The PR crisis for South by Southwest (SXSW) caused by an immigration contract clause

Lesson on how easily something that's been around a while can be spun out of control
(PR NewsChannel) / March 14, 2017 / AUSTIN, Texas 

The uber popular South by Southwest (SWSX) Music Festival got off to a rocky start because of a public relations crisis spawned by a clause in a musician’s standard contract.

The festival’s performance agreement stated: “If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:

Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.

Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.

Artist’s credentials will be canceled.

SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.”

It was that last part that rubbed people the wrong way, given the hot-button nature of immigration.

The PR crisis began with a tweet from an indie rock band at SXSW.

The PR crisis began with a tweet from an indie rock band at SXSW.

The contract got out because Felix Walworth of the New York City indie-rock group Told Slant tweeted a screenshot of that portion of the artist performance agreement. He then, in short-order, pulled out of the festival.

He didn’t stop there. He urged other bands to go rogue.

And soon there was an open letter to the festival, signed by other bands.

“We’re outraged to learn that the festival has been threatening artists who are not U.S. citizens with targeted immigration enforcement and deportation for playing at unofficial showcases,” the letter said. “We are calling on SXSW to immediately drop this clause from their contract, and cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger.”

“It was a full blown PR crisis right before the big event even got underway,” says Glenn Selig, a crisis management expert from the Tampa public relations firm The Publicity Agency. “SXSW needed to go public and address it before the situation grew completely out of hand.”

Managing Director Roland Swenson did a few interviews and issued an official statement, which was printed by Rolling Stone in an article titled “SXSW Organizers ‘Reviewing and Amending’ Immigration Clause After Uproar,” in which he explains what the band Told Slant may not have known, which helped make sense of the whole situation.

“Participation from individuals and organizations who bring a different perspective — especially those who travel from all over the world — to Austin each March is what makes SXSW a special event.

We have been coordinating with international acts coming to SXSW to try and mitigate issues at U.S. ports of entry, and will continue to build a coalition of attorneys to assist any who face problems upon arrival in the States.

The language in our Performance Agreement is intended to facilitate U.S. entry for international artists and to show CBP that SXSW takes visa issues seriously. This language has been part of the contracts since the summer of 2013, and we will be reviewing and amending it for 2018 and beyond.

In regards to the situation surrounding Told Slant, before we had clarity on the situation we believed this artist had taken our language out of context. We apologize for this error.

A major reason for SXSW’s existence is the discovery of new and exciting artists from around the world, and our hope is that we can help these creative people achieve their goals.”

As for the statement: “I think it was appropriate and helped add context to the situation. It’s so easy for misinformation or incomplete information to get out of hand with social media. Bad information travels fast. The explanation was a logical one and it came with a promise it moving forward,” says Selig from the Tampa PR firm. “However, given the immigration debate in the U.S. and the fact contracts were being offered and reviewed, someone should have red flagged that line and done something about it. It was an unforced error.”

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SOURCE:  The Publicity Agency

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