Game Changer: How Associations Use Social Media for Advocacy
As a board member, if you are unsure about the role social media could play in advocating for your association, consider the findings from a recent survey by the Congressional Management Foundation. The poll found that 80 percent of congressional staffers said that it takes a total of just 30 posts on a topic to get lawmakers’ attention. Further, 71 percent of respondents said social media comments from multiple constituents affiliated with a certain issue would have “some” or “a lot” of influence on an undecided legislator’s decision. And, 76 percent of staffers said social media has enabled lawmakers to have more meaningful interactions with constituents, while 70 percent said it made them more accountable.

The data reinforces what many association boards are discovering — social media enables associations and their members to have an additional voice in Washington, D.C. It’s not a substitute for face-to-face interactions with policymakers, said Michael Payne, executive vice president at SmithBucklin, but social media has become an important component to an effective advocacy program. “If you’re not using social media, you’re missing an opportunity,” said Payne.

Game Changer

The 2016 presidential campaign showcased the power of social media, especially Twitter. By using Twitter, candidates bypassed traditional media channels to reach potential voters — many of whom could not be reached via traditional media outlets. Communicating directly to their audience, the candidates established a connection and a following among the growing number of social media users.

The candidates use of Twitter may influence other policymakers to tweet more aggressively to reach their own constituents, said Frank Moore, senior director, government relations at SmithBucklin. “That might truly be a game changer,” he said. “We're very likely going to see an explosion of its application with members of Congress.” The more policymakers use social media to communicate with constituents, the more opportunities association advocates will have to communicate directly with — and hopefully influence — policymakers.

SmithBucklin’s John Richardson has seen the increased usage of Twitter firsthand. “Five years ago, I don't think there were a whole lot of people on the Hill that were paying much attention to it, but today they certainly are,” said Richardson, executive director, Physician Hospitals of America and director of policy and government relations at the National Society of Genetic Counselors. He believes that Twitter has become more effective than blast emails, which typically land in a junk mail box or a spam filter. Richardson stressed that communications that come across inauthentic, or just rubber-stamped with a signature, are going to have less of an impact. He also noted that posts on Facebook and Twitter not only directly reach the target audience, but through retweets and shares and follows, they can have a multiplier effect and reach many others.

The Need for Metrics

Facebook and Twitter are by far the two most popular social media advocacy tools, per a recent survey of 164 advocates of associations, nonprofits, corporations, and lobbyist firms. The survey, conducted by Dr. David Rehr, senior associate dean and professor of law at George Mason University, showed that — for advocacy in particular — 75 percent used Twitter, while 70 percent used Facebook. LinkedIn was a distant third with 36 percent. Also, the survey revealed that there aren’t standard metrics used to measure the effectiveness of social media advocacy.

“As a board, you want to know you’re getting a return on your investment,” said Rehr, a former association CEO and current association board member. “You want to know that your use of social media, for example, impacted 27 members of Congress you have targeted to influence, or four people changed their vote on a bill, or X number of people were more aware of our issue. Or your social media advocacy campaign might be something as simple as counting likes, favorites, or retweets/shares — it all depends on the objectives of the campaign.”

The American Wind Energy Association successfully lobbied Congress to extend tax credits for renewable energy in 2015, in large part due to an aggressive social media campaign. As CQ Roll Call’s Connectivity Blog reported, AWEA alerted the public about the vote on extending the tax credits by generating 52,000 tweets and 89,681 likes on Facebook posts.

Accentuate the Positives

The most effective social media campaigns aren’t threatening or forceful. They focus on positives that help raise awareness about an industry or a cause.

Physician Hospitals of America uses social media to highlight the achievements of its member organizations to legislative leaders. When one of its hospitals receives an award or is cited in some other way for excellent performance, the association will not only tweet out a note of congratulations to the hospital, but also to congressional representatives in its district, informing them of the hospital’s excellence.

It brings attention to the hospital as well as physician-owned hospitals, said Richardson. There has been a moratorium on building any new physician-run hospitals since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, so while the association works at one end with legislators to lift the moratorium, it uses social media to reinforce the importance — and impact — of the industry, explained Richardson. Often, they’ll get a retweet or a like from a policymaker, which helps build momentum for their cause.

Some associations hold virtual Hill Days, often in conjunction with annual fly-ins, for members who couldn’t make the trip to Washington, D.C. Members are encouraged to contact policymakers on key issues through tweets, Facebook posts, emails and other forms of social media. It provides an opportunity for fellow stakeholders to collaborate on a common message without leaving their desks. Digital platforms also allow association members to send emails and tweets to legislators from a link embedded on the association’s website.

The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) regularly hosts Reddit chat sessions to educate members, and non-members, on the industry, advocacy efforts, or specific initiatives. “It helps spread the word on what the association does, how they do it, and why they do it,” said Richardson. Further, the association can alert congressional staff to the chat session to help educate them on the importance of the industry to not just members, but patients or others who are participating in the forum. “It reaffirms what we’re communicating face-to-face with congressional staff,” added Richardson.

The Risks

Social media has many essential benefits — it’s easy and fast, inexpensive, and if done right, effective. But it does not come without risks. It’s crucial for associations to employ these tools with discretion. Twitter’s 140-character limit allows little room for error. And any message could go viral in an instant. “Your messaging should be consistent, clear, and well-timed,” said Payne. “Too much and you lose your audience’s attention. Too little and you fall off the radar. Messaging needs to be quick and memorable, and very carefully crafted.”

The bottom line, Moore said, is to use social media to establish deeper relationships with policymakers. “It creates touch points for our members, but we don't stop there,” commented Moore. “It is the enabler. We want to see it grow to the point where that individual association member is later engaged with a member of Congress either by way of meeting and/or dialoguing back in their district. Social media properly used is powerful, but it’s no substitute for personal relationships.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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