The ethical considerations of a public request to an individual, for a cause

Recently, I saw a flood of tweets from a lot of different people where they were seeking donations for Uday Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO, for their Hunger Free February campaign. The way Uday Foundation roped all those people is interesting.

Uday Foundation had made printed posters with the real (full) names of each of those people, got a beneficiary to hold that poster, took a photo of that and then shared that photo on Twitter while tagging the person in question!

From what I notice, they have literally flooded their timeline with such tweets! There are hundreds of such tags since early February.

Also, it looks like they first started with a non-personalized approach – they had a beneficiary hold a generic, non-name poster, and tagged people only in-tweet, all across February 2nd. The template was,
“Inviting [name] to snowball this appeal by inviting their 3 friends on twitter, whom you trust to come forward, do their bit, and further pass on the message to their three more friends. Link: XYZ”

This probably did not give them enough traction (going by the lack of that many tweets or retweets). So, they went into a different tactic, by naming individual people in physical posters and then tagging them. That clearly seemed to have given them a lot more traction.

This is a good PR tactic, trying to earn the attention of people using the one thing they/we all love dearly – our names! Beyond our names, 2 other reasons why most people may comply,

  • it involves charity. It is for a good cause, something that most people cannot say no to
  • the effort required is very easy and free of any cost. It’s just a retweet

But, the assembly-line way Uday Foundation went about the effort seems less personal. If you are likely to see half-a-dozen people retweeting a Uday Foundation tweet with each of their names on a poster, you’d know that this is a drill. Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with even such a drill, as this is for a good cause.

But, a couple of other causes have done the same, earlier, more elegantly.

For instance, Akanksha Foundation used personalized videos, fronted by kids studying in a school run by the Foundation. And, instead of targetting all and sundry on the internet, they went after the biggest celebrities. The campaign was called message barter, and the kids created messages specifically meant for Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan, Chetan Bhagat, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. In all 5 cases, the initial message from the children promoted something dear to the celebrities – so, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag for Farhan Akhtar, Krrish 3 for Hrithik Roshan, Chetan Bhagat’s books and Chennai Express for Shah Rukh Khan.

And then, in return, the children sought the help of the celebrity to spread the message about their school needing teachers. This is an easy ‘donation’ too, instead of asking for money.

For the sheer novelty of the effort, many other people shared the same videos and pleas too. Here is the full case-study of this campaign.

However, even the Akanksha Foundation effort was preceded by a campaign from Italy, a few months before, in the same year (2013).

In March 2013, Italy’s national association of people with Down syndrome requested 50 celebrities via people with down syndrome making a video appeal to each of them using their name, and got all 50 of them to respond via video, in return! This is perhaps even more effective and elegant than Akanksha’s campaign, given that the response wasn’t as easy as a retweet, but in the form of a video! The campaign was aptly called ‘Turn up my voice’.

Here is the full case study:

While the core idea, of making a public appeal, calling the recipient by name (either in-tweet, or a poster or a video) is a great PR tactic, there are pitfalls too.

The biggest pitfall is the impact of ignoring a message. If one of the celebrities chooses to not engage with the plea for whatever reason (he/she is not obliged to engage), that could be seen in a particular way by people who have witnessed the public plea by people in need (from the NGO) previously. One such perception could be, quite awkwardly, “He/she was requested by the children/people-in-need but this celebrity did not respond! So cold-hearted!”. This is unwarranted considering the celebrity hasn’t explained why he/she did not reciprocate, but that’s how perceptions will be shaped. This is the peril of public many-to-many communication.

Another way this manifested itself was when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested famous celebrities to share his message of asking people to vote in the 2019 general elections. Modi did not make this request in private, as is the norm by the Election Commission of India usually. The EC usually ropes in celebrities as their official brand ambassadors, gets them to talk about the importance of voting, and then promotes that video.

What Modi did was to ask the celebrities directly, in full public glare, while also customizing the request to each celebrity. That customization (or personalization) was brilliant, but not the public plea. There is a power equation at play there when the Prime Minister of the country is making an appeal to one individual in full public glare. Not complying to the appeal is a choice, but there is a perception that is being created whether they comply or refuse, or even ignore the request.

I had written more on this particular aspect here: Narendra Modi’s tweets to celebrities – a lesson in conversation vs. broadcast.

In the case of the campaigns by the Italian association (Coor-down) or Akanksha, this problem persists since they had targeted a select set of people publicly. However, in the case of Uday Foundation, since they had targeted so many individuals in large numbers, there is less chance of this problem.