Controversy is the BEST Reason to Engage in Social Media


When I presented at the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s 2009 Fall Conference, I got a great question in my “Social Media 102: I’ve Got Friends, Followers and Subscribers…Now What” class. A participant asked, “So I work for a very controversial nonprofit, how can I convince my leadership to let us engage in social media?”

I think being engaged in a controversial subject is one of the BEST reasons to engage in social media. You have a lot to say, a lot of information to clarify and a lot of passion to share. You have a lot of people to completely support your issue and lots of people to try to “educate” to come to your side.

The reality is, if your cause is controversial, people are already talking about you. With social media they can say nasty things to your face instead of saying it behind your back. Which is great…right? When people say nasty things to your face you get to react and be part of the conversation.

Some reasons to get engage in social media as a controversial issue are:

  • Support Those Who Believe in Your Cause – Using live-search tools like Google Alerts and TweetDeck you can find users that are talking about your issue. You can reply to people who are saying good things by engaging them on their blog or on Twitter. The easiest way to do this is to just thank them for saying positive things about your issue. In my position at CCIC, I search for moms who are talking about taking their child to get shots and thank them for protecting their child’s health with vaccines.
  • Share Information – Social media is an amazing advocacy tool. You can use it to spread the “good word” and information to support your issue. It makes your issue personal and approachable. You can answer real questions from real people.  At CCIC, I share around a dozen pro-vaccine news stories a day via Twitter.
  • Correct Misinformation – Now, this one takes some cojones, but you can use social media to help correct misinformation about your issue. You can use social media monitoring tools like TweetDeck to do live searches by key word and engage users who are spreading misinformation. The best way to engage someone who is damaging to your issue is to ask why they feel that way. Asking questions will open a dialog about your issue where you can share additional information. This can also lead to a fight, so be prepared for that. At CCIC, I usually just ask why people distrust vaccine and send them a link to our website for more information.

Now, you do have to be prepared for an full-blown fight online. This can spill over and go to offline forums like traditional media and meetings with your organization. Being prepared for a fight allows you to not be surprised when it happens and react quickly.

The biggest thing to be ready for is the worst. Be prepared for someone to get really mad at you. Be prepared to be called bad names. Have a support structure within your organization to remind you why you are “doing the right thing.”

My tips for when you do get attacked are:

  1. Take a deep breath – You are going to take this personally, it’s okay. Take a moment to get grounded and be ready to react
  2. DO Reply – You asked for this interaction, you can’t be afraid of the conflict. You must engage that user. You don’t have to do it immediately, take your time and reply when you are calm
  3. Don’t take it personally – I know you are taking it personally, but take a moment to separate you from your organization and job. They don’t like your cause, not you as a person (Besides they don’t really know you, this is social media after all)
  4. Stay on target – Remember that you are trying to promote a cause. Stick to your mission. Don’t get side-tracked into other arguments about things that don’t affect your cause
  5. Run your responses by co-workers – If you are getting emotional have a boss or co-worker help you formulate your response. It will help to have a second set of unemotional eyes
  6. Acknowledge their fear, pain, anger, etc – They are upset with your cause because it affects them as a person. I always start my responses with saying that I’m sorry that you are fearful/angry/angry about X. This gives them a win and fortifies your position as caring human being
  7. Be professional and take the high road – You are representing your organization so maintain professionalism and don’t stoop to their level
  8. Have a good exit statement – Have one “go to” phrase that will help you exit the conversation with grace and will give you both an out. This statement needs to acknowledge their position, but not give up anything. At CCIC, I use the statement “Regardless, I’m just thankful that we both care so much about children’s health. Thanks for the conversation. Have a good day!” if I want to stop the conversation. It works every time.

When talking about controversy in social media I think about the phrase “Well behaved women rarely make history.” This goes for nonprofits, too. If you don’t want to be subversive and change the status quo a controversial nonprofit is not where you should spend your time. Carrying the burden of change is difficult, but the rewards are great.

Be the future you want to see.