Social media experts gathered at the Bond Conference in London on Tuesday to reflect on their favorite global development-related social media campaigns in recent years and to offer lessons learned for raising the profile of an event, cause or organization.
Covering a variety of the most successful campaigns to date — from a hashtag promoting pride in British aid to an effort to engage with online trolls — they share a personal focus, expressing the individuality of the organization or its target audience even when playing defense.
The grassroots organization Help Refugees formed in response to the rapid growth of “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. It relies on a rotating team of volunteers to deliver food and clothing to the camp’s population of more than 5,000 refugees. Early in the organization’s life, one of its founders stumbled on a catchy hashtag, after one of her friend’s referred to her heritage as having “refugee genes.”
“I started talking to people I knew about this idea to try and find members of British society who had been influential in some way, and who also had ‘refugenes,’” Lliana Bird told attendees.
“What we thought was, by highlighting how diverse these people were with refugee heritage, it would stop, hopefully, people seeing refugees as an ‘other,’” she said.
The hashtag went viral, trending at number four on Twitter in the U.K. for three weeks. Soon, Help Refugees produced a video featuring well-known fashion designers, comedians and artists telling their stories and the stories of their families.
“I think it was successful because it really asked and invited people to look at their own histories and share things from their own past,” she said, adding that the entire campaign cost the organization only 60 pounds ($75), thanks to donations and in-kind contributions.
In March 2016, the U.K. newspaper The Mail on Sunday launched a petition asking the Conservative government to repeal its commitment to ringfence foreign aid spending at 0.7 percent of gross national income. The petition triggered a debate in Parliament.
In response to the newspaper’s accusations of fraud and waste in the aid budget, members of the international development community launched the #ProudofAid Twitter campaign to raise awareness and debunk myths about aid spending.
“We as a sector also have a huge amount of impact and influence,” said Hratche Koundarjian, media manager for VSO. Aid organizations worked with the Bond Media Group to counter the newspaper’s narrative on aid, launching with two high-profile op-eds in The Guardian — “ Six reasons UK public can be proud of aid” and “It’s not just Bono and Bill Gates who are #ProudOfAid” — written by Ben Jackson, CEO of Bond.
“You could see immediately the galvanizing effect of including the hashtag in the second article; that was one of the key turning points in the campaign,” Koundarjian said.
Before this, aid organizations had been mostly working alone when it came to social media, he explained. “From the point the hashtag launched, we actually started engaging much more as a sector.”
Members of the aid community and the general public began tweeting photos of themselves holding signs reading: “I am #ProudOfAid because…” But Koundarjian said that what really drove the campaign was the eagerness of individual aid organizations to share ownership of the images and content of other organizations.
“That element of sharing content and materials within the sector is something we really need to think about now and how we can do that much more effectively,” he said.
Despite only running the hashtag for 34 days in total, it saw over 10,000 tweets with more than 50 million users potentially reached — well over the 1.2 million circulation of The Mail on Sunday, Koundarjian pointed out.
Writer and human rights activist Richard Wilson launched Stop Funding Hate together with a team of volunteers in August 2016. The goal was to make discrimination against minorities in the media unprofitable by encouraging companies to pull their advertising from certain newspapers.
As news of the migrant crisis reached the U.K., vitriolic coverage and criticism aimed at refugees also became more commonplace. In one instance, for example, a column published in The Sun newspaper referred to migrants crossing the Mediterranean as “cockroaches.”
“We’re dealing with a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for a long time, and it’s been happening for so long that it’s started to seem normal and normalized,” Wilson told attendees. “This campaign takes no political stand on aid, but instead had a stake in the local reaction to hate speech.”
Wilson said he and his team saw an opportunity to empower consumers to use their buying power to fight hate speech in the media and to amplify the voices of consumers calling on companies to pull their investments.
One of the most successful elements of the campaign was a video launched alongside the highly popular John Lewis Christmas commercial, which is produced annually. The video was shared widely — far more than anyone expected, Wilson said — though it failed to convince the department store to pull its advertising. However, several other companies later did.
Any social media professional in the aid community is all too familiar with the unique challenge of social media trolls, commonly defined as individuals or bots that verbally harass other users, typically targeting a particular issue or stance. Caitlin Ryan, campaign manager for Médecins Sans Frontières, accidentally stumbled into a second role in her work with MSF’s efforts to rescue refugees from the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean: chief troll rebuffer and refugee defender.
When MSF’s Twitter accounts started tracking the progress of rescue boats around the Mediterranean, it drew the attention of “an insane amount” of anti-refugee trolls, said Ryan. Tasked with trying to influence public opinion via social media, she found the account overwhelmed with trolls, typically disagreeing with MSF “along xenophobic lines.”
She quickly noticed that MSF lacked the operational capacity to make the case to these typically solitary yet very visible social media users. “If you know anything about MSF, we like to think we’re fast, but we’re actually a rather big, rather clunky organization that does struggle to come into the future,” she said.
Since the trolls were real people, rather than bots, she saw this as an opportunity to engage.
She took a three-prong strategy in her responses. First, correct false facts, including claims such as “Europe is being flooded with refugees.” Second, humanize both the refugee and the troll, for example, by pointing out the similarities between refugees and the user’s own family. Third, use humor.
The strategy has generated support from other NGOs, activists and journalists, and has inspired other groups to try to engage on social media platforms, rather than just posting information. Yet Ryan says that she and her team are now at a crossroads and are re-evaluating the benefits of engaging with trolls. “Is that really our role?” she asked. “Is it actually making us sound more naive? Is it making us sound more emotional than we need to be?”
Nonetheless, she pointed to the incredible value of engaging in a human, individual way to elevate the conversation, and hopefully steer people toward the facts.
Asked how she was able to convince her managers to take this new, slightly risky approach to engagement, Ryan said it was “hugely controversial at the time,” but her immediate supervisor “really supported the project,” even though others at MSF were critical of how the account was handling its messages.
“It’s still an endless process of negotiation and we get a lot of criticism, but I guess we try to report back often and consistently about how and when it’s successful,” she said.
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