Note: This is a chapter in the Grassroots Advocacy Toolkit.
Social media is great for networking with other animal advocates, but it’s also an important public outreach tool. Effective messaging can inform, educate and inspire, increasing your team’s success. Ineffective messaging, on the other hand, can turn people off, limiting or even crippling your advocacy efforts and jeopardizing the welfare of the pets who are counting on you.
When you transition from using social media for personal purposes to advocacy-related work, it’s critical to use those platforms responsibly and avoid common mistakes that could hurt your cause. Below are a few tips for getting the most out of your digital media efforts.
Be inclusive and thoughtful
The old adage “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is popular for a reason. People want to be involved with something they can feel good about, feel proud of and share with others. This is especially true for people who haven’t been involved in animal welfare and who are new to the idea of saving homeless pets.
We need to lead by example. Show, don’t tell. Lead, don’t lecture. Demonstrate for people how important pets are in our lives and why caring about homeless pets is so critical. Typically, the sad, disturbing or urgent posts that you see on social media are shared by people who are already willing to help. But they’re rarely, if ever, shared by the new audience we need to reach. Preaching to the choir might make us feel good momentarily, but it doesn’t help our long-term goal of saving more pets.
For example, “Adopt, don’t shop” is a beloved expression among many of us already involved in animal welfare, and it makes for a catchy hashtag. But consider how that expression might affect someone who has purchased a pet in the past. We want everyone to feel welcome and included in our work because that’s how we recruit more people to our cause and get more people to choose adoption. So, always be mindful of how you’re framing your campaign and how it might be received based on the audience.
Keep it positive, always
People want to feel happy, not sad. Sad or disturbing photos of sick, injured and neglected pets (while perhaps necessary in certain contexts) generally do more harm than good on social media. Many people out there are unwilling to get involved with animal welfare or even visit shelters simply because everything they see and hear about homeless pets is negative and depressing.
To be effective advocates, it’s our job to show folks something new and change their minds. You can still communicate urgency without being negative or using sad or upsetting messages and imagery to do it. Remember, much of our work is about reaching a new, broader audience, not the one that is already liking and sharing those social media posts you see every day.
Don’t perpetuate stigmas
On that same note, sad or negative imagery has unintended consequences that can lead to fewer animals being saved. Many people have yet to adopt a pet from a shelter because they think that animals in shelters are “damaged goods.” And can you blame them? If all they see are photos, videos and messages with sad, upsetting pictures of abused pets, what else could they possibly think? We need to change that misperception.
When promoting a specific pet in need, for example, focus on the pet’s personality rather than her circumstances. You want people to think about the future and consider who that pet could be as a member of their family, not who that pet was in the past.
Don’t bash shelters
The average municipal animal shelter is overcrowded and underfunded, and these shelters are often stressful places for staff to work. Attacking shelters or pointing fingers won’t help anybody, especially the pets you’re trying to save.
If there are specific and genuine areas of concern about a shelter’s operations or conduct, you should always do thorough research first and take action through the proper channels. You can’t help pets without helping the people who are in the position to save them. Shelters are staffed with real people just like us who are trying to earn a living and support their families. Look for opportunities to support shelters in need and highlight any progress, however small, they may be making.
Take advantage of Twitter
While often intimidating to non-users, Twitter is the preferred platform for connecting and engaging with most politicians, such as your state senator or representative. In fact, a survey done by the Congressional Management Foundation showed that 80% of “hill staffers” said that 30 posts on social media was enough to get their office’s attention. You’ll probably have 30 people or more on your team by the time you read this. So, get tweeting!
With that said, remember who you’re communicating with and conduct yourself accordingly. Stay on-topic and be respectful. Many politicians also have public pages on Facebook that you can post to as well, but Twitter gives you the most direct access because you don’t have to be “friends” with them to engage with them. And if your team has a great hashtag, make sure to always use it.
Post with purpose
Respect the rules of online forums (e.g., individual Facebook Groups or subreddits) and refrain from counterproductive cross-posting. You should only post about adoptable pets, fundraisers and events in forums where those types of posts are explicitly permitted. Otherwise, you risk being muted or removed from the forum. In addition, people will be more responsive to your message and more likely to help if your posts are on-topic and targeted to relevant audiences (e.g., promote a Detroit-based adoption event on Detroit-related pages).
Yes, saving lives is serious business. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time while doing it! The best way to recruit new volunteers, foster caregivers and action team members is to have fun yourself and make it fun for others. Throw an adoption party for a dog who’s been in the shelter a long time, make a music video about community cats, share pictures of you and your friends celebrating after a day of collecting petition signatures. Think about all the fun, creative stuff you see online every day and are more likely to share because it’s thoughtful, engaging and positive.