Finding Freedom with Feet & Fingertips

When I look at the Underwood manual typewriter in my office that is featured on this blog’s homepage header, I am reminded that if other people can have a successful campaign without the modern-day tools now have at our disposal, what’s my excuse?

We’re tackling opinion leadership, word of mouth marketing (WOM), social media and how they can be used in the process to diffuse innovations this week on Modern Retro PR. The concept here is pretty simple: we’ll examine two campaigns from two different eras and look for the similarities to see how well it worked with the tools available. Specifically, this week, we are looking at human rights’ issues.

Retro: Montgomery Bus Boycott

The year was 1949 and Jo Ann Robinson had accepted a job teaching English at Alabama State College. It wasn’t the lesson taught in a classroom that changed her life’s mission; it was one taught on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.: Robinson “was screamed at for sitting in the empty white section of a city bus; the driver pulled over to yell at her and Robinson fled the bus, fearing that he would hit her.”

It was in this moment, Robinson, who had lived in other places, vowed to change the system. This opinion leader began mapping out a plan to desegregate buses, but it would take years before the innovator had the chance to do it.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for her refusal to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Parks’ arrest was the tipping point to put the plan into action to protest the unfair treatment of blacks on the city’s public transit system: a one-day bus boycott of Montgomery’s buses.

That night, Robinson, who was president of the Women’s Political Council, printed 50,000 handbills on a mimeograph machine calling for a boycott of the public transit system the following Monday.

Boiled down, the effort to motivate enough people to participate in the boycott in order to have grievances known was essentially done through a WOM campaign.

On Friday, December 2,  Robinson and a small group distributed the handbills, taking many of them to schools for high school students to carry home to their parents for the weekend. She also carried them to a meeting of clergymen who signed onto the plan as early adopters and promised to encourage their congregants on Sunday morning to participate in the boycott. Also on Sunday, in the local newspaper, there was a full-page ad about the boycott.

In Social Influence Model and Electronic Word of Mouth, WOM is called “particularly influential” (Okazaki, 2009, p. 439).

Evidently so. It took one woman a little more than 72 hours to get the word out across a city to a specific audience without social media. By some estimates, 40,000 black passengers stayed off the bus on Monday, December 5.

The one-day campaign was considered a success and was extended for 381 days. While Parks’ arrest is considered the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement, Robinson’s work should surely be considered the labor.

Modern: Kony 2012

Joseph Kony was a cult leader whose militia had terrorized parts of Central Africa for more than thirty years. His Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was known for the recruitment of child soldiers to use on the battlefield and was the feature of the short documentary, Kony 2012. Produced by Invisible Children, narrator Jason Russell  was the opinion leader whose desire to help a Ugandan friend stop Kony led him to this innovation.

Kony 2012 poster

With a click of a mouse, millions of people diffused this innovation by sharing the video to raise awareness of the warlord in the hopes he would be apprehended and brought to justice. If you were one those viewers thinking you could make a difference, you weren’t alone. Six days after the mini-doc was first published on YouTube, there were more than 100 million views, making it one of the most viral in history.

Consider this campaign, an electronic word of mouth effort (eWOM) effort. Someone shared the thirty-minute video on Facebook in 2012, and I watched it and probably shared it with my Facebook friends. Someone probably shared the same video with you, too. The goal seemed too large to comprehend: to catch a predator on the other side of the globe. But why not be part of it?

One reason why so many people shared the video was a direct reflection of how these social media users want to see themselves. According to Shintaro Okazaki, “participants exhibit significantly higher perceptions on social intention, intrinsic enjoyment and cognitive social identity” (Okazaki, 2009, p. 439).

At the end of the video, viewers were asked to “Cover the Night” on April 20, 2012, by placing the campaign’s posters in places across the world in an effort to bring notoriety to the notorious.

While the virality of the campaign made it successful and raised awareness, its ultimate objective (capturing Kony) was not reached by the end of 2012. Nor was the night covered. In the end, news reports showed that social media movement wasn’t able to mobilize activists. Kony has yet to be brought to justice.

Final Thoughts.

When developing public relations campaigns, one must determine if they are seeking one of the following types of changes: awareness, attitudes or actions. Obviously, generating an action change is the most difficult. One has to have skin in the game to motivate the desire to change.

Raising awareness in the two examples above was relatively easy once the strategy was determined. The difference-maker was motivating the action. Recently, I read a blog in which famed author and presenter Simon Sinek discussed how leaders can motivate others through the Diffusion of Innovation. In Sinek’s Ted Talk, he said leaders should explain the why first before the what or how.  This is exactly the work an opinion leader must do.

Robinson’s work clearly articulated why a change was needed, what was at stake and how the response was to be handled. Russell, on the other hand, told us why we should care about the world around us and what Joseph Kony was doing on the other side of it.  What Russell didn’t clearly articulate for the millions of social media participants was how their actions would actually make a difference.

Both needed participants to travel to make a difference, it appears that one journey was just too far.

Which campaign impresses you more: Modern or Retro?


