9 lessons learned doing social media during a mass mobilization

In April 2017, the Sierra Club joined hundreds of other organizations in the Peoples Climate March (PCM) in Washington DC and across the country. Together, organizations turned out over 300,000 people to protest the Trump Administration’s attacks on clean air, clean water, and our climate.

This was actually the second Peoples Climate March—the first was in New York City in September of 2014. We learned a lot about how to amplify mass mobilizations on social media during the first event, but three years is a long time in internet years. Since then the world has seen the rise of Facebook Live, Snapchat, and a massive public resistance movement, made more visible through events like the Women’s March this past January.

This year, we combined the lessons of 2014 with some new strategies and a bit of trial and error to successfully cover the March on social media. Here are just a few things we learned along the way:

1. Stay on message—meaning the coalition’s message, not your own agenda.

A mass mobilization isn’t a branding opportunity—it’s about mobilizing supporters around the issue. Everyone (the social team, the media team, celebrity supporters, etc.) needs to understand and agree to what the messages for the day are. It’s easy to harm relationships with partners and supporters by posting something that clashes with your message and values. We held a messaging training for our staff who were covering the PCM on social media to ensure everyone was on the same page.

2. Use a variety of voices and perspective to tell the story of the day.

You have to remember that you’re not always the best messenger. If you have a large audience, you should be elevating posts from smaller or less visible members of the coalition. Go out of your way to make sure you are highlighting a diversity of voices from other organizations, different communities—especially front-line communities, and people in the crowd.

Assign one or two people to monitor conversations happening online with your supporters and also checking out traditional media sources. During this year’s March, CNN tweeted a stunning timelapse during the event. It was inspiring for us to see and great for us to share with our community; the video received overwhelmingly positive replies and favorites from our followers and a lot of reshares.

3. Be everywhere.

“For the first PCM [in 2014] we had three, maybe four people running all the Sierra Club social media for the event. It worked, but there were a lot of ‘quick saves’ going on, like finding a coffee shop with wifi to transmit because it was impossible to get a signal. And we mostly captured content that we used immediately.

This time, we had 12 people just capturing content, so inconsistent signals weren’t as much of an issue. We still had a queue of quality content to choose from, so we could take a more editorial perspective and support more social channels.” – Bharat Kusuma, Digital Community Manager

4. You don’t need fancy equipment.

You’ll definitely want professional videographers and some high quality photography happening at the event, but mostly for future use. For the PCM, our team on the ground used their own phones for everything.

We had looked into what we could do to make sure they’d always have a signal, but really there wasn’t much. Satellite hot spots would would be running through the same cell towers, so there wasn’t enough benefit to justify it.

5. Have a command center.

“Most members of our core social team weren’t actually at the march; they were holed up in a hotel room with good WiFi a few blocks away, which became our command center.

Our role online was mainly editorial and moderation. We also did our best to troubleshoot as we went along—checking in with some of the staff working the march itself to find out what was going on when using radios. Getting that to work took a little longer to get going than we planned. If we hadn’t had multiple folks in the control room, it would have been a bigger problem because you can’t easily play editor and do technical troubleshooting at the same time.” – Heather Moyer, Senior Content Producer

6. Look beyond the social media team.

We have a relatively small social media team for a large organization, but even with a large team, it’s worthwhile to recruit staff and volunteers to be in the crowd capturing content for social media.

There are plenty of people who aren’t social media professionals who have great social savvy and personal reach. These are the people you want out there getting good stories and pictures and talking with people. They’re motivated, and not intimidated about the responsibility and can roll with it when something unexpected happens.

Things will go wrong, and you need your people on the ground to know that you may not be able to respond to them individually, but they can just keep going — posting, streaming, tweeting, being in the moment.

7. Be crystal clear on roles before the event.

“We’re getting better at this. The important thing is to make sure that everyone is clear regarding who has final decision making authority on what gets posted and what doesn’t, or if something has to come down—but hopefully that’s a last resort. You have to train the team days and weeks in advance on both organization and mobilization event guidelines, and make sure anyone who doesn’t normally have access to post content knows how to properly engage that day.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy

8. Facebook Live can be tricky but really resonates with people.

“Your signal will probably be shaky so use it when you’ve got a good one. Just jump in. People love it. You can narrate the event, move around and show different aspects of it, interview people. The energy is contagious. For this event, 5 minutes seemed to be a sweet spot, but shorter broadcasts were useful too, because we could add more specific descriptions to the individual posts.” – Emma Cape, Online Organizer

9. Work with big social media organizations to amplify the message (they appreciate it).

“We were lucky to be able to partner with Snapchat for their coverage of the march—mostly because we had something to offer them as well: the inside scoop, lots of our folks on the ground. It created an opportunity to build a relationship with Snapchat that we hope will create more editorial opportunities in the future. It also gave us an opportunity to create content optimized for a younger audience, and they were great to work with too.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy


Mass mobilizations have grown so much more powerful through social amplification. The stories are all around—you just need a few people to collect them, the desire to raise marginalized voices (not just your own), a clear game plan, and a hub to manage it all.

Katie Reilly
Katie Reilly is a Senior National Online Organizer at the Sierra Club. She's used digital tools to address a wide range of campaigns from the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines to the Flint Water Crisis to fighting mountain top removal mining. She was Sierra Club's dedicated online organizer as part of the Peoples Climate Movement coalition in 2014, 2015, and 2017. She supported all three events by recruiting tens of thousands of people and raising awareness through social media. Katie has an MBA from Drexel University and previously worked in digital marketing in the music industry.