Who is your social media advocacy voice

Developed by the AVMA Communications Division
February 2013

Now that your association has decided to use social media as part of its advocacy efforts, the next step is to pick your online voices – your spokespeople. In its report, The New Tools of Advocacy, the National Journal makes some interesting suggestions.

Those who post – or speak – on social media on behalf of your organization need to speak knowledgeably about the issues, be good storytellers and understand the best practices for the forums in which they are working. They can be trained to use talking points and data relevant to the topic at hand, but their value is in injecting subject matter expertise and analysis into the debate. Whether it’s staff or a volunteer leader, a knowledgeable and empowered spokesperson carries more weight with influencers than using someone who is obviously a “talking head,” such as a CEO relying on the assistance of a ghost writer.

The report’s authors suggest that the association conduct a personality test when handpicking spokespeople to make sure they are good storytellers. If they are not, then they aren’t going to be the best people to frame an issue. The best spokespeople are capable of translating dense policy dialogue into a compelling human voice, hopefully with an emotional appeal. For instance, a veterinarian who can talk about patients who were hurt or injured because of poor regulations will have more credibility than a research or teaching veterinarian who is very knowledgeable about the issue, but hasn’t really seen it firsthand in practice.

Another suggestion is that the association develops a short list of suggested practices to adopt and emulate in their posts. Share best practices and lessons learned with your spokespeople on a regular basis so they can constantly improve.

The designated spokespeople should be tied to a “beat” based on their specific areas of knowledge and regularly contribute content in social media channels. Interestingly, the majority of spokespeople are based outside of the communications function and contribute 5-10% of their time to this role.

Make sure that your spokespeople have the right background for the situation. For instance, a companion-animal veterinarian talking about a food-animal issue really isn’t going to have the same weight in carrying the message and will lack the emotional appeal. Another example would be a spokesperson from Mississippi trying to influence a member of Congress from California. This wouldn’t resonate either. In both of these illustrations, the person’s background – where they come from and what they’ve experienced – will impact whether the message is delivered effectively.

Although often underutilized, association employees can often be the best champions for a cause by helping the organization amplify its policy messages. However, many employees have little guidance about the type of content that is acceptable to post, so instead of posting anything, they hold back their ideas, resulting in less frequent posts or good ideas being lost. Suggested steps to take include:

  •  Define the universe for employees. What content is always acceptable for employees to post? What content is never acceptable to post? What are the gray areas that require further discussion or approval?
  • Compile a flow chart. Who should the employee contact when they have questions about content to post?
  •  Encourage employees to bring up good ideas for content. They can help carry the messages to many different communities. (Example: AARP has an online platform that shows messages of the day, hosts a repository of evergreen content, lists upcoming training and includes a forum for people to give social media tips.)
  • If an employee makes a mistake, try to make it a positive and a “win” for the organization. Have a plan for the “oops” tweets.