facebook community

How to cultivate an open, engaged Facebook community

Ladd Everitt is the Director of Communications for The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He’s responsible for developing and managing a wide range of communications activities in support of his organization€’s overall mission, including their Facebook presence.

Running a Facebook Page on gun violence prevention is no easy task, as open conversation can feel unsafe when pro-gun rights folks chime in. Yet each and every day, Ladd and his team are working to maintain the safe and open public space they have painstakingly created from the ground up.

How long have you managed social media communications and where did you get your start?

I started managing social media after coming to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in May 2006. When I first arrived, we had no Facebook Page, no Twitter account, and a very rudimentary website. I basically had to learn a lot of this stuff on the fly, but it was worth it, because new media tools give gun violence prevention advocates an asymmetrical advantage in our struggle against the gun lobby that we otherwise wouldn’t have.

How has your strategy/options about Facebook changed over time?

When we first launched our Page, I really had no idea what I was doing! It was just me and I was basically experimenting at that point. Today, our Page has multiple moderators (and designers), and we are much more sophisticated in the way we go about our work. There is much more attention to the metrics on any given post, and I’ve also learned (although I’m by no means perfect) that you have to engage your followers and not always talk at them. That means showing them the human side of your work and soliciting their opinion/experiences. It has to be a two-way dialog and we are very proud that we’ve built a Page where the conversation is robust.

One thing you have to understand about the gun issue is that there are very few “safe” spaces for gun violence prevention advocates to talk about this issue. So often, our supporters are actively harassed online by pro-gun activists who want to intimidate and silence them. It can get very depressing and disheartening to comment about this issue online and get spammed by 100 pro-gunners saying the ugliest things you can imagine. If there is any “genius” in our Facebook Page, it is that we have finally created a safe space for our people to voice their opinions and be heard. We do this by immediately and permanently banning anyone our Page who does not actually “like” our organization. It has worked, and beautifully. We are creating more confident, engaged activists. They are being empowered and emboldened.

What organizational goals do your Facebook efforts support?

Most of them, really. Facebook is a wonderful public education tool for starters. It helps us get out a host of information about the impact of gun violence, the weakness of our gun laws, and the campaigns we are working on. It’s also a terrific organizing tool and we frequently encourage our supporters to take actions, while taking full advantage of the ability to customize posts by targeting folks from a specific state/city. Social norming is also a huge aspect of this struggle to save lives (think of how views on smoking have changed over the years), and Facebook is a wonderful tool for that messaging. Probably the only thing we do where Facebook is a not a huge help is fundraising, although we do some of that on our Page as well.

What kind of social calls to action do you use?

They are pretty varied. Primarily, it would be action on legislation at the Federal and state level (i.e. asking people to email/call/meet with lawmakers). It might be asking people to contact a prosecutor to ask them to bring a case against a negligent parent whose child found their gun and hurt themselves or someone else. Sometimes we’ll ask folks to use a profile pic or cover pic we’ve designed to promote a campaign. And sadly, we frequently ask our supporters to join us in reporting threats we have received or become aware of. With all these requests, we try to make things as simple as possible by providing basic contact information and a talking point or two.

Tell us about a recent successful social campaign or series of posts.

Pro-gun activists constantly spread the false idea that even the most modest gun violence prevention measure is a step toward total confiscation of all privately-held firearms. Frequently, when they make this point, they conclude it with a threat (“Come and take them”, “Molon labe”, “From my cold dead hands”, etc.).

We’re long past tired of it and we decided to make a series of memes that drill down to the real reason behind their confiscation conspiracy theory and threats. So we took actual photos of pro-gun activists standing in their homes armed to the teeth (that they had posted publicly to FB) and paired them with the text, “You know why they fantasize about gun confiscation all the time? Because no one would want to visit them otherwise.”

This series of memes has been extremely well-received and is just one example of our efforts at social norming. Now, rather than feeling scared about such threats, our supporters can have a laugh about it, and feel more confident engaging in discussions with bullies who really are just desperately seeking attention and respect.

We try to strike a chord with our followers by saying things that they have been thinking for a long time, but have never seen voiced. The cliché would be “speaking truth to power” (of the NRA, and well-armed and angry pro-gun activists). Courage is infectious. So is honesty. We monitor comments on our Page very closely and one thing people know they are always going to get from us is straight talk. We are not afraid to say what needs to be said. We never want them to catch us playing politics.

Do you have any advice for other nonprofits based on your success?

It’s certainly going to be different depending on the issue you work on. Few issues are as contentious and vitriolic as gun regulation, and that fact really informs our strategies. My main piece of advice would be to level with people. Make them feel like there is an actual human being at the helm of your social media tools, and not someone who is just reading polls and metrics. And don’t try to come off as perfect. Own up to your mistakes. Given the frequency with which we post, we’re all going to make them. Sincerity (and even self-deprecation) can go a long way.

As one final example, not long ago we made a “Mean Tweets” video with our staffers reading actual tweets that had been directed at us by pro-gun activists. People loved it, both because it was funny, but also because it showed we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Several pro-gun activists even commented on it and said how great they thought it was that we could have a laugh at our own expense. Stuff like that has a way of cutting through division and rhetoric. Never be afraid of letting a bit of your own personality leak into the work you’re doing in new media. Your supporters will appreciate it.