Social Media for Social Change

For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

Are you a social media manager? Do you hear a lot of, “Wait, someone’s actually paying you to be on Facebook all day?” Have you ever tried to explain what you do for a living to someone, and you can tell they’re secretly rolling their eyes at you?

Or maybe you’re doing the eye-rolling. After all, Twitter and Facebook are just trends, right?

It’s understandable. Many of us are skeptical. As Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers have joined Millennials on social networking sites, another transformation in the digital world has begun to take form: Social media advocacy has erupted around the world, connecting people from all walks of life and empowering social change. Instead of sharing a favorite poolside snack recipe on Pinterest — which is great, don’t get us wrong! — the line of thinking has become, “How can I mobilize Pinterest users through an image and a link?”

In 2013, after years of trying to repeal the death penalty in Maryland, a coalition of state and national advocacy groups working on the issue decided a new, fresh strategy was needed to reach lawmakers. It would require rewriting the book on communications strategies for legislative advocacy if we wanted Maryland to become the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to abolish the death penalty. We needed an innovative and strategic digital campaign that would not only promote our messages, but mobilize constituents and influence policymakers. Marylanders — and the state’s politicians — had been hearing about the inefficacy and inequality of the death penalty from the same people for years. It became our job to find new ways to turn up the pressure, publicly.

Our digital media campaign launched just before the 2013 Maryland General Assembly. Every detail of each social media action was considered, down to the timing, and it paid off — we won. In May 2013, Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill making Maryland the eighteenth state to repeal the death penalty. But the successes and lessons learned from our campaign didn’t end there.

We went into this campaign thinking of social media as a tool. It should never be the only communications strategy used, but it can be a valuable way of engaging and reaching an audience.

We help nonprofits and foundations create a voice for themselves online. We’ve petitioned legislators, mobilized rallies, and campaigned for social change in communities. We rely on some tried and true social media tactics and tools for advocacy, such as:

  • Thunderclap, a “crowdspeaking” platform which enables campaign organizers to rally Twitter and Facebook users to mass-tweet in unison;
  • Twibbon, a site helping campaigns spread a message through unified profile badges; and
  • Twitterbombs, where users tweet at one person or entity in an organized, targeted protest.

The world of social media campaigns and advocacy is growing, as are the number of social media managers. We have taken a medium initially intended for entertainment, recreation, and socializing and turned it into a forum for activism. So when people ask things like “Do you ‘sit’ on Facebook all day?” we tell them: It’s more like marching, shouting slogans, and waving signs over the heads of the crowds — every single day.

Aurora Matthews
The Hatcher Group
Aurora Matthews is a Senior Communications Associate for The Hatcher Group, which helps to connect foundations and nonprofit organizations to policymakers and the media.