While the KONY2012 campaign is now remembered for controversy, it was also a crucial public diplomacy game-changer.
In March 2012, the non-governmental organization Invisible Children (IC) launched the most viral video campaign in history: KONY2012. It was the fourteenth campaign IC had undertaken to advocate for the capture of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa. Although the success of this campaign continues to be divided along the lines of Kony’s continued freedom and the “slacktivist” movement that followed the film, IC and this campaign stand as examples of the new actors and campaigns emerging to reshape the realm of public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy cultivates the power of the people through strategic communication between the state, the non-state actors, and the people. It is a form of diplomacy that recognizes the power of public voice and uses it to achieve a policy change that can cross borders as well as arbitrary divisions. There are three essential aspects to all public diplomacy efforts: interaction with a foreign public, foreign policy aims in the foreign country, and influence over the foreign public to pressure their government toward the foreign policy aims. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, the power of the people has begun to unfold on the world stage giving rise to what has become known as ‘new public diplomacy’ where the actors are increasingly non-state effectively wielding soft power.
“KONY2012: The New Face of Citizen Engagement” focuses on the evolving concept of this new public diplomacy and uses the KONY2012 campaign as an illustrative example of what is possible when people are effectively activated towards a foreign policy aim. The article breaks down the nongovernmental components of public diplomacy and examines the evolution of new public diplomacy as a field of practice. It explores the rising prominence of both soft power and public relations on the global stage, highlighting the importance of strategic relationships and effective communications. The article discusses some of the public diplomacy tools that were used in the campaign to harness successfully the power of people around the world, most notably American’s, to influence governmental foreign policy. Tools such as social media, action and education, and strategic planning enabled IC to engage, activate, and mobilize public opinion around the issue of the war in Central Africa and the need to capture warlord and International Criminal Court indictee Joseph Kony.
Examining KONY2012 as it relates to other advocacy campaigns, this article systematically walks through six important elements that made this campaign more successful than any before: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, international broadcasting, and psychological warfare. Combining these different elements of the public relations campaign produced outstanding results in the areas of media coverage and monetary contributions as well as bringing Joseph Kony more international notoriety and enhancing the progress in capturing him through increased foreign policy support.
Through an analysis of many of the critiques of the campaign, this article essentially shows how no public diplomacy or public relations campaign can guarantee the capture of a warlord; but it can activate the public toward the issue, which in turn puts pressure on their governments to catch him. As with any public diplomacy effort, change takes time and constant pursuit. Continually listening to audience feedback and measuring programming is essential to achieving sustainable relationships with any audience.
The increasing interconnectedness of the world and the ability to harness the power of the public is enabling new players to be given a seat at the international diplomatic table. This change is both a symbol of the world’s rising global consciousness and the ability of people to decide what matters and what the government should be working on. Finally, IC and its novel use of public diplomacy shows a change in attention game: elites are forced to compete with nonprofits for power over policy as the public is increasingly finding its own voice. It shows that people, even those of the younger generations, now have the power to influence government in a way never seen before.