For many years I have been pushing my colleagues to more fully integrate social media into their advocacy campaigns. While many were using social media to raise awareness about their issues and mobilize activists to take action (with both direct social media appeals and peer-to-peer appeals to send emails to Congress), none were using social media itself to deliver the messages to lawmakers.
In 2010 I trained some of my colleagues to use social media to deliver messages to lawmakers, encouraging them to pass specific legislation. That resulted in the ENOUGH Project successfully passing two pieces of legislation that year by mobilizing its activists to post directly on key legislators Facebook pages.
In the years since, "social advocacy" has become more common, though still not pervasive. But when it is used, it yields great results. Recently, I heard a story about yet another successful social advocacy campaign from a friend and long-time advocacy organizer Shelley Moskowitz. I asked Shelley to share her story:
I was a twenty-something when I began my public interest advocacy career in the late 1980's. I was lucky to be mentored by some of the best progressive vote-counters in DC. We cultivated face to face relationships on Capitol Hill, ran grassroots lobby campaigns and worked in broad-based coalitions to help advance human rights and economic justice. Back then, facsimile machines and the internet were new-fangled inventions. My first fax used long rolls of thermal paper that faded over time and our noisy dial up internet access was limited to less than an hour a day. As antiquated as it sounds now, these were the cutting edge advocacy tools of the day. It enabled us to quickly receive and transmit information and allowed us to jam up Congressional fax machines with grassroots communiques. It was fun, easy and effective.
Fast forward to 2015. Blast faxes are passé and email inboxes are full and overflowing. Sadly, most messages are ignored as the next flood of information pours in. Add a dysfunctional Congress to the mix and you have very few bills being considered and even fewer becoming law. But when you do human rights work, it is really hard to give up even when you know the odds are against you.
One particular bill that was close to my heart almost made it through the legislative process but it languished and died at the end of the 112th Congress. My colleagues and I vowed to learn from the experience and not let that happen again. We spent months working with the lead sponsor and key committees so that the reintroduced bill was able to swiftly move through the House with bipartisan support. At first, Senate Committee staff indicated that the bill might continue to move fast. We held off on planning a lobby day because everything was going so well behind the scenes. Then the staffers decided they wanted to put their fingerprints on the bill. It took months, but we kept lines of communication flowing with House counterparts and the result was something I had rarely seen before. Our bill actually got stronger as it went through the legislative process! All was going well until suddenly the Senate committee staff went "radio silent." No one would return calls, emails, or set visits. Other legislation took priority and it looked like our bill would once again die. We did what we could. We pulled together a CEO-level organizational sign on letter and got an op-ed in the Huffington Post. It was good, but maybe not enough.
That's when we decided to try Twitter. Since few of my DC-based colleagues knew the difference between a hashtag # and an @ sign, we needed a mini-tutorial from allies with communications staff. I know, everyone else in the world had been using Twitter for a while, but it never made sense to me until I saw its power at work. We launched what we called a "Twitter-fest" with the support of about 8 organizations in our coalition. It was fun, easy and as it turned out...effective. Not long afterwards, our bill began to move. It passed through committee and in the final days of the session, it passed on the Senate floor. Another few days and it was signed into law by President Obama! We celebrated the victory and wondered what exactly made the margin of difference. Many months later, we got an answer. A key committee staffer told a colleague in confidence that besides our general persistence, it was the Twitter action that got the bill moving again. By generating a significant (but far from trending) number of tweets to @SenatorXX, our message caught the attention of the political staffers back in the Senator's home state. They contacted the committee staff to see why so many groups were tweeting about this bill and asked if there was any reason for it to be stalled. The committee staff said they actually liked the bill but were tied up with other bigger and more controversial issues. Evidently the politicos urged them to move the bill and that's exactly what happened. Twitter gave us an end-run around the over-extended policy staff and created new incentives to pass a good bill.
I chose to share this story without being specific about the bill because the staffer's statement about the impact of Twitter was made in private. Any violation of that confidence would be wrong and could impact future work together. The real moral of the story is that advocates, young and older, should always be on the lookout for the next big technological breakthrough so that we can make the difference we are here to make.
What makes Shelley's story so interesting is that it was the legislator's political staff that picked up on the Twitter campaign and pushed the legislative staff to move forward on the stalled bill. But whether it is the political team or the legislative team that responds, using social media to complement the delivery of your campaign message by other channels will increase your chances of success.
Social Advocacy and Politics is a bi-weekly column by Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy at turner4d. Find it here on Social Media Today every other Tuesday. And read past columns by Alan here.