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The Brave New World of Social Networking — Or, How to Stop Worrying and Let Go

Poll-tested messages are great. Focus groups rock. There is security in knowing exactly which buttons to push to get the desired outcome. But the world has changed. Today — especially due to the rise of social media — we  have to base our change and advocacy campaigns on a new paradigm. It’s no more top down/command and control. Instead, the key is giving people what they want and need to be our best messengers, and encourage them to “just do it.”

So, what’s a communicator to do?

Trust the  Wisdom of the Crowds. Marty Kearns is the founder of NetCentric Campaigns and was one of the early thought leaders on how philanthropy could use social media.  He often challenges communicators with the provocative question: What would you do if you had 10,000 people for 10 minutes? What do you do when you don’t have control over the messenger or even the message – but have a willing army of messengers?

Don’t control the message. Just days after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, angry supporters of gay marriage took to the street while leadership was busy disseminating their own post-election messaging. Leaders strained to take “control” of this tide – but instead learned to embrace it and make it another part of the overall campaign.

The new model encourages individuals to be more direct and to share their personal stories with voters, with peers, and with those who may disagree.  The movement is making the bet that one person, speaking in her own voice, on-line or off-line, can be more persuasive than packaged messaging built off polling and focus groups.

Share the tools and get out of the way. Ken Banks is the founder of and the award-winning creator of a free software tool called Frontline SMS.  His software uses text messaging to educate, communicate and connect people to make change happen at a rapid pace especially in remote locales.  There are over 1,500 non-profits and NGOs using the text messaging platform and each is using it differently.

One of the most exciting examples of text messaging at work is in election monitoring.  During the 2007 presidential elections in Nigeria, voters faced the problem of vote fraud and intimidation.  International monitors and local NGOs saw text messaging as a way to gather and share stories of election intimidation in nearly real-time.  In making the text messaging option available, they reaped three benefits.   Voters felt more engaged and trusting in the process.  Those thinking about doing something nefarious had to think twice as they were being watched by millions of texters. And a small international election monitoring force suddenly grew in size, scope and authority.

Remember that it’s not a panacea yet.  The budget process in most states is never a pretty process.  Here in California, because a two-thirds majority is required pass the budget and to enact any revenue enhancements, a few members of the legislative minority wield disproportionate control. That control has an odd effect on the implementation of new advocacy tools. In the most recent fight over the budget, listeners of right-wing radio were mobilized and whipped into an e-fury.  They emailed and blogged – all with a goal to get members to oppose a budget with new taxes.  In the end, a few Republicans broke ranks, risking their careers and the wrath of the anti-tax mob.

At the same time, progressive advocates watched as years of hard work and policy advances, built off of patient grassroots work, were traded away to get final passage.  The progressives watched their own e-fury fail to do what good old fashioned political horse trading accomplished – get someone to make an unpopular decision.

The lesson here is that the online tools and emerging advocacy strategies are never a substitute for good old fashioned political strategy – but they sure can amplify its reach, power and pace.

Dan Cohen is Founder and Principal at Full Court Press Communications in Oakland, California. Holly Minch provides strategic communications consulting for nonprofit organizations, foundations and public interest groups.

Photo of Skydive Vietnam, BFR forming from divemasterking2000 on – used with gratitude under a Creative Commons license — click for terms.


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