Reason one, of course, was the death of Robin Williams, which led to an online outpouring the likes of which we’ve never seen. Number two -- if a somewhat distant number two -- was the plethora of Ice Bucket Challenge videos, which have an almost inexplicable allure. Somehow, the sight of neighbors and public figures dousing themselves with ice water doesn’t get old.
But if you look at the role that social media played in both stories, you’ll find one common thread: that the best viral ideas don’t come from organizations, but from individuals, and when that happens, it’s officially time for corporations and other organizations to back off.
Yes, in the case of Williams’ suicide, I’m hinting at Edelman’s PR fumble, in which a blog post by a top executive at the PR firm basically told organizations that are part of the mental health industry to leverage the (ick) opportunity. What got me most was bullet point #1: “Some mental health organizations still have nothing on their websites or Twitter feeds regarding the situation and the need to seek out help. Perhaps they were trying to be non-exploitive or stay business as usual. While that approach may be the best for them, this event calls that strategy in to question.“
Hmmm. A beloved celebrity’s suicide as a focal point for “strategy”?
However, to the extent that anything good can come out of such a tragedy, it struck me as absolutely remarkable how many people, both among closed groups like my Facebook friends, and in very public forums, suddenly began talking about their own experiences with depression as the initial shock wore off. It’s as though a taboo had been lifted through the cruel fact that a celebrity -- who obviously many felt was like a friend -- had died of the disease. It’s hard to imagine that a few weeks ago, for instance, Dave Weigel of Slate would have confessed to the following: “In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police that marked me as a risk for self-harm.”
Wow. So, the big idea of the collective conscious this week was, “Let’s finally talk about this.”
Of course, as Edelman said, the corporate world wants in! But even though there is sound professional advice to be had from many organizations, where Edelman got it so fundamentally wrong was seeing the situation through the lens of a strategy brief. There’s a lot of talk about how companies should act naturally in social media, but that’s acting. If you’re going to be part of a conversation such as this, you have to come from the same place that consumers come from, and that’s not from a brief, but from the heart.
The heart, of course, is also where the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge came from, and yet it’s brilliant, in every strategic way possible. It employs video! It incorporates virality by asking people to nominate other people also to dump water on their heads! Each challenge has a 24-hour time limit to encourage the message to move faster! It’s funny! It’s for a good cause!
And, most notably, it was not created by the ALS Association or any other official ALS organization. Its origins are a bit unclear, although one of the very early epicenters was a woman in my town whose husband has ALS. Whatever the case, it’s been nothing short of jaw-dropping to watch this move from her, on July 16, to my 10-year-old six days later, and now on to Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and President Obama (who wrote the check for $100 instead of pouring a bucket of ice water on his head -- it’s been a tough week.)
Since the challenge started, the ALS Association has raised more than $11 million (that number stood at $7.6 million only two days ago); and the association has played it exactly right, by staying mostly on the sidelines. It has thanked all of the consumers who have contributed, put out updates of how much money has been raised -- and left what is now effectively an awareness campaign, to all of us. And that’s as it should be.