May 27, 2012

Behind Planned Parenthood’s Social-Media Magic

Derek Lieu, for The Chronicle

Heather Holdridge, Jeremy Frisch, Jacqueline Murphy, Amanda Mourant, Aubrey McCullen (standing), Stephanie Lauf, and Morgan Shoaff work in Washington to get Planned Parenthood’s messages online.

When it comes to social media, Planned Parenthood is on a roll. Celebrities tweet about it. Fans create supportive videos, photos, and messages. Today, some 300,000 people are following it on Facebook, a steep climb from fewer than 100,000 in January 2011. And a photo the group posted on Facebook of an all-male panel of witnesses at a Congressional hearing on birth control was shared more than 20,000 times and attracted more than 10,000 comments.

By most accounts, it won the social-media war hands down when news broke in January that Susan G. Komen for the Cure planned to stop giving the group money for breast-screening services. Planned Parenthood acted quickly to take advantage of the anger that erupted on Facebook and Twitter—and Komen reversed its decision several days later.

The organization was able to respond immediately to the Komen controversy partly because it had been building its advocacy strategy, including the use of social media, to respond to earlier crises involving Congressional politics. And the results offer lessons for other advocacy organizations.

“They walked away with more supporters and more money,” says Kathy Roeder, a consultant who advises nonprofits on media strategy. “Those are two criteria that would define success.” 

 Dawn Laguens, an executive vice president who oversees Planned Parenthood’s advocacy efforts, says the organization has been working to strengthen its digital-advocacy strategy since it faced a “wake-up call” at the beginning of last year: The House passed an amendment proposed by Rep. Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, to ban all federal spending for Planned Parenthood services.

The group has been controversial for decades because its clinics perform abortions, but Ms. Laguens says that vote signaled that critics were ready to wage a concerted battle to end federal support, which pays for family-planning and other health services besides abortion. The move generated outrage among women’s-health advocates, family-planning proponents, and others—and the Senate eventually defeated the legislation.

“We were learning a lot during that,” says Ms. Laguens. “Part of it was, How do you absorb a million new people into your activism? People were coming out of the woodwork.”

The group created a now-ubiquitous “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” graphic and sent a pink bus on a “Truth Tour” to organize rallies across the country. Its travels were publicized on Facebook and Twitter and through videos on YouTube of people attending the events.

Expanded Efforts

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a charity, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, its advocacy arm, employ 342 people in New York and Washington; 40 of them work on communications issues, including 18 who focus on social media and other digital projects.

Since the Pence vote, Planned Parenthood has increased from four to seven the number of staff members in Washington devoted to digital advocacy, fund-raising, and engagement, and it plans to add three more.

The Action Fund started a new Web site and blog called Women Are Watching to provide daily updates on lawmakers and political candidates who are working at state or federal level to strip public aid to the group or curtail access to birth control or abortion. Planned Parenthood also created two new Facebook pages on health issues, with the original page—whose following has grown rapidly—focused on advocacy. Its Twitter feeds have been similarly separated.

Planned Parenthood has developed a sophisticated system of monitoring news, getting it out quickly to supporters, and asking them for help when needed. The group receives daily reports from an outside firm that tracks Twitter and Facebook conversations on issues like birth control and abortion; analyzes whether they generally support Planned Parenthood’s views; and identifies prominent people who are influencing the debate.

Speedy Response

Such preparation was essential to the organization’s speedy response when the Associated Press reported that Komen was cutting off aid to Planned Parenthood. The organization quickly sent a link to the article on Twitter and Facebook, posted a statement on its Web site, sent e-mails to supporters, and organized a Breast Health Emergency Fund to replace the roughly $700,000 a year it was set to lose from Komen. That fund has now raised more than $3-million.

Heather Holdridge, who leads Planned Parenthood’s digital-advocacy efforts, said the organization decided it needed to play several roles for angry supporters: uniting them, giving them regular updates, and offering them “something constructive and meaningful to do,” she says. “For us, that was standing with Planned Parenthood, it was not criticizing Komen.”

The day after the Komen news broke, Planned Parenthood asked people to sign an “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” open letter that a supporter had drafted. The text was shared more than 99,000 times on Facebook.

Strong Supporters

Because Planned Parenthood is a health-care provider as well as an advocacy group, it has a built-in advantage that not all nonprofits do: a core of supporters who have used its services, or want them available for themselves or others.

Those include young people like Jacob Eichengreen, now a junior at Wesleyan University, who helped create a video last year after he grew angry at learning about the Pence amendment. The video features shots of young people reading signs they are carrying, with statements such as “I Have Sex” and “My Friends Have Sex” and “I Use Birth Control,” and it urges lawmakers to “cut corporate welfare” and “save Planned Parenthood.”

Mr. Eichengreen, whose video has been viewed on YouTube more than 400,000 times, says he wanted to remind older generations that young people would suffer from cuts to Planned Parenthood that might limit access to contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Smart Strategy

Communications experts say Planned Parenthood has been smart not only in its tactics, but also in the way it has shaped its overarching message that it is fighting for women’s health—a mission that moves the discussion beyond the sticky realm of abortion politics.

After Komen’s decision came to light, “they basically put the issue of breast-cancer screening into the larger context of public health, saying public health is not meant to be a political issue,” says Suzana Grego, a former head of media relations at the Ford Foundation who is now a consultant on communications strategy.

However, some of Planned Parenthood’s critics called the group a bully during the Komen controversy. Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, says Planned Parenthood likes to use social media because it does not have to go into detail about its abortion activities. “Quite frankly, all they have is sound bites and social media limits what you say,” she says.

Komen also has a strong social-media presence, with more than 500,000 followers on Facebook. But people flooded the organization’s page with negative comments after the Planned Parenthood announcement (along with some supportive messages), and critics say the organization failed to convey its message well in response to the crisis. Andrea Rader, Komen’s communications director, says the group does not want to “rehash” the incident, adding that the reaction showed that “this is a very active and engaged community. There is a high level of interest in women’s health care and certainly in breast-cancer issues.”

Now that the controversy has subsided, comments on Komen’s Facebook page have become much more positive, she says. “As times goes on, people are beginning to feel that trust in us again.”

Ms. Holdridge of Planned Parenthood says her group has learned through recent crises that it is important to build relationships with supporters even when you’re not asking them to engage in traditional advocacy moves, like expressing support for a bill.

“It’s about meaningful engagement that they connect with,” she says, “so when you do need them to send a letter that says 'I need you to support H.R. 123,’ they’re there for you.”