Monday, March 19

Forgetting Publics: Kony 2012

When the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently redefined the term "public relations," it was met with some criticism. Most of the criticism is aimed at three areas: the oversimplification of the definition, the sameness to past definitions, and the litany of terms (a.k.a. jargon) that need to be defined in order to understand the definition.

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

While there is plenty to be unimpressed about, the one word that generally draws the most disdain is "publics." It rivals the use of "audience(s)," which is used by advertising and marketing, as receiving the most scorn among all words used in communication. And yet, despite confusion, both are needed.

How the neglect of "publics" undermines the Kony 2012 campaign. 

The general argument against using "publics" in defining people is usually tied to the negative sentiment associated with the categorization of people, which is said to dilute individualism and reinforce the old model of mass communication. Ironically, the opposite might prove to be true.

Identifying and prioritizing publics recognizes individual differences, desires, and concerns that various people (employees, investors, regulators, etc.) have about different issues. Knowing how different publics might react to any well-crafted message becomes paramount in how we communicate.

In looking at the Kony 2012 social media campaign, the importance of recognizing publics is crystal clear. While the campaign succeeded in employing tried and true tactics for social media, it neglected how various publics might respond to the well-intended message.

• The Ugandan government has rejected the campaign because it says that Joseph Kony is no longer operating in the country, a criticism initially brought to light by human rights watch groups.

• The people of Uganda, including victims, have had a furious reaction to the campaign after seeing screenings of the film in their country. The screenings have since been halted.

• People who categorize the Ugandan government as repressive claim that any aid will only pop up an unjust government. It could also accidentally destabilize the region.

• Philanthropic advisors have elevated the backing organization as a cautionary tale for donors, especially after several scrutinized the organization's financials and track record for transparency.

• Not everyone is keen on U.S. military intervention: not Ugandans, not Americans. Some critics draw parallels to U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, and fear it could do more harm than good. Some argue interest in the area has as much to do with oil as humanitarian efforts.

• And, not everyone is keen on the way that social networks can propel propaganda so quickly and efficiently that people support it before they have any facts whatsoever.

The examples are starters, but listing them is not meant to criticize intent. 

On the contrary, highlighting critical response is a means to demonstrate the importance of thinking about publics instead of a singular public (e.g.,  social media). If the campaigners had thought through their communication, there would have been fewer detractors. And if the organizers would have thought through their publics, the filmmaker would have been less likely to have a mental break.

Prior to the launch of the video and subsequent social media campaign, Invisible Children would have benefited from public relations and its practice in identifying, prioritizing, and communicating to various publics. What publics? Here are few considerations for starters.

African governments. The African governments of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan need to be unified in the decision to bring Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to justice. The LRA exists because it is not bound to boundaries whereas these governments cannot pursue aggressors into neighboring countries.

African people. A real effort to support bringing Kony and the LRA to justice must to be supported by the victims. The filmmakers really needed to consider how they might react to the campaign. Had they educated the people before the campaign and not after, they might not have seen push back.

Human rights groups. Invisible Children could have communicated with other human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others. By informing of them of the intent, recognizing their parallel efforts, or even partnering with more groups, it would have been less likely for the lead organization to be so scrutinized.

U.S. Congress/political influencers. There is no question that American politics is partly driven by constituent correspondence. And while Invisible Children has had contact with many decision makers since it first began, it would have been prudent to have given politicians backgrounders about the campaign so they could have addressed the issue with intelligence.

Celebrities/public influencers. It's always great to have a campaign spurred on by people who are already in the public eye. But much like politicians, the early success of receiving celebrity attention could have been compounded with advanced notice of the campaign, especially among those with an expressed interest in human rights.

Special interest groups. There are several to consider, which would need to be broken out in any formal plan. But for the purposes of this post, an oversimplified list begins with pacifists (those who object to fighting violence with violence), non-interventionists (people who believe the focus needs to be at home and not abroad), and similar political action groups (opposed to what they call American imperialism or modern colonialism). It's doubtful these groups would become allies, but considering their views prior to the launch could have made the organization better prepared to address their varied concerns.

How communicating to publics in addition to the campaign could have made a difference.

While there is more to be learned from the Kony 2012 campaign, one lesson might be to stop defining a successful social media campaign as one that constructs slick and sharable messages that go viral.

A truly successful campaign is much more than that. It shapes public opinion into an actionable outcome. With Kony 2012, whether or not Invisible Children will achieve its objective is debatable (for now). What isn't debatable is that for all of its successes, the campaign has created new barriers.

What a shame it would be if the entire campaign renders itself pointless by raising awareness around the world while undermining the means to accomplish the objective at the same time. If the African people and their governments do not want support in bringing Kony or the LRA to justice, then what will have been accomplished beyond the opposite of intent and possibly detracting support from other important goals?
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