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Face Off Against Tobacco: Lessons From a Youth-Focused Social Media Training Campaign

4 Comments 12 July 2012

From March through mid-June, I had the privilege of working with the Boston Alliance for Community Health (BACH) on a youth-focused social media advocacy training campaign. I write “training campaign,” because the campaign’s goal was to train BACH member organizations and their teens how to use social media for advocacy. BACH is a city-wide partnership of neighborhood coalitions and over 50 community-based partners working to make Boston a healthier and a more equitable place to live, play, learn and work. In particular, BACH is actively involved in efforts to change policy around a range of tobacco issues including youth access to tobacco and other nicotine products. Nancy Marks, the Tobacco Project Director, wanted to launch a social media advocacy campaign focused around supporting an increase in taxes for tobacco-related products proposed by the Massachusetts Governor.

We recognized a few constraints from the outset:

1. The campaign had a built-in sunset date of June 1, since most of the youth involved would be ending school in mid-June.

2. We were not sure if the Mass legislature will have taken action on the issue before school lets out, and it seemed unlikely that the proposed tax would pass.

3. Many of the member organizations did not use social media.

4. Most of the youth involved in had limited access to digital media due to digital divide issues. Most had little to no involvement with social media aside from Facebook and Instagram.

Given these constraints, we decided to focus the campaign on building internal organizational and individual capacity-building skills of social media and legislative advocacy.

Designing the Campaign: Face Off Against Tobacco

We considered which organizing activities would be best served by social media, and which social media channels were easiest to learn and use. Since photos tell stories beautifully, we designed a photo-centric campaign that included elements of outreach, advocacy, and social media awareness: gather photos of voters holding signs supporting an increase in the tax on tobacco-related products, and integrate the photos with stories on a campaign blog. Advocacy, however, was secondary to training and skills-building.

We wanted the teens to understand how the legislative process worked, beginning with street advocacy, so they were to canvass the public and gather the photos and voter stories. The organizations chose specific fact sheets about tobacco that campaign supporters could choose from and hold in their photos, in the style of the “We are the 99 percent” blog. Nancy met with the youth organizations to hold legislative advocacy trainings, and I met with each group at least once to hold social media trainings. Member organizations committed to taking 100 photos of voters holding signs, and putting up at least ten blog posts each. We developed a Flickr profile to store the photos, and a Tumblr site for the campaign website.


1. 460 Flickr photos and a ton of outreach. Eight coalition members participated in Face Off Against Tobacco, and each coalition had from six to twelve youth leaders participate in the campaign. The coalitions uploaded 460 photos from 15 neighborhoods to the campaign’s Flickr photostream.

Youth members and staff learned how to talk about the campaign’s purpose to voters, take photos, upload the photos to Flickr and appropriately tag them, add stories to the photos, and share some of the photos from Flickr to the campaign’s Tumblr blog. In terms of sheer numbers of photos, it was quite successful, though no one organization achieved its initial goal of taking and uploading 100 photos. We organized the photos by neighborhood and by legislative district to make it easy for legislators to see their constituents, and met with some legislators to talk about the campaign.

2. 72 blog posts. The member organizations uploaded 72 blog posts between mid-March and mid-June. Almost all of the posts were photos with captions, or “photo stories,” with some powerfully written longer narratives from youth members about their experiences with tobacco. Before taking a photo, teens asked voters if they would support the increase in a tax on tobacco-related products heard very moving stories. Many of these quotes were added to photos and posted to the Tumblr site. One voter told a teen: “I’ve had half of my lungs taken out, and I can’t stop smoking.” Others wrote narratives about how smoking affected their lives, such as Julia’s story, below.

 3. Organizational and youth social media skills building. I visited each organization and held a 1-hour technical training about how to upload and tag photos on Flickr, upload and tag blog posts to Tumblr, and share photos from Flickr to Tumblr. I also covered “what is social media?” and how it could be used in advocacy campaigns. The youth really “got” the correlation between social media and social justice. Most importantly, we saw the teens become really excited about using social media differently (e.g. it’s not just Facebook and Instagram and talking to friends), and using it for social justice. Some loved blogging, others loved snapping photos, and other loved teaching their friends how to use Flickr and Tumblr.

