This is the second of a two-part post. You can read Part 1 here.
Meet my friend and Marketing/PR Colleague, Pamela Smith. For the past 10 years, she has been running a PR Company called Elevated Communications, dedicated to working in the arts and the not-for-profit sector. Six years ago (before Twitter existed, and before Facebook was available to the general public), she was part of a team of people that launched The Act for Stolen Children in northern Uganda and made a film called Uganda Rising (narrated by Kevin Spacey) about the history of Uganda, the LRA and the role the Ugandan government has played in this near-quarter century conflict. They had a great deal of success with their campaign and film. Following their campaign, Joseph Kony was the first war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court. She has been involved in other successful social media campaigns, including Vancouver-based Fuck Cancer and fully understands and supports the role social media plays in reaching and mobilizing young audiences.
RC: Tell me about your involvement with Act for Stolen Children.
PS: In 2005, I was hired as the publicist for Mindset Media, headed by Canadian business woman and social venture capitalist Alison Lawton to raise awareness of the complex situation in Uganda. Alison and Dr. Erin Baines, an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC had been working with the Acholi people of northern Uganda to bring awareness to what former UN Under-Secretary Jan Egeland called “the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis and one of the biggest scandals of our generation.” A civil war had been raging for nearly 20 years and yet few people were aware that more than 1,000 people were dying every day as a result of this war. Over 20,000 children had been abducted by the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. The stories we heard from these children were horrific and heart-breaking: stories of mutilation, rape and murder that haunt me to this day. As many as 1.6 million people had been displaced in refugee camps by the Ugandan government but these camps offered little security and the Ugandan army had been accused of repeated human rights violations in these camps.
Our campaign was launched at the United Nations on October 18, 2005. We conducted an international media relations campaign, produced an award-winning feature-length documentary film Uganda Rising and organized The Gulu Walk, 10km walks in more than 80 cities around the world. Our campaign received extensive coverage in global media outlets including a great article by the late Christopher Hitchens in the January 2006 issue of Vanity Fair.
Working on this campaign changed my life in so many ways and I was very proud to be a part of the team that brought awareness to the plight of the incredibly resilient people of northern Uganda.
RC: What were your feelings this week when the Kony 2012 campaign went viral?
PS: I watched the Kony 2012 campaign explode with mixed emotions. Initially, I was very moved by the video and impressed by their media-saavy and strategy, but grew increasingly upset about the outdated and incorrect information they offered in the film. Admittedly, I was also amazed that their campaign, launched six years after the Act for Stolen Children, was taking the world by storm and “introducing” Kony, the LRA and the plight of the child soldiers of northern Uganda for the “first time.” Our campaign brought academics, international policy heavyweights and Ugandan leaders together for a common goal: peace in northern Uganda. It was a grassroots campaign that quickly gained momentum: Noam Chomsky, Samantha Power, Carol Bellamy, Lloyd Axworthy, Alan Rock, Stephen Lewis and Gerald Caplan worked alongside African leaders such as the formidable Ugandan minister and peace mediator Betty Bigombe, Rwot David Onen Acana II, the Paramount Chief of the Acholi people, Archbishop Jan Baptiste Odama of the Gulu Diocese and the indefatigable Michael Otim who oversaw over 60 civil society organizations in Gulu. Our biggest issue at the time we launched was how to bring the attention of the West to issues that didn’t involve missing white girls in Aruba but affected thousands of children in Africa. Considering the media attention lavished on the Natalee Holloway case, this was no easy feat.
We sent press releases out via fax and email, conducted satellite media interviews at remote locations around the world and travelled with world-class journalists like Christopher Hitchens to IDP camps in Kampala. There was no slick 29-minute video or platform to go viral via Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, but our campaign received a significant amount of media coverage including CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBC, CTV, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the National Post, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest and many other publications.
I’m not an expert on this issue, but Dr. Baines and Lindsay McClain, the Communications Officer at the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) in Gulu, Northern Uganda, have both been instrumental in getting the right information out there. I would urge anyone interested in this campaign to read their work before buying into Kony 2012.
I have heard from a number of people that this campaign is doing more harm than good in Uganda and that the people of Uganda are incensed by the arrogance of Invisible Children and the irrelevance of the Kony 2012 campaign. Mareilke Schomerus, the author of Chasing the Kony Story and one of the few Western journalists to interview Kony has written one of the best critiques I’ve read on Kony 2012.
RC: What do you think the lessons are, here? Both for us as marketers, and for us as consumers of media? We no longer just get our news from “reliable” (I say that in quotes, because even journalists can be biased–eg Fox Media, Sun Media) sources–we get it from Facebook and Twitter.
PS: As a PR professional, I think Kony 2012 and the subsequent backlash has taught us that you better have your story straight before you tell it to the world. Invisible Children went from being the darlings of the media world to pariahs in 48 hours. They went into crisis mode, and CEO Ben Keesey released a film addressing the controversy and making himself available for questions via Twitter at #askICanything yesterday morning. They are doing their best to be transparent and accessible but I fear the damage has already been done.
I was originally bemoaning the “sheep like” mentality of people blindly embracing this campaign – buying $30 “Stop Kony” kits and being environmentally irresponsible by papering their cities with posters and banners championing their cause. But I am actually heartened by how many people have been questioning the call to arms and holding Invisible Children accountable. As consumers of media, we need to ask questions, engage in debate, do our research but ultimately follow your heart. My heart resides in Uganda, with the people who have endured 25 years of civil war, lost generations of children, and the children – so many who were close in age to my own two boys – who just want a better future.