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This article was published on March 18, 2011

Inside the social media strategy of a progressive think tank

Inside the social media strategy of a progressive think tank
Simon Owens
Story by

Simon Owens

Simon Owens is the Director of PR at JESS3. You can read his blog, follow him on Twitter, fan him on Facebook, or contact him at simon.blogg Simon Owens is the Director of PR at JESS3. You can read his blog, follow him on Twitter, fan him on Facebook, or contact him at [email protected]

Earlier this month, the blog Think Progress, a media outlet funded by the Center for American Progress, published a post asking its readers to “Join Our Effort To Expose The Billionaire Brothers’ Far-Right Agenda.”

The billionaires referenced are the Koch brothers, considered by many in the progressive sphere to be the main influencers behind a number of right wing movements currently underway. The post appeared shortly after a senior Koch operative had singled out Think Progress as leading an “orchestrated campaign” against the two brothers, and the blog was responding in kind by asking its followers to donate money to fund its anti-Koch reporting.

How quickly it was able to amass thousands of dollars for this campaign is a testament to the sophistication of The Center for American Progress’ social media operations. Created in 2003, the think tank — referred to often as CAP — is widely considered the progressive response to The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has highly influenced Republican policy over the last several decades.

CAP contains several branches, including its various media outlets, its action fund, and its Campus Progress (which is geared toward college students). The organization focuses on a mixture of advocacy and influence, ultimately trying to push forward progressive policies into the ranks of Congress, media outlets, and various institutions of power both inside and outside Washington.

During an interview at its downtown DC offices, Alan Rosenblatt, associate director for online advocacy, told me that the Koch fundraiser was originally supposed to amass $10,000 over a several-day period. Instead, it raised it in just a few hours, causing the team to go back and ask for an additional $50,000.

He outlined all the various platforms he has at his disposal for such a campaign, and it quickly became clear over the course of my meeting with him that CAP’s online media operations are vastly more intricate than your typical DC advocacy organization.

Consider its email lists as an example: The main list has over 600,000 addresses, but they’re broken down into dozens of subcategories, including members of Congress and their staffs, members of the Executive and their officials, a subset of activists, and people who have signed up to take action for CAP’s campaigns. “And then we have issue groups,” Rosenblatt said. “And within those issue groups, we have high level influential people, policy professionals, press, and also high level influencers in the government and in the advocacy and policy world. Those lists are culled together from people who come to our events, the contact lists of our policy experts, and then we have sort of secondary lists in each category of people who have signed up on our website for an email list on that particular issue.”

While using these various lists to push out the Koch campaign, Think Progress was able to employ its own considerable reach to amplify the message. The think tank also has multiple channels on different social media platforms, with thousands of fans and followers on various Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Rosenblatt even created a custom short URL on a pro account:

Though the Think Progress blog teamed up with Rosenblatt and others within the organization to raise the money for this campaign, such a collaboration is actually rarer than you might think. That’s because Think Progress is a completely autonomous outlet, meaning that its editors have editorial independence from the rest of the think tank.

Faiz Shakir has been the editor of Think Progress for several years and oversees a staff of nearly 20 people. He told me in a recent phone interview that having an institutional blog “churn out propaganda” wouldn’t have succeeded. “You need to be able to speak as a voice of a progressive movement,” he said. “And that means putting out content that isn’t necessarily tied to the institution and sometimes getting out ahead of the institution when there is some need to do so.”

If the senior people at CAP were at first skeptical as to whether this would work, the success of Think Progress over the years would have relieved any fears. The site gets several hundred thousand readers a day and has an email list — called The Progress Report — with over 100,000 subscribers. What first started as a blog with only a handful of writers now sports a team of investigative journalists and researchers who are producing original reporting that will rival most major news organizations.

“When you start to add [more reporters], it gives me more flexibility to do a variety of different things that I couldn’t do before,” Shakir said. “The idea of doing exclusive reporting, traveling to different states, reporting from conferences, doing deeper investigations into Koch or the Chamber of Commerce, those are all generally things we wanted to do even when we were a smaller staff. We just didn’t have the capacity to do it; if you live in the online sphere the challenge of getting up content every single day is a monumental one, and particularly for a blog that tries to feed content once on the hour every hour it is pretty demanding. So if you have five people it’s basically going to take all their effort. Now we have a large enough staff that you can actually take people off the immediacy of the blog to do either traveling or deeper investigations into areas that we want to devote some time and resources to.”

Though the blog doesn’t have any process beats — you won’t see someone with a Capitol Hill or White House reporter title — it has hired beat writers on several different policy subjects, including climate, health care, the economy, and national security. In addition to its main blog, it also publishes the Wonk Room for more in-depth policy analysis and Matthew Yglesias, one of the earliest progressive bloggers to gain significant influence.

