In early March, the KONY 2012 campaign went viral, receiving over 100 million views and talked about on every social media feed and major TV and online news sources. The 30-minute documentary produced by the non-profit organization Invisible Children, hoped to shed light on the 26 year old war in Africa led by Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord responsible for the abduction of about 66,000 children to serve in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Jason Russell, the creator of the KONY 2012 film and co-founder of Invisible Children, became well known almost immediately being interviewed for various news outlets. The campaign was effective in that it was able to bring awareness to such a broad audience, particularly young people in a short amount of time. Jason Russell identified the campaign’s goal to be awareness. The video was to bring the issue to the global stage and gain attention from those in government and make Kony peacefully surrender. The campaign was able to increase awareness and gain the attention of those in the State Department as well as President Obama, who sent 100 troops to assist in finding Joseph Kony.
Almost simultaneously, the critiques of the campaign also began to spread, accusing the organization of not being transparent, questioning its spending practices, in addition to its support of military action and neo-colonial undertones. The organization responded quickly by reaching out to the media and addressing specific concerns. Jason Russell granted media interviews to promote the video and speak to the accusations. The Invisible Children’s website featured a “Question and Answers” section that included detailed information on the organization’s finances as well as responses to other critics accusations of “false and misleading information.” The organization was also sure to utilize social media to weigh in on the criticisms and videos to further support their argument.
On March 15th, Jason Russell was seen ranting, vandalizing cars and allegedly publically masturbating on a street corner in San Diego, naked. Russell lashed out at an older woman attempting to calm him down and disturbed on-coming traffic. Police detained Russell but he was not arrested. Russell was later hospitalized in San Diego for evaluation and treatment. Friends and family members stated that it was the pressure and stress of the KONY 2012 campaign that led Russell to his bizarre and irrational behavior under the influence of alcohol. The CEO of Invisible Children, Ben Keesey, released this statement on Vimeo on March 16th, the day after the Jason Russell’s misconduct, and the statement was made available through Twitter and Facebook as well as the Invisible Children website:
“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”
Keesey stated that the organization will stand behind Jason Russell and that Russell needed to take the time to recuperate. However, Keesey also stated that Invisible Children would continue to fight against Kony and promote their campaign and gain even greater support. The Russell family also released a statement saying, “Let us say upfront that Jason has never had a substance abuse or drinking problem, and this episode wasn’t caused by either of those things, but yes, he did some irrational things brought on by extreme exhaustion and dehydration. On our end, the focus remains only on his health and protecting our family.” The statement went on to say, “We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it. While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason and because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.” They adopted total transparency in responding to the campaign’s backlash and tried to distract their audience from Russell and his personal life. The campaign’s credibility however, still suffered.
Invisible Children was very well prepared and responsive in handling the large waves of backlash that turned into a crisis situation for the organization. Their responses were immediate and effective as well as comprehensive, using multiple media channels to disseminate their messages. They used their CEO to address the situation in order to emphasize how serious they were taking this issue. The great crisis communications lesson to learn here is to always be prepared – for both internal and external crises. Jason Russell being the face behind the cause could have been better prepared to cope with the criticisms and personal attacks.