Virtual reality homelessness for CEOs – the chasm between intent and outcome

Those who participate in CEO Sleepout do so with the right motivations. But if a single clumsy Tweet can undermine the image of the project so badly, there are wider issues, including the image problem that the big end of town has in the eyes of the public, argues Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes.

Seven weeks ago, I had one of the most confronting and unpleasant Friday nights of my privileged middle-class existence.

In the scheme of things, compared to what many people in Australia and around the world go through, it was a tame experience, but the effects lingered long after the night in question was over.

At the invitation of media industry foundation Un Ltd, which Mumbrella has supported for some time, I joined a group of bosses from agencies and media companies for the Whitelion Bailout.

It was a concept not dissimilar to that of the CEO Sleepout, but focused on the issues that lead to juvenile detention.

We spent the night in cells at the former Juvenile detention centre of Yasmar.

It was intended both as a fundraiser and an awareness raiser.

I wrote up a piece for Mumbrella on the group fundraising, but at the time opted not to publish a personal perspective on the experience.

In part, my instinct was that to write a more personal piece could be taken as a bout of virtue-signalling, and in part I felt too off kilter to write anything meaningful.

This weekend’s backlash to the CEO Sleepout brings it back to front of mind.

One tone deaf Tweet by CEO Sleepout threatens to undermine the premise of an annual project which has raised millions of dollars over the years.

But first to the Bailout. Everyone who took part was approached to do so by Un Ltd, which works to help a number of youth-focused charities through both fundraising and more practical help.

The Adland Gang, as those participating were known for the event, consisted of OMD’s Aimee Buchanan, PwC’s Megan Brownlow, Ogilvy’s David Fox, Google’s Jason Pellegrino, RadiumOne’s Adam Furness, HT&E’s Tony Kendall, The Guardian’s Ian McClelland, Mindshare’s Kerry Field and Katie Rigg-Smith, UnLtd’s Paul Fisher, the IAB’s Vijay Solanki, myself and Ad News editor Rosie Baker.

A major element of the Bailout was fundraising for Whitelion, which aims to help vulnerable youths, particularly those in contact with the justice system.

As is the norm for these things, people were asked to tap into their networks to raise a minimum of $1,000 apiece, or in theory not be allowed out the next morning. We did publicity pictures a few weeks beforehand. It was fun.

And in the days running up to the event, things got competitive, with PwC’s Megan Brownlow eventually raising the most of the group, bringing in $4,700.

Then came the night itself, when the fund raising switched to raising awareness – and hopefully a willingness to do more in the future – from the participants.

From arrival at the facility, there was a great deal of theatre. Ahead of time, it felt like that would be the main point of the experience – some sort of an insight into prison life.

Actors playing screaming prison guards bellowed at us as we sat isolated in a stifling paddy wagon, marched through processing and fingerprinting, changed into jumpsuits, and had arbitrary infringements like chatting to other inmates punished with push-ups and the like.

Under neon lights, we lined up in the exercise yard, still being treated as prisoners, as the timetable and rules for the night were explained. We were given a safe word in case things became too much, which seemed overly cautious at the time, although it made sense later.

The height of the theatre came in the canteen, with a staged fight between two prisoners who were actually actors.

While all of this was enough to reinforce the very obvious sentiment that I wouldn’t want to do this for real, it was as nothing compared to what was to follow.

And this is perhaps also where the Bailout and Sleepout may diverge.

The grim, draining intensity of what followed was not about what happened to us.

It was about hearing first hand the tragic, awful stories of some of those the charity seeks to help.

Split into small groups – with the Adland Gang kept together – we heard directly from young men and women the miserable (and sometimes inspiring) tales of an Australia most of us working in the media bubble don’t see.

Sexual abuse, parental neglect, paths into criminality – and on rare occasions a route out to the other side. The crucial stable presence of a parent or parents (and lack of it) loomed large.

Most of our group wept at various points through the evening. One or two of us cried for most of the night, as these vulnerable people bravely told their stories to people they would probably never meet again.

This was no arms-length VR version of reality. It was visceral.

By mid evening the novelty of the pretend prisoner experience had worn off, and the realities of other people’s challenges were the only thing on anyone’s mind.

