Deft Handling of ‘Kony’ Criticism Gets Upstaged

Eight-minute video response from Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey

In its crisis response to its 30-minute "Kony 2012" video that went viral, the nonprofit group Invisible Children had done just about everything it could. In a matter of hours after being called on the carpet for possible inaccuracies in the film and fielding questions about the group’s funding, Invisible Children posted an eight-minute video response from CEO Ben Keesey that was generally well-received. A long, written post on the Invisible Children Web site carefully addressed every accusation, including a deep dive into the group’s finances.

Surely the focus would go back to the film—which showed atrocities committed by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, and how people could get involved in helping those affected by Kony. But most PR pros know to expect the unexpected, and on Thursday, March 15, Jason Russell, maker of "Kony 2012," was himself filmed running naked in the streets of the Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego, pounding his fists on the sidewalk and shouting incoherently. Police took him to a mental health facility for observation.

That video also went viral, and has prompted another round of statements—by Russell’s family and another in a video by Keesey, in which he said, "these last two weeks have been tough," as the video received global attention and millions of views. Keesey said the pressure "was hard for all of us, but it was especially hard for Jason because the story was so personal for him and his family. That pressure took a serious toll on him, and unfortunately the whole world saw that."

While the L.A. Times reported that Russell has received notes of support from thousands of people in the days that followed, this incident may tarnish what was a solid crisis response by Invisible Children. Unfortunately for the group, the public might have feelings similar to those of Priya Ramesh, director of social media at CRT/tanaka. Ramesh heard about the video, watched it and did some research on its credibility, concluding that, yes, there is something to the story. Now, the Russell incident “leaves a sour taste in my mouth,” she says. “The 'Kony 2012' video made me want to help, but when you look at the Russell video, you wonder if the group is in the right hands.”

Which takes us back to this truth that should be embedded in the minds of all PR pros: When it comes to a crisis, expect the unexpected.

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