Love it or hate it, the online phenomenon that is KONY 2012 offers valuable lessons to development communicators.

Never has a video – and certainly not one created by an NGO – generated such heated and conflicting responses, or achieved such global reach. Fast approaching the 100-million-viewer mark, in the week since the campaign’s launch, coverage of “KONY 2012” has infiltrated every major news outlet and online forum, and ignited a storm of commentary among Facebookers and Tweeters of all ages.

However, there is a side to this public debate that has been relatively under-explored: and that is the lessons for media and communications professionals, and specifically those of us working in the development sector.

Here are five important lessons that we can draw from this campaign:

1)  Emotion sells:  Empathy, sorrow, joy, anger - these are the things that make us human, and motivate us to act, learn, or care. The KONY2012 campaign provides emotional resonance in abundance, and the success of this approach is evident. If we are honest, many of us probably felt at least a niggling worm of jealousy watching that YouTube counter climb into the millions. How many excellent, worthy causes have we been pushing for years, wishing for a response just like this? We can learn from this, in terms of how we present our work. At the same time, these tactics, familiar from the film industry, have the dangerous potential to become a form of emotional pornography. We must be careful in how we employ this approach, so that we do not compromise our mission, or our ethics, in order to provoke a reaction. An example of a feel-good video that doesn’t ignore the agency of the people involved is Mama Hope’s glorious celebration of connectivity, their “Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential” Campaign.

2)  Urgency equals action: Another key to the success of the campaign was the inherent sense of urgency woven into it. The video emphasises the “window of opportunity” that will soon close, 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? How can we make long-standing issues with no easy answer into a cause of immediate concern? The Girl Effect is one very slick example of how to introduce a sense of urgency into a long-term problem - education for girls.

3)    People want to act (1): Once people care about something, they 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 KONY2012 campaign’s infectiously viral success is due to the clear, simple action it provided for ordinary people to take. Whilst the simplistic nature of this action (especially in the context of a highly complex, distant conflict) has been the subject of much of the criticism facing the campaign, there are many cases in which liking, tweeting or forwarding on a message would be a perfectly appropriate action to encourage. There have also been great examples of creative actions that go beyond simply clicking a button – such as the inspired Movember moustache drive. Bear this in mind the next time you create your own campaign: don’t just inform, ask. Let’s transform viewers into activists. We might be surprised by the response.

4)    People want to act (2): ... because it’s worth repeating. We need to recognise that however dubious the message or methodology of the campaign, the millions of people who watched the video, forwarded it on, and bought “action packs” from Invisible Children were motivated by a genuine desire to make a difference. Yet how many of us have at one time or another bemoaned the apathy and ignorance of the vast, amorphous “general public”? Is this is an opportunity for all of us as development communicators to recognise that if we are failing to engage the public, perhaps we need to look at ourselves and how we are communicating?

5)     We need debate, not derision: Many supporters of the KONY2012 campaign have said “at least it has started people talking.” And this is certainly true; some truly excellent pieces of investigation, analysis, satire and reflection have been published, including a gratifyingly large number of responses from Ugandans. However, much of the debate taking place last week was bitter, simplistic, and divisive – the detractors classifying supporters as ignorant and uninformed, the supporters calling the detractors pompous and cynical. Both ‘sides” in this debate were to blame for the lack of a balanced discussion. If you disagree with aspects of the KONY2012 campaign, alienating those who support it will not change their viewpoint, nor will it encourage them to read more, learn more and engage more critically with complex issues. How can we find a way to transform the desire to be of service, so evident in the KONY2012 campaign, into sustainable, well-thought out actions?

A well-known development blog recently characterised the KONY2012 debate within the development sector as being between development communicators (“StopKONY”), who are awed by the innovative form of the campaign, and development programme staff (“STOP StopKONY”) who are appalled at its substance. But perhaps respecting the kind of success the KONY2012 campaign has achieved does not mean we must follow its example. Rather, we can take from it what is useful – and discard the rest.


The author wishes to express that the opinions in her blog are her own and not intended to represent her organisation. She recommends the How Matters FaceBook page for further information and the Twitter hashtag #stopkony.

Riona McCormack

Image Credit: Australia Herald Sun