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Kony 2012: The Campaign and How Public Relations Shaped It

Invisible Childen’s campaign to find Joseph Kony, an African war criminal, exploded in March of 2012. The non-profit organization, founded in 2004 by three college students named Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, was originally the beginning stages of a documentary on the war in Darfur. They filmed a short documentary entitled ‘Invisible Children: The Rough Cut’ that explained the intentions of their organizations and introduced viewers to Joseph Kony and the crimes committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. However, in 2012, the people of Invisible Children wanted to jump start awareness of his terrible crimes, which include kidnapping small children to join his rebel militia, sexually assaulting young girls, and looting and robbing villages in Uganda, the DRC, and surrounding nations. Invisible Children is an organization that heavily relies on public relations tactics. Their highly emotional videos, photos, and campaigns are designed to provoke thought and action. They have labeled themselves as an organization that focuses primarily on awareness. They simply want to get the message out since many first world nations don’t give a second thought to those suffering in third world nations. On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children released a thirty minute video entitled ‘Kony 2012’. After a few short hours, it went viral and spread to an insane amount of countries across the globe. Many who viewed it were immediately sympathetic. It was reposted on social networking sites Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr millions of times. The video used a lot of emotional video clips and was design to appeal to 18-30 year olds. In the original video, it explained the horrors that have gone unnoticed in Africa. Several people were interviewed who had seen their family members die as a result of the LRA. It encouraged us to get active and alert everyone to Joseph Kony’s existence. Most had never heard his name before, despite the large scale genocide and terrorist attacks he performed. Invisible Children’s goal was to catch and capture Kony before the start of 2013. They wanted activists to spread his name and nature through posters, social networking sites, and other legal forms of public display. Invisible Children essentially made a 30 minute public relations masterpiece. It appealed to our most basic human sympathies. Showing clips of young children crying over their dead siblings inflicts some sort of emotional investment in everyone. They included popular songs in the background including electronic tracks from Flux Pavilion. They encouraged peaceful activism and didn’t ask too much of us. We didn’t need to take the nearest plane to Africa and search through dense forest. We could just buy a tee shirt and sign up to donate a few dollars a month to Invisible Children’s efforts. They wanted you to spend five minutes calling a local senator, congressman or other local politician to let them know the American public cared about stopping Kony. The main poster for the campaign features an elephant and a donkey meshed together, playing on the politics of an election year. Stopping a hardened war criminal and helping fellow humans is something every political party can agree on. Their PR team recognized the importance of human unity, especially when it comes to social justice issues. They made everyone take a second look and think about something other than themselves, and that is an impressive feat in itself. It was a campaign that focused on human empathy and no longer living in ignorance. It was time to realize the importance of these issues, even though they may be happening a continent away.

However, naturally the movie was given immediate skepticism by many. Invisible Children did not expect the traffic they got on the video, and in turn, they experienced a public relations nightmare concerning the reputation of their organization. Many criticized the video for it’s “emotionally manipulative” video clips, “exaggeration of facts” and the search started to find out more about who Invisible Children was as an organization. One of the first things addressed was Invisible Children’s spending habits. Critics said that the money given to the organization was not actually being given to children or adults in need after they suffered from the LRA’s attacks. Immediately, Invisible Children released their spending records for the last ten years, and emphasized that their organization was more about awareness than anything else. It took a lot of funds to create the campaign videos, spread around posters and pamphlets, and send various employees and volunteers to different states and countries to spread the message. The PR team made a smart move again and immediately released the records so they looked honest about where the money went. Another incident came up when a photo circulated that showed Jason Russell and other employees holding a gun and posing with other Ugandan citizens. This disrupted their message of peaceful protest. Skepticism about the true nature of their campaign grew, and many people started to jump to conclusions about the motives throughout Invisible Children. Jason Russell released a statement on their website shortly after the photo became just as viral as their video, and apologized for its crudeness. He admitted that he took it as a mock photo with his friends, and did not expect it to be released to the public. He assured that Invisible Children still did not condone violence, but the photo still sparked a lot of debate and many used it against them in future arguments. Even with a well-worded release, it’s hard to erase the consequences from a photo like that. However, Invisible Children emphasized that it did not define their campaign. It was time to move on and focus on the issue itself–the reign of Joseph Kony had to be stopped. Invisible Children did not envision the power of their own creation–the widespread Kony video caused personal and mental problems for its creator Jason Russell, who was later arrested for public indecency in a crazed fit outside his residential home. This issue was also brought up against the organizations. Inevitable comments were made about the ridiculousness Invisible Children’s creator getting arrested before Kony did. Irony kept popping up as more and more people were introduced to the campaign. It is ironic in itself that Invisible Children’s PR centered video caused them to have their own PR disaster. They were quick to separate the behavior of the creators with the campaign, and that was an intelligent move. Emphasis was continually put on people taking action and realizing what issues were at stake. No amount of criticism or bad timing with photographs could end the value of human empathy, and I think that is the strongest aspect of their campaign. It is hard to disregard Joseph Kony and his atrocities completely without looking like an insensitive, hardened animal.


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