Big Day Out Public Relations: Is Silence The Best Response?

A 17-year old girl died from a reported drug overdose at the Perth Big Day Out music festival earlier this month, after taking three ecstasy pills to avoid being caught by police at the gate. This was an unfortunate, but unsurprising occurrence. 

The surprising element is how Big Day Out publicity have marginalised her behaviour by silencing their highly active online community.

A statement published on the BDO site on 2 February 2009 reads:

Perth drug overdose statement

Early yesterday afternoon a 17-year-old girl was taken to hospital after a suspected drug overdose at the Perth Big Day Out. Tragically she died overnight.

While details have yet to be confirmed, it has been reported that the teenager consumed a number of pills outside the event to avoid being detected by police sniffer dogs that were in operation, in this instance with fatal consequences. 

Big Day Out does not condone the use of drugs at the event.  The same laws of the outside world apply inside the event. Over 3 million people have attended the Big Day Out in its 17 year history and this is the first time an incident of this nature has occurred. 

Sniffer dogs are commonly used outside large events like the Big Day Out and are part of the police’s harm minimisation responsibility. 

The investigation is being followed up by the Police. 

To respect the privacy of the family, no further comments will be made.

In contrary to that final statement, there’s also a dedication page on the BDO site, containing a message from the girl’s mother.

While the Big Day Out brand will remain untarnished by this event – it’s arguably stronger than ever – this sad occurrence is now inextricably linked to the event’s brand in the same manner as 16-year old Jessica Michalik‘s death during the 2001 tour.

Where Michalik’s death was the result of inadequate crowd control measures – a mistake rectified from the 2002 tour onwards – Thoms’ drug-related death requires a conversation between Big Day Out publicity and the hundreds of thousands who attend the tour across Australia and New Zealand each year.

Critically, the online community who follow the event have been silenced: the highly active Big Day Out forum was disabled immediately after the news of Thoms’ death broke, and it remains closed almost a month later. 

bdo_closed as of 21 February 2009

Silence isn’t the best response here.

In this case,  Big Day Out publicity invite criticism by refusing to allow a dialogue to occur.

The only publicised offshoot of Thoms’ death is a Western Australian police commissioner agreeing that “amnesty bins” should be installed outside music festivals, to allow punters to deposit their drugs without fear of prosecution. And to minimise the likelihood of festival attendees overdosing in a panic before entering the venue, as in Thoms’ case.

There’s nothing new about youth drug culture. But when an unfortunate event such as an overdose occurs, people start asking questions of the police, of the festival organisers, of each other.

In a time of crisis or confusion, people want to connect with each other. And while an isolated festival overdose isn’t the strongest catalyst for either impulse, it’s still an occasion better met with community encouragement than marginalisation; with noise instead of silence.

I understand that moderating public opinion becomes exponentially more difficult as a greater volume of people converge in one location. The need to consistently and accurately monitor the fine line between opinion and libel is likely at the forefront of the organisers’ swift decision to close the public forum.

Censorship aside, an alternative forum named Small Night In has sprung up following the closure. But many questions remain unanswered:

  • Why silence an established, highly active online community following a drug-related death?
  • Why not encourage a dialogue between festival attendees and festival organisers?
  • Why not partner with an established organisation such as the Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN) and encourage participation – both online and in BDO-sponsored community forums held in capital cities – to gauge youth opinion on drug use, so as to minimise the chances of a repeat e?
  • Most importantly: why not work harder to turn a negative event into a positive by reinforcing a sense of community?

Funnily, I was only provoked into thinking about the BDO organisers’ handling of the Thoms death after I received an email  sent to the BDO user database advertising Lily Allen’s June Australian tour.

Promote a tour; marginalise the voices of Australian youths itching to converge and converse.

Poor form, Big Day Out.

Comments? Below.
  1. Liam aka gumbuoy says:

    It always boggles my mind when people shut down forums for various reasons, as if they think that will be the end of the story. It suggests to me that there might be a new career out there for someone in the role of a kind of ‘Internet advisor’, who could suggest things like, “Dont shut down your forums”, “dont send cease and desist notices just because people are satirising you”, and most importantly “dont sue members of your fanbase.”

    Ive heard a lot of stories on the Internet in my time, and ive never heard any of them go “and then they shut down the forum, and noone ever spoke of it again.”

    I do disagree with you on one thing though. While I see what you mean about community, I think that for as long as the girls death is being investigated, BDO would need to keep their comments to just the statement, as they said in the statement.

    But there’s still no reason not to let everyone else talk. maybe ask some other experts (drug counsellers etc) to contribute?

    Then again, Lees and West have never been known for their subtle approach. Why use a soft hand, when a hammer will do?

  2. Shan Welham says:

    Nice opinion piece, Andrew.

    As one who rarely visits forums, as I find they often have a core group waiting to sledge newcomers and therefore are counterproductive in terms of the concept (people being able to have their say freely and without prejudice), this was news to me. Although, due to the reasons I didn’t know, not surprising.

    Working in both the legal and the music media realm, I have to agree with Liam that the organisers were wise to make one clear statement and leave it at that. The swell of public opinion can change perception into fact and vice versa, which is a very serious thing when the prospect of legal action is real in this day and age.

    On a humanistic note, shutting the forum down may have also been an attempt at respecting Thoms, her family and friends. I know the last thing I would have wanted as any one of them would be to know, read, be told that there was any conjecture, slurs etc regarding the character of my daughter / sister / friend after such a tragic mishap. And that’s what it was, a mistake.

    I have my own very definite opinions on the presence of drug dogs and excessive police presence at music festivals. Too often have I seen young people swallow a handful of pills as the dogs are spotted, making sure they don’t waste the $30+ they outlaid for something that cost a few cents to manufacture and could see them pay with their lives.

    It’s the education of all involved that needs to be discussed… zero tolerance does not work… but I digress…

    And so, I agree that censorship of public opinion and discourse is misguided at best and Orwellian at its worst. For those who remove the medium, it really is all about maintaining a level of control. However, throughout history humans have been a resourceful lot, banding together to form a resistance, an insurgence, a rebellion, a revolution. We look at the machine, shrug our shoulders and meet somewhere else a bit quieter; wondering why, to them, our talking was such a big deal.

  3. Dee says:

    Theres more to it then that, and as a street press writer you should know only too well that sensationalist mass media representatives will grab any soundbite, quote or comment and run with it.

    Look at the amount of times, and i have to be careful here, certain newspapers have quoted a certain extremely popular dance music website, much to the chagrin of the owners. The quotes are often attributed falsely, incorrect and simply engineered to fit the direction of the opinion piece in question.

    BDO chose to focus the media attention on itself. Why they did so is for a journo to ask them (maybe???????), but its not hard to fathom both the legal and media motives, as well as the concept of respect for the family. Again, a certain dance music website was full of bad jokes at the expense of an individual, who had starred on television, who tragically passed away during a certain music festival. Some of these jokes again were quoted as facts, and with no verification, there were allegations of suicide and drug use in the papers the next day. They want suggestions of personal character, and where better then the actual forum of the event itself?

    Lastly, whatever one feels about freedom of speech and all similar ideas, a forum is the property (and responsiblity) of the promoter of the event. There is nothing stopping alternative forums and communities from discussing the event. It would be hasty to claim the promoters pulled the plug for reasons of simply “refusing to allow a dialog”.

    Put yourself in their shoes, and consider your actions with the emotional ramifications affecting you, let alone the legal and social. And then watch the phone ring from the media, non stop. What would you do?


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