Case Study: Legislative Advocacy Via Social Media: SB 1712

For those attending the Social Media 101 workshop at the Taking Action for Animals conference this weekend, or anyone else who might be interested, I’m providing a thorough case study of Oklahoma Senate Bill 1712 and how the Central Oklahoma Humane Society used social media tools to get this bill passed into law.

Disclaimer: You might want to grab a snack…this is pretty long!

SB 1712 is the Commercial Pet Breeder Bill, also known as the “Black Market Breeder” bill. Its purpose was, overall, to make it more difficult for irreputable “puppy mills” to operate in the state of Oklahoma.

Introduced in January 2010 by Rep. Mike Jackson and Senator Patrick Anderson in the Oklahoma State Senate, the bill had two main facets. The first was to require anyone with 11 or more breeding female dogs to register with a state licensing board. This would subject them to licensing inspections. They would also have to pay a license fee on an annual basis, which would generate income for the state.

The bill, if passed, would also create a “Commercial Pet Breeder Board” which would serve to administrate the licensing and inspection, and would also compile a database and registry website which would operate as sort of a better business bureau for breeders (a BBBB if you will). Breeders could register online, and members of the public could research breeders online, rate them, etc. If someone initiated a search for a breeder that was not listed, it would trigger an alert to the board, which would locate and inspect the breeder. Since most irreputable breeders would be unlikely to voluntarily register, this would be the way to find most of them—from the public, searching for information about the source of animals they had purchased or were considering purchasing online.

Read lots more about this bill here.

From the very beginning of SB1712, the Central Oklahoma Humane Society had been involved in getting it passed. This required us to mobilize a large number of people, all across the state, with recurring frequency, to take various specific actions, often with only a day’s or so notice.

Social media was instrumental in this venture and getting this bill passed. Without social media, we could not have reached people in a timely fashion nor enabled them to easily take action and given them the information they needed to do so.

The first step was getting people to contact members of the Senate Appropriations Committee; the bill would have to make it out of this committee before it could be heard in the full Senate.

We published blogs (and corresponding updates on all social media sites directing people back to the blogs) with information about the bill—in plain English, as well as providing the full text of the bill—and gave the name and contact information of committee members. We urged everyone to contact committee members and ask them to support the bill, but especially people who were constituents of those committee members. We only received about 2 days notice before the committee was going to review the bill, so we had to mobilize quickly.

Keys: we followed up with people whenever they posted questions. We gave them answers. We found out if we didn’t know the answer. We said thank you. And we followed up—when the committee met, our president was there, texting me updates, which I posted on the blog and social media. So they were able to tune in almost live and see the result of their efforts play out in real time. The bill passed out of committee, so we thanked them again!

We then urged them to contact the committee members and THANK them for voting in support of the bill. Those that did not support it, we encouraged people to ask them (politely) to reconsider and support the bill when it came before the full senate.

Next, we knew the bill would be going to the full senate. We had no idea when this would be—it could be the next day or in the next few weeks.

We were sure to follow up again on our blogs and social media and tell people what the next steps would be. Most people just are not at all familiar with the legislative process, so making sure they understood what was coming next was key to keeping them engaged and not getting bored with the whole thing. We explained that it would be within a few weeks that we would need them to take another action—this time to contact their specific senator—and we told them how to find their Senator and how to contact him or her. We also provided a sample letter and talking points, but encouraged people to use their own words when contacting legislators.

Over the next couple of weeks, we waited and we posted other types of updates, but we kept people in the loop by saying every now and then that we were still waiting, too. Finally we got word that the bill would be heard by the full senate the next day. We had no time to lose!

We immediately wrote a blog that reiterated the information we’d already posted: who to contact, how to do it, suggested talking points, etc. We exploded in social media, asking for people to not only contact their senator but to help us spread the word. This time, people from all over the state could be involved, contacting their own senators. We needed all hands on deck!

