March 13, 2012

5 advocacy lessons from the Kony 2012 video

Issues of storytelling, transparency & disclosure come to fore

Shonali BurkeThe big social media story of the year so far has been Invisible Children’s 30-minute film on Joseph Kony. I mean, you just couldn’t get away from it last week — 75 million views on YouTube and counting.

I was fascinated, not so much by the video, which I agree was beautifully produced, but by the amount of conversation it generated. So I talked to a few of my colleagues in the nonprofit world, all powerhouse professionals, to get their take on the video and the cultural hubbub that ensued.

And while much has already been written about the campaign, including this terrific Forbes piece on social media lessons, here are a few things nonprofit organizations should keep in mind when using digital media to further their causes:

You must let the truth get in the way of a good story

1One of the primary criticisms is that the Kony 2012 video doesn’t accurately represent the current state of affairs in Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, not to mention the fact that warlord Joseph Kony hasn’t been in that country in a while. Invisible Children said that in order for the story to resonate, they had to simplify it, and basically admitted via the statement on their site that they left out a lot of detail:

“In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.”

Yes, the story is complicated. But with the expert talent at their disposal, I have a hard time believing Invisible Children couldn’t have given a sense of history by date-stamping the different interviews and so on.

Beth Kanter agreed, saying, “I believe nonprofits, in a day of social media connectedness, really have to understand transparency and that they can’t get away with not being transparent.” Beth elaborated further on this in a recent post, reiterating that “for responsible social change, you need transparency.”

How much storytelling is too much storytelling?

2Kami Watson Huyse raised an interesting point: “It was clear to me that this video was a storytelling exercise, and stories by definition are personal and take a particular point of view. I was more concerned with his use of his own son’s reaction as part of the story.

“The truth is a matter of interpretation. I think that this video was designed to get people to act, not to be a realistic documentary.”

While I’m not a parent, I would imagine this would resonate with many of you who are. We’ve seen time and time again that good stories are those are easy to understand and that pull on your heartstrings. But do you really have to bring your kids into it?

From Beth on storytelling: “Successful messaging is compelling, visual, emotional and simple. Some highly effective online activists told me that one of their secrets is that their messaging is at sixth-grade level because that makes it clear and simple to understand. That’s a good thing to do.”

Kony 2012 did that in spades. But at what price? At what point does the story take over the agenda — or become the agenda? It goes back to being transparent – which pretty much everyone I asked agreed was key. Nancy Schwartz summed it up perfectly: “The end doesn’t justify the means.”

It’s tough to say no to kids

3I first heard about the video from my Johns Hopkins students. Granted, they’re not kids, but they’re exactly the demographic of young activist and activist-oriented people that the film was trying to reach. Beth said she first heard about it from her 12-year-old son. JD Lasica, my Socialbrite colleague, first heard about it from his 12-year-old son. (By the way, JD interviewed one of the founders of Invisible Children for Socialbrite in 2009.) Continue reading