Lots of important people said lots of important things last Friday, at the Wharton Private Equity & Venture Capital Conference. For example, we heard that a top-tier venture capital firm is in serious talks to sell a piece of itself to a sovereign wealth fund (yeah, I’m also guessing Sequoia to Abu Dhabi). But the simple truth is that Friday won’t be remembered for planned content, despite the best efforts of conference organizers. Instead, the scrapbook cover will be of SEIU protesters filling the Bellevue ballroom, with bullhorns and bluster – continuing their campaign of harassing Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein. Here are my thoughts on the major players:
*** I should note up front that I was not in the ballroom when SEIU showed up, which means that my knowledge of what transpired comes from others who were there. I interviewed more than a dozen such folks, including paid attendees, Wharton students, a protester and a protest organizer. Apologies for the journalistic blunder but, in my meager defense, I was upstairs trying to finish up the day’s Wire.
I recently heard about a pair of convicts who successfully escaped a high-security prison, only to get caught an hour later at a nearby McDonald’s. They had spent so much time planning against the prevent defense, but so little on what to do once the guards became pursuers.
That was what the protesters reminded me of on Friday. They crashed the party with expert skill, but then didn’t seem to know what to do once inside. Sure they unfurled some banners and passed out leaflets, but the overall message was very muddled. Most of the chanting was about Manor Care, but it’s a company that Carlyle has owned for just a few weeks. Imagine buying a decrepit urban apartment building with plans to renovate, but getting branded a slumlord less than a month later. It’s unfair, even if the best time to advocate for change is before a new owner becomes entrenched.
I suspect that one problem for SEIU is that many of their protesters – particularly the ones that were affiliated with sympathetic groups (i.e., not SEIU members) – were poorly briefed on the actual issues at hand. This manifested itself in the protesters’ lack of engagement with attendees other than Rubenstein. For example, why not approach tables and say something like: “I understand that you probably don’t approve of our methods, but please allow me 30 seconds to explain why we’re here.” Some attendees did try engaging the protesters, only to be ignored (although some back-and-forth shouting matches also were reported).
Then there is the issue of PR, which is really what SEIU was looking for. On the one hand, they were extraordinarily successful. This action has been picked up by dozens of media outlets, including this one. But the protesters missed one big opportunity: Video. Not a single protester carried a camcorder or video phone, which could have then been sent to local television affiliates and posted online.
I raised these issues with a protester named Brady Dale, who is not an SEIU member. He said: “We didn’t think we were going to be there nearly as long as we were… The thought was that we’d get in, chant and walk out a few minutes later when the cops showed up. That’s how it usually works, at least in Philly. But there was almost no security when we walked in, and the member leader went on with Rubenstein much more than we had thought she’d be able to.” He also acknowledged that he chose not to engage audience members, saying it was partially due to his unfamiliarity with the subject matter, and also because such hostile settings “are not great for good conversation.”
This was almost a master performance. Rubenstein had a few options here: (A) He could have walked off the stage. (B) He could have jumped down and started throwing haymakers. (C) He could have said: “I understand why you’re here, and I’ll be glad to give you 15 minutes of my time once my speech is over – so long as you respect those who paid to attend.”
But he went for (D): Snarky engagement. It’s the Triple Lindy of reactions, in that it’s very difficult to complete, but a surefire winner if successful. And he pulled off the first few flips, with some appropriately sarcastic comments to the lead bull-horner. For example, he asked her how long she’d worked at Manor Care, and she replied something about “every day” for the past several years. “But not today,” he noted.
In the end, however, Rubenstein belly-flopped by telling the woman: “I’d be happy to pay for you to get some remedial English lessons,” after she had stumbled over a statement. It reads like racial bigotry, even though I don’t for a moment believe that was Rubenstein’s intent or prompt. He was so close…
The students looked panicked by what had happened, but no one could really blame them for being unprepared. There is no way they could have foreseen what would happen, as private equity conference protests were thought to be the preserve of Europe.
BUT, and this is a big one: They really need to stop wishing that everyone would forget the protest happened. Their first order of business was to throw out all of the fliers (which meant I had to pull one from the trash), and they refuse to release the video of what transpired. They had originally told me that only Carlyle could permit the release, but then chose not to call the appropriate Carlyle contact, after I provided them with his cell phone number. There is a lot of dispute as to what actually happened (in terms of violence, for example), and it infuriates me that the students won’t release the one piece of documentation that could provide clarity.
I understand their embarrassment (and have personal affinity for many of the organizers), but this decision is antithetical to the values of an educational institution like Wharton. Or at least it should be.
How did a couple of dozen protesters get by hotel security? Management has some serious explaining to do. If Wharton returns next year, they deserve a discount.