Perception is everything, and in today’s 24/7/365 global news cycle, it can change in an instant. For public relations teams navigating this often turbulent environment, the insights gleaned from social media can be a guiding light—illuminating how your audience feels and how you can best position your brand in response to timely issues and breaking events.

The human behind your social handle is the most public and agile person in your organization, making the partnership between them and PR vital.

Vanessa Mbonu, the NAACP’s Vice President of Digital Marketing & Communications, shares how social works in lockstep with the PR team–aligning on everything from the seemingly mundane to the highly polarizing and using insights from social as a barometer for broader brand awareness efforts.

The last few years have been transformative for the NAACP. What sparked that transformation?

VM: The NAACP is the first and largest civil rights organization in the US, so we work to achieve equity for the Black community and other communities of color.. In the Spring of 2020, those communities faced what we call “twin pandemics:” COVID-19 and Jim Crow era-racism.

Of course, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on all our communities, but in the U.S., African Americans and Asians were bearing the brunt of the crisis as there were greater health and economic risks.

At the same time, unfortunately, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, which reopened a very important national conversation about the history of unjust policing in our communities.

As if this was not enough, there was misinformation spreading about both the coronavirus and the U.S. presidential election, specifically targeted toward the Black community.

America was undergoing a reckoning where people really started paying attention to the Black community, our plights, our needs and our issues.

This increased the need for trusted voices more than ever. It was so important that the Black community had an organization and leaders to turn to for trusted, credible information. We saw ourselves as the providers of such information.

How would you describe the NAACP’s approach to social and PR before the events of 2020?

VM: Pre-pandemic, we took a traditional approach to PR: Write a templated press release with our standard logo and boilerplate, pitch it to journalists, follow-up, light a candle, say a prayer, follow-up some more, repeat.

Traditional PR Strategy timeline: Draft a press release, release it to a news wire, pitch to journalists, follow-up and up and up, repeat

This approach leads to a lot of rejection, so you really have to keep at it, but fortunately, we were getting traction.

We approached social media similarly. We planned and scheduled content, went through approvals, posted, engaged with our audience, and then repeated that several times a day.

Cycle arrow diagram showing traditional social media is to: plan & schedule content, edit & seek approval, post content, engage

During and post-pandemic, business as usual was just not working anymore. So we married the two to become social media relations.

What exactly is social media relations?

VM: We’re an advocacy-based organization, so we always want our message to reach as many people as possible. I spend a lot of time on the internet, trying to figure out how the NAACP can get from point A to point B quickly.

With social media relations, we can make our statements faster, bolder, louder.

I personally noticed what would turn into our social media relations approach on MLK Day in 2019, when former Vice President Mike Pence compared President Trump to Martin Luther King Jr. Regardless of your political opinions, those are very different people, so we Tweeted a quick reaction, calling it an insult to Dr. King’s legacy. The engagements speak for themselves.

Our social media relations tone and voice are very different than what we use in a traditional press release. It’s assertive, it gets straight to the point, and that’s what people want to see on social. Everyone’s eyes glance over the “hitherto’s” and “therefore’s.” There’s not enough time or characters for that.

You can also tell that there is someone behind the screen and that there are real emotions being felt by the person typing the message.

With this approach, we get immediate reactions from our audience. Even if you’re not responding directly to them, engaging with your audience and looking at what they are saying is invaluable to understanding the tone and temperature of the community that you’re working in.

How did the NAACP’s PR and social media teams work together to execute a social media relations strategy?

VM: Instead of relying on securing soundbites from a digital broadcast or headlines in print, we began making “Tweetments”–a public statement in a social media post–to publicize the BLM movement.

On the day that the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced, our President and CEO Derrick Johnson put our official statement in a Tweetment.

Like me and my team, reporters spend a lot of their time online, so in a sense, we’re meeting them where they are. Instead of a reporter reaching out to ask what the official statement from the NAACP is, or relying on them checking their crowded inbox, it’s on Twitter, right where they needed it.

With this approach, our statement was picked up and published on countless major media outlets. We were everywhere and still are.

Reporters have come to expect that we’ll make Tweetments, so we have a lot of them following us and making requests for interviews on social. We repurpose those interviews to create more content and awareness on social, tagging the outlets and the reporters, growing and diversifying our networks exponentially.

Table of the NAACP's exponential social follower growth from May 2019 to May 2021.

How do you foster supportive relationships between social media and public relations teams?

VM: My number one tip: Break down the silos to break through the noise.

As Vice President of Digital Marketing & Communications, my main priorities are social media, email marketing and digital advertising campaigns, but I can’t put blinders on.

I need to know what my press team is doing because that helps me understand what’s happening in a day and how people are reacting, which then helps me produce content.

The same is true for them. They take inspiration from the tone we use on social in email copy, Youtube videos, pitches to outside sources and more.

We also work closely with leadership and outside consultants, so we have weekly external brainstorms to ideate, talk and react to what’s happening in social media, the news and the world around us. From there, we decide what role the NAACP should play.

We are a team of communicators, so we need to do what we do best—communicate.

What is one piece of advice you’d give other social media marketers or PR pros?

VM: Diversify the voices in your social feeds and press lists.

We would not be as successful as we are if we did not do this. We primarily focus on serving the Black community and communities of color, but that doesn’t mean we’re only following people from that audience.

There are movers and shakers across every industry talking about whatever it is that you want to publicize. We follow everyone who has something to say about our mission and our movement.

Don’t wait for your audience to come to you, seek them out on social.

It’s critical for businesses to meet their audience where they are. Don’t wait for them to find you, especially if you run a smaller business. When you consistently engage and seek your audiences out, you will get to a point where people come to you first.

As social media use among consumers continues to steadily increase, most businesses are adopting social as their primary external communications channel.

Downward the full State of Social Media Report for more insights on how executives plan to embrace business strategies fueled by social in the future.