Social Media Advocacy as National Policy Debate Lever

Ingrid Betancourt
Social media advocacy by groups like the AARP shaped the debate over national healthcare reform last year, and will hold tremendous sway over the outcomes of the current budget stalemate, the 2012 presidential election and next year’s budget debate (Republicans have already proposed $4 trillion in cuts in the 2012 federal budget).

Web 2.0 advocacy is now a decisive lever in national policy debates, and has been put to good use recently by organizations not immediately associated with blogs, Facebook and Twitter, according to communications leaders at nationwide advocacy groups.

Social media activism helps organizations of every political stripe to efficiently mobilize  members around policy debates, and the power of such tactics has been skyrocketing alongside social media adoption.  The value of new media advocacy lies it is ability to drive engagement as part of a call to action.

With budget matters so hotly debated that the federal government is approaching a shutdown, communications pros for organizations on both sides of the debate need to make the very most of two-way social media conversations to win the day. If you were tasked with finding, and inspiring, constituents in a group to call Congressmen, vote for a candidate or join a protest, how would you use social media to get your people moving?

Paul Anderson, vice president for Communications Strategy and Public Outreach at AARP, was charged with doing exactly that on behalf of AARP in the build-up to the vote on the historic health care reform legislation passed last year. Social media research helped AARP to sharpen its policy arguments and to find like-minded AARP members, champions within its own ranks to deliver AARP messages to Congress. Use the insights provided by Paul to benchmark your efforts at social media advocacy as you get ready to issue a call to action.

1. Employ Social Media To Collect Real World Examples that Back Your Policy Plank

During the healthcare debate, AARP collected via social media interactions 15,000 stories of real people who either fell into income or age gaps in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or who had been denied insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition, or who, because  of age differentials used by insurance companies, were paying as much as eight times what their child would pay for the same medical procedure. When it comes time to send your lobbyist in to talk to a given Congressman, arming him or her with large numbers of compelling examples from their own district will obviously very persuasive.

AARP seeks to start dialogues through its social networking sites, and listens closely to the comments on its blogs and articles (comments on outgoing content are as important as the content). AARP research determines which members will take suggested actions on the organization’s behalf and will follow relevant AARP social media campaigns. Social media activism requires that advocacy groups find people that agree with an institutional position and ensure their members take the right form of action. Social media content must be a balance of what is most useful to audiences and what moves forward institutional priorities.

2. Free Your Entire Team To Engage Via Social Media/Commit Necessary Resources to Achieve Real-time Listening and Engagement

Social networking sites enabled AARP to start dialogues and to listen more closely to the comments on its blogs and articles in the approach to the healthcare reform debate, says Paul Anderson. Using social media as a lead vehicle for driving change, however, requires a commitment to real-time conversation monitoring and to placing trust in staff members. AARP staff in all 50 states are now empowered to blog, post their own comments on social networking sites and run their own social networks. Set your social media policy, distribute your messaging priorities and be prepared to debate robustly, respond quickly and react (or not react) to negative posts with a level head.

3. Learn How Best to Integrate Many Channels (Print, Online, Mobile) Before the Debate Starts

Multiple social media communications channels at first represented a strategic challenge for the AARP.  In response, AARP leadership employed matrix management to integrate AARP channels and communities, and to ensure that its content can be repurposed regardless of medium.  Once the content was streamlined, the organization added mobile social media communications to create value for members through accessibility and ease of use. AARP just launched several IPhone applications that leverage its publications and services, including scan-able bar code application that enables members to get AARP discounts at participating stores using their iPhones.

This blog post is sourced from an audio interview with conducted by Guest Host, Greg Reeder is the director of the Marine Corps Element at Defense Media Activity and Editor-in-Chief at Marines Magazine, USMC for Eric Schwartzman’s for On the Record…Online.   Greg interviewed Paul Anderson, vice president for Communications Strategy and Public Outreach at AARP, about priorities in the management of social media advocacy programs.

About the Guest Blogger
This is a guest blog post written by Greg Williams (@gregscience), an independent consultant specializing in public relations for medical science and technical companies. After beginning his career as an editor for the Associated Press, Greg has since served as a public relations strategist for two international public relations firms and two university medical centers, and as a writer for institutions including Eastman Kodak and the National Academy of Sciences.

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