Whenever I think of SXSW, I think of a friend, someone I admire greatly: the man who started it all, Louis Black.
Many years ago at the old Las Manitas Café in Austin, Louis Black, Evan Smith, and I talked about the importance of convening people in open and collaborative environments. Louis had started SXSW by then, but it was in its formative stage. Evan was then editor of Texas Monthly but destined to become the co-founder of The Texas Tribune and to start the successful TribuneFest, under the guidance of Austin entrepreneur John Thornton. I had launched Public Strategies Inc. with the purpose of helping people interact with the public. All three of us, through different channels, were, and still are, dedicated to bringing people together to share innovative ideas. It has to be about the public. Content should be shared directly with the public, and the world is hungry for people who convene.
Austin is gearing up for its 30th SXSW, and I can’t help but reflect on when it all started. Launched in 1987 with 700 attendees, SXSW was initially created to help musicians with their careers. It is now a global phenomenon, expanding across industries to include filmmakers, new media innovators, and, most recently, educators and environmentalists through SXSWedu and SXSW Eco.
Who would have thought that SXSW would become the behemoth festival that it is today? As event attendance grows, so does the lineup of high-profile speakers — Mark Cuban, Ev Williams, and Malcolm Gladwell were here last year. The festival has had many revolutionary moments over the years, especially in the field of technology — Airbnb was named “breakout app,” Uber launched, and the iPad 2 was released. It’s amazing to look back at these developments and recognize that it was part of a broader technological transformation.
SXSW’s expansion has coincided with Austin’s growth, with droves of tech companies setting up shop in the city. The rapid technological enthusiasm and change has forced every company in the city to adapt quickly to emerging digital trends. In publishing, for example, traditional newspapers and magazines have been forced to pivot substantially. Take Evan’s Tribune — it now focuses on videos, slideshows and data to connect with online audiences. The nonprofit’s incredible work has led to millions of dollars in grants to further its in-depth investigative stories. One excellent example is “The Shale Life,” a 15-part series that explores how the drilling boom is transforming the lives of Texans from Corpus Christi to the Permian Basin. They also carved a path with databases of public records, which allow users to search information without having to submit a FOIA request. It was considered one of the most successful nonprofit journalism ventures and thrived because the publication was agile and created content exclusively.
The Tribune has taken the idea of convening one step further, moving away from published digital content by hosting its annual event, Texas TribuneFest. The event brings thought leaders and political advocates together to discuss the public as it relates to Texas and relevant national issues. The Tribune has shown us the medium might have changed, but having a strong, resonant message has always mattered.
Though I did not follow my two breakfast companions in creating a festival of sorts, I have kept in mind the importance of bringing people together every step of the way. The public has also evolved immensely since I started Public Strategies Inc., which merged with Hill & Knowlton six years ago to form Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Communication with the public is now distributed over multiple channels, in real time, and there’s far more direct engagement between companies and customers, and certainly politicians and voters, largely eliminating the primary gatekeepers. Despite the fact that that we’re using technology more, the goal of communicating directly with the public has always been the same. It is ultimately about convening people, understanding their needs and aspirations, and crafting a message that speaks to their passions.
We now have more than 80 offices worldwide, creating myriad global connections, and we have invested in content and digital. In New York we have a “newsroom” that focuses specifically on producing content for the public, leveraging our global network. By communicating through content websites and social media platforms, and stressing a company’s ability to remove the barriers between corporate and public life, our global content site rivals many major publications. This is the driver of convening today.
These reflections come in as I fly back to Texas from our global headquarters in New York to attend SXSW and hopefully watch Evan interview the president of the United States. We’re thrilled to have been part of this transformation, and each year SXSW reminds me of how far we’ve come. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this year.