3 PR Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Posted on August 21, 2014 
Filed Under General

Nearly four weeks into the phenomenon, the Ice Bucket Challenge shows no signs of letting up.

The idea of dumping cold water on one’s head to raise money for charity may be a watershed for both brands and nonprofits alike when it comes to how to raise money for charitable causes and get the word out.

The major beneficiary of the challenge has been the ALS Association. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.)

Participants are expected to donate $10 if they have poured the water over their head and donate $100 if they have not.

People who take the challenge then challenge others to hop on board.

A veritable who’s who from the worlds of business, celebrity, and sports have joined the fray, including Jeff Bezos, Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, LeBron James and Martha Stewart, as well as John and Jane Q. Public and kids galore.

From late July through August, the association has seen donation soar to $31.5 million, from $1.9 million during the same period last year, according to the ALS Association.

The genesis of the phenomenon is unclear, with attribution to multiple sources.

But there’s little debate that Massachusetts resident and former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who suffers from ALS, put the challenge on the U.S. map.

Frates, who for years has advocated on behalf of ALS, started posting about the challenge on Twitter a few weeks ago. Now it seems as if every other Facebook page on the planet features video of a person dumping cold water on his head.

A phenomenon like the Ice Bucket Challenge doesn’t come along very often. For PR managers who are closely following the campaign, it’s hard to catch lightning a bottle.

Perhaps the most salient lesson is that you can’t hatch a viral campaign in a boardroom or a series of marketing meetings in which executives are implored to think differently. Any content that takes off like wildfire is likely to be organic in nature.

Still, there are a few takeaways for communicators, with a hat tip to Michelle Mulkey, partner and corporate social responsibility practice chair at FleishmanHillard.

>  When people are raising awareness and/or funding on your organization’s behalf en masse, try and harness the interest by engaging participants at the local level. Return myriad favors by increasing engagement with community members. Throw a house party (or two) for people who have been major players in the campaign. Use those gatherings as an opportunity to spread the message and better educate the public about your mission.

> Leverage the campaign to shift people’s attention to the ongoing needs of the organization or charitable cause, whether that’s lobbying at the governmental level or communicating what else people can do to assist in the effort (beyond funding), which plays into the third tip.

> Serve as a conduit to people who want to help the cause at a granular level. Regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, there are most likely people who met the challenge and now want to further help people and families grappling with ALS. Use all communications channels to coordinate such efforts.

What else would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

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