Planned Parenthood is a powerhouse organization providing reproductive health to millions of Americans
Planned Parenthood is currently the largest U.S. provider of reproductive health care and offers a wide range of services including: cancer screening, HIV screening, counseling, contraception, abortion and more.
The amazing Margaret Sanger opened the country’s first birth-control clinic and founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. This became part of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942 and, as they say, the rest is history! Since then, Planned Parenthood has grown to over 820 clinics in the United States. Even so, the future of Planned Parenthood won’t be an easy one. With vicious attacks from opposition every day, Planned Parenthood is fighting hard to protect legal rights in the U.S.
Recently, we had the honor of being able to sit down with Emmy Bengtson, who manages Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political work on social media. As you’ll see, the passion she has for her work is tangible. Here’s what she had to say on Planned Parenthood’s amazing supporters, how she uses ActionSprout Actions, and the future of the organization.
ActionSprout (AS): How long have you managed social media communications and where did you get your start?
Emmy Bengtson (EB): I started off as a “new media” intern (that term seems so cute now) at the legendary Ms. Magazine fresh out of college in 2010, and got the most amazing crash course in using social media for good. Because Ms. shares an office with the Feminist Majority Foundation and it happened to be an election season, I also got to get my feet wet in using digital and social media for advocacy and politics, which is what I’ve been doing ever since. From there, I worked at a few other nonprofits with issues ranging from global women’s rights to immigration reform, and on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. After that, I came back to DC and started at Planned Parenthood, where I manage social media for advocacy and political work.
(AS): Tell us a bit about where you work. Why did you want to work with Planned Parenthood Action?
(EB): Why didn’t I want to work with Planned Parenthood Action?! Planned Parenthood has always been an organization close to my heart—I went to Planned Parenthood for basic health care as a teenager, have rallied with Planned Parenthood for reproductive rights, and saw PPAF’s (Planned Parenthood Action Fund) president, Cecile Richards, speak at a Women for Obama rally on the campaign, about how badly we need people in office at all levels who will protect our rights.
I think it’s rare to see an organization that is doing such amazing work on so many different levels: Providing critically important health care to millions of people who need it (and in many cases, have nowhere else to turn), changing a culture with actual, fact-based education on everything from sexuality to stigma, and fighting for reproductive health and rights from state legislatures to the White House. It’s pretty incredible. I’ve always been a feminist and someone who believes in the basic idea that women should have the right to control our own bodies and lives, and I also love social media, activism, politics and the whole shebang. This was a perfect fit.
(AS): The interest in reproductive rights seems to be growing. Why do you think that is?
(EB): I think, thanks to activists who came before us, a lot of Americans—especially women my age—believe that our right to be able to access the full range of reproductive health care is no longer up for debate. Not just the right to access a safe and legal abortion if we need one, but all basic health care: birth control, annual exams, cancer screenings and so on. It’s not a fringe idea that women want to and should be able to control our own bodies and reproductive lives and pursue education, careers, families—if and when we want them. And then we see politicians, like something out of a decade gone by, completely going against that progress.
In a lot of ways, I think it’s thanks to those politicians and their attacks that the interest in reproductive rights as an issue is growing. They’re the ones who have put it back in the spotlight. In 2011, I never would have thought I needed to defend Planned Parenthood until Congress tried to defund them, and millions of people poured out of the woodwork to stand up and say “nope”. It’s absolutely absurd that we should still be having to fight to hold our ground on these rights that we won decades ago, much less that we should even be talking about it at all. These old men are seriously trying to decide what health care I can or can’t access? In 2015—are you kidding me? But if they want to start that fight, let’s have that fight. That’s how I feel.
(AS): What do you wish other people knew about your nonprofit?
(EB): I think a lot of people have a misconception of Planned Parenthood as being kind of old school or stodgy, because it’s been around forever. That’s not how I see it, from the inside. My colleagues are all incredibly passionate, feisty, creative, smart people—and a lot of them are young and bring a lot of different perspectives to reproductive rights advocacy and organizing. There’s a lot of room for big, new ideas, things move quickly, and we’re always trying to find new ways that we can reach new people and make more change. Most days, my job feels more like being on a campaign than being at a big non-profit.
(AS): What do you think will change about PPA over the next five years?
(EB): For a long time, most of PP Action’s work was focused on the national level: what attacks were coming up in Congress, what was the president doing, etc. Now, more and more of the most important fights are happening in the states, and I think that will continue. I think the work is shifting to state legislatures, and PPFA and our affiliates in the states are fighting in the trenches to hold the line on reproductive rights and people’s access to health care. I think the importance of grassroots supporters, on-the-ground organizing, and finding new ways to engage those people at all levels is just going to grow.
(AS): How has your strategy / options about Facebook changed over time?
(EB): Because Facebook has reduced our ability to get a lot of eyes on our content, we have to be smarter about how we get people to share our message. Content has to be a lot more personal, urgent and informative in order for it to get the kind of engagement we want—we have to constantly be thinking of how to empower supporters to become satellites and spread the word about issues and campaigns we’re working on.
We have to be much more intentional about why we’re using Facebook—as a way of tapping into already existing, meaningful, personal social networks of people who share our values—rather than just using social media for the sake of using social media. And we have to bring something to the table: a strong voice, a meaningful way to take action and be engaged with these issues, and a way to feel like you’re actually making a difference. Otherwise, we’re just yelling into a void.
(AS): What do you find most challenging about your job and the cause you support?
