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Using Social Media to Advance Reform

The traditional ways to communicate about our work– word of mouth, newsletter mailings, and ask letters— still do, in fact, get the job done. But with advancements in social media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and listservs – we can get our messages out even better and more quickly, to more and new people.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute in Northern California is a prime example of the success that can be achieved with a comprehensive social media strategy to stay in touch with the media, subscribers and practitioners. Utilizing several social media outlets including Facebook and Twitter accounts, a YouTube channel and a blog, the Institute has been able to sustain their impact and build new interest in their organizing efforts and research.

“I think that social media has become the great equalizer,” said Lauren Jones, communications associate for the Haywood Burns Institute. “Financial resources are usually very tight, so these new low-cost platforms make for an amazing opportunity to spread the word. In the past, the model was different: you had to become really chummy with a reporter, or spend a lot of money on an ad campaign. Social media isn’t like that. It’s free, it’s accessible, and if you know how to use it really effectively, it can be just as powerful as a traditional PR campaign. But it does take work.”

During the Sixth Annual Models for Change National Working Conference which took place in December in Washington, DC, members were challenged to post photos, videos and status updates on Facebook and chronicle workshops and experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #modelsforchange. It was a test to document the social media savvy of Models for Change members and build capacity for carrying the momentum within states to promote our message of reform. Only a handful of attendees posted updates on both platforms, while most others asked how and what the few social networkers were doing on their smartphones and iPads.

There was, however, a spike in use during the more rousing portions of the conference when producer of “The Wire,” David Simon gave a controversial keynote address on juvenile justice, the war on drugs and jury nullification, and when Rev. Jesse Jackson made a cameo appearance at the event held at the Mayflower Hotel.

Juliana Wiggins Stratton, Director of Cook County's Judicial Advisory Council, tweeted: “Keynote speaker David Simon (creator of The Wire)..."War in Drugs is a war on the assault on the under-class." #ModelsForChange”

The Campaign for Youth Justice tweeted: “I'd rather you stop seeing a drug defendant and start seeing the kid that he is. -David Simon at #modelsforchange”

What was clear throughout the conference was that there is still a learning curve that needs to be addressed. “Social media has come on us so fast that it’s not surprising that there’s always going to be some late adopters,” said Ben Chambers, Communications Specialist for the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN).

Once that learning curve is navigated, however, organizations can incorporate the various platforms in their communication plans for sustainability, extending reach and making new contacts which could result in garnering supporters and donors.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) uses social media in its overall communications efforts to highlight news about the organization including its monthly e-newsletter, publications, media mentions and to send time-sensitive action alerts. 

"Another goal is to create a sense of community for juvenile justice,” said Idit Knaan, CJJ director of communications and operations. “By highlighting the good work of members and other organizations in the field, we recognize and reinforce their efforts. By posting photos of our members from various CJJ events and meetings, we hope to create a sense of connection among our members as well as to CJJ's mission. It's a simple, cost-effective way to connect with our members and colleagues.”

“I can say I think it’s a good thing for us; even as little as we do it because I can see the stats,” added Chambers. “Facebook is one of the leaders in direct referrals to our website. People are finding us that way.”

The Models for Change initiative launched its own Facebook page not long ago.  Jason Fenster at the Justice Policy Institute, who currently administers the page, says, “It’s one more way to spread information, and one that’s less formal and can feel friendlier and more accessible. We know not everyone’s on Facebook, but for those who are, it can be a quick way to share a link or a picture.”

NJJN joined Facebook last summer and currently has 400 “likes.” It plans to add a Twitter account soon. Chambers conducted a media training in 2010 for NJJN members that included a Facebook how-to session. He said attendees saw the benefit but also struggled with the ‘it’s-just-me-in-the-office’ syndrome and the fact that with all the work put in to writing posts and maintaining various pages and accounts, returns may be “soft” and hard to measure.

“Like anything, communications itself included, it takes a personality match for actually doing the work,” Chambers continued. “In terms of whether it makes sense for researchers or other folks, I don’t think there’s whole lot of question about it. We have a lot more opportunities to get our information out. It happens more efficiently.”

Some communications experts, however, think that social media is not for everyone – time management and outcome tracking being the main concerns.

Marie Yeager, who leads the Models for Change communications efforts in Pennsylvania, says she has spent a lot of resources media monitoring and measurement when it comes to social media.

“There’s nothing out there right now that really tracks reach in social media or accurate reach for online numbers,” said Yeager. “We’ve spent a lot more time with traditional ways of outreach like newspapers, methods that you can take to the bank, quantifying results. We try to be very targeted with what we do.”

There are some ways organizations measure their success, however, according to Jones, including Facebook’s free analysis of daily and weekly users, Google Analytics which produces free spreadsheets and graphics on visitors and Klout which tracks the impact of a Twitter member’s influence.

“We also use engagement as a metric of success,” said Jones, who tracks how many people comment and share posts that she creates for the Burns Institute. "“The combination of traditional outreach with social media can be really powerful. We can tell our own stories and don't have to rely on other people doing so.”

Yeager realizes this and does not totally discount social media as a way to garner a different audience – she simply makes a point that operating one or more social media platforms is a time investment and may not be as easy as some think.

“It’s really a matter of whether or not you have the extra time to invest,” she said. “It’s free; it’s just an investment of time. If you have the time, it’s a bonus. I wouldn’t say that there is no return, it’s just not measureable, so go for it. You have to carefully determine who it is you’re trying to reach and what’s the best way.”

Yeager added that she does realize that social media builds motivation and awareness, particularly amongst young people and brings visibility to various causes.

“These platforms are free to use, and a really easy way to share our own stories and hard statistics,” said Jones. “If you combine the personal storytelling and anecdotes with hard facts, the public will listen to what you're saying. Social media is based on people seeking out things; it’s not something that you passively consume like television. They engage and they dig deeper.”

To learn more about social media and access tools and strategies for using Facebook and Twitter, click here. For list of organizations to follow via social media platforms, click here.

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.