On May 7, I published an introduction to issue advocacy on the Internet, which looked at three opportunities and three challenges to communicators who hope to take their advocacy campaign online. Online content, I pointed out, is interactive (as opposed to merely informational), syndicatable (as opposed to confined or static) and permanent (as opposed to fleeting or disposable). These three traits bode particularly well for advocacy campaigns, where communications tend to be — respectively — participatory, collective and ongoing. But social media also contain three traits that run counter to the spirit of issue advocacy campaigns: the Internet has become increasingly ego-centric, the lack of face-to-face interaction can engender a sense of false intimacy, and it’s difficult to transfer online enthusiasm to offline action (a phenomenon known in the advocacy world as “slacktivism”).

Still, there are several successful examples where online media has been harnessed to promote social change and, as promised, in this post I will I profile two examples. The first was suggested by Sijo Kuruvilla George in the comment thread of my last post. It’s a case study I remembered reading about, but was happy to revisit.

India’s Pink Chaddi (Underwear) Campaign

Last February, members of the fundamentalist Hindu group Sri Ram Sena attacked a group of women in the Indian city of Mangalore as part of a “moral policing” campaign. The women were drinking together in a bar, and this modern socializing irked right-wing groups in India. According to the BBC, the events “shocked many Indians. Television pictures showed men chasing and beating up the panicking women. Some of the women, who tripped and fell, were kicked by the men.” After being released on bail, Sri Ram Sena’s leader, Pramod Mutalik, threatened to harass unmarried Indian couples on Valentine’s Day, saying “Our activists will go around with a priest, a turmeric stub and a mangalsutra [Indian jewelry that symbolizes marriage] on February 14. If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.”

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What better way to counter this reactionary mindset than for four Indian women to start a blog and Facebook group for the “Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women?” On its blog, the group documented the details of attacks in a way that could be useful to police and journalists. They used the Facebook group to collect over 500 pink chaddis (underwear) that they delivered via courier to Pramod Mutalik’s office. The tactic brought increased media attention to — and outrage over — the attacks. The Hindu nationalist BJP government in the state of Karnataka, which was previously aligned with Sri Ram Sena, publicly criticized the group and the Indian Home Minister said that “Sri Ram Sene is a threat to the country. The Center is watching its activities with great concern.”

Why It Worked (In My Humble Opinion)

Social media puts a premium on messages that are provocative and/or humorous. (Have you ever been sent a viral video or e-mail that was neither provocative nor humorous? Unlikely.) This campaign had an element of both. Only skilled and savvy activists would respond to violent assaults with a “gift drive” of pink underwear. Though the campaign’s primary tactic was tongue-in-cheek (and a bit of a PR stunt), the message was sincere and included a clear call to action (the blog put step-by-step instructions for sending pink underwear, including locations for collection points and a direct mailing address). Finally, by asking its online audience to join — and not simply support — a coalition of “pub-going women,” the campaign appealed to the audience’s identity instead of emphasizing its own. In doing so, the Pink Chaddi campaign acknowledged and exploited the sometimes ego-centric nature of social media mentioned in my introduction.

The United Nations Foundation’s “Nothing But Nets” Campaign

International charities have for years grappled with the problem of malaria in Africa. The disease, spread by infected mosquitoes, is one of the leading killers of children across the continent. When Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly challenged his readers to donate $10 to the purchase of anti-malaria bed nets, the Nothing But Nets (NBN) campaign was born. In partnership with the National Basketball Association’s NBA Cares, The United Methodist Church and Sports Illustrated, the UN Foundation has taken NBN online.

The Web site features an interactive net distribution map, which shows how many nets have been distributed in specific countries within Africa. A YouTube channel shows UN workers discussing the project and distributing the nets. Both these online components show donors how their donations are making an impact in a vivid way.

Casual gaming is a phenomenon that’s spreading wildly across the Web. While critics dismiss casual games as intra-cubicle time-wasters, these games are played by approximately 200 million people each month (“many of who do not normally regard themselves as gamers”). The NBN campaign has embraced this trend and launched a casual game of its own: Deliver The Net. The player rides a motorcycle through an African village, picking up nets from UN vehicles and delivering them to the villagers he comes across. At the end of the game, it’s explained that a $10 donation covers the cost of an insecticide-treated bed net, distributing it, and educating the recipients on how to properly use it — and then you’re invited to donate a real net. Within a few days of launching the game, over 2,500 players donated at least one net.

Why It Worked (In My Humble Opinion)

This game tackles the aforementioned challenge of transferring online enthusiasm to offline action. The game captures the imagination of the prospective donor, putting him in the shoes — or, in this case, on the motorcycle — of the UN worker distributing the nets. The motorcyclist in the game is an animation, but photographs are used to depict the villagers he encounters; this lends the game some realism and perceptually bridges the “virtual” distribution of bed nets and the “actual” aid being donated.

What issue advocacy campaigns have you come across (or worked on) that successfully take advantage of the Internet’s power to organize, communicate and affect social change?

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

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