(EB): The most challenging part about this work is just how relentless our opponents are. It actually takes my breath away sometimes to see the lengths anti-abortion politicians and groups will go to—inserting restrictions into totally unrelated legislation, coming up with new angles to restrict access, and just at a constant, incessant level of action in almost every state. We have to be incredibly fast, nimble, and smart to fight back, and we really need people to pay attention and to care enough to want to call these attacks out. Obviously, a lot of my job is about informing people and giving them the tools to fight back and protect women’s rights, and it can be just a ton for our audience to deal with. I can understand how for our audience, it can be really overwhelming and discouraging. But overall, I am constantly amazed by how fierce and unflappable reproductive rights advocates are—and more of them show up every single day. It shows that this is a cause worth fighting for, and that we’re on the right side of history. I have no doubt about that.
(AS): Tell us a bit about your Facebook Page (What’s the audience like, what kind of content do they enjoy the most, how often do you post?)
(EB): Our Facebook fans are AMAZING. We literally have folks who hang out on our Page every single day, interact with every post, and are powerful ambassadors for us and this movement. They’re a real community. In general, it’s an audience that really knows their stuff, and cares about the whole range of issues in our space: not just abortion access and birth control, but also sex ed, equal pay, health care reform, feminism, LGBT rights, etc. And they’re sharp and informed on all these issues—the content they engage with and share the most is content that will help inform their friends, push back against misconceptions, and make cultural change. We try to post about a diverse range of issues and always try to bring a unique, values-driven perspective, and that’s what I think makes our audience come back and engage with us.
(AS): How do you use social Actions, from ActionSprout, compared to traditional form-based actions on your website?
(EB): We’ve been using ActionSprout when something really big happens—whether it’s a terrible new bill being introduced in Congress or someone denigrating the word “feminist”—and we really want to give our audience something to do about it, fast. It can be time-consuming to launch actions, and ActionSprout is a super-quick tool—both for us to launch, and for people to take action. We can set it up in minutes, and for users, it’s a single click without leaving Facebook, and they can make their voice heard and join our community.
(AS): Tell us about a successful Action. Can you tell us what went into creating the Action?
(EB): We had an action recently in response to a Fox News host making some outrageously offensive comments about campus sexual assault that were just the definition of victim blaming. We wanted—and felt pretty sure that our audience would also want—to send a message not just to Fox News, but also to society at large that victim-blaming is unacceptable. We took the quote and asked folks to sign on and tell Fox News to stop blaming victims, and our audience responded really strongly to it.
(AS): What did you learn from this success more broadly? Is there anything you do differently now?
(EB): I think the most important thing is always to move fast. For better or worse, the media cycle moves incredibly quickly, and when something grabs people, they want to be able to do something about it right away. The Fox News action, and a lot of our other most successful actions, have been successful because it was up right away.
(AS): What did you learn about your audience from this success?
(EB): Not just from this action, but from our audience and from this work in general: All of these issues—from reproductive rights to consent—are intertwined. It’s all about the idea that every person deserves to have full control over their own body, safety, and well-being. Our audience gets that, and they’re willing to learn about and get involved in issues even if they’re not the main issue that brought them to our page. I think that’s key, also, to an intersectional approach to this work and building a coalition of people who are all on the same side. We can’t have true reproductive freedom if we only ever work on protecting access to birth control and safe and legal abortion—we also need to end different forms of violence, promote consent and fact-based sex education, ensure economic security and opportunity for all people so they can truly have access to the health care they need, and more.
(AS): How did you measure the success of this action? What metrics did you focus on?
(EB): First, and most importantly, the engagement rate on this action was exceptionally high: of the people who saw the post and clicked through to the action page, a high percentage of them were moved to actually take action, which is, of course, the goal. I also watched the number of people who shared the post (showing they were moved by the content enough to share it with their own friends) and the conversation that popped up around it. Especially for an action that was a bit outside of our wheelhouse (and therefore something of an experiment to see whether our audience would respond well), this told us it was a success.
(AS): Do you have any advice for other nonprofits based on your learning?
(EB): Understanding the types of topics your audience will respond to is a key way to understand what your brand really is. Talking about other issues in our general advocacy area and getting a great level of engagement with them is an important way to reach new supporters—again, maybe people who aren’t as fired up about abortion access but people who really want to support efforts to expand comprehensive sex ed, or fight rape culture, or learn more about feminism.
And we push our audience sometimes to consider issues or perspectives they may not be familiar with, or even agree with 100%. The more you can build that coalition, the wider your support network is. But, you still have to have a specific and unique voice, and know who your people are—we never dilute our central personality and mission for the sake of clicks or viral content, and we’re selective about the type of content we share. We have a really strong personality and an even stronger community, and we stay true to them.
Key Social Media Takeaways:
The news cycle moves quickly so be ready. Actions and content related to current events engage and reach more people. But to take advantage of this you have to be fast to react. As Emmy said, Actions are easy to set, create and only take a few minutes from start to finish. Better yet, it’s also fast and easy for supports to complete your Action while staying on Facebook.
Facebook’s decrease in reach can make you better at your job. Okay, I know this seems like a mistake, but it’s true. To reach the same number of people you did before, your content has to be much more personal, urgent, and informative. This kind of content better connects with your audience and they become much more engaged. This change is forcing you to up your game and in the long run form deeper, stronger relationships with supporters.
Supporters share and engage with content they want to be seen interacting with. Emmy put it beautifully: empower supporters to become satellites and spread the word about issues and campaigns we’re working on. This helps your cause and helps your supporters to be a source of information to their network as well. In the end, everyone wins