What Environmental Leaders Can Learn from Obama’s Mastery of Social Media

by | Jan 14, 2009

On January 20, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States after a tough-fought campaign — a campaign won in large part due to harnessing the grassroots power of the Internet.  If Obama can mobilize a community online, environmental leaders can too.

What does Obama’s election have in common with the environment? Four things: conviction that change was needed, use of the Internet to mobilize the masses, young people at the nexus, and a community to create a revolution.

Key to Obama’s victory, according to a recent Wired article, was the Internet. The inner sanctum with a handful of political junkies was trumped by a gateway for millions of Americans to participate in the campaign process. The New York Times concluded politics will never be the same. The Internet catapulted Obama to the Presidency, much as TV did for John F. Kennedy. Both media were ignored by their predecessors, although Dean’s small donor solicitation online in ‘04 hinted at the possibilities.

How do you use the power of technology and community to make everyone an environmentalist? With these seven steps, strong corporate leaders and early adopters can take lessons from Obama’s Web movement to help their environmentally-focused companies and programs gain a broader reach:

1.    Set goals, be active and be authentic.
Politicians and businesses can run, but they cannot hide, at least for long. Concerned citizens can literally fact-check debates in real time and social media enthusiasts can easily point out a disingenuous company. What should you do?  First decide what your organization’s core social values are.  Then create an honest Web persona which mirrors them. Transparency and authenticity are crucial to success.

2.    Articulate why and how to change.
Obama’s supporters want change.  Environmentalists do, too — in policy, consumer behavior, and institutional processes.  Where to start?  Your message needs to be convincing. For example, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben’s international awareness campaign, 350.org, teaches people that unless we can reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, we will cause irreversible damage to the earth. The group uses the shocking reality that 350 is the red line for human beings to create a sense of urgency, and rally the world behind solutions that science and justice demand.

3.    Find the champions.
Thousands of bloggers and Twitterers are now dedicated to the environment. As business leaders, we can seek out these individuals more easily than prior due to the existence of social media. Operating often as a labor of love rather than as a paid engagement, these passionate thought leaders speak out for or against the issues they care about. While their point of view may differ from your company’s, you can engage with them as a sort of virtual focus group and learn something from them.

4.    Involve everyone.
Maximize group collaboration while highlighting individualism. A lesson from Obama’s campaign is that while leadership is essential, it takes a community to truly spread influence to the masses. Obama Girl, Treehugger’s Convenient Truths contest, GlobalGiving grassroots philanthropy, nonprofits that protest injustices, and a myriad of other successful campaigns have one thing in common: they embrace the Internet to inspire individual creativity and create a shared sense of purpose.

5.    Create hub-and-spoke communications.
The new way of running a political campaign or business is hub-and-spoke, connecting to the community via the Internet instead of preaching from on high in a command and control style. Obama’s campaign actively encouraged user-generated content such as video mash-ups of speeches, original music videos, and colorful parodies. With viewers watching videos on YouTube when and as often as they wanted (and sending on to friends), over six million people chose to hear the candidate’s speech on race.

6.    By land, by sea, by air.
Rather than relying on a single form of outreach, environmental leaders should use every channel imaginable. Obama used television, print, phone banks, text messages, direct mail, door-to-door recruiting, and the social Web. Some channels activated hard-to-reach voters. Others conducted underground whisper campaigns in battleground states.  One application even allowed anyone to make calls to undecided voters on behalf of the campaign.

7.    Learn from the young.
The youth among us are leaders in the fight against climate change and often the savviest at Web communications.  Gen Y grew up with the Web – it is as natural to them as eating or breathing. The enthusiasm and creativity of youth combined with the leadership and marketing know-how of seasoned executives is a recipe for success in this new media world.

By using the steps detailed above, the environment will be victor.  Web campaigns make it easy for people to participate in the environmental movement, and allow a message to be spread organically through communities. Companies can test the waters for a new product, create enthusiasm for a cause, or generate buzz for an existing program – especially if they’re willing to adapt to community feedback that is sure to come.  Since people are influenced by the communities around them rather than corporate messages, the Web can help important ideas spread and affect significant environmental change.

Patti Prairie is the Chief Executive Officer of Brighter Planet, a for-profit company that helps people reduce and manage their carbon footprints.  Its engaging Web-based campaigns tap the power of social media to help consumers and businesses learn about emissions, conserve what they can, and offset the rest.  

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