We also supported organizations by answering email, checking in by phone, and offering follow-up training and guidance when needed. Staff who had never used social media learned how to do it and, as one coalition member told us: “This campaign dragged member organizations into the 21st century. Thank you.”

Lessons learned and takeaways

  • More training sessions. We asked the member organizations to do a lot, and didn’t offer quite enough on-site training for them to soar. Both staff and teens could have benefited from more hands-on training.
  • When working with youth, have only one call to action. We expected teens to approach strangers (with group leaders nearby), talk about the campaign, elicit stories from them, take their photos, post those photos to Flickr, and blog about the campaign. It was too much to ask. Groups ended up focusing either on the blogging or on the photo-taking, as a default, and we should take a lesson from that.
  • More lead time to learn to write. We could have supported the writing better with weekly writing drop-in workshops, or starting earlier with blog writing workshops. The one additional training that I offered to the teens about how to write a blog post gave that group the foundation to write serious blog posts. None of the other groups wrote real blog posts, only comments on photos.
  • Account for the digital divide. Many of the teens we worked with are very low-income, and they did not have the educational or social media literacy that was expected. We quickly realized that writing blog posts would be challenging for most, and amended expectations to writing a comment on a photo and posting that to the blog.
  • End-of-school-itis. Never start a project in the last quarter of the school year! By May 20th, many of the organizations were wrapping up their work with teens, and the youth were looking towards summer break instead of public advocacy.
  • Integrate movement-building, even if that’s not the campaign’s purpose. While the focus of this campaign was on skills-building, the excuse was an advocacy campaign. We knew the legislature would not easily pass an increase in taxes this year, so we did not focus on the advocacy part of this campaign. However, that turned out to be a mistake, as the campaign lacked urgency. Even though we purposely limited scope due to constraints on member organization staff time and legislative realities, the campaign could easily have been a building block for a statewide movement or campaign for others to have taken on after June 1.

This campaign was unique in that it wasn’t about building a movement, or building an online community. However, it was one of the most rewarding campaigns I’ve ever participated in because it was building up people and organizations that will go on to do great things. There is a role for “social media advocacy training,” as I call it. I’d love to hear other examples of similar campaigns and lessons learned, if you have any to share.

  • That will be very fantastic article, that everyone has to ware of all those things. I can say that  many organization will believe that doing a campaign work will easily build a good strategy as well. Is it true?


  • Melinda Lewis

    I love this so much, Debra! And I think that many of your lessons apply not just to youth, but to organizing and capacity-building for organizing in general–the more ‘asks’, the harder for people to figure out how they can really contribute. Were the photos mostly taken with phones or stand-alone cameras? Who moderates the blog site? Will these same youth be involved in other efforts going forward (are there ways to build movement into the effort at this point, then?)? I’m working on something trying to use video and photo to capture immigrant youth stories–we’re at the beginning stages, but I’ll share as we get farther along. THANK YOU for this, and for all of the wonderful work you do!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Melinda, the photos were almost exclusively taken on smartphones, though the coaliton did buy a few digital cameras for some of the participating youth organizations. The real issue with the campaign was that it had to sunset, due to organizational funding and other structural issues, so we could not build a movement from it. That really hampered motivation and momentum for some, though others saw it as a really great internal skill-building exercise for the youth involved and the participating coalition member organizations. If you want to tap me with questions about your own immigrant youth stories, I’d be happy to share our experience with you in further detail.


    Melinda Lewis Reply:

     Thanks–I very well may be back to ask more questions! You know, I was thinking, too, about what you said about the struggle to achieve a sense of urgency, given the reality of the likelihood of change. I think that, too, is a universal challenge in social change work–how do we create momentum where there is not ‘crisis’? Thank you, as always, for the insights and the support!



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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