The case of the vanishing caribou: Is awareness-raising a good goal?

UPDATED BELOW. TWICE!

First, the requisite bit of disclosure. I spent a few months working for an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the boreal forest in Canada. After leaving their employ, I continued to do a bit of media monitoring work for them on contract until a few weeks ago. None of this influences the following post, as far as I can tell, except maybe that I’m more tuned into these issues than the average person.

There, with that out of the way…

I saw a hashtag on Twitter this morning that caught my eye: #savethebou. Based on the tweets I saw, it seemed that the Canadian mint was planning to ditch the caribou that’s featured on the Canadian quarter. I checked a few of the links in the tweets and they all led to a Facebook campaign page. That page had no links back to anything the mint was doing, it was mostly people talking about the stupidity of ditching the caribou and a few people talking about the importance of protecting the actual caribou and its habitat (the boreal forest).

I did a quick Google News search and still couldn’t turn up anything on the mint planning to ditch the caribou image. Finally I tweeted the following:

firsttweet

That was met with a quick DM from a social media consultant that’s leading the campaign. The consultant acknowledged that it was a ruse and, in subsequent DMs, said it was an attempt to raise awareness about boreal habitat destruction.

I asked permission to publish the DM exchange here but was asked to wait until the “reveal,” when they come clean about the campaign. Given that it was a DM exchange that this person initiated, I agreed. We can debate the ethics of that later. Suffice to say, the same consultant has since retweeted the deceptive tweet.

In their defence, this consultant told me they come clean to anyone who asks them about it. Since this is done by DM, not in an open forum, I can’t confirm that but I have heard from two other people who were duped by the campaign and aren’t happy about it.

Still, does the after-the-fact transparency justify the tactics? The goal, at least the goal stated to me in the DMs, was raising awareness. My return question was if it’s worth raising awareness if people are going to be pissed off about being misled.

The social media playground is littered with the remains of well-intentioned campaigns that, for one reason or another, went bust. How this campaign ends remains to be seen. However, people are wary of being duped online. I can’t think this is going to help the reputation of social media consultants, who are often seen as more concerned about making a splash than any long-term impacts of their efforts. And I am skeptical that the Facebook petition or ‘grassroots’ Twitter campaign will have any impact if decision makers realize people actually signed on to a totally different (and non-existent) campaign.

I’ve blogged / tweeted / ranted before that raising awareness is a bullshit objective. The issue is  what  you do with the awareness that’s been raised. In this case I’m not partial to that information. But if raising awareness is really the only goal, the organizations served by this campaign should be asking their consultants some tough questions.

UPDATE (Oct 5 @ 3:00 pmish): The big ‘reveal’ took place shortly after this post and now Social Media Group, the org behind the campaign, has posted an entry on their blog soliciting feedback on the ‘teaser campaign’ (their words). SMG’s CEO Maggie Fox (the aforementioned consultant) also laid out their side of things in the comment section.

UPDATE (Oct 6 @ 10:15amish): SMG has posted another entry in which they acknowledge they probably went too far. As vocal as I was in my objection to the campaign, I am impressed by the follow-up post. Kudos to them for owning their mistake.

15 thoughts on “The case of the vanishing caribou: Is awareness-raising a good goal?

  1. Hey Joe, thanks for posting about this, and I very much enjoyed our exchange on the issue!

    SMG’s objective with this campaign was to force people to examine their own reactions, think about what was important to them and what kinds of situations would move them to take action. We developed a teaser campaign based on the very real possibility that the caribou may become extinct.

    The Canadian Mint is not planning to remove the Woodland Caribou from the quarter, but the real Woodland Caribou are very much in danger of vanishing forever if legislation already passed by the Provincial Government to protect the Great Boreal forest is not enacted.

    We’re hoping that all the energy devoted to “Saving the ‘Bou” on our quarter can be re-directed to saving the REAL ‘Bou – something that, once gone, is gone forever.

    If you like, you can help us in this effort by signing the online petition and sending a message to Premier McGuinty that you think saving the last remaining herds of Woodland Caribou is something worth taking a risk for (we certainly do)!

    http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/281/t/9735/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1427

  2. Lying is rarely a good way to endear people to your cause, no matter how just it may be. Although I support the cause of protecting endangered species like the caribou, I would choose not to support people representing that cause who have lied to me in their efforts to gain my support/awareness. I suspect your campaign may be an example of a Pyrrhic victory.

  3. I can’t see how this is effective. First, it asks for people to care about one thing that is disconnected to the cause and far less significant (though patriotically important), and then make the leap emotionally to the true cause of the very real threat to the caribou.

