Going viral – is social media an effective campaigning tool?

Going viral – is social media an effective campaigning tool?

What are your views about the effectiveness of social media as a campaign tool? Read the final part of my three part interview with One in Four editor and Social Spider development director, Mark Brown, to get his take on where we’re at with social media and what the future holds.

Social media suicide reporting guidelines are a great example of influencing a live debate on Twitter.  I remember re-tweeting them when Gary Speed died but hadn’t realised you developed them. I’m interested in how this came about

When Alexander McQueen killed himself, Chris O’Sullivan (@mentalcapital) thought that it would be good to do some Twitter suicide reporting guidelines in the manner of the Samaritan’s excellent press ones.  We spent an hour knocking something up over email, got it online and then injected it into the various hashtagged conversations, asking people to read them and retweet them.

Given an event that people were discussing that couldn’t have been foreseen, we moved our arses quickly to do something useful and helpful.  There’s amazing scope for this kind of reactive agenda altering on Twitter.  You can directly affect how people think of something as it’s happening. 

Tell me a bit about campaigns using social media which have impressed you

I think one of the greatest examples of boundary fu**ing is the Broken of Britain campaign and its Responsible Reform #spartacusreport. Disabled people and supporters have come together entirely through social media and developed an effect way of responding to government plans.  I think this is the first truly social media age government and it’s been noticeable how susceptible they have been to disruption from citizen journalists and activists.  Basically people who have a voice where ten years ago there would have been no space for that voice to exist or to be amplified so effectively. 

A group of non-journalists have broken major news stories and got them into the mainstream of debate.  A group of non-professional campaigners with only crowdsourced funds have the ear of ‘the establishment’.  It’s social media that’s created that disruption of boundaries, that weight of unexpected voices and actions. 

It’s social media that’s allowed that transgression of the traditional order of things.

For me that’s where exciting things are happening and it’s a million miles from the communications team handling a single corporate Twitter account.  It’s also miles away from ‘service user consultation’ or meeting with your clients once every six months to discuss what you’re doing on their behalf.  I think medical professionals have to accept that to not engage with this shift is not preventing these changes, it’s just not taking part in them. Pandora’s box is opened and hope is still the prize.

The Time to Change campaign didn’t initially focused on social media but now has a massive Twitter following and likes on its Facebook page. I’d love to hear your views about this campaign and about the relative impact of social media compared to their other activities?

I don’t think it’s so much sites as the people or organisations using those sites.  I’m quite into the idea of social media ambassadors, a phrase that has been bandied about a bit but which hasn’t really stuck.  In the real world diplomatic terms an ambassador is someone who represents the interests of one country from a base within another country.  They ease and facilitate relations between their home country and the country they’re based in and also support their fellow foreign nationals in their dealings with the country they find themselves in.  They operate from an embassy, a literal bit of home on foreign soil.

I think the idea of situating an embassy and ambassadors for mental health in the ‘foreign’ countries of media platforms is an idea with mileage.  In many respects I see Time to Change as having moved into the role, representing the interests of people with mental health difficulties in social media spaces.  They’re pushing out positive mental health messages in the social media countries where people are, the equivalent of an ambassador representing the national interests of a country to the country in which they are placed. 

As such they are acting very much on a macro level – the equivalent level to matter of national interest.  They aren’t so much acting on a micro level, providing support, guidance and a sympathetic ear to their fellow ‘mental health’ nationals.  Time to Change is, after all, a campaign rather than an organisation and as such focuses on doing stuff on behalf of the whole body of people with mental health difficulties rather than for individual people with mental health difficulties.

I think mental health charities and social enterprises have woken up to the potential of social media to massively amplify messages far more quickly than NHS services have. 

The dominant model seems to be: get people with mental health difficulties to share their experience, package that into a shareable form, bang it out through social media to start conversations.  This is great, but I’m not sure if it really values people with mental health difficulties as anything other than stories that are ammunition in a war against stigma. 

One of the challenges that the current generation of people with mental health difficulties who are involved in doing stuff around mental health are facing, is that having come to doing stuff as ‘service users’ or ‘people with mental health difficulties’ they find it very difficult to escape from that pigeon hole.  They, in other words, find it hard to move from being beneficiaries of mental health organisations to peers of mental health organisations.

This is noticeable when it comes to the large number of notable bloggers and writers on mental health, who still work mostly for free on writing jobs for major campaigns, providing excellent ammunition in the war against stigma.  They are in effect treated as an asset to the campaign, but as an asset that can’t realise value for itself in that they can’t get paid for doing what is, in effect, a professional job.

I think Time to Change in particular, realised very quickly that there is no narrow casting in social media space and that they couldn’t just address people without experience of mental health difficulty when the people most likely to amplify their messages were people with experience of mental health difficulty themselves.  They couldn’t say ‘well, that bit of material wasn’t aimed at you people with mental health difficulties’.  I think they learned very quickly that their campaign would be far more successful in social media space if its beneficiaries were also its partners. 

I think there is a natural next step, though, which is to realise that people with mental health difficulties do need to be able to realise the value of their assets and actually get paid for the level of support they provide to organisations who still, quite possibly by accident, regard them as beneficiaries or campaign assets rather than peers and partners.

A final note from me

I’d like to say a bit huge thank you to Mark for sharing his time and knowledge with me (and now you) – I’ve learnt a lot from our discussion and, whilst some of his comments about corporate NHS Twitter accounts have made me wince a bit, it’s only because I broadly agree with his take on them. I think the more people using and working in mental health services begin using and interacting with social media, the more interesting things will become, and the more traditional barriers will not be able to be maintained.

We’d both be very interested to hear your reaction to what Mark has to say and we’ll both respond to any comments you make. We’ve really enjoyed our conversation and would like to expand it further with you too. 

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