Whether you love it, hate it, or know nothing about it, the online phenomenon that is the “KONY2012” video offers many valuable lessons for us in communicating the work we do.

What is this KONY 2012 all about?

Never has a video – and certainly not one created by an NGO – generated such heated and conflicting responses, or achieved such immediate global reach. Fast approaching the 100-million-viewer mark, in the week following its launch, coverage of the KONY2012 video infiltrated every major news outlet in the world, and ignited a storm of commentary among Facebookers and Tweeters of all ages.

If you have not yet seen it, KONY2012 is a slick, expensive 30-minute film produced by a US-based NGO, Invisible Children, as part of an international campaign to arrest the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. It gives a brief history of the LRA, and creates a sense of urgency about the fate of the children abducted into the LRA. Viewers are told that the solution lies in their hands, through passing on the video, contacting US government representatives and celebrities, and buying bracelets and posters to spread the message.

The video has attracted enormous support, but also enormous criticism. Detractors accuse it of being dangerously simplified, patronizing, inaccurate and manipulative. To learn more, I encourage you to read some of the truly excellent pieces of investigation, analysis, satire and reflection published on the issue, including a growing number of responses from Ugandans.

Why does this matter to African grassroots organisations?

Whatever the faults of the campaign, it does show us just how effective social media can be in gaining rapid visibility for an issue, and generating financial and other support. YouTube videos, online discussions, blog posts, Facebook updates and Twitter messages are all accessible platforms open to anyone with a mobile phone, at a cost affordable even to small grassroots organization. They offer us the means to tell our story, and have it heard across the world.

And our story has been missing. Organisations working on the ground in Africa - like all of us on this network – are often not being heard in global debates. We need to change that.

So what can we learn from KONY 2012?

Here are five important lessons that you can take away from the campaign to make your own work more effective, whilst not falling into some of the pitfalls of this campaign.

1) Make it emotional

Empathy, sorrow, joy, anger - these are the things that make us human, personalize an issue, and motivate us to act, learn, or care. The KONY 2012 campaign provides emotional resonance in abundance, and as a result tens of millions of people have engaged with it.

How many excellent, worthy causes have we been working on for years, wishing for a response just like this? We can learn from this in how we present our work, while remembering that this approach, borrowed from the film industry, can become a form of emotional pornography. We must take care how we use them. A great example of a feel-good video by a small organisation that doesn’t ignore the agency of the people involved is Mama Hope’s celebration of connectivity, their “Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential” Campaign.

What you can do is this:

Think of the personal stories you have that illustrate the importance of your work, both in your voice and the voice of people your organization is working with. Trust me, you have these stories. Think of the people who have humbled you and awed you; the conversations that have stuck with you; the things you have learned in the course of your work. Tell them in ways that are personal, respectful, and that help outsiders see the power, courage, passion and humanity of the people involved.

2) Urgency equals action

Another key to the success of the KONY2012 campaign was the inherent sense of urgency woven into it; emphasising a “window of opportunity” that will soon close, and the terrible suffering of children which must not continue. For the same reason, efforts to fundraise for earthquake relief funds and other sudden disasters or famines are radically more successful than for ongoing issues of malnutrition.

How can we use this in our own campaigns, to transform long-standing issues with no easy answer into a cause for immediate concern? Setting deadlines, linking actions to key events, showing the problem through the eyes of those affected, and providing real-time feedback (tactics used to great effect by Avaaz) are all smart and practical ways to underline a need for action. The Girl Effect uses powerful videos to transform the long-term issue of education for girls into a subject for urgent action.

What you can do is this:

Look for those anchors and deadlines. Perhaps you want to change local policy – it might be effective to ask people to sign a petition before you attend a certain meeting with an official. Or if you have a funding target to reach for scholarships, set the first day of the school year as your deadline.

3) People want to act

Once you’ve gotten people to care about something, they will usually ask “so what can I do?” If there is no answer to this question, your audience may be left more cynical and apathetic than before. The KONY 2012 campaign’s success was due to the clear, simple action it provided for ordinary people to take. As Max Fisher summed it up, the video “sets viewers up for a message so gratifying and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to resist: there is a terrible problem in the world, you are the solution, and all you have to do is pass along this video.”

However dubious the message or methodology of the campaign, the millions of people who supported it were motivated by a genuine desire to make a difference. How can we find a way to transform this desire to be of service into sustainable, well-thought out actions?

Asking people to “Like”, tweet or forward a message to others can be an appropriate action if, for example, you want to demonstrate to a government representative that you have support for your idea. There have been great examples of creative actions that ask people to do something a little bit more – such as the inspired Movember moustache drive, or the TckTckTck campaign’s invitation to submit video messages for leaders at the Rio+20 conference.

What you can do is this:

Next time you create your own campaign, make sure you have a reason for engaging people, and a well thought-through plan for how they can take action. Don’t just inform them, ask them to do something (and be sure to provide feedback and be sure to thank your supporters). You might be surprised by the response.

4) Your voice is crucial

Many of the criticisms of the KONY2012 campaign highlighted the lack of accurate, local voices used in the video. Reporters and other commentators quickly began to seek out organisations on the ground in Uganda to provide them with insights and information, in recognition of the fact that the most suitable people to talk about the issues were people living and working there.

This shows there is a thirst for authentic stories to be told from the grassroots level, to educate, mobilize and inspire people. And this represents an opportunity for us all working on the ground.

What you can do is this:

Recognise that you have something important to say, and start exploring the possibilities opened up by social media. My organization does not have a great deal of money, or experience, but we are experimenting with ways of building networks, telling stories and sharing insights.

Closing Thoughts

For those of us still hesitating to dip into the social media world, here are a few final things to think about. 

First, it costs very little, and doesn’t require much expertise. Even creating short videos can now be done inexpensively.

Second, mobile phone use in Africa is escalating, giving more and more people here access to it. A teacher in Brighton, England can now connect with a teacher in Lusaka, Zambia, and discuss first-hand the concerns and achievements of their respective schools and learn from one another.

Thirdly, it doesn’t have to cheapen or compromise your mission if used thoughtfully. 

And finally, as an organization doing what you do, you have something valuable to offer. The world is eager to hear what you have to say.

Interested in learning more? 

Interesting in learning more about how to use social media in your work? We're working on a follow-up to this post, which will look at a range of existing resources and practical tips for our members. Please send us your suggestions, and keep checking back in the coming weeks!

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