Heard of Molly Katchpole? She's the 22-year-old recent graduate of Roger Williams University credited with forcing Bank of America to rescind its plan to charge customers five bucks a month to use their debit cards. Enraged by the fee, Katchpole took to the Internet in October to launch a petition against the banking behemoth, reminding people that despite receiving a taxpayer bailout, making lots of money and paying no taxes, BofA was still trying to suck $60 a year out of its customers. Some 300,000 signatures and several TV appearances later, BofA dropped the plan and Katchpole became a national hero -- a modern-day David who successfully took down a too-big-to-fail Goliath.
And what a David she is. Katchpole, with her Dickensian name, adorably bushy hair, saucer-like eyes and a tattoo that reads "empathy," is something of a millennial media-booker's dream. Well-spoken and self-possessed -- "I have always seen people interviewed on TV and I picked up on the things you shouldn't do," she told her hometown Cumberland, R.I., paper The Valley Breeze -- Katchpole looks every bit the plucky underdog as she explains to her interviewers (everyone from ABC News' Matt Gutman to CNN's Erin Burnett to CBS' Erica Hill and Chris Wragge, among others) that she works two part-time jobs, lives paycheck to paycheck in Washington and can't afford to pay a debit card fee. Watching her, it's hard not to marvel at the media's ability to serve up the perfect poster child for victims of BofA and its big-bank brethren. If Katchpole didn't exist, the media -- or, more likely, a public relations pro -- would have invented her.
Or did they? Is Katchpole what she seems -- an underemployed recent college grad and art history major who overnight rocketed from obscurity to three appearances on Diane Sawyer's nightly news show, all because she started an Internet petition that went viral? Or is she, or somebody close to her, a political operative or professional activist, schooled in the art of media campaigning with a well-oiled PR effort behind her? After all, lots of people rail against big business online and elsewhere. But they rarely end up on CNN for a joint interview next to a U.S. congressman.
Well, Katchpole is for real and was acting alone -- up to a point. She posted her petition on Change.org, a website that allows people to solicit signatures via social media. And when her petition gained traction, the site moved in, soliciting more signatures, providing advice and reaching out to the traditional media. "Change.org helped me out by getting press involved when they saw that the petition was reaching tens of thousands of people," Katchpole said during a live chat on the Washington Post's website.
That explains why, when Katchpole went to her local BofA branch to close her account and deliver her petition, cameras from ABC's World News were conveniently in tow. Clearly, the success of her campaign is a victory for social media and a demonstration of its power to get the masses involved in a cause. But Katchpole's story also illuminates another important truth about social media: that for all of its ability to popularize a movement, it still needs the so-called mainstream media to make things really happen.
Just think about it. If Katchpole hadn't appeared on the news as frequently as she did, would BofA have been moved to rescind its fee? Probably not. Because even in our digitized world, where seemingly anyone can become a star on Facebook or a member of the Twitteratti, it still takes an appearance on something as analog as TV news to solidify our fame or legitimize our cause. Just look at Occupy Wall Street. While it has effectively used social media to gather its troops and spread its message, it only became a national talking point when the mainstream media began to cover it.
Meanwhile, Katchpole, according to a piece in the Washington Post, continues to look for a full-time job following her moment in the sun. In that story, she complains about having to start repaying her student loans in several months. "Why should I be expected to pay them off now?" she's quoted as saying. "Why are colleges charging interest on that stuff? Give us a break. Really."
The backlash was quick, as many readers posted comments blasting Katchpole's "deadbeat" attitude and financial illiteracy, not to mention her choice of college major. So much for our modern-day David. Fame. Ain't it a bitch?
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.