My 2020 Resolutions for Digital Organizing and Communications

As we enter a new year and a new decade, I’m feeling fired up to do the work of organizing—bringing people together and inspiring the action that will enable us to take back our country and change the world. Here are my digital organizing and communications resolutions for 2020.

1. I resolve to speak to real people using real language.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as progressive organizers is using jargon and organization-centered language to speak with the people we’re trying to organize. It’s especially damaging and alienating when we speak this way to communities of color and others who are shut out of political participation. We need to make sure we are speaking with our audiences in the same way they speak with one another. That leads us to resolution #2…

2. I resolve to spend as much time listening as I do posting and texting.

As communicators and digital organizers we are so focused on getting our message out there that we forget that listening is key to truly understanding what motivates our audiences. We need to devote plenty of time to social listening—engaging with already existing communities on social media and learning how people talk to each other in digital spaces. The more closely we are able to align our messages with already existing conversations, the more effective our campaigns will be.

3. I resolve to pay attention to the right metrics.

Communications with a laser focus on metrics is key to winning campaigns. But the metrics must be tied to real goals. Social metrics like click-throughs and open rates only matter in the end if they lead to actions with real-world importance, like completing a union authorization card or voter turnout.

4. I resolve to integrate communications with campaign organizing strategy.

Communications can only be effective when it is an integral part of the overall campaign organizing strategy. Outside of that, communications is simply noise. That’s why it’s important for communicators and digital organizers to collaborate closely with the field team and seize opportunities to use their tools and expertise to advance the work.

5. I resolve to analyze what the opposition is doing—and use what I learn to make my strategy better.

We can’t ignore the opposition. In fact we have an obligation to research and analyze successful strategies from the other side and integrate what we learn into our work. For example, I once used an anti-union Facebook page as a model for designing a pro-union Facebook page that served as innoculation against toxic messages. We shouldn’t be afraid to see what’s working for the other side—and use it to drive our own victories.

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Digital Organizing: Who Should Run It?

In part 1 of this series I discussed the differences between communications (developing, cultivating, and maintaining an organizational identity or brand image) and digital organizing (focused on meeting the goals of field organizing campaigns).

Bottom line: the two functions share many tools such as email, SMS and social media, but have different goals and measures for success. And not understanding those differences can sink your organization’s ability to succeed.

So how should organizations structure the digital organizing function and who should own it? I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer to that question yet, but here are some options to consider:

Option 1: The Communications Department

Advantages: Communications team has expertise in the use of digital tools such as SMS, social media, and email. The team is wholly dedicated to communications work and doesn’t have competing responsibilities for field work.

Disadvantages: Communications team doesn’t have field expertise, doesn’t understand the needs of field campaigns and may not have enough staff to manage traditional communications functions while also meeting the needs of fast moving campaigns where responses are needed in a matter of hours.

Potential ways to mitigate the disadvantages:

– Create a smaller team within the communications function assigned to work with field staff (this of course depends on having enough staff resources).

– Have the communications team meet regularly with the field team to gain a better understanding of field strategy and meeting field needs.

– Have communications staff spend time in the field to better understand the field work and how digital tools can be used to support the field.

Option 2: The Field Organizing Team

Advantages: Field team understands the needs of the campaign and sees directly how digital tools impact organizing goals.

Disadvantages: The field organizing team doesn’t have the subject matter expertise to use digital tools effectively or the capacity to take on digital work in addition to their field work.

Potential ways to mitigate the disadvantages:

– Train field organizers on using digital tools and hold them accountable for digital goals and metrics

– Assign digital organizing to specific members of the field team to avoid conflicts between field work and digital work. This depends on capacity and the willingness of field staff to be reassigned to what is essentially a new function.

Option 3: Communications Staff is Embedded in Field Team and Reports to Organizing Director

Advantages: Communications professionals have subject matter expertise. Embedded communications staff ensures that field needs do not conflict with the needs of the communications department. Communications staff is able to collaborate closely with field team, including participating in strategy sessions.

Disadvantages: Communications professionals on field teams can become isolated from their peers in the comms department and lose out on opportunities to build and maintain subject matter expertise. Conflicts can arise between communications professionals and field staff who do not understand each other’s roles. Successful integration of communications staff with the field team requires a strong manager with a clear strategic focus.

Potential ways to mitigate the disadvantages:

– Comms professionals on the field team meet regularly with communications department to share knowledge and keep subject matter skills up to date.

– Organizing director clearly communicates roles and expectations to the field team and emphasizes the importance of digital to meeting organizing goals.

– Mutual education: field and communications staff train each other on their roles, gain a greater understanding of the contributions each make to campaigns.

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Communications vs. Digital Organizing

What’s the difference and why it matters.

Part One of a Two-Part Series

Digital organizing is one of the most effective ways for progressive organizations to mobilize supporters and drive voter turnout. Social media, peer-to-peer text messaging, mass SMS, and even search engine marketing are all playing an enormous role in political campaigns and issues-based movements such as labor, reproductive rights, and immigrant rights.

In most organizations, digital communications tools are under the control of the communications/marketing department. But communications departments aren’t well positioned to support organizing because of fundamental differences between the goals of the function and the needs of field campaigns.

Shared tools — but different goals and measures

Communications departments work on developing, cultivating, and maintaining an organizational identity or brand image. Tools and functions housed within communications include media and public relations, marketing emails, printed materials, website design and maintenance (including content production), SMS, and social media. They are also responsible for internal communications with organization staff.

By contrast, digital organizing is focused on meeting the goals of organizing campaigns. While digital organizing teams use many of the same tools as the communications team (social media and SMS in particular), they use the tools to do things like drive voter turnout, union signups, event turnout, and legislative action.

Digital organizing measures success using the same metrics as the field organizing team.

Communications departments measure success using their own metrics, including website traffic, email open and click-through rates, media placements and quality of coverage, and social media likes, follows, and shares.

Digital organizing measures success using the same metrics as the field organizing team: How many people turned out for your event? How many supporters called and texted elected officials about your issue? How many people turned out to vote? While communications-related metrics have value as milestone measures and help refine messaging and target audiences, they are not the ultimate drivers of the digital organizing strategy.

To be somewhat reductive, communications metrics generally exist in the digital and media space while digital organizing metrics focus on actions taken by target audiences outside of digital spaces.

Communications isn’t well-positioned to take on digital organizing

Because communications exists as a separate entity with its own goals and metrics, most communications teams are not well-positioned to effectively support field organizing. Issues that commonly arise when communications is tasked with digital organizing are:

● Communications team does not have the capacity to rapidly respond to the needs of a fast-moving field campaign.

● Communications team is not included in strategy or daily planning meetings with the field team and as a result does not have a clear understanding of field goals and organizing needs.

● Field organizing director and team do not understand how digital communications tools can support and drive field goals and do not include those tools when planning field strategy.

● Staff tasked with digital organizing report to the director of communications, which can create conflict between the needs of the communications team and field organizing team.

So what does this mean for your organization? What do you need to put into place to ensure the success of both the communications team and field organizing team? In Part 2 of this series, I discuss how you can best position your organization and avoid a conflict that can sink your ability to meet your goals.

Below is an infographic you can use with your staff to differentiate between the functions of communications and the digital organizing team. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

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