News and analysis
May 27, 2012

Planned Parenthood's 5 Lessons for Attracting Social-Media Support

1. Stay on top of the news

Planned Parenthood’s digital-advocacy staff, headed by Heather Holdridge, operates almost like a news room. It meets every morning to review developments that could hurt or help the organization’s goals and decide how to respond to them on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, coordinating with colleagues in New York. Even before she gets to work, Morgan Shoaff, who is in charge of the group’s advocacy Twitter feed, reads news stories on her smartphone while on the bus and starts thinking about how to shape the Twitter conversation that day.

She and her colleagues consider ways to highlight legislation, political activities, or support from prominent people.

Often the work has a whimsical tone. For example, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said last month that Democrats had created a phony “war on women” and compared it to a fictional “war on caterpillars.” Planned Parenthood's advocacy arm, the Action Fund, quickly created and distributed a video highlighting “anti-women’s health measures” that had been introduced or passed in state legislatures—and promoted it on Facebook with a logo of a caterpillar carrying a sign saying “Women Are Watching.”

Many of the Action Fund's efforts are highly political. For example, April 14 marked the one-year anniversary of a Senate vote to reject a House bill that would have ended federal spending for Planned Parenthood. The group posted a variety of messages to remind supporters of who voted for and against the bill, particularly condemning what it called the “Toxic Ten” House members who pushed for it.

At other times, the organization highlights events that promote its health mission. When Melinda Gates spoke about the importance of access to contraception at a global-health conference in April, it sent numerous tweets encouraging people to watch the presentation online and highlighting remarks that she made.

2. Act quickly so you can shape the message about key issues

Planned Parenthood has honed a rapid-response strategy to shape the conversation and advise supporters when controversy strikes.

For example, when news broke in January that Susan G. Komen for the Cure had decided to end grants to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings, the group quickly sent supporters a link to an Associated Press article about the decision, using Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail.

Planned Parenthood also posted a statement on its Web site and created and promoted a Breast Health Emergency Fund to replace the money usually provided by Komen. The resulting uproar prompted Komen to reverse its decision.

Shortly after that controversy subsided, Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, chaired a hearing on an Obama administration policy designed to ensure that women can get health-insurance coverage for contraception even if their employers object on religious grounds.

A Planned Parenthood staff member who attended the hearing took a photo on his smartphone showing five men at the witness table. He sent it to colleagues, who immediately posted it on Facebook and Twitter, asking “What’s wrong with this picture?” The Facebook photo was shared more than 20,000 times and attracted more than 10,000 comments, and the all-male panel was the subject of many news reports.

3. Keep the Conversation Flowing

Planned Parenthood staff members feed Facebook and Twitter with a steady stream of messages, even when nothing important is happening. Messages go out even in evening and weekend hours.

Last year, the group's advocacy arm, the Action Fund, created a new blog, Women Are Watching, to highlight the activities of state and national lawmakers and political candidates. In April, Jacqueline Murphy, who compiles the blog, started posting a sarcastic feature—“Your daily reminder that the attacks on women’s health are a figment of your imagination”; it mentions efforts to restrict access to contraception and other health services. Hundreds of people share the item every time it is posted on Facebook.

The group also uses holidays as a peg to spread its messages. In February, it joined seven other groups to promote a special valentine saying “Congress, Listen Up or We’re Breaking Up.” The groups asked supporters to sign it on Facebook and tweet it to lawmakers.

4. Nuture Supporters

Planned Parenthood says it has more than 6 million supporters, including many who have used its health services. They include donors, people who have signed up to get e-mails or taken action like signing a petition, and other activists. During crises, some of them create art, videos, or other features, and the group thanks them and shares their work on its own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

During the Susan G. Komen for the Cure controversy, for example, a “Planned Parenthood Saved Me” space was created on Tumblr inviting people to submit stories about how Planned Parenthood’s health services “saved or changed” their lives. The organization encouraged its followers to add their stories. Another supporter made a photo of Batman carrying signs with the words “I Stand With Planned Parenthood,” and a graphic designer, Chris Piascik, created a drawing (above) to illustrate how many more Americans approve of Planned Parenthood than they do of Congress.

The group does not promote messages that contradict its own positions—for example, messages calling for retribution against Komen.

Planned Parenthood is stepping up its ties to celebrities, encouraging them to tweet or retweet supportive messages. Among those who have done so in recent months: the actress Eva Longoria, and Samantha Ronson, a singer and disc jockey.

5. Tailor messages to different audiences

As both a charity that provides health care and an advocacy group, Planned Parenthood tries to reach audiences as diverse as hardened Capitol Hill watchers and teenagers seeking birth-control information. Under tax law, all messages that express opinions about political parties or candidates must be sent from the group’s advocacy arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

The organization used to try to reach everyone with a single Facebook page and one Twitter account. As conversations about political issues started mounting, however, the group decided to create multiple outlets. In February, it set up two new Facebook pages focusing on health issues, one aimed at a general audience and another specifically for teenagers, as well as separate Twitter feeds for each group. All of the outlets draw on relevant materials from the others.

Staff members in New York and Washington hold a conference call every morning to coordinate communications efforts (including e-mails, press releases, and media relations).

They are guided by daily reports that track news articles and social-media conversations to see which topics that affect Planned Parenthood are getting the most attention and whether the “major sentiment” is positive or negative.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund: and @ppact

Planned Parenthood Health: and @ppfaq

Planned Parenthood Info for Teens: and @heypp