We heard from a man in his 50s who had been institutionalised and criminalised after being rejected by his abusive father at a young age, and had only recently begun to find his way back. We heard from a young man who was trying to find a job after coming through the juvenile justice system. We heard from an inspiring female lawyer who advocated for the young, often indigenous, men she encountered in juvenile detention. A survivor of awful abuse told us her story.

I found myself wishing I was anywhere else but there, and ashamed for wishing it.

But at one point, as the dozen or so of us sat mesmerised by the lawyer, I found myself mentally calculating the salaries of the people who sat in front of her – and more to the point, the spending power of the companies they represent. If only it could be tapped, I thought.

We then slept in the cells.

I slept in my brand new, warm sleeping bag on a comfortable-enough mattress on the cell floor. (Admittedly, it was a less restful night for my cellmates Paul Fisher and Ian McClelland who had to cope with my snoring which was, I’m told, epic.)

The time in the cells was more akin to camping, part of an adventure. And the doors weren’t locked.

And of course, the next morning we got to go home, where activities for the rest of the weekend felt peculiarly meaningless.

Which brings me on to the CEO Sleepout, where criticism exploded over the last 72 hours that this has become a posturing exercise for those wanting to be seen to be doing something while changing nothing.

The Tweet soared to the top of Reddit Australia, where it was pretty much universally condemned.

The same on Twitter too:

Then it jumped to the mainstream press.

Including BuzzFeed:

And The Guardian:

And Daily Mail Australia:

And Pedestrian:

Even David Icke’s website wrote about it, and he believes the world is secretly run shapeshifting reptilians.

However, The Guardian’s First Dog OnThe Moon cartoon was the most devastating – and hinted at why the backlash has been so strong…

… and blunt…

The problem with that Tweeted video of CEOs experiencing homelessness through virtual-reality goggles was that to those without context, it appeared they were being insulated from seeing it first hand.

I wasn’t there, but I suspect the evening would not have been dissimilar to the Whitelion Bailout experience – homeless people and advocates telling their stories. Reading HuffPo Australia boss JJ Eastwood’s account of the night, that certainly appears to be the case. (10.20am update: JJ has updated me after I posted this on LinkedIn, to say “the VR experience was that of a child experiencing domestic violence which then leads to homelessness. Not of homelessness itself.”)

And some bright spark had the idea of supplementing it by offering the opportunity to don virtual-reality goggles and experience it for themselves.

It smacks of the sort of pro bono project certain awards-hunting ad agencies might do, but I hope that’s not how it came about. And if it is, the agency should be taking the bullet for the charity, rather than staying silent and letting the reputational damage mount for CEO Sleepout as currently seems to be the case.

In the context of a full night of information, the VR potentially adds to the experience. Pictured on its own, it reinforces every stereotype about out-of-touch fat cats.

And with public anger about big business failing to pay its fair share of tax, it made for a perfect target.

Of course, the target of the anger was wrong. CEO Sleepout is about good intentions. I don’t buy the argument some critics made that lots of the participants treat it predominantly as a networking exercise. If you want to network, there are easier and more pleasant ways of doing it.

Those CEOs who took the trouble to fundraise and take part clearly want to be part of a solution. Their actions show that.

The real parasites, to use First Dog’s word, are the bosses and owners of those tax-dodging multinationals. Mainly sitting in New York and Silicon Valley, they wouldn’t have even been aware the event was taking place.

I’m sure the more human motivation of wanting to do your bit while being conscious of living a privileged life will have been there. Mark Ritson gave a talk recently during which he touched on the fact that people working in marketing don’t want to tell their friends they sell beer for a living. At dinner parties, they want to say they contribute to making the world a better place.

Not that the organisers have handled their communications at all well in the days since, Tweeting out a bland statement that doesn’t directly address the furore.

But the reaction does demonstrate that CEOs as a group – and the wider business community – have never been held in lower esteem.

So when members of that group participate in something like CEO Sleepout, they no longer get the benefit of the doubt.

And that’s the problem for the organisation – if it can be brought low by a single misunderstood Tweet, then it was on flimsy footings to begin with.

According to the CEO Sleepout website, nearly 1,500 participating CEOs helped raise more than $5m for the St Vincent de Paul Society’s homelessness work. But I suspect that the tragedy of this is that some will ask themselves harder questions about participating next time.

The real question for Australia’s business community to ask itself is what it needs to do to win back the trust of the public. Good intentions are never enough.


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