Alexander: Are you a slacktivist? You should be

It's a very silly word for a very serious phenomena. But slacktivism can achieve significant real-world results.

Meg Alexander
Meg Alexander

In speaking to groups of corporate marketers and reputation managers, I often ask the crowd the question, "Are you a slacktivist?"

Typically, I’m met with looks of confusion, or the remaining half of the audience goes mute, perhaps fearing judgment from peers for disclosing their online activities. 

If you are among those unfamiliar with the term, let me assist. A slacktivist is defined by the dictionary as someone who engages in "actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause requiring little time or involvement." Signing an online petition, retweeting a provocative hashtag, and "disliking" comments on Facebook – a function coming soon – are all forms of slacktivism.  

The simplicity of such forms of protest, achieved by the flick of a thumb on your smartphone or iPad, have led naysayers to quip slacktivists are tantamount to "armchair" activists or "clicktivists," thus insinuating a lack of commitment compared with the physical peace protests and picketing of generations’ past. It is no surprise, therefore, that participants in today’s advocacy and social justice movements bristle at their efforts being reduced to such simple epithets.

Indeed, slacktivism is a very silly word for a very serious phenomena. But, slacktivism can achieve – and has achieved – significant real-world consequences, particularly when paired with traditional forms of social mobilization. Communicators should know the word and know not to dismiss it.

Today’s social media activist is capable of engaging the more than 3 billion people online, including more than 1.5 billion people on Facebook and 300 million on Twitter. As broadband Internet and mobile become more accessible to citizens around the world, online engagement will increasingly provide a megaphone to the disenfranchised and disgruntled.

Anyone and everyone can be an activist using social media to galvanize change. A farmer in Indonesia, a PTA mom in Connecticut, or a political organizer in London can use digital platforms to advocate for his or her cause. Platforms for e-petitions, such as Change.org, provide oxygen to a small flame causing the voice of one to catch fire and spread to the many. E-petitions carry messages across continents and migrate to new media channels. It is no wonder that Bill Gates and Richard Branson are among the corporate titans advising platforms such as Change.org, which claims to have 120 million people engaged in protests.

Slacktivism can be a powerful force when targeting a perceived misdeed in the private sector. An illustrative case was the response to the now infamous CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical, Martin Shkreli. He made himself the target of public frustration over the affordability of medicines when he hiked the price of Darapim 5,000% and then defended the increase on CNBC. Shkreli argued that his company must make a profit and cover costs of research and development. Within days, his name became not only the hashtag #Shkreli, but also a synonym for corporate greed. The public ire did not end there; his social media accounts were scrutinized, then hacked. This response could have been predicted. Americans’ concerns about the affordability of medicines and the desire for access to exploratory therapies only increases the likelihood that more patients will become online activists using social media to muster support. 

But for communicators in both the private and public sectors, the power to mobilize masses also can represent an opportunity to foster awareness and action. The $115 million raised by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is commonly cited as the quintessential success story of slacktivist-driven fundraising. When aligned with the right cause and language, slacktivism can accelerate a message into the world, creating an environment more sensitized to your mission or purpose. First lady Michelle Obama brought added attention to the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria when @FLOTUS retweeted "#BringBackOurGirls[MA1] ", which was similarly tweeted by a million others.

Success isn’t guaranteed. The Twitterverse is littered with ill-begotten hashtags that went nowhere. If you are a corporate communicator, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? What will accelerate and ignite public consciousness? And what won’t? Here are some common factors to help you foment your own movement – or quickly recognize when it is happening to you.  

Purpose
Successful slacktivist campaigns often tap into existing societal concerns or feelings of injustice lying just below the surface. Shkreli’s actions tipping off debate over drug costs might have been anticipated. For months, tracking polls have shown mounting frustration over the cost of medicine and the public’s belief that manufacturers were to blame. Millennials, a generation moved by purpose, will drive even more slacktivist campaigns as they use their voices online.

Advocacy appeal
Slacktivist campaigns that link to the missions of larger advocacy organizations are more likely to succeed. #BringBackOurGirls united Obama and former Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MN), two unlikely allies. Backlash to Shkreli and Turing was propelled by HIV and AIDS organizations indignant over the price hike. In turn, outrage over Turing turned into a springboard for Hillary Clinton to announce her prescription drug affordability plan.

Accessible and actionable
In a world where transparency is heightened but disposable time is diminished, successful campaigns are 40 characters, not 40 pages. Brevity is an element of speed, and speed is one of the chief attributes of Change.org and other platforms that facilitate engagement and maintain momentum. Simple, emotive words written in plain language are the keys to success.

Slacktivism is here to stay. A quick read and a simple click, and your name is publically tied to a cause. In some cases, these may be actions of deep courage and in others, quick and simple gestures. Regardless of the intent, when you multiply it by millions, there is incredible power in slacktivism that no one working in communications can afford to ignore.

Meg Alexander is head of the issues management practice at inVentiv Health PR.  

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