Spitfire Strategies

When the Revolution Cannot Be Televised

Hannah Berkman

By Hannah Berkman
Vice President

If more than 150 members of Congress conduct a sit-in on the floor of the House, but C-SPAN cameras are off, does the protest make a sound? In the past, the answer would have been no. But with the advent of live-streaming and live-tweeting, the answer last week was a resounding yes that echoed through the chambers of the internet for millions to “hear.”

The #NoBillNoBreak sit-in that called for a vote on a bill to enact relatively minor changes to gun-buying laws was a powerful example of how social media can be used to amplify real-life action. When Republicans turned off the C-SPAN cameras – the only ones approved to broadcast regularly from the House floor – the American public was left in momentary darkness about a protest that was being taken in their name. But not for long. Periscope, Facebook Live and Twitter allowed the House Democratic caucus to take their message into their own hands – and phones – to reach an audience larger than the average C-SPAN viewership.

With live video streams from Periscope and Facebook Live, members of Congress were able to show the public what was happening even when the cameras went dark, and the hashtag allowed Americans to see real-time commentary and the opportunity to add their own voices to the conversation. Over the course of the 24 hour sit-in, people tweeted about #NoBillNoBreak at a rate of 31 mentions per minute – resulting in more than 1.3 million total tweets. By using social media, members of Congress were able to spark a national conversation on gun violence, even though traditional methods were blocked.

The sit-in may not have forced a vote on gun legislation, but members of Congress reached millions of Americans and demonstrated widespread support for gun control. Their success provides several lessons that nonprofits and foundations can apply to their own engagement and outreach efforts to boost the reach of any live event.

  1. Choose a hashtag and follow the conversation. While sit-in organizers began the protest using multiple hashtags and continued to use them throughout (notably #HoldTheFloor, #NoMoreSilence and #GoodTrouble), they recognized that the conversation was coalescing around #NoBillNoBreak and made sure to include it in a majority of tweets. When coordinating a live event, have a hashtag prepared ahead of time, but make sure to monitor social media throughout and respond to where the conversation is going. If your topic gains significant following, users may begin to employ a different hashtag. Don’t be afraid to change up your plans and adjust hashtags or include several so you can maximize your reach and momentum.
  1. Use Periscope or Facebook Live to help supporters feel connected. After Republicans turned off the C-SPAN cameras, Democratic members of Congress realized the public would still want a way to watch the House floor in real time, so they decided to use social media apps to live-stream their protest. But it’s better to have a strategy in place ahead of time. Decide in advance whether or not to live-stream by considering whether your event will have enough compelling action to engage audiences through video. Sometimes, tweeting and sharing photos is enough, but for events that include speeches or performances, it might be worth streaming. If you choose to stream, designate someone to record the event ahead of time, decide which tool you’ll use – check out the Spitfire Digital S.M.A.R.T.S. guide for more info – and test it so you’re confident before the event begins. You won’t want to miss any action once you get going!
  1. Create engaging visuals. We know photos almost always reach larger audiences than plain text on social media, so if you’re planning to share your event with the internet, make sure you’ll have pictures worth sharing. Later in the night when they had the largest following, sit-in organizers printed out the names and photos of victims from Orlando and other past shootings, holding them up for the video streams and sharing them for the world to see. These powerful visuals underscored their message and maximized the impact of their posts.
  1. Keep it real. Live-streams are just that – live, so make sure they aren’t so polished that they seemew contrived or rehearsed. Use humor when possible to demonstrate authenticity to your audience. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tweet of herself bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to the protestors was one of the most shared of the night.

In our modern age, it can be difficult to earn traditional media coverage, so live-sharing on social channels is a great way to amplify your actions and gain supporters beyond just those who are able to show up in-person. If you prepare with hashtags, the right streaming tools, compelling, authentic visuals and a sense of humor, you can ensure your priority audience will notice your work and be inspired to act.

For more tips, check out Spitfire’s Digital S.M.A.R.T.S. one-pagers on live-streaming and live-tweeting.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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