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Examining the possibilities posed by the arrival of live video streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat

A gas explosion in a nondescript apartment block in New York’s East Village marked the moment when Periscope, the live video streaming app, hit a tipping point. Within seconds of the Second Avenue building going up in flames in March, bystanders in the youthful, tech-savvy neighbourhood began streaming live coverage to their followers on Twitter.

Shocked responses from viewers came in thick and fast – holy crap, jeez, my God popped up in comment boxes on the Periscope feed as the severity of the accident, which left two people dead, became clear.

The number of viewers was hardly earth-shattering – at its peak, a little over 500 people were watching events unfold. However, the potential of cheap, easy, immediate video broadcasting to a ready-made audience on social media was suddenly apparent to technology influencers.

‘Periscope shows the future of news,’ declared one Silicon Valley blog, referring to the fire, the very next day, while another portentously announced: ‘Periscope and live video are changing the Internet forever.’

From a standing start the beginning of the year, Periscope and a rival app, Meerkat, have burst onto the social media landscape, posing intriguing intriguing possibilities for anybody in the business of communications.

Meerkat was first off the mark. Founded by Ben Rubin, an Israeli entrepreneur who formerly worked at Intel in Haifa, it was made available on the App Store in February, then made its public debut at South by Southwest, the Texas media festival, a few weeks later.

However, its thunder has been stolen by a rival, Periscope, which has been bought by Twitter for a reported $100 million and has been embedded more closely into the micro-blogging network.

Both run on a similar principle: they permit users to make swift, ephemeral video streams to the blogosphere of spontaneous events, ranging from the mundane to the world-changing.

Live streaming, in itself, is nothing new. However, the ability for anybody to do so instantaneously, at virtually zero cost is a breakthrough. Especially when that that stream can be instantly embedded on a social network such as Twitter or Facebook, providing a readily curated audience of followers.

The opportunities, in public relations terms, are immense. Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer at Ketchum, says: ‘Around client events, it used to be that live streaming cost a fortune. You had to have production capability connected to the Internet – that was quite an expensive thing to do.’

Periscope and Meerkat, he reckons, change the equation. ‘They’re useful for any sort of event where you want to extend the audience reach beyond the room,’ he adds.

The fashion world, inherently visual, has been an early adopter – at London Fashion Week, there were 50 uses of the two apps over the first couple of days alone, bringing a once exclusive front-seat view to a general audience.

The unveiling of the 2015 iteration of the Barcelona Principles, a framework to measure PR performance, was live streamed on Periscope. The Victoria & Albert Museum used the app to offer a tour of its sell-out Alexander McQueen exhibition, allowing those without tickets to get a visitor’s eye view.

Louise Vaughan, head of Blue Rubicon’s digital team, cautions that the audience remains highly niche: ‘It’s under one per cent of the population and it’s mainly a 16-to-34 demographic.’ For many of Blue Rubicon’s larger corporate clients, she says these amateur apps do not feel appropriate, although for certain carefully chosen events, they have their place. Blue Rubicon live streamed an event in Camden at which rapper Tinie Tempah was unveiled as an ambassador for the National Citizens Service, the skills development service for teenagers.

‘It was spot on the target audience – engaging 16, 17, 18 year olds and it was a closed session in Camden – we knew the building and we knew nobody was going to wander in for no reason,’ says Vaughan. ‘Content on Periscope only lasts 24 hours. That creates an immediate reason for young people to watch it, understand it, share it.’

There are, however, risks. Anybody live streaming an event for commercial purposes needs to consider potential legal liabilities – which are murky, given that this is a young technology with a standing yet to be fully determined by English law.

Arty Rajendra, head of the media and technology practice at Rouse, the law firm, says that technically, you ought to get everybody present to sign a release form.

‘You’ll be filming people who don’t necessarily expect to be being filmed,’ she says. ‘If those people are identifiable, you’ve got a breach of privacy issue. To avoid that, you’d have to get everybody to sign a release form in advance.’

Secondly, defamation could be costly. If somebody utters something slanderous during a live feed, the person filming is publishing this slur online – however unwittingly – and therefore liable.

Thirdly, copyright can be an issue. A piece of music being played or a video visible on a monitor may all of a sudden be broadcast, opening up a liability to royalties.

Rajendra says: ‘Streaming of unauthorised content is a risk. You could be live streaming event at which a film is played in the background. By filming the film, you’d be infringing copyright – you’d have to have the necessary permission.’

Lawyers are still analysing the precise ins and outs. Steve Kuncewicz, head of intellectual property and media at Bermans, argues that prominent signage telling spectators and participants that they are on film is an adequate alternative to getting dozens of people to sign release forms.

He adds, though, that defamation is a very serious hazard, given the size of the potential audience hearing wrongful allegations. ‘Social media libel is big business and as the new law settles itself, hastily streamed allegations may cast a long shadow,’ he explains.

It probably won’t be long before test cases begin to offer legal clarity. Sports promoters are anxious that lucrative television broadcast deals could be undermined if any Tom, Dick or Harry can stream events from the cheap seats on a mobile phone.

Organisers of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships attempted to ban Periscope this year and the Premier League has been in touch with Twitter to develop a protocol for swiftly removing unauthorised live streams of top football matches.

In spite of all these concerns, social media evangelists are in full cry. In a recent blog post, Ryan Holmes, the influential technology entrepreneur who founded Hootsuite, suggested ‘Meerkat and Periscope are the biggest things since, well, Twitter’.

Underlining the sheer number of potential amateur broadcasters out there, he pointed out that by next year, two billion people in the world are likely to own a smartphone.

There have, admits Holmes, been previous iterations of live filming apps – such as Livestream and Upstream – which have scarcely taken off. But, he says, the surge in use of social media over the past few years means that this time, it’s different: ‘The timing is finally right for a streaming app.’

In the public relations world, Red Bull used Periscope to stream promotional events during Miami Music Week, while DKNY has showcased its latest range in live clips. Even Madame Tussauds has got in on the act – the London waxworks gallery worked with Wired magazine for a live stream of its new Star Wars display.

Press conferences, product launches and roundtables are all good fodder for live feeds. There’s even scope in financial PR, not traditionally a particularly visual field, although Anna Younger, head of digital at Infinite Spada, offers a note of caution. ‘I never believe in jumping on a bandwagon for the sake of it – just because something’s new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for the client,’ she says.

Clients, she adds, need to be carefully prepared before any live streamed event – in exactly the way they would be for a broadcast interview. ‘Live streaming in itself isn’t a revolution – it’s the rapid ability to be able to share content where the real revolution is happening.’

Creative types have been hard at work coming up with unusual ways to use the apps. Mountain Dew, the US soft drink, used Periscope for a snippet called ‘stop by to say what’s app’ which showed off branded t-shirts and hats. Viewers who interacted – by making approving comments – received freebies.

Meanwhile, a handful of American estate agents have begun showing off properties to clients on Meerkat, by remote appointment. Adidas used Periscope to live stream James Rodriquez, the Real Madrid football striker, signing an endorsement contract with the brand.

Still, the most ambitious PR use yet of live streaming from these rough-and-ready apps has been by Harley Davidson, the iconic American motorbikes brand, which took fans on a ride around the entire world – going 26,190 miles, spanning 24 time zones, to show off the durability and speed of its latest range of bikes.

You can operate Periscope, it seems, without even letting go of the handlebars while cruising down a highway in leathers.