An Evolving Approach to Social Media: Leveraging Social Media for Advocacy

By Special Contributor posted 09-11-2017 15:34


By Tim Mikulski

Over the coming months, posts in this series about social media in preservation will dig deeper into community management, storytelling, advocacy, and more. Have questions? Reach out on Forum Connect! Also, keep an eye out for our sessions at PastForward 2017!

For any organization a large part of creating a social media following is building brand awareness and directing followers into your membership or donor pipeline. However, that’s not the only way to use social media to help save places. You can also use popular social media platforms for advocacy. In fact, some would argue that it’s much easier to get your followers to click on and sign a petition than it is to get them to donate $10. And there’s an added bonus to such efforts: You can double down and leverage your advocacy to boost your project with members of the traditional media like local TV stations, newspapers, and blogs.

The National Trust's Action Center is the home for all our current advocacy actions.

Always Be Prepared

Begin any social media advocacy campaign by creating a place where you will send all of your traffic. Every social media post can then refer your advocates back to that landing page. This page can be very comprehensive, like the National Trust’s historic tax credits page, which features a summary of the issue, a link to an online petition, and a media toolkit—and suggests other ways in which our supporters can create buzz in their communities about this vital preservation tool. Or it can be something simple, like the Trust’s Elkhorn Ranch petition to the governor of North Dakota. The Trust uses a paid service to host petitions, but you can create them for free on sites like or Care2 Petitions. While it is generally a best practice to send all traffic to your own website, sometimes it is easier to send advocates to these third-party petition sites—and the social networks built in to those sites can boost your petition, too.

While you are creating a landing page, you will also want to decide what platforms to share it on. Facebook and Twitter are the traditional advocacy platforms, since they have the largest audiences that are used to this type of content coming through their feeds. But that is starting to change a bit as Instagram begins to play a role. The limiting factor there is links: Instagram does not allow hyperlinks in posts, so you have to include them in your bio and mention that facts in posts, which can be cumbersome.

It’s also important to create a few visual elements for your Facebook and Twitter posts. This can be as simple as gathering a few different pictures of the site you are trying to save, but you can also get more advanced and shoot a 15–30-second video or create a collage to grab the attention of those scrolling by your posts.


This image is designated for use with the Down to the Wire campaign for the James River.

The next step is drafting a few different versions of your primary message so you can send out a variety instead of the same thing over and over again. And finally, create a campaign calendar so you know when you are going to post, what message you’ll be using, and on what platform. (A Google spreadsheet is helpful for this, as everyone involved will be able to access it.) This will save you a lot of time since you won’t be trying to remember when and where you posted what message as you carry out the campaign.

And once all of that preparation work is completed, it’s time to get the campaign going. Almost…

Engaging Elected Officials Socially

The next step can be done before the campaign kicks off or as it gains traction and you become familiar with the relevant players from the elected official or media sides.

If the ultimate authority on whether your site is saved or not is the mayor, you will want to make sure you that are following their official Twitter account, as well as those of their important staffers and even those of city council members who might be able to help in your efforts.

If your campaign is addressing a state or federal legislative issue, be sure to follow the chair and members of the committee that will be hearing relevant bills as well as any representatives from the district your site is in or from key districts nearby. Hopefully, with your follow, the officials or staffers who run those accounts will follow you back, giving you a direct route into their news feeds on a daily basis.

Don’t forget to publicly thank an official who says something in support of your campaign or of historic preservation in general. A simple “Thanks, @ElectedOfficialDoe, for your support of preservation in Anytown!” can go a long way to garnering favor with the official or their social media staff. This also applies to new cosponsors of important legislation or newly sworn-in officials whom you can congratulate and welcome to the job. Exposure to you and your cause through a like, retweet, or reshare from the elected official is always a good thing. And while all of these tips can also be used on a daily basis when you’re not involved in an advocacy campaign, these sources can definitely help spread the word about a place you are trying to save.


Our advocacy work in Birmingham, Alabama, involved outreach to Mayor William Bell (left) and Congresswoman Terri Sewall, shown here with National Trust Senior Field Officer Brent Leggs. | Credit: Mark Sandlin

Taking It to the Tweets

While it is important for your organization to take all of these steps, it is also important to motivate your followers to take action. With the framework above, you can use your campaign calendar to send a steady drumbeat of messages to encourage your audience—and make it as easy for them as possible. If you are sending followers to your site to read more about the issue and then email an official, be sure to provide the language and any contact information they need. If you’re sending them to a petition site, make sure you plan out how—and how often—the signatures will be collected and delivered to the targets. Creating a tip sheet with suggested messages, hashtags, and links should can also help your followers take action.

And, regardless of the results of your efforts, be sure to post updates and follow-ups. Although it may be hard to face a loss or challenges along the way to preservation, those setbacks can often serve as great motivators for your followers to join the fight for that site or for the next place you will try to save.

Social Media as Public Relations

A byproduct of social media campaigns is the attention that they can attract from “traditional” media sources like newspapers, local TV news stations, and even bloggers. Much as you did with elected officials, take some time and research local news sites or blogs that cover historic preservation. Follow their main accounts as well as any individual reporters or editors who cover or care about your issues. During my time at the Trust, whenever a reporter covered a story that the Trust had played a large role in, I’d follow them on Twitter, both as a “thank you” and hopefully as a way to get their follow back, creating a two-way channel of communication. We would then see new stories they were working on and they would see updates on our work as well.

While I wouldn’t recommend doing this too often, an occasional tweet to a friendly reporter with a “Hey, did you see this update on our historic site?” or “We’re having great success collecting signatures to save this place” is another way to stay in touch. I wouldn’t recommend “cold tweeting” reporters you haven’t previously connected with to pitch a story idea very often. You should build those relationships first by at least following them or retweeting a story they wrote. Another way to start that process is sharing a news article by the reporter and tagging their account. It gives them a boost and can help build that relationship.

Over time, these small steps can make you the first person a reporter or news outlet approaches about preservation issues. It’s not that different from the traditional PR model of developing business relationships on the phone and in person—it has just moved to Twitter or Facebook.

Social media advocacy campaigns involve a lot of work before, during, and after, but they can be extremely rewarding as they help your organization build relationships with important elected officials, reporters, and your own social audiences. And, of course, they can help save places!

If you’re ready to make the leap to saving places using social media, take a look at our toolkit featuring eight tips on advocating for preservation on social media.

Tim Mikulski is a senior communications manager with government contracting firm DIGITALSPEC, LLC. From 2014 to 2017, he worked on the National Trust’s social media accounts, first as a public affairs manager and later social media community manager.


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