Among multimedia journalists, social media gurus and leaders of mission-based nongovernmental organizations, it’s a common refrain: All our readers or viewers want are images of kittens and puppies. Such junk food for our eyes and hearts is making it virtually impossible to capture the world’s attention on pressing humanitarian matters such as slavery in Mauritania, use of conflict minerals in electronics products we all love, gender discrimination in the production of kids’ toys and the fact that the poaching of elephants might one day make it impossible for our grandchildren to see these animals — which are nearly as cute as kittens and puppies.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, CNN convened a panel of experts: Jonathan Hutson, director of communications for the Center for American Progress’ Enough Project; Amanda Kloer, director of organizing at; Ben Montgomery, an enterprise writer at the Tampa Bay Times; and John Sutter, an opinion columnist at CNN. The panel’s goal was a challenging one: “How to Make the Internet Care.”

Let’s dive in with the three most valuable tips.

  1. Reveal the unseen. Offer fans an element of surprise, or tell people something they don’t know. Montgomery captured the attention of readers and the influential Poynter Institute by live tweeting his father’s funeral, revealing that the man was an abusive alcoholic who left Montgomery’s mom for a stripper, abandoning the family. Hutson, who works for an organization that aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity, offered the example of using the Internet to post images produced by the Satellite Sentinel Project. In this instance, the images revealed the digging of mass graves in Sudan, alerting government policymakers and mobile networks of activists to atrocities being committed.
  2. Tell personal stories. It’s heartening to know that online stories about humanitarian atrocities can evoke world outrage. Sutter talked about traveling with a photographer/videographer to Mauritania, the last country to outlaw slavery, to put a human face on a story about life in a nation where slavery continues to exist. There, he captured video of Moulkheir Mint Yarba, a slave who was impregnated her master during rape and who later found her her baby dead, after the master put the infant out in the hot sun to die of dehydration. Sutter’s story appeared on, yielding an online follow-up, The CNN Freedom Project. This, in turn, prompted CNN’s iReporters, or citizen journalists, to record personal messages of hope to show their support for a woman at a Mauritanian school for escaped slaves.
  3. Provide a clear path to action. Nothing provides a clearer path than an online petition. Kloer, who works for “the world’s petition platform,” cited a campaign by McKenna Pope, whose younger brother dreams of becoming a chef when he grows up. She was irritated that he wouldn’t want to use Hasbro’s Easy-Bake oven because it was available only in a gender-specific color scheme of pink and purple, so she launched an online petition. The petition asked Hasbro to make a gender-neutral oven. Building in a sense of urgency, the toy was to be a Christmas gift for the boy. With the credibility of petition signers critically important, Pope got celebrity chefs to sign. After she delivered the petition, Hasbro invited her to its headquarters, where the company announced a silver and black Easy-Bake oven to be marketed to boys and girls.

My parting thoughts: Whatever social media channels you select — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr or others — the ultimate goal is not making the Internet care but using the Internet to get the attention of “earned” or “traditional” media, which hopefully will bring even more attention to your cause.

Bonnie Sashin is director of communications and external relations at the Boston Bar Association. She blogs on nobody’s behalf but her own at Bonnie’s On It. She’s been making the annual pilgrimage from Boston to Austin, Texas, for SXSW since 2010.

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One response to “Live from #SXSW: 3 keys to winning over the Web”

  1. Dennis Ditleberg says:

    One can learn a lot from Bonnie. Her wiritings are always topical, well written, and on point. Well stated.