06 September 2012
We hear a lot of talk about millennials, those 50 million Americans aged 18 - 29 who have entered our society with a bang. Like most past generations in their younger days, this group is idealistic, leans liberal and is excited about the future. Where millennials differ most from the generations who came before them is in their prodigious use of social media. According to Pew, 75 percent of millennials participate in social networking, and more than 20 percent have uploaded video of themselves to the web. It is that expressive nature of the generation, and their willingness to share in so public a venue, that defines the group.
This idealism, combined with the expressive instincts of millennials, can have a profound impact on public policy. Take the Kony 2012 movement as an example. In March 2012, Invisible Children released a short film about Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army that urged its mostly young viewers to get involved in its publicity campaign. Within a few months, the video attracted more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, generated tremendous traditional media coverage and inspired the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution and the African Union to deploy troops, an unprecedented response to a fairly obscure issue in a remote part of the world. Of course, Joseph Kony has been a menace in Central Africa for more than a quarter-century and was indicted for war crimes by the Hague in 2005. But it took a simple, inspiring video plugged into social media to get millennials inspired and active.
This is the central challenge for activists and leaders who wish to persuade millennials to adopt a similar response on other issues. By their very nature, foreign policy issues are nuanced and almost impossibly complex. The public in general, and millennials in particular, do not, as a group, have the patience to sift through every wrinkle and dependency. The age of the white paper or long-form reporting feature is largely over, replaced by the simple infographic or video-based story. It takes real talent, creativity and even a little bravery (just browse through the withering criticism aimed at Invisible Children to see why) to isolate the basic elements of an issue and express them in an interesting and compelling visual format with enough emotion and energy to inspire a supportive response. But this is the talent we must increasingly cultivate and celebrate in public affairs circles if we want the millennial public to get involved.
We see this trend across all communication disciplines. With millions of different options for receiving information and the power to self-direct content consumption, millennials and the social-media-savvy in other generations are forcing marketers, corporate communicators and issue advocates to tell entertaining and inspiring stories that appeal to the core interests of stakeholders rather than their own offerings or attributes. As a result, we see Chrysler launch a powerful Super Bowl ad in which Clint Eastwood proclaims the coming of a second half in America. We watch Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old millennial from Washington, collect more than 300,000 petition signatures and start a movement that ultimately forced Bank of America to withdraw a $5 debit card fee. And we watch Mahindra, India's leading company, build its brand by launching a social media-led, pride-based movement among its stakeholders called Spark the Rise.* We see these types of movements occurring all over the world, joining up activists, regular citizens, companies and some political leaders, fueling intense forces for political and market change.
We have always admired intelligence, diplomacy and analytical skill as core attributes of our best public policy contributors. But as we celebrate to the next generation of foreign policy leaders, as recognized by Diplomatic Courier's Top 99 Under 33, we should remind ourselves the importance of these new essential skills of creativity, storytelling and social media-savvy.
Evan Kraus is an executive vice president at APCO Worldwide and managing director of the firm's StudioOnline practice, which delivers creative and social media solutions to its clients.
*Mahindra is a client of StrawberryFrog, a creative agency in which APCO is a shareholder.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October edition.