By having autonomy from the rest of the organization, Shakir explained, it allows the blog to get ahead of the information curve and catch trends as they’re still bubbling up to the surface. Waiting for the think tank’s senior staff to decide on a policy position would take away this ability to remain nimble.

That’s not to say that Think Progress doesn’t encounter situations in which it awaits input from CAP’s policy analysts before taking a position. “Let’s take Libya as an example,” he said. “Are we for a no fly zone? Are we against a no fly zone? We as a blog aren’t sure, and the institution is holding meetings to determine what is the best posture on that, and we’ll generally wait to see the outcome of what that is without leading with our heads first and taking a position the institution isn’t comfortable with us taking. Again, a lot of that is laid on my shoulders and the Think Progress editors who are going to be responsible enough to see when those issues arise and not lead with our heads first.”

In addition to his day-to-day advocacy campaigns that are tied to the news cycle, Alan Rosenblatt also works on a number of long term projects and is deeply embedded within the DC community of policy thinkers. With his PhD in political science, he teaches a number of classes at the Georgetown, John Hopkins, and American universities, and used to teach full time at George Mason. It’s not uncommon to run into Rosenblatt at any number of happy hours and tech events in the city, and he’s often leading panel discussions on social media advocacy.

He told me about a recent incident in which the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page faced potential jeopardy. If you’ll remember, Khaled Said was a small businessman who had been dragged into the streets by Egyptian authorities and beaten to death last year. After his death, activists had created the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, and it’s often credited with helping to spark the political uprising that led to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ousting.

Nadine Wahab, a communications director for the Rights Working Group, contacted Rosenblatt out of concern that the Facebook page would be taken down. Because Facebook does not allow anonymous users, there was fear that Mubarak’s supporters could use this rule to either oust the page’s creator or get the page shut down completely. Rosenblatt has connections with Facebook employees and after introducing Wahab to them they were able to secure the page while also protecting her identity. Not long afterward, Mubarak formally announced he would step down.

But Rosenblatt isn’t just content with using social media to influence these political uprisings in foreign countries; he wants to be able to predict them. He helps organize an Internet Advocacy Roundtable — made up of dozens of policy experts — and this month will be leading an event that explores how the lessons from Egypt could allow them to use social media to map the future of the political landscape. “We’ll tackle how we can use social media to see how the different players are organizing themselves to get a sense of what the results will be,” he said. “Which groups will be players in the formation of the next Egyptian regime, and how can we use that model of using social media to predict uprisings and their aftermath for other countries so we can get ahead of the game on some of this stuff.” The panel will include experts from Harvard, MIT, and, of course, Nadine Wahab, the savior of the “We Are All Khaled Said” page.

CAP’s biggest goal, perhaps, is to influence both foreign and domestic policy in Congress, particularly when it comes to passing actual laws. Rosenblatt told me that social media allows constituents and activists to gain a whole new level of leverage when it comes to pressuring Congressmen and their staffs.

“When they click through to send an email to a member of Congress, the only person who really absolutely knows the email got into the congressional office is the congressional office,” he said. “We may know from our back end that it was delivered, and perhaps that it was opened, but whether or not it was opened by an intern and discarded, or opened by a legislative correspondent and discarded, or passed along up to the legislative director and the chief of staff and accounted for in their decision making process and done so in a timely fashion for the vote you’re trying — all of that is unknowable, you have to take them at their word.

“When you target a member of Congress on their Facebook page, it’s public and there’s a level of accountability that is akin to a sit-in outside their office. Whereas the sit-in outside the office might be only people who walk by or catch it on the news, everyone who comes on the Facebook page will see people posting the comments. Everyone posting on Twitter will see the tweets launched at them.”

In the long run, he hopes this will force Congressmen to address their national constituencies in addition to their local ones. It used to be that you had to go through the archaic process of asking your local Congressman to approach one of his colleagues on a particular subcommittee in order to get a piece of legislation introduced to that subcommittee. Now, social media users can just go after the subcommittee members directly.

For instance, CAP recently engaged in an anti-genocide campaign in which it targeted 10 members on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to ask them to sponsor a conflict minerals bill. “Within 24 hours 500 people posted on those [Facebook] walls,” he recalled. “We got two of them to co-sponsor it. Three more that we hadn’t targeted but who saw the writing on the wall also co-sponsored it. The chairman said, ‘Let’s take this bill, and oh here’s this other bill [for which CAP was advocating] and let’s pass it through the committee unanimously.’ They both became law, one within two weeks, one within two months.”

Cause and effect. Through its sophisticated campaigns, CAP was able to use a few simple tools to micro target its way into actual legislation. But perhaps the real accomplishment is what came after:

“The chairman contacted us and said, ‘We did what you asked us to do, will you please send your activists back to our Facepage to thank us?'”

Alan Rosenblatt and his colleagues were more than happy to oblige.