KONY 2012: Social media and crisis communication lessons learned

Posted on March 13, 2012 8:48 am by | Crisis Communication | Social Media

KONY 2012By any measure, the launch last Monday of the KONY 2012 video is a massive social media success. But there were negative repercussions, some of which could have long-lasting implications for Invisible Children, the institution behind the video.

In case you were in a coma last week, Invisible Children released its 30-minute video designed to make Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony famous. The leader of the guerilla group Lord’s Resistance Army has been active for decades. Among his tactics is abducting children to become sex slaves or child soldiers. Since 1986, some 66,000 children have been forced to become soldiers in the LRA. The Invisible Children video seeks to make Kony famous in order to maintain a focus on his arrest and trial. The effort involves numerous tactics, from gaining support of celebrities and policy makers to plastering city surfaces with posters and other collateral the organization has distributed. Within just a couple days, Invisible Children sold out of its supplies and was offering free downloads to allow people to make their own.

You can see the video—which has 76 million views as of today—here.

Looking at the video and its aftermath to date, any organization employing social media can take several lessons.

Things don’t go viral just because you want them to. You have to lay the groundwork first

Whether it’s a blog post or mainstream media coverage, talk of the KONY 2012 video has generally noted that the video took only two days to rack up over 30 million views. See the power of social media?

Well, yeah, that is the power of social media—supported by an orchestrated, long-term effort to lay the groundwork for the video’s release. Over the last few years, Invisible Children has been methodically building its network of supporters, targeting school-aged youth who, as they become invested in putting an end to Kony’s atrocities, spread the word via their own social connections.

When the video was launched, Invisible Children put the word out to these followers, who began sharing it. Even A-listers like Jeff Jarvis noted that they heard about it from their kids.

Jeff Javris tweet on KONY 2012

The viral nature of the video was no accident, then; nor was it the result of a spontaneous desire to spread the word of Joseph Kony’s barbarity. It was, in fact, the execution of a carefully crafted strategy. As explained by Lana Swartz, a member of the Civic Paths research team, “The ‘Movement,’ as Invisible Children calls its US-facing work, includes visually-arresting films, spectacular event-oriented campaigns, provocative graphic t-shirts and other apparel, music mixes, print media, blogs and more. To be a member of Invisible Children means to be a viewer, participant, wearer, reader, listener, commenter of and in the various activities, many mediated, that make up the Movement. It is a massive, open-ended, evolving documentary ‘story’ unfurling across an expanding number of media forms.”

Whether you’re trying to build support for your own cause or generate excitement around a product launch, you can’t just upload a video and expect the view count to rise. It does happen from time to time, but usually not with videos with which you would want your brand associated! To get it right, there’s work involved, and Invisible Children’s approach of building a core group of passionate advocates isn’t a bad model to emulate. It’s also a reason to focus on your biggest fans rather than trying in vain to engage everybody who visits your Facebook page or follows your brand on Twitter.

Have a clear call to action

KONY 2012 introduced a couple calls to action, allowing you to choose the one that works for you. You could, for example, send some money to get a kit to use to raise awareness of Kony’s crimes in your neighborhood. For the truly committed, though, there’s marking your calendar for April 20, when volunteers are supposed to plaster their communities with these materials so when people get up on the morning of the 21st, nobody will be able to avoid exposure to the message.

If you appeal to people’s emotions, they won’t dig much deeper than your message

The 30-minute KONY 2012 video wasn’t all that great as videos go. It took forever to get to the point. It could have been just as powerful (if not moreso) if a decent editor had spent an hour trimming it. What it did do was invoke a strong emotional response. The horror of Joseph Kony’s actions was enough for most people to share the video, make donations and otherwise get involved.

What they didn’t do was dig deeper into Invisible Children and its operations or seek out alternative opinions of the group’s approach to the issue or the possible consequences of its actions.

