Saturday, March 10, 2012

PR Lessons from Kony 2012

Over the past week one global campaign has solidified what we all have come to accept: social media has the unparalleled ability to harness people power across the world. The KONY2012 campaign, which is essentially about drumming up the support of Americans for the arrest of African warlord Joseph Kony, has spread across the world.

While the initial thirty minute video raised awareness about the situation in Uganda, subsequent information has sought to deny that the situation still exists to the extent shown in the film which was shot in 2003. Among the onslaught of detractors have been those who criticized the ethics, mission and management of Invisible Children suggesting that the campaign is about oil exploration rather than war and violence against children.

It's easy to take a polarized view of the situation: a noble non-profit seeking to right injustices versus a capitalist-driven thirst for another nation's treasure. But the campaign and the responses which are following should serve as a lesson for, PR practitioners, businesses and non-profits. The film impresses upon us how social and political issues in one part of the world can be brought to the attention of people thousand of miles away.

As public relations practitioners it is unlikely that we will ever have as dramatic a subject as children being dragged from their beds and forced to become killers but there's a lot to said for being passionate about a cause and having the skills and resources to devise a campaign which is so attention-grabbing. Subject matter aside, one of the most compelling aspects of the Invisible Children video is the actual production. The videography stands out and the emotional appeals are effective.

However, the responses to the film and campaign are the other side of the coin. The LA Times  notes that this situation is demonstrating that "digital media attention can be a double-edged sword".

"It certainly hits at the strength and the weakness of new media," said communications professor Barbie Zelizer, a fellow with the Stanford Center for Advanced Study who studies news images in the world's crisis regions.
"They are undeniably faster, but they are also undeniably less reliable. It's great when things go fast and they are correct. It's not great when they go fast and they are not correct," she says in the LA Times article.

As time goes on, reactions may get even more attention than the original video. This too is a lesson for those thinking about undertaking social media campaigns. If your argument or proposition isn't sound (and maybe even if it is), it is likely that critics will air their views...loudly. And there is little you can do about it.


  1. It's interesting to see another post on Kony 2012 - and yet another point of view. While I argue that the campaign has quite a big chance of succeeding ( ), your point that reactions may get more attention than the original message is worth considering.

    To be honest, I am personally on the side of the campaigners this time - I don't really find the criticism convincing enough.

    As for the video linked in your post, there are at least two things which make me doubtful: the fact that the Kony 2012 video (or short film) uses footage shot in 2003 really does not mean it was made in 2003 - in fact for anyone who has really seen the video it must be obvious that it's very recent. I find this argument deceitful.

    Also, whenever I see the logo of Russia Today, I become alert. Russia Today is a government-funded Russian TV; whenever I see anything coming from their broadcast, it features some rather dubious 'experts' who present opinions or theories which are - in my eyes - rather conspirative and biased presenters. To put it bluntly - I believe RT is more of a propagandist tool aimed against the USA and the EU than a worthwhile news outlet.

    These are not my only objections towards the video, but I reckon that the point of your post was not really to judge the campaign but rather to talk about the problem of critical reactions to a message online.

    Perhaps the Invisible Children should put more effort into fighting those accusations than just putting up a response section on their website, however up-to-date and detailed it is. ( ) But what should such an effort look like? I can well imagine that they are now overwhelmed with the more positive reactions to their campaign (such as their online shop being completely sold-out) and investing time and money into 'louder' response does not seem reasonable to them. But is it really not?

  2. I'm glad you mentioned that what we as PR practitioners can and should take away from the KONY 2012 campaign is the reach of the message and public reaction. However, I find that the controversy surrounding the organization, Invisible Children, is definitely worth considering as part of the equation. The critiques and counter arguments play into the credibility of online awareness campaigns. It is a little alarming to me that with a slick video and brand millions of people, without looking into the source of the content, jumped on board and trusted what they were told.

    This whole experience seems to be an indication of the increasingly untamed nature of the web. I will not deny that it is important to get people to think about issues that they are removed from, I have to question whether the public's ability to trust in convergent media will become increasingly difficult as the years pass.

    This is one counter-argument I find interesting as she addresses what does and does not get attention in social media: