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Healthcare | Social Policy

Social media for social change

22 Apr 2015, by Informa Insights

Daniel ScoullarIn the lead up to the upcoming Homelessness Summit in Sydney, Daniel Scoullar, a communications consultant with expertise in the homelessness and housing sector, joins us to  discuss social media’s capacity for advocacy, engagement and stakeholder relationship management.

While challenging some of the myths about social media and the homeless, he also highlights how a strategic and transparent use of social media can create online meeting places for interested individuals to champion change and build communities to tackle issues like homelessness.

How has social media changed the ‘rules of engagement’ for advocacy for both organisations and individuals?

When you say social media, people immediately think of Facebook, Twitter and maybe LinkedIn – but it’s much broader than that. When I talk to people about social media and how it can help them reach their strategic goals, I’m talking about any platform or medium that facilitates online conversations. That means we’re talking about YouTube and blogs, comment sections and crowd-sourced publishing projects like Wikipedia. For the most innovative out there, it also means bringing social features into their intranets and strengthening internal staff community building and communications.

“If you think about social media as nothing more and nothing less than a place to have online conversations – and with the added ability for those conversations to travel far and wide within minutes – then it becomes pretty clear how any smart organisation should be approaching it. Social media is another dimension for the community engagement, advocacy, relationship development, promotion and marketing – even service delivery – that happens (or should happen) already. It’s the same game with different rules, a bit like T20 cricket is to a test match.”

A big difference is that social media tools reach further for less investment of time and resources. This means organisations that have only ever worked within their local communities now have a way to spread their wings and compete in the online marketplace for attention.

Every organisation that receives funding from government should be accountable to both clients and the community. This means not only delivering funded services within a government framework, but actively working to improve that framework.

This includes talking to the community about the causes, complications and solutions in their area of expertise. It means asking them what they think.That’s the only way we will ever solve or reduce deep structural disadvantage like homelessness.

Conversely, social media also offers people without a voice the chance to be heard. It is a myth that people experiencing homeless are not online – they are. It is myth that people who seek help from community services are unwilling or unable to take part in community conversations about issues that affect them – they are.

There are cost, education and access barriers, but these are coming down. We could reduce them even further, empowering thousands of people in the process, if every community service ran just one project each year to increase access to technology, including social media, for their clients.

The AFR’s recent survey of the CEOs of the top 20 publically listed companies and their relationship with Linkedin and Twitter highlighted that Australian business leaders still don’t understand the power and influence of social media. If those in power aren’t on the same social channels, what power does social media have to impact their decisions?

Social media treeSocial media is not a magic pill. It’s funky and fun, but it is not the main game for any community service trying to influence decision makers.

Social media, when used as a targeted tactic within a campaign, can be very effective in certain situations. It can help demonstrate the depth of community feeling about a particular issue, it can be used to drive attendance at events and to promote simple actions like writing to politicians. GetUp! have shown that when you get a critical mass online that you can have impact. The flipside of this is that you can look small, ineffective and irrelevant if you launch an online campaign that is not able to garner significant support.

Specific platforms also serve different purposes. LinkedIn and Twitter can be great mediums for contacting journalists, CEOs, subject experts and others that would be very hard to reach otherwise. I regularly pitch journalists via Twitter and LinkedIn. Facebook is the perfect place to crowdsource powerful stories that can be used in face-to-face meetings with politicians, the media or as the basis for multimedia clips. Online surveys, which are the fashion of the day, can be effective on certain issues and completely useless on others.

Every social media channel has a demographic profile and within that, each organisation has a follower/fan profile. These days, you can learn a lot about who you’re talking to using in-built or specialist analytics applications. When you start linking data about your audiences together between your website, email list, social media channels and event attendees – you can enrich this even further. You should have clear and documented goals for each channel that are based on knowing who you’re talking to, what they want from you and how you want to influence them.

Social media seems to be a numbers and measurement game – the greater the number of followers and connections, the greater the influence. If this is the case, how can small organisations have a voice?

For better or worse, the Australian community sector is largely behind the game when it comes to online community building and social media. The big players like beyondblue have nearly 400,000 fans on Facebook, but many other large, professional and well-regarded services have audiences in the hundreds.

This means that any organisation that wants to take social media seriously can have an impact and, in most cases, get its head up above the crowd.

This requires an investment of in-house resources and some outside guidance. If you already have a genuine social media guru in-house then that is a plus – but make sure they have a strategic approach and can see the big picture before you set them loose. Most of all, success online requires internal education amongst organisational leaders and staff that feeds into a plan that everyone understands.

HomelessBoth in Australia and overseas, you’ve worked on projects with widely divergent marketing and communication budgets. Given that the tools for social media are free, easy and seemingly without borders, how does this change the message?

The biggest illusion out there is that social media is free. Many of the tools are free, but the time and expertise you need to do it well are not.

Despite nearly every reputable not-for-profit having a presence on some form of social media, I would still advise any CEO who isn’t prepared to commit the time or resources required to do it properly to not do it at all. It is not a good look for an organisation to look ineffective, clueless or unprofessional in front of all your most important stakeholders, not to mention staff and clients.

In terms of the message, there is lots of data out there about what works. Each channel has its own tricks, but in general you need to find an authentic and informal organisational voice that uses snappy, timely and attention grabbing statements, meaningful questions, photos, visualised data, videos and shared and shareable content to engage people in two-way and many-to-many conversations. You also need to get out there and ‘outreach’ to other people and organisations if you want to be seen as a contributing member of the online community.

Aim to inform, entertain or educate with every statement. Aim to give more than you ask for and provide real value to your audience instead of being stuck in what you want to get out of the exercise. Perhaps the greatest irony of organisational use of social media is that, in the end, it’s not really about you.

In terms of how the vulnerable have a voice on social media, what’s your reaction to the recent outrage over a fashion stylist’s Instagram photo of a homeless woman in Paris?

I’ve spent time with journalists and photographers taking part in ‘street counts’ in Melbourne and it was very clear to me that the accepted wisdom is that if someone is in public then they are public property. They can photographed, talked to and even touched or hassled. People feel they have a right to anyone who is in a public space – and particularly if they stand out or are different. Witness the harassment of women wearing hijabs or the abuse transgender people often receive when both are just trying to go about their ordinary lives.

Someone sleeping outside should have the same right to privacy as any of us would expect when we close our front door. The media still doesn’t understand this and neither do the rest of the population who are now running around with cameras in their pocket 24/7.

“Conversely, social media also offers people without a voice the chance to be heard. It is a myth that people experiencing homeless are not online – they are. It is myth that people who seek help from community services are unwilling or unable to take part in community conversations about issues that affect them – they are.”

*Daniel Scoullar is a communications consultant with expertise in the homelessness and housing sector. He is a plenary speaker at the upcoming Homelessness Summit in Sydney on the 22 & 23 July and is running a workshop on creating an effective and measurable media plan. More information and contact details are available at or via or @_DanSc on Twitter.

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