Ladd is responsible for developing and managing a wide range of communications activities in support of his organization’s overall mission, including their Facebook presence. Running a Facebook Page on gun violence prevention is no easy task, as open conversation can feel unsafe when pro-gun rights folks chime in. Yet each and every day, Ladd and his team are working to maintain the safe and open public space they have painstakingly created from the ground up.
We got the chance to sit down with him to talk social strategy, how he keeps his digital community safe, and how to foster an engaged audience with two-way dialog.
Here’s what he has to say.
(ActionSprout): How long have you managed social media communications and where did you get your start?
(Ladd Everitt): I started managing social media after coming to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in May 2006. When I first arrived, we had no Facebook Page, no Twitter account, and a very rudimentary website. I basically had to learn a lot of this stuff on the fly, but it was worth it, because new media tools give gun violence prevention advocates an asymmetrical advantage in our struggle against the gun lobby that we otherwise wouldn’t have.
(AS): Tell us a bit about where you work. Why did you want to work with The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence?
(LE): The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) is one of the oldest gun violence prevention organizations. We were founded in 1974, originally as a coalition of religious groups. We have since expanded to include many different types of national organizations—47 in total.
We are not the largest gun violence prevention (GVP) group. We have about 10 full-time staffers, who are incredibly dedicated to this issue, and we get a lot done. We pride ourselves on developing innovative strategies to move the movement forward despite legislative gridlock. We are also the only GVP group who welcomes conversation about the Constitution and the meaning of the Second Amendment. We have been the leaders in exposing the “Insurrectionist Idea” that is promoted by the National Rifle Association.
I wanted to work with the CSGV because gun violence prevention work became my passion after I graduated from college. In 1993, there was a terrible mass shooting on a Long Island Railroad rush hour train in the community where I grew up. It woke a lot of people up in that community to the fact that gun violence can touch anyone. I eventually ended up attending the Million Mom March in the National Mall in 2000 (I had moved to Washington, D.C. for graduate school), and then became involved as a volunteer in their D.C. Chapter. I eventually became the President of that Chapter and started working with a gentleman at the CSGV, who one day informed me that he was leaving for another job. I interviewed for his position and got it. I’ve been blessed now for nine years to work on a cause that I truly believe in.
(AS): What do you wish other people knew about your organization?
(LE): That we really care about the work that we are doing. We honestly want to save precious lives that are being squandered because of our weak gun laws. We are not doing this simply to collect a paycheck. This issue is personal to us. We have two people on our staff whose loved ones have been shot (Lori Haas and Christian Heyne), and we look at the larger community of victims and survivors of gun violence as family. If you support the CSGV, you can be confident that you will get maximum value out of your time (or money). We are in this for the long haul, and we will not stop until this country has sensible gun laws on the books that protect families.
(AS): The interest in gun regulation and the potential for violence seems to be growing, with many fighting on either side. Why do you think that is?
(LE): A lot of it has to do with the Sandy Hook tragedy. You see tremendous energy on both sides of the issue after that terrible event. On the NRA side, because of narcissism and fear (“You can bet they’re coming for your gun now!” and other propaganda). On our side, because there are a lot of fathers and mothers who now realize they cannot stand this anymore. They will not accept sending their son/daughter to school with a bulletproof backpack as “The New Normal”.
(AS): What do you think will change about The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence over the next five years?
(LE): That’s a good question. I think we’re currently settling into a model that we’re very comfortable with. We don’t want to be the biggest GVP group, but we do want to continue to expand our reach, both through our digital presence and on the ground in states where we are pursuing policy campaigns (e.g. we are currently promoting a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” policy across the country). We also want to continue to make headway in our effort to win the war of values with the NRA. Ultimately, we have to connect with Americans on a deeper level. That means sometimes turning away from statistics and talking to people about the democratic values that connect them to this issue. That will motivate them to truly become engaged.
(AS): How has your strategy/options about Facebook changed over time?
(LE): When we first launched our Page, I really had no idea what I was doing! It was just me and I was basically experimenting at that point. Today, our Page has multiple moderators (and designers), and we are much more sophisticated in the way we go about our work. There is much more attention to the metrics on any given post, and I’ve also learned (although I’m by no means perfect) that you have to engage your followers and not always talk at them. That means showing them the human side of your work and soliciting their opinion/experiences. It has to be a two-way dialog and we are very proud that we’ve built a Page where the conversation is robust.
One thing you have to understand about the gun issue is that there are very few “safe” spaces for gun violence prevention advocates to talk about this issue. So often, our supporters are actively harassed online by pro-gun activists who want to intimidate and silence them. It can get very depressing and disheartening to comment about this issue online and get spammed by 100 pro-gunners saying the ugliest things you can imagine. If there is any “genius” in our Facebook Page, it is that we have finally created a safe space for our people to voice their opinions and be heard. We do this by immediately and permanently banning anyone our Page who does not actually “like” our organization. It has worked, and beautifully. We are creating more confident, engaged activists. They are being empowered and emboldened.
(AS): Tell us a bit about your Facebook Page (What’s the audience like, what kind of content do they enjoy, how often do you post?)
