I am currently in Gainesville at the University of Florida. I am here for the next few days as a Visiting Hearst Professional, which sounds slightly more impressive than it is. I’ll be spending my time speaking with students about social media and advocacy communications and the overlap between the two. Ann Christiano, a Professor in the Department of Public Relations at the University, arranged my trip. Ann is a former client of mine at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she was the Senior Communications Officer for the Vulnerable Populations team (a current Aggregate client.)
Six years into working on social media strategies and fifteen years into working on advocacy communications, I’ve grown cynical about both. This may sound odd coming from someone who just launched a creative strategy group to work with nonprofits and foundations to create social change. It’s not that I don’t think it can be done, it’s more that I think people believe it is easier than it is (relegated to well meaning “do gooders”) and that, as someone said recently on Twitter, “If you have a smartphone, you have everything you need to start a revolution.”
No. You don’t.
I’m not saying this because I’m trying to convince you to hire Aggregate to take on your social media advocacy campaign. (Of course, if it were the right fit, we would love to do so.) I am saying this because the “revolution” will take a little more than an iPhone and more than good intentions, passion and desire.
Social change requires strategy based on a clear understanding of where you are, where you want to go, whom you need to engage along the path to get there, where they are as far as the issue is concerned and where you might be able to take them.
Ultimately, as is often the case with social media—whether you’re selling policy change or cars—the emphasis has been too squarely placed on the tools, the technology, the toys. There is no doubt that social media has amplified the reach and accelerated the pace of organizing. But social media is nothing more than the church pulpit or the telephone tree of the Montgomery bus boycott—the best available tool for reaching and organizing those who will be receptive to your message.
Just like the desegregation of the South did not occur because a single feisty woman got pissed that she got asked to move to the back of the bus, the revolution in Egypt did not occur because of Facebook. Give the organizers behind both movements more credit than that. Social change happened because some really smart people knew what they wanted to achieve and how to achieve it.
I’m excited to speak with the students and the faculty of the Public Relations Department at the University of Florida. I’ll be sharing what I learn from them, so come back and say hello.
Update: One of my talks is available online if you’re interested.