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?

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