    It’s two very different levels of emotion, and it’s asking a lot for people to make the connection. When people realize they’ve been mislead, the brief “relief” of our quarter’s future will overshadow the importance of the urgency of the real cause, and they will probably disengage before you can make a second impact.

  4. I was going to write my own post about this – but there’s really not much to add but this: (disclaimer: I’m a former SMG employee)

    Good intentions and noble causes are no excuse for not being ethical. A teaser campaign/thought experiment is one thing – misleading people is something else again.

    The thing that surprises me most about this campaign is that this is the kind of thing that we would have steered well clear of in the old days at SMG (a whole year ago!) I would not have expected SMG to be involved with a bait-and-switch campaign no matter how well-intentioned.

  5. Hey, Colin, hope you’re well!

    Companies evolve and envelopes get pushed. No one will ever accuse SMG of doing the “same old same old”. This campaign was intended to be provocative; we wanted to get people to think about what’s important to them and what motivates them to take action, using the symbol of the caribou on our currency, and then to talk about the process afterwards.

    Answer this question honestly: would you have engaged, tweeted or re-tweeted if the campaign had been a simple, “Save the endangered caribou?” Would you have even noticed?

    Thanks to your tweets and this great post, we have the beginnings of a lively discussion, which was, above all else, our intention.

  6. Thanks for weighing in, Maggie. I do appreciate you giving your side here.

    But to say we have the beginnings of a lively discussion is a bit off, I think. Thus far, on this blog at least (and in my twitter stream), the discussion is about the tactics, not about the boreal or the caribou. I realize the reveal on the Facebook group is new but so far there’s nobody rallying to the cause, just a lot of people wondering why they’d take the caribou off the quarter.

    The devil will be in the details of the final evaluation, of course. But if the success of the campaign is measured by the number of retweets of the original (deceptive) messaging or the number of people on the Facebook page, that’s missing the mark in my eyes.

  7. @Joe – we’ve only just begun, and our measurements will be across the entire campaign. Our goal in this first portion was to be provocative about the tactics, (what does it take to get peoples’ attention? what will move you to act?) with the second portion of the campaign about raising awareness amongst a broader audience.

    So I’d humbly disagree – I think we’re achieving exactly what we’d hoped to!

  8. I admit, I felt a little duped! Although my first thought was “who cares about the quarter, the freakin’ animal is endangered, that’s much more important!”

    So I guess there was a bit of relief, but as a campaign tactic, I’m not really fancy on it. However, being for a good cause it’s probably a lot more forgivable than if a private for-profit company did the same thing.

    I also wonder, did the Mint know about this/authorize it? Because I do felt the initial message reflected badly on them… I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone contacted them about it…

  9. People. You all need to relax. An endangered species is going extinct because logging companies are liquidating their habitat to make newsprint, copy paper and 2 by 4s. Consumers of these products all over North America need to pay attention and get informed AND then get engaged by lobbying governments and companies to protect woodland caribou. How about stepping away from your computers and doing some real world activism. Name a company anywhere who does not use the media to promote their product and does so often in less than truthful ways. Does it work – YES. In this case SMG and environmental organizations like Greenpeace and ForestEthics have used some trickery to tell you all a very important thing. It got your attention and broke through the racket of companies trying to sell you destructive and useless products. Sounds like it worked. So Kudos to SMG and the greenies for doing something smart and fun.

  10. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Robert.

    The point I was trying to make is that SMG and the ENGOs in the campaign got our attention but the discussion wasn’t about the underlying issue of habitat destruction in the boreal it was about the campaign tactics. I raised the concern (shared by others it seems) that a vitally important cause was being overshadowed by the tactics used to promote it.

    As for the crack about stepping away from our computers, I’ll thank you not to make assumptions about this blog or the people who read it. The condescending tone aside, you’ll recognize that the very campaign you are defending depended upon people like us getting involved.

    Furthermore, I have worked for an organization dedicated to Boreal protection (using a comptuer to boot) and my wife and I have taken several steps to limit the amount of first generation paper we use. I introduced a policy at my current workplace to use FSC-certified stock for our letterhead and business cards.

    The discussion here wasn’t about whether or not companies are destroying important animal habitat; it was about the tactics used in the campaign. You think it was a good approach, I disagree. That’s fine. But please leave the cheap shots and assumptions out of it.

  11. It’s no fun feeling like you were tricked, BUT this kind of campaign is necessary and valid for highlighting something so important that isn’t getting any attention. I would much rather see this kind of clever teaser being used to jolt people out of their lethargy than the caribou quietly dying with no one any the wiser (or caring at all), which is what’s happening at the moment.

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