Grassroots Advocacy and PR – An Interview with Shonali Burke

As the holiday season begins in full swing, we think back to what we are thankful for and how we can help others.  For those working in grassroots advocacy campaigns, helping raise awareness of how to help others is something that they do all year.

Grassroots Campaigns have been around as long as the PR industry.  Today, there are more advocacy campaigns than ever.  I live in Washington DC, home to thousands of associations and non-profit organizations both on a national and international level.

In the 15 years that I’ve been working in the media industry, I’ve met my fair share of incredible PR professionals who are so passionate about what they do and who they do work for.   Back in 2005, I met Shonali Burke, who at the time was working at Ruder Finn in DC.  Shonali and I have stayed friends.  Today, she is running her own consulting business as well as teaching at John Hopkins University.   She also runs the very popular #measurePR Twitter Chat every other Tuesday.

At this year’s PRSA International Conference in Orlando, I got a chance to catch up with Shonali at the PR Newswire booth.

Here’s a little deeper interview with Shonali.

Q. Please tell us a little about your background and how you got into working with Grassroots Advocacy and PR Campaigns?

A. I’ve been working in PR ever since I moved to the US in 2000, and for a while before (never mind how long!). Initially my work was very publicity-focused, but I found that I really enjoyed ways of incorporating community and grassroots outreach into my work. What I’ve seen over the last few years, as digital and social media have really come into the limelight, is that these are terrific platforms with which to do this – you can reach your end-audience directly, building and energizing online communities to really become your advocates.

Q: Tell us a little about the campaign you are working on right now?

A: I’ve been working with USA for UNHCR since early 2011 on the digital and social aspects of its Blue Key campaign. Since the organization works to raise awareness and support for Geneva-based UNHCR‘s efforts to help refugees, it came up with the concept of a $5 pin or pendant in the shape of a blue key, since the key to a home is what you and I have, but refugees don’t, through no fault of their own. So by purchasing and then wearing their Blue Key pin or pendant, people can really spread the message about how critical the refugee crisis is – more than 43 million people around the world are refugees or forcibly displaced! – since the key sparks curiosity and conversation. Our goal is to get 6,000 keys out to US residents by December 31, 2011.

Q: For the particular campaign that you are working on right now, what are some of the unique tactics that you are trying to raise awareness?

A: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen how critical advocates can be to any campaign, and social media gives us the opportunity to reach them directly. So the heart of our outreach lies with the “Blue Key Champions” – people who are cause-passionate and active online, and willing to share the message of the Blue Key with their communities. We ask them to purchase a key and then commit to blogging about the campaign, but over and above that, whatever they do is completely optional.

What has started happening is that as the Champions get more invested in the campaign, they want to do more. So in June they asked to do a #bluekey “tweetathon,” where several of them tweeted about the campaign for an hour each, including the hashtag and interspersing their tweets with the call to action of getting a key, from 9 am – 9 pm ET. This worked really well to the point where traffic to the site shot up 169% over the previous high point and more than half the key purchases for that week were generated by the tweetathon. We’ve now done two Tweetathons, the most recent being on Nov. 17th where we sold 159 keys, which we think is a very respectable number considering that this all volunteer.  The next Tweetathon is will be on Dec. 12th.  Just follow #bluekey that day to participate

In addition, several of the Champions are spearheading Blue Key tweetups or meetups in their cities, so that they can connect with each other offline, as well as share the message of the Blue Key further. Those are probably two of my favorite parts of the campaign.

Q: Are you mixing in traditional PR tactics into your campaign, if so – what tactics and how are they working?

A: When USA for UNHCR created the Blue Key website and began the campaign, it did embark on some traditional media tactics, such as an announcement news release that was issued via PR Newswire.  Also, in April 2011, Khalid Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner and refugee advocate participated in a morning drive radio tour focusing on the issue. However, I was not involved in those initiatives and my work focuses on digital outreach, social media and taking the online community offline.

Q: You’re operating on a shoe-string budget here – as many grassroots organizations do – so how are you making sure that you are getting the most bang for the buck when you do any kind of spending?

A: Good question! We look at what we’re spending very, very carefully and don’t spend any more than we have to. This is partly why we rely so much on our Champions. What we do spend is a lot of time – time in building those relationships, and time in maintaining them. So the costs incurred are mostly time, since our expenses are relatively few.

Q: How are search and social fitting into your campaign?

A: Search and social are very important to us. We created tracking links prior to our digital outreach so that we could see what, if any, impact our outreach was having on our overall goal of getting more people to buy keys. Over time, we’ve seen that the Champions’ blog posts, sharing on Facebook and Twitter have all generated tremendous traffic to the site, as well as in getting people to purchase keys, particularly the tweetathon as I discussed above. In addition, prior to the onset of our digital outreach you wouldn’t have found the Blue Key site on the first few pages of Google SERPs. Now, however, you can.

Q: What advice would you give to others who are working in Grass Roots Advocacy PR Campaigns in regards to measurement?

A: Identify at the outset what it is you’re trying to achieve in a quantifiable and time-bound manner. For the Blue Key campaign, for example, it’s 6,000 keys by December 31. Everyone’s goals will be different, but the clearer you are about your end-goal, the more focused you will be in planning how to get there, and then implementing your plan. I’d also say that you shouldn’t get lost in measuring the tools, e.g. how many Twitter followers do you have, etc. You can certainly track numbers like those, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. Remember that these are just tools that you have to use in a smart manner to achieve your results, and those results are what you should be focusing on.

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