A couple of weeks ago the words “Joseph Kony” would have meant little to you or me. And not because we haven’t heard of him before. We have been hearing about Kony for over two decades. For example, since 1995 the New York Times has written 75 stories on Kony, seven of which have made the front page. Amnesty International has been publicizing his misdeeds for just as long. But the name never stuck. I suspect most of us sighed at the tragedy and turned the page. The fact that today I do not need to preface this article with a description of Joseph Kony or his atrocities is, in itself, a significant development for marketing communication professionals.
But, our awareness for Kony 2012 has come at a price. Not the money it took to make the film. Rather, the professional and personal accusations suffered by Jason Russell, Ben Keesey, and their non-profit organization Invisible Children. I’ve found the virility of this criticism as unprecedented as the video that triggered it. But the firestorm of accusation hasn’t just singed the reputation of the Invisible Children brand. It has singed the reputations of every brand (corporate, product, or personal) that has endorsed the campaign. I find myself covered in a light dusting of ash as I write this, pondering the cost that my own endorsement of Kony 2012 may have on my company’s brand. I suspect others who endorsed Kony 2012 last week may be having similar thoughts. If so, you may feel tempted to play down your connection to the campaign. Before you do that, I hope you’ll consider my reasons for continuing to support Kony 2012 and let me know if you think I’m completely off my rocker for doing so.
I saw the Kony video shortly after it was posted on YouTube. I was both inspired by the story and intrigued by the notion that a ruthless warlord could be toppled with Internet fame. Like many people, I was also highly skeptical. Tying your brand’s fate to that of another is always risky business — especially when the other brand is unknown. I tried to mitigate this risk by verifying three things before posting my endorsement: a) the video’s depiction of Kony, b) the legitimacy of Invisible Children, and c) the conviction of my team.
Kony’s atrocities were well chronicled dating as far back as the mid-nineties and as recently as a couple of weeks ago. I learned that the LRA’s reign of terror in Uganda ended when he was driven from the country in 2006. Since then, his activities have been diminished in scale but not brutality. As evil warlords go, he seemed to be the real deal. Further investigation has only reinforced this perception. A story in The Wall Street Journal dated March 13, claims that he has carried out 20 raids on villages in Congo in the past eight weeks. You can see the LRA's current activity in near-real time at www.lracrisistracker.com.
Invisible Children's track record was also well documented. We use www.charitynavigator.org to vet charities. They rate Invisible Children pretty favorably (three out of four stars). Not perfect, but not a train wreck either. In fact, with over 80% of funds spent on its programs and services, Invisible Children operates more efficiently than most charities. I was impressed with the range of on-the-ground solutions they had deployed along with other NGOs: Everything from education and rehabilitation for victims to a clever early warning radio network. Plus, of the 100 people they employ in Uganda all but four are locals. They seemed kosher. Charity Navigator has since published an extended evaluation of Invisible Children in addition to Invisible Children’s own transparency efforts that include publishing all their tax returns and annual reports online, producing a video where their CEO addresses each criticism made against them, creating a web page to address critiques, and inviting more enquiries on Twitter with the hash tag #AskICAnything.
My team at The Duffy Agency agreed that the cause was worthy and the organization legit. Since building brands is what we do for a living, this cause seemed like a good fit for us. I endorsed the Kony 2012 campaign in my blog on March 7 (Joseph Kony 2012: Testing the True Power of the Social Web) and my company blog did the same on the following day (6 Ways You Can Help Ensure The Success of Kony 2012).
Despite what I thought was sufficient due diligence, the Kony 2012 campaign is now embroiled in a style of controversy that portrays Kony 2012 supporters as hapless, starry-eyed dupes. Meltwater Buzz, a social media-monitoring tool, shows that global sentiment towards the campaign was mostly positive until March 7 and has been mostly negative since (although the gap between the two is steadily narrowing).
One thing I got wrong was the magnitude of the film's popularity and therefore the magnitude of the knee-jerk contrarian reaction. The contrarian view will always be voiced. No matter the issue. No matter its merits. That’s a good thing for all of us. It helps clarify issues, identify mistakes, and vet the truth — so long as the contrarian employs the same strict standards of accuracy and objectivity to which they hold their subjects accountable. That, sadly, has not always been the case. I agree with the premise of the anti-Kony 2012 argument: It is crucial to look at both sides of the story. I just feel that many people who traveled down the contrarian path were disappointed to find little substantiation for their unequivocal opposition to Kony 2012. Undeterred, they seemed to take the campaign tagline “Stop at Nothing” to heart as they ignored or distorted facts to make their case (and drive their web traffic).
Major media outlets and humanitarian organizations have been trying to raise public awareness of Kony for decades. All have failed. Ironically their failure seems to render them immune from this contrarian scrutiny. I’d argue that critics of Kony 2012 would find a more deserving target for their scorn in the millions of dollars wasted each year by charities who employ outdated communication tactics to deliver ineffectual messages — not in the thousands spent to create the most successful and cost-effective humanitarian awareness campaign in history (see Timo Lüge’s post for a rundown of campaign stats).
Then there was Jason Russell’s very public and very misrepresented breakdown. That triggered the argument that Kony 2012 is a farce because he has issues. But, let’s not discount what it must feel like for an ordinary person to create a film to help stop the most-wanted person on the International Criminal Court's list of suspected war criminals, only to have the tables turned so he, himself, becomes the object of public scorn and ridicule. Or as Nicholas Kristof queried: “A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified? I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”
Today a colleague asked if we embraced Kony 2012 too hastily. I told him it’s not our haste that we should call into question here so much as our willingness as a company to withstand the blowback that invariably comes with taking a stand on anything.
This is not to say the Kony 2012 is beyond reproach. No individual, institution, or endeavor ever is. But so far, none of the claims against the movement change the deeds of Joseph Kony or the brilliance of putting the Internet to work to raise awareness. The no-holds-barred manner in which the Internet community greeted the efforts of Invisible Children will undoubtedly give pause to other well-intentioned non-profits. That’s a shame. I see this case as an important milestone in the evolution of the Internet from a passive recreational media to a positive force in global change. It can just as easily become a force for negative change if mob mentality, smear, and distortion take the place of constructive debate, logic, and truth on either side of an issue. The defense of constructive online discourse is not why my company embraced this initiative from the start. But given the events of the past week, it has become an additional factor in our decision to continue our support for Kony 2012 moving forward.
Sean Duffy spent 18 years with ad agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Stockholm before founding The Duffy Agency, an international ad agency, in 2001. Sean is director of TAAN Europe and a regular guest lecturer at the Lund University School of Economics. He is also a blogger, Twitterer and is on LinkedIn.