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Campaigns from the crowd: what organisations can learn

“Charity campaigns are no longer just dreamed up in meeting rooms and pushed out to the waiting general public. They can just happen, brought into existence by the audiences themselves in an amazingly exciting way.”

– Chris Cox, digital manager, Mind UK.

In the last few years, the extent to which people using digital media have disrupted the conventional model of campaign planning has become impossible to miss.

We’ve seen spontaneous outbursts of awareness-driving anger and solidarity and astonishing sums raised by those with terminal illnesses or in memory of those who have died.

It’s by turns surprising, bewildering and inspiring, and it asks some far-reaching questions of campaigners and campaigning organisations.

The last year in particular has featured a couple of explosive examples in which organisations have played a key role, and from which we can all draw lessons that may help us adapt to this new landscape.


The selfie is so ubiquitous that it seems strange my spell-check doesn’t like it. Just a reminder of how rapid its rise has been.

Earlier in 2014, the adoption of a particular kind of selfie made the national news, and several million pounds for cancer charities in just a few days.

From a campaigner’s point of view, there’s a lot about what happened that boggles the mind, and plenty to take issue with (see conversations on feminism, narcissism and peer pressure). But for me the fascinating thing about it was that the idea came from no one person, and was not started by any of the professional communicators whose organisations benefited from the donations.

There are several good accounts of how the campaign came into being, but in brief:

  • 81-year-old US actor Kim Novak appears at the Oscars and is criticised for her appearance
  • Novelist Laura Lippman posts an ‘unflattering’ selfie in solidarity with Novak, triggering many others to do the same
  • Teenage mother from Stoke-on-Trent Fiona Cunningham sets up Facebook page advocating ‘no make up selfies’ for cancer awareness.
  • Addition of donation ask is made by those frustrated by lack of tangible benefit to tackling cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK publicly acknowledges the campaign.
  • Over £8million is raised for CRUK, with over 200 cancer charities benefiting to a lesser extent.
  • It all happened over a period of less than a month.
#nomakeupselfie basic process of campaign development


This event from autumn 2013 was a life-affirming, spontaneous response to stigma, and featured a more profound use of the selfie.

In brief:

  • ASDA and Tesco are found to be selling ‘scary mental patient’ costumes for Halloween in the UK
  • Concerned people, including several public figures, start to call for their withdrawal using social media, alerting major mental health charities
  • The costumes are quickly withdrawn, and apologies and donations offered by the retailers
  • Grumbling in some quarters of media about ‘political correctness’ having forced the issue
  • Twitter user @DuckBeaki posts a selfie with the hashtag #mentalpatient
  • Thousands post their own #mentalpatient selfies
  • Charities including Mind and Rethink Mental Illness support and amplify the trend, which becomes a viral mental health awareness campaign.
Basic process for development of #mentalpatient campaign

Three lessons for campaigners

There’s a lot to learn from how these examples played out.

1. People want to be part of the story

And people may want their own story to be part of the bigger story. Each of those people posting #mentalpatient selfies had a relevant story to tell. For some, the act of posting was itself a dramatic moment, a ‘coming out’ that overcame the prejudice and fear embodied in what the supermarkets had marketed. That gave the action its power to inspire and spread.

And the #nomakeupselfie, though derided for its tenuous or possibly insensitive link with the cause with which it became associated, was adopted by many people who no doubt have their own story of cancer. These may not be stories explained in any detail in a Tweet or Facebook post, but they may have meant something to many of those within their networks.

2. ‘The genius is in the crowd’

This point, as expressed by Mind’s Chris Cox, refers to the point that great ideas are ‘out there’, amongst the people that organisations have long treated as a largely passive audience. Being involved with those ideas is therefore about being part of a conversation, not merely broadcasting messages – which has implications for an organisation’s approach to communication, and not least of all social media.

And there’s another sense in which this thought is important – a great idea can be formed and vetted amongst a group or crowd, without formal co-ordination or even prior relationships between the people involved. The ‘genius’ is generated by collective action.

3. The moment of truth may not be in office hours

Cancer Research UK was not the first cancer charity to benefit from #nomakeupselfie donations, but they were by far the biggest beneficiary. How much of this is due to their brand reputation and how much to their responsiveness is impossible to say, but their ability to be part of the conversation at the right time was no doubt crucial.

“Late on Tuesday evening, momentum was growing and people were starting to ask whether the campaign was ours. We tweeted to explain that it wasn’t, but that we loved the sentiment and that people could get involved in our work to beat cancer sooner by visiting our website.

“If we didn’t have an out of hours system in place, we wouldn’t have been able to see this coming and respond as quickly as we did.”

Aaron Eccles, Senior Social Media Manager, Cancer Research UK

The role of organisations

Does the disruptive influence of crowdsourced ideas, as embodied by #mentalpatient and #nomakesupselfie, spell the end of conventional campaign planning?

The evidence so far suggests not. Audacious stunts, developed by small teams and executed with flair, still have the power to cut through. Greenpeace’s “ice climb’ of The Shard last summer testifies to that.

But for those organisations who do want to be in a position to support and benefit from ‘the unplannable’, it’s clear that there are some key qualities to have in place.

Be trusted

In times of crisis, your brand matters. Are you the most credible source of support and information? Are you the most relevant and reliable of channels for donations to be directed through? Only your long-term reputation can put you in a position to be fully involved when the opportunity presents itself.

Be responsive

You need to be prepared to join the conversation, not just observe it. Will it take a week to sign off a tweet that establishes your point of view on the action? If so, count yourself out.

Be a partner, not an owner.

Understand your role. In this new landscape, each of those who participate may see themselves as part of a campaign’s life. Your organisation can be there to help it fly with great research, media contacts, a creative contribution, or a credible place for the action to be channelled. But it’s not about you.

This post is adapted from a presentation given to development and aid agencies in Copenhagen in May 2014.


Further reading

Chris Cox: Me and the Asda ‘mental patient’ advert

Charity Comms: How Cancer Research UK raised £8m from a campaign they didn’t start by Aaron Eccles

The Telegraph: #nomakeupselfie campaign started by teenage mum from Stoke raises £8m for Cancer Research

Charity Chap: 5 uncomfortable lessons from the no makeup selfie campaign

Image credits

Street selfie image by Flickr user John Ragai reproduced under CC BY 2.0