Keys: Again, we were present at the hearing to post near-live updates as the votes were coming in. We also provided a link where people could listen in live (the Oklahoma legislature live streams its meetings). We kept the excitement going; we were not at all sure that this bill would pass the full senate, so we were nervous—and this turned out to be a great way to keep people engaged. Those people who sent an email or letter, or made a phone call or visit, they were very invested in the outcome of this bill. They wanted to know as soon as possible what was happening and what they could continue.

SB 1712 passed out of the full Senate, so it was time for it to head to the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee. It had been several months at this point, and we didn’t know when the house committee would get to hear the bill. Again, we kept up with other news, tasks, promotions, etc. via social media, but every now and then we’d give people an update on the bill. People often drop in to check on things infrequently; we had different people asking every few days, “So what’s going on with that bill? Did it pass?” To avoid posting the same information over and over again, we’d just say something like “still waiting to be heard in the house committee—click here for the latest updates!” and we’d add a link to the blog post with the latest information.

Social media seems to be about groups of people, but at its heart it is all about individual expression, and every individual who makes a comment or asks a question is connected to one or more groups. Family, friends, social organizations, churches, clubs, workplaces…all can be places where that person can access MORE individuals who will embrace our cause and recruit others. This is the very definition of “viral,” and it’s what every organization hopes will happen with their message or cause!

So a few weeks later, we heard that the bill was going to go before the house committee the next day. We had been asking people all along to contact committee members and their own representatives, but we renewed our push for eleventh-hour pleas.

Because many people don’t really understand the difference between house and senate, representatives and senators, we had to make sure to direct people to the correct person each time. For example, many people were contacting our federal legislators, not the state legislators. It’s easy to get confused, so we wanted to make sure people had easy access to the correct contact information and could contact us for help if they didn’t understand who to contact.

We knew our “competition,” as it were—the breeder lobbies and AKC groups, to name a few—were very actively campaigning to legislators, just as we were—so it was critical to show at least equal support for the bill as they were displaying opposition.

Once again, our network of supporters stayed the course and delivered letters, emails, phone calls and visits. The bill passed out of the house committee and then was on its way to the full house of representatives. The pattern of events is hopefully becoming predictable now: updated our supporters, thanked them, informed them of next steps and gave examples of what to do next.

Once we got word the bill would be heard in the full House, we deployed the masses again, encouraging everyone in the state to contact their own representatives. Again they delivered. The bill passed out of the full house of representatives, but with a few minor amendments, which meant it had to go back to the Senate for approval.

As soon as we had the news, we let people know that we had once again succeeded (with their help!) but that there was another hurdle to overcome. We explained why the bill had to go back to the senate, what the amendments were, and answered a lot of questions. We were always patient, always helpful, because it is our belief that when people are fully informed and completely understand situations, they feel much more ownership; they are fully empowered to take action. It becomes THEIR mantle, their cause—they’re not just doing something because we asked them. If we relied on that sense of obligation to us over and over again, we would have lost a lot of supporters due to attrition and boredom throughout the journey of this bill. But we didn’t—in fact, the numbers of supporters kept growing!

After SB 1712 successfully got its amendments approved in the full senate, we thought victory was ours at last! Of course we spread the word and celebrations ensued online, with much gratitude on our part. But then we got some last-minute bad news.

Any member of the Senate had the right to call for a recount within 3 days of the bill passing. This basically means that someone who deeply opposed a bill that passed can call for a recall, and then he or she has 48 hours to convince his or her colleagues to change their votes.

Senator Jon Gumm did exactly this. And we knew he would exercise every resource he had to get his colleagues to change their votes—enough to overturn the passage of the bill.

So we had the very difficult and disappointing task of going back and telling our celebrating supporters that it was NOT actually over after all, we were NOT yet victorious.

We explained the process of what had happened (without ever vilifying Senator Gumm, as tempting as it was). We explained that even if they’d already contacted their senator, they needed to again, and if they hadn’t already, then now it was more important than ever. The only thing that would sway these senators from changing their votes if they were ambivalent on the issue would be the collective voice of their constituency.

The response was fantastic. Our supporters, having had a brief period of celebration at what they thought was victory, were enraged at this turn of events and contacted their senators with renewed energy, making last-minute empassioned pleas to continue their support of the bill.

