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Kony 2012: A Lesson in Crisis Management

By Kristy Gulsvig

If you’ve been watching the news recently, you may have noticed the popularity of “Kony 2012” rise astronomically and subsequently be crushed in the span of two weeks.  Sometimes, for reasons beyond a company’s control, a PR crisis can strike and take an untold toll on a successful brand. Today, in the age of social media and the 24-hour news networks, you must be ready to act quickly. This recent Internet sensation has become a case study in the importance of being ever ready to come to your brand’s defense.

At this point, you have most likely heard of the Internet sensation, “Kony 2012.” The 30-minute film intended to educate the public about the war criminal who has led human rights atrocities in Uganda, went viral in early March collecting 100 million views in a little over a week . Since then, the video and its creators, the non-profit, Invisible Children, has drawn praise, but mostly loud criticism from detractors who claim the organization’s financials were questionable, their story-telling overly simplistic or their cause misguided.

From a business perspective, this story has some interesting lessons. The most apparent lesson is the incredible power of a social media strategy to propel an idea to the international spotlight with almost unfathomable speed. (The creators’ inclusion of “2012″ in the title was no fluke – a subtle allusion to the U.S. presidential election was intended to draw interest and increase SEO rankings.)

A more telling lesson comes from the barrage of criticism the group received and the way Invisible Children responded to it.

As the video’s popularity grew, so did the negative response from followers and the media. In addition to the criticism of the video, the group had to deal with a very public mental breakdown of one of their founders. Despite these challenges, the CEO and founders made themselves visible to the media, defending their reputation and cause on an almost daily basis and encouraging individuals to explore the issues. They approached their issues with a policy of complete transparency, responding to each negative message with a full explanation on their website. Luckily, the brand is young and plays to what has proven to be a changeable population, so it may be able to repair itself quickly. But the lesson here is that in this new reality, any successful brand can fall prey to the unpredictability of social media and a quick and direct strategy has become imperative to survival.

Invisible Children’s PR crisis demonstrates that the amplification of the Internet can be swift, powerful and damaging. These whirlwind attacks on even the most innocuous brands may become more common as masses continue to mobilize online.

So, what can you do to protect your brand from a crisis and ensure that minimal damage is done? Here are the top 4 considerations in preparing a crisis management plan for your brand:

1. First and foremost, make sure you have a strategy. How would your company protect your brand – its most important intangible asset – if a crisis were to hit? You want to make sure your company is proactive rather than reactive – a panicked, reactive response most likely does not represent the strengths of your brand.
2. Who will your spokesperson be? Is there an individual in your company that embodies the personality and values of your brand? This person will become the face of your brand’s reputation, so choose wisely. Here’s a hint: the CEO may not always be the best choice. (Think Tony Hayward during BP’s Gulf Oil Spill.)
3. How will you communicate your response internally? Never, ever forget the importance of frequent and transparent communication with your employees, especially in the face of a crisis. You want your employees to be ready and able to answer the questions they may face from friends and family. If your employees don’t know what’s going on, they will assume the worst and fuel rumors rather than protect your reputation.
4. Monitor the day-to-day conversations about your brand. The lesson from “Kony 2012” is that social media and the Internet are the ultimate amplifiers – if you are unaware of what people are saying about your brand online, you may not even know you have a problem until it’s too late.

What steps have you taken to protect your brand in the event of a crisis?