It’s not the purpose of this post to judge the organization. Each individual has to make up his or her own mind about whether Invisible Children’s strategy is the best one for dealing with the problem. It’s worth noting that the criticisms of the way Invisible Children wants to solve the problem cover a wide range of issues:

  • The video simplifies a far more complex problem. Through Larry Magid’s piece in the Huffington Post, I learned about Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire, who wrote about Invisible Children founder Jason Russell, “He plays so much that this war has been going on because millions of Americans are ignorant about it, but this is not entirely true.” She also says that “the situation has improved in Northern Uganda and that it’s about conflict recovery right now.” And, she reminds us, “this is another video where you see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children…it does not end the problem.” A video response from Kagumire has itself generated nearly 500,000 views.

  • The video is rife with misinformation. Glenna Gordon, a photographer who shot images of Invisible Children’s leaders posing with weapons beside forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, told a Washington Post blogger, “The LRA isn’t even active in Uganda anymore, so we’re getting the issue to the spotlight with so much misinformation. I applaud efforts to bring humanitarian crises to the limelight, but if we do so with misinformation, we are sure to make mistakes. We need to do so with an eye toward accuracy and responsibility.” With the LRA no longer operating in Uganda—and reduced to a tiny force—other critics have called the campaign a classic example of “too little too late.”

  • In Uganda, the idea of U.S. military intervention in its internal affairs is viewed as another problem, not a solution. Others find the idea of the U.S. military stepping in to be another example of Africa as incapable of handling its problems and needing the West’s help. Ugandan government spokesman Fred Opolot said the campaign paints Africa as a dark continent of incessant trouble: “Invisible Children, if it is using such images to dupe the international community into…ensuring that they contribute financially into its works, I’m afraid to say it is a wrong approach, and indeed its activities in northern Uganda will be further questioned.”

  • Supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army as the means of bringing Kony to justice is misguided, according to other critics. A blog called Visible Children put it this way: “The group is in favor of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them.”

  • All the attention will drive Kony and the LRA deeper into hiding, making him even harder to find and bring to justice.

But none of these issues, right or wrong (many of which are summarized here), mattered to the vast majority of those who saw the video, whose reactions were emotional, visceral and immediate. People don’t apply critical thinking to what they see when their emotions are brought into play around an issue about which it’s hard to argue.

If they had spent time analyzing the video, many still may have opted to participate in the Invisible Children initiative. After all, their tactics will resonate with a lot of people. But the lesson is simply that they don’t. And they won’t.

Corollary: A legitimate cause will push secondary concerns to the background

You may agree with Invisible Children’s motives or not. You may like their approach or not. You may support their financial and business model or not. But these issues pale in comparison to the horrors inflicted by Joseph Kony. All the potential controversy gets shoved into a tiny little hole when stacked against the cause. If you can sensationalize your cause to eclipse all other concerns, it will dominate the way your effort is discussed.

Put simply, it’s hard to even think about criticizing a group with such noble goals. Even some of the news shows where I saw Russell interviewed failed to ask a single question about the criticisms leveled at the organization and its campaign, gushing instead about its success at exposing Kony’s deplorable history.

Even if you’re unfairly made the target of a carefully orchestrated social media campaign—by a competitor, an activist group or some other opposition organization—your innocence won’t stop people from simply reacting to the allegations without looking any further.

Be prepared for scrutiny

In addition to criticisms of Invisible Children’s approach to dealing with the plight of children in Africa, the organization found its internal operations the target of criticism as well. The organization’s transparency has been called into question over its spending, with only about one-third of its income devoted to programs in Africa. (I’m told that this level of giving doesn’t even qualify Invisible Children for nonprofit designation under Canada’s guidelines.)

Photographer Glenna Gordon—the one who captured the image of the organization’s leaders toting weapons—says that “People who have lived (in Uganda) for years, bona fide aid workers who have studied foreign policy and other relevant fields like public health, who are really there because they are trying to solve problems—they see Invisible Children as trying to promote themselves and a version of the narrative.”

Actress Mia Farrow, who has dedicated her life to children’s issues for decades and currently serves as a goodwill amassador for UNICEF—and who has visited the areas Kony’s LRA has attached—commended Invisible Children for bringing “unprecedented focus” to a horrific situation, but then urged people to redirect their donations to agencies like the Red Cross and UNICEF that work to help the victims rather than promote an agenda.