Legislators reported receiving an average of 1200 calls and emails that day urging them to support SB 1712. They were amazed at the outpouring of support for this legislation.

So on May 7, 2010, SB 1712 was passed into law in the state of Oklahoma. Our governor is now in the process of appointing members of the Commercial Pet Breeder Board and things hope to be up and running by December of 2010.

NONE of this would have been possible without social media. Certainly, political change has occurred for many years without Facebook, Twitter and blogs—but we could not have generated the support we needed in such volume, with such geographical reach in such short time frames without social media. Each person felt empowered, through his or her own Facebook page or Twitter account, to be an activist. This is the power of social media—that it allows people to be engaged in ways and at levels they never would have been in the past. People who don’t consider themselves “political” or “activists” are taking action because it’s easy and accessible, and it’s in a medium they have embraced.

If you want people to carry a message for you, you have to carry it to where they are.

General notes

During all these months of the progression of this bill, we had a great deal of activity on our blog posts. We discovered that many opponents of the bill (breeders, etc.) were actively following our blog because it was the most current source of information on the status and location of the bill. We were always very careful to remember that anyone, anywhere, could be reading our blog, and we maintained a professional tone throughout. We simply presented the facts and hoped they would speak for themselves.

Censorship was something we kept in mind, but didn’t ever have to enact, because what we discovered is that our audience regulated itself. Some irate opponents of the bill posted very inflammatory comments about “animal rights nuts,” and totally inaccurate information about the bill (there was even a false copy of the “language” of the bill circulating at one point, with portions that implied that agents of the state could raid any house and arrest any person they felt might be breeding dogs, without any cause or warrant!). But we didn’t have to swoop in, remove the comment or be heavy-handed, because other people regulated those extreme comments (and there were some from either direction—some crazy “rescue people,” too!).

We have found this to be the case pretty much with every topic we’ve ever addressed. Even if someone posts something pretty crazy in response, the median normalcy of the group conscience will regulate itself. I believe this is very important to mention, because it is my strong belief that censorship destroys the credibility of an organization in social media, where transparency is an important standard.

In all situations where we wanted people to contact legislators, we provided the contact information for those legislators. We also provided a one-button email link in all our blogs, where people could click on one button and it would auto-populate a new email message with all the legislators’ email addresses already in the “to” field. We made it EASY for people to help.

We also asked very specifically what to do and when to do it. Specificity is key when asking for anything: money, items, actions.

It might be quite bewildering and you might think it’s difficult to coordinate all messages across all the different social media platforms. I can explain the strategy that worked best for me. Our blog was the central information headquarters; it’s where I posted everything first and where the most information was contained. All the social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.—all steered people back to the blog where they could get more information. I can write a 1000 word blog update, but I don’t want to put that whole thing on Facebook. So I simply mention it on Facebook, with a couple of pertinent points (and attention-grabbers) and provide a link back to the blog post.

I also ASK people each time to go read more on the blog. It’s surprising how often people really do take an action simply because someone asked them to.

On ocassions where we had video, we posted the video on Youtube and then embedded it in the blog post or elsewhere on our web site (like our home page “news” section).

Summary and key take home points:

  • Keep people engaged through frequent updates.
  • Be transparent—provide all the information and let people make up their own minds.
  • When you ask people to take action:
    • Be specific: what to say, who to contact, in what time frame, how much to donate, what type of XYZ you need donated, etc.
    • THANK them after they do it.
    • Be responsive—answer questions and help people to do what you’ve asked them.
    • Follow up—tell them the results of their participation, good or bad, and tell them what they can do next.
  • Let digital crowds (commenters) regulate themselves. Set a policy. (ours is we will only remove comments that contain profanity, or that directly attack an individual)
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” (you can always find out and get back to them)
  • Customer service applies online, too. Don’t type anything you wouldn’t say in person.

Get in Touch!

I'm available via most social media, so drop me a line! I'll answer your questions and I really look forward to hearing from you and helping if I can!

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