You Can Learn A Lot From A Dummy

Welcome to Modern Retro PR, where each week I plan to analyze two campaigns–one modern and one retro–and find the similarities and see how it worked (or didn’t). Hi! I’m Lesley and I’m a nationally award-winning Accredited in Public Relations practitioner with more than 15 years experience in broadcast journalism and public relations. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the craft of writing and storytelling. As an elementary student, I could not wait for Fridays to watch 20/20. Seriously.

I’ll use this blog to explore issues of strategic communication and emerging media and you can find it at Since earning my accreditation in 2013, I have become increasingly thirsty to learn more about the topics which prepared me to successfully earn this designation. Because I work school PR where few in my organization really understand what I even do, I’m looking for folks with whom I can delve deeper on topics like strategic communication, diffusions of innovation, communication models and theories, social media as part of a communications response, and the like.

My favorite PR topic of all is the Four-Step Process (Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation). I will gladly partner with anyone who wants to use this approach to accomplish their goals. Admittedly, I get frustrated by being handed a list of tactics to implement which there is no research to suggest the tactics are even needed.

Now that I have your attention, I want to share with you what I learned from a dummy.


My grade school summers were filled with memories of carefree car rides to visit family or go on a vacation. I remember riding in cars with relatives who would throw an arm across to protect a passenger from flying into the dashboard upon a hard stop. I even remember a car trip to Disney where I convinced my little sister to lay in the floorboard of the back seat so she could have more room. While my rose-colored tint makes it sound idyllic, to me, it now sounds idiotic that no one was wearing seatbelts.

Enter these two dummies:

The Ad Council’s “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign ran from 1985-1999, urging people to buckle their seatbelts. Prior to the campaign, social custom at the time was that you didn’t wear seatbelts: “while 80% of Americans believed seat belts work, only 11% regularly used them.” According to the Diffusions of Innovations Theory, the Ad Council, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, served as the change agents in this effort.


The mass media campaign was catchy and slowly people began to change their behavior and buckle up; however, it took time. The key to early adoption was pediatricians. I remember the campaign but doubt it did more than just raised awareness about the issue for me personally. What did it for me was the interpersonal network of which I was a part, along with my mom and my pediatrician.  I recall a childhood checkup with my pediatrician where he talked to my mom and me about seatbelt safety; he encouraged the use of seatbelts and reminded my mom to wear hers. Year after year I heard this same speech.


He was an opinion leader. He believed seatbelts could keep me safe, and he empowered me to hold the adults in my life accountable for buckling up before driving through homophily. What parent wants to look bad in their child’s eyes?  I couldn’t drive, but I could motivate others. It didn’t take long before buckling up was the new normal: the innovation of seatbelt usage had been adopted by the entire family.


While some of the change was motivated by those interpersonal interactions, there is no doubt that the mass media effort persuaded lawmakers. Results from the Advertising Education Foundation show a near quadrupling of the number of states which enacted seatbelt legislation by 1989.



I’m a busy mom with young children and a messy vehicle that looks we have just come from a hiking trip: dry cereal and chocolate candies dot the floor board of my backseat (nevermind the two weren’t brought in at the same time!). For the record: We. Don’t. Hike.

Lately, here’s the ad I feel like I see most of these days for the last couple of weeks:

Here again, another mass media campaign. This one directed to the very same people the retro campaign targeted so many years ago (folks like me!). However, the muscle that makes this spot work leverages the interpersonal relationship that happens each morning in my car with my kids.

I’ll admit it: my car seems this way as we get on the road in the mornings. But the greater point of this ad is to leverage parent power with the control in your hand: a key in the ignition. While the original campaign enjoyed success, the evidence suggests there was still work to be done. As a former anchor/reporter, I read countless stories where someone died as a result of not wearing a seatbelt in a crash. Nowadays, the social custom is for kids to hop in a car with a device and forgo a seatbelt.  This new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign aims to address the high number of American children who died as part of vehicle crashes and were unrestrained at the time of their death.

Because the “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign resonated with me as a child, I would consider myself an early adopter of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign. Unlike the precursor campaign, the mass media extends beyond just radio and television. New media technologies like websites, social media and Youtube play prominently in the diffusion of the innovation of Round Two of the campaign.

Honestly, my kids know no other way other than to buckle up when they hop in the car. However, this spot does provide the opportunity for me to have a conversation with my kids about the message.

Their awareness of the need to buckle up in mommy’s car was already there, but I believe this campaign offers them the chance to adopt or reject this innovation for themselves. Recognizing that their behavior motivates me to action, my one child who just a few months ago, relished the idea of being the last to buckle up, is now the first.

Innovation: adopted.

Final Thoughts.

These two campaigns clearly demonstrate the strategy behind the communications effort as the issue to increase seatbelt usage has been part of the national dialogue for nearly thirty years. The first campaign was lauded for the increase in seat belt usage and even garnered awards.

The current campaign is an example of the Diffusion of Innovation as the key message  of the original effort was refined, or diffused, over the years. There are few metrics (beyond outputs) to measure the effectiveness of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign at this time.

While the tipping point for me (and my family) was reached years ago, the journey is apparently not over for the current population. Buckle up; it could be a long ride until we get there.

Which campaign motivated your behavior change: Modern or Retro?