Invisible Children founder Russell, on one of the cable news program interviews where I saw him interviewed, expressed surprise that his organization was the subject of such scrutiny. He shouldn’t have been taken by surprise. He and the group’s other leaders had to know that the success of the video would spur the organization’s critics—who were already on the record—to action.

According to Magid’s HuffPo post, “Charity Navigator, which rates charities on a variety of criteria…often shows data from the group’s Form 990 tax return which shows that Invisible Children raised more than $10 million from the general public between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011.  Charity Navigator gives Invisible Children a 3 (out of 4) Stars for as an overall rating but only 2 stars for Accountability and Transparency with a score of 45, compared to 70 for the American Red Cross and 59 for the American Heart Association, just to give two examples.”

Yesterday, Invisible Children released a video by its CEO designed to answer the critics. While I applaud the effort, it demonstrates little understanding of crisis communication. One of those principles is acknowledging that people responding to a crisis come from an emotional place. In this case, they’re angry, disappointed, perplexed, disgusted. Yet the video argues facts to make its case. There’s nothing wrong with being factual, but a response to angry publics needs to acknowledge the reason they’re angry. The video lists the arguments, but does little to acknowledge that these are real concerns from real people. It probably won’t do much to alleviate their concerns. In fact, it may reinforce a perception of arrogance.

The Better Business Bureau issued a press release on Monday claiming that, since 2006, it has sent 18 letters to Invisible Children expressing concern that two of its six board members are also members of the paid staff. The press release contradicts the CEO’s assertion on the video that the organization is transparent.

None of these concerns should be a surprise to Invisible Children; the organization even dedicates a web page to responding to these criticisms that pre-dates the video. They should have been better prepared to face these charges as soon as they released the video. The response should have been part of the plan.

One impressive tactic Invisible Children is employing is the hashtag #askicanything. The CEO promises to answer as many as he can when the hashtag is tweeted to @invisible.

Think through your timing

The day of action for the KONY 2012 initiative is April 20. That’s five weeks away. All the attention on the video is happening now. God knows what other distractions will have diverted attention from this cause five weeks from now, an eternity on the web. Attention spans are short online, and it’s unlikely that Invisible Children can maintain its current momentum. I’ll be very, very surprised if people wake up on April 21 to find their cities plastered with KONY 2012 posters. Had that call to action been scheduled for this week, on the other hand, there’s a good chance it would have succeeded. Of course, if we do wake up to KONY 2012 everywhere we look on April 21, I’ll be happy to admit it—and examine what Invisible Children did to keep the fires burning.

Again, I want to be clear than I’m neither praising nor condemning Invisible Children in this post for its business model or its goals. Instead, I’m just pointing to takeaways any organization employing social media can apply to their own planning.

For a great post that analyzes the KONY 2012 phenomenon, be sure to read this post from a team of USC students (which is where I found the Lana Schwarz quote).



  • 1.I think a criticism and due diligence about the validity of the movement's accusations and explanation of current conditions is very important. However, I think we also need to respect the effort to STOP this tragedy, rather than treat the victims as Mia Farrow counseled. Treating the victims, picking up the pieces, is exactly what Invisible Children wants to stop. Sometimes I think we criticize such a noble cause because we're embarrassed to be associated with such ideals. What if they don't work? Then we all look stupid and naive. We should all take a risk on the side of stopping this tragedy.

    Bev | March 2012

  • 2.I would have to agree that it is going to be really hard, nearly impossible for invisible children to keep the fire burning all the way until April 21. I already feel as though the fire is smoldering with this movie. You were right when you said "attention spans are short online." With all this said, I still support Invisible Children, and have been a follower of them for several years now, so this is not new to me. However, was this the best timing for the movie to go viral? I think not... they should have held out for at least a few more weeks.

    Mikelle Liette | March 2012 | www.relating2thepublic.wordpress.com

  • 3.This video has indeed gain a lot of feedback from netizens worldwide.

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