(LE): Currently, we are approaching 123,000 likes on Facebook. Our supporters are very engaged with our Page (likes, shares, comments). The majority of our fans are women (61%), the overwhelming majority are American, and many live in major cities. In terms of the content they most enjoy, the visual/design aspect of it is so important. To this day, our most successful content is political cartoons and fairly simple memes with powerful messages. In terms of how often we post, recent meta-analysis of Facebook data is showing it’s not as important as we previously thought, but that 1–3 hours between posts is best. I’m sad to say that at CSGV, we frequently violate that rule! There’s just so much important news to share and again, the engagement level on our Page is consistent and terrific.
(AS): What organizational goals do your Facebook efforts support?
(LE): Most of them, really. Facebook is a wonderful public education tool for starters. It helps us get out a host of information about the impact of gun violence, the weakness of our gun laws, and the campaigns we are working on. It’s also a terrific organizing tool and we frequently encourage our supporters to take actions, while taking full advantage of the ability to customize posts by targeting folks from a specific state/city. Social norming is also a huge aspect of this struggle to save lives (think of how views on smoking have changed over the years), and Facebook is a wonderful tool for that messaging. Probably the only thing we do where Facebook is a not a huge help is fundraising, although we do some of that on our Page as well.
(AS): What kind of social calls to action do you use?
(LE): They are pretty varied. Primarily, it would be action on legislation at the Federal and state level (i.e. asking people to email/call/meet with lawmakers). It might be asking people to contact a prosecutor to ask them to bring a case against a negligent parent whose child found their gun and hurt themselves or someone else. Sometimes we’ll ask folks to use a profile pic or cover pic we’ve designed to promote a campaign. And sadly, we frequently ask our supporters to join us in reporting threats we have received or become aware of. With all these requests, we try to make things as simple as possible by providing basic contact information and a talking point or two.
(AS): Tell us about a recent successful social campaign or series of posts.
(LE): Pro-gun activists constantly spread the false idea that even the most modest gun violence prevention measure is a step toward total confiscation of all privately-held firearms. Frequently, when they make this point, they conclude it with a threat (“Come and take them”, “Molon labe”, “From my cold dead hands”, etc.).
We’re long past tired of it and we decided to make a series of memes that drill down to the real reason behind their confiscation conspiracy theory and threats. So we took actual photos of pro-gun activists standing in their homes armed to the teeth (that they had posted publicly to FB) and paired them with the text, “You know why they fantasize about gun confiscation all the time? Because no one would want to visit them otherwise.”
This series of memes has been extremely well-received and is just one example of our efforts at social norming. Now, rather than feeling scared about such threats, our supporters can have a laugh about it, and feel more confident engaging in discussions with bullies who really are just desperately seeking attention and respect.
We try to strike a chord with our followers by saying things that they have been thinking for a long time, but have never seen voiced. The cliché would be “speaking truth to power” (of the NRA, and well-armed and angry pro-gun activists). Courage is infectious. So is honesty. We monitor comments on our Page very closely and one thing people know they are always going to get from us is straight talk. We are not afraid to say what needs to be said. We never want them to catch us playing politics.
(AS): How did you measure this success? What metrics do you focus on?
(LE): Certainly, the traditional ones (e.g. likes, shares, RTs, favorites, etc.), but we also pay close attention to the discussion on our posts. Our goal is always to embolden and empower our supporters. We look closely to see if our supporters are getting our message and putting it into action. We have been able to completely reframe the debate about “guns and democracy”, and that is something we are proud of.
(AS): Do you have any advice for other nonprofits based on your success?
(LE): It’s certainly going to be different depending on the issue you work on. Few issues are as contentious and vitriolic as gun regulation, and that fact really informs our strategies. My main piece of advice would be to level with people. Make them feel like there is an actual human being at the helm of your social media tools, and not someone who is just reading polls and metrics. And don’t try to come off as perfect. Own up to your mistakes. Given the frequency with which we post, we’re all going to make them. Sincerity (and even self-deprecation) can go a long way.
As one final example, not long ago we made a “Mean Tweets” video with our staffers reading actual tweets that had been directed at us by pro-gun activists. People loved it, both because it was funny, but also because it showed we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Several pro-gun activists even commented on it and said how great they thought it was that we could have a laugh at our own expense. Stuff like that has a way of cutting through division and rhetoric. Never be afraid of letting a bit of your own personality leak into the work you’re doing in new media. Your supporters will appreciate it.
- Facebook is a great tool for social norming. Sometimes causes aren’t just about driving change and passing bills. They’re about changing social norms and the way people view a subject. Ladd put it perfectly when he referenced smoking. The way we view smoking today is completely different than how we viewed it just 20 years ago. Facebook is a great platform to drive this type of change.
- Treat your fans as people and remember you’re a person too. It’s easy to get caught up in your day-to-day activities and start treating your fans as faceless masses of people. It’s also easy to forget you’re a human and start turning out content like a robot. It’s good to take a break now and again to remember these things.
- “Discussion” is a metric. While fuzzier than post likes or the number of shares, the level and quality of discussion on your Page can be a very important metric. Along the same lines as engagement, discussion—and the sharing of ideas and feelings on your posts—is what drives your mission at the end of the day. Don’t post like for like, post for discussion.