, however, was swift. Though the Man was torched after midnight, there was a statement up on the Burning Man website before the sun came up, and a mini press conference held at Media Mecca to assuage the hungry journalists who were lingering waiting for information. A fuller press conference (the first unplanned conference of its kind at Burning Man) was planned overnight and executed the following morning at 10 AM, with Burning Man’s Communications Manager delivering a prepared statement and answering a few questions about the arson. During the event, the average number of international press hits in our news report lingers between 20 and 30 hits; the day after the arson, the story of the Man’s premature immolation inspired “Man Burns Burning Man!”-like headlines from over 160 outlets around the world. Accustomed to dealing almost exclusively with disseminating information to on-playa sources during the event, the Media Team found itself working double duty, keeping the on-playa press presence sated with information and responding to multitudinous requests for detail and quotes from the worldwide press not present at the event.
Registrations for 2007 focused heavily on the Green Man theme, as well as an increased interest from local papers in covering their hometown artists on their trek to Burning Man. We received positive pre-playa press coverage from quasi-governmental media sources, too: NASA.gov (a scientist attending for eco-education), the Air and Space Magazine of the Smithsonian Museum (covering Black Rock International Airport), and Nevada Magazine’s photo essay. The most prominent television attention came from CBS News Sunday Morning, which focused on the creativity behind the art.
International press interest increased, as it has every year since Media Mecca’s advent. Even excluding the major spike in press hits the day after the arson , international hits about the event were up significantly. The press page shows ’07 news or photos from nine foreign nations: UK (Times of London), China, Germany (Der Spiegel, and three others), Canada, Pakistan (Daily Times used an Associated Press Photo of Big Rig Jig), Italy, India (Hindustan Times and Asia Tribune coverage of Krishna Camp), the Netherlands (coverage of the Flaming Lotus Girls bringing Serpent Mother to the Robodock festival) and Switzerland; dozens of worldwide television and film producers were also in attendance.
In all, 333 members of the national and worldwide press went through the Press Registration process in 2007. Each registrant that intends to use imagery undergoes careful review and selection by the Communications Department in order to limit the number of cameras on playa. To that end, permission is only granted to the freshest and most well-developed proposals, and not every project is granted permission to cover the event; around 80 proposed projects were rejected by Burning Man pre-event in that process. Among the written press and television news, a few reporters commonly find themselves reassigned to breaking news events at the last minute; likewise, even if approved, a handful of filmmakers decide to abandon their projects altogether. Thus, roughly half of the registrants showed up on the playa to pursue their stories, as is the norm.
Intellectual Property/Legal/Trademark Protection
The IP team kept busy throughout 2007 responding to eBay/Craigslist violations, and pursuing unauthorized uses of imagery, Burning Man’s registered trademarks and copyrighted material (“Burning Man”, “Black Rock City”, “Decompression”, the image and logo of the Man, the city design, and related imagery or footage obtained inside the event). Auction sites like eBay have programs to protect trademark owners that forbid “keyword spamming,” or use of registered trademarks in auction titles to sell unrelated items. We also are obligated by trademark law to pursue action against producers using “Burning Man” or its marks to promote unrelated parties and raves, stock photo agencies listing images from the event (which is forbidden under the terms of our Still Photography contract), and registration of unrelated domain names containing “Burning Man” or our other marks.
The IP team definitely keeps busy – during the summer months, violations can rise to the level of 15-20 per week. In 2007, several hundred such violations were handled by this three-person team, two of whom are volunteers. Burning Man’s first contact is always a polite email notifying the seller of the violation, which generally garners an immediate and equally polite response; only when the seller refuses to cooperate does the instance escalate to actual legal action, either through the auction site’s protection programs or further escalation to Burning Man’s intellectual property attorneys, as necessary.
The IP team’s unsavory task doesn’t necessarily make them the most popular representatives of Burning Man, since occasionally sellers become angry or defiant when asked to change their auction titles. Some entirely ignore the first contact request, although most are simply unaware of their violation and are happy to comply by changing the title. Nonetheless, the protection of these marks is taken very seriously: even when someone believes they’re “just a small vendor trying to cover his costs to go to the event,” and shouldn’t be subject to restriction of use of those marks, the fact remains that Burning Man’s permission is required to use any such marks or imagery, and such permission is rarely granted. Several unusual items from 2007 were the eBay auction for a “Burning Man Merkin” (check Wikipedia if you’re not sure what a merkin is, but trust us, Burning Man doesn’t make them), and a vendor attempting to market a line of cosmetics using the name “Burning Man” who tried to convince us that she had not intended to align the cosmetics with the event in the desert at all -- despite her repeated use of the distinctive Burning Man logo on her skin care products’ sale page.
We’ve seen a rise in a new kind of violation over the years – instances where a gift item bearing one of the trademarks, such as a t-shirt printed for a volunteer team, or a Burning Man necklace created by a camp to give away as gifts on the playa, is turned around and re-sold online after the event. When such an instance is a one-time resale of an individual item, the sale might be likened to finding such an item at a garage sale – not precisely the commercial vending of a trademarked product and not a generally seen as a violation that endangers our ownership of our trademarks. However, when multiples or large quantities of these items are resold at a profit, the sale moves into the category of a manufactured item, one that Burning Man cannot permit to be sold if it is to retain the right to its own trademarks. The Burning Man symbol especially is shared freely for noncommercial use in the proliferation of culture-bearing gifts among the community, but we cannot permit these items to be sold by third parties. It is hoped that further education about the resale of gift items bearing the Burning Man symbol and other trademarks will help to ameliorate this evolving problem, helping to protect and reserve the symbol for gifting and noncommercial designation of affinity within the community.
2007 also saw the resolution of a lawsuit filed by a participant who had brought a claim against Burning Man for alleged damages to her character arising from her appearance in a television feature from 2005, a Discovery Times network piece entitled “Only In America.” The plaintiff’s claim was that Burning Man, despite its considerable effort to protect participants from violations of their privacy, had not done enough to protect her from having her image captured for a few seconds of her fire performance in the Great Circle before the Burn; she alleged that she had been assured personally that her image would never be captured without her specific written consent, and that she would not have attended Burning Man without this reassurance. This was in fact never the case: no representative of Burning Man had any contact with her about this issue prior to her attendance at the event, and our literature only states that we ask the media to use model releases and responsibility for doing so is their responsibility. Since Burning Man does contractually hold videographers responsible for using model releases where possible and since the presence of the worldwide media is encouraged by Burning Man, widely known by participants, and reasonably expected at a public performance such as the Burn, the suit was dropped by the plaintiff, who later issued a statement on her website that she had filed a “frivolous” lawsuit, and that Burning Man had indeed created strong policies to protect participants and to contractually inform the press of their responsibility to acquire individual permission when filming in Black Rock City.
In all, the world at large continues to be fascinated with Burning Man, and the Media and IP teams remain vigilant in their desire and drive to share the event with the world in a way that retains and protects the integrity of our message.