Digital for Organizing – With Laura Carlson

Like many organizers, Laura Carlson never planned on working in politics. Studying at Indiana University to become a preschool teacher, Laura’s plans for her future began to shift after she attended a Students for Barack Obama (SFBO) meeting at her student union. There, she would meet so many amazing people who, just like her, were passionate about changing their community and changing the world. As the famous organizing principle goes, Laura came for the candidate and stayed for the people.

As an officer with SFBO, Laura helped organize students on her campus, first for then-Senator Obama’s primary campaign and later for his general election campaign. Throughout the 2008 election, Laura and her fellow student organizers registered over 10,000 students, helping to turn Indiana blue on November 4th for the first time since 1964.

“It was that whole experience that got me hooked. I thought, ‘I cannot do anything else with my life.’”

After graduating college, Laura packed everything in her car and drove to Florida to be a fellow for President Obama’s reelection campaign. She would soon be hired as an organizer, and in total spent over a year working in her turf in Tampa. With so much time dedicated to organizing, Laura was able to hone her craft as an organizer, gaining many crucial skills.

“There’s so much I could say [about the skills I cherish most from organizing]. I think that being an organizer really helped me become a better person and also a better candidate in any career path I would take.”

Luckily, the skills she gained as an organizer—to be adaptable, to let go of her perfectionism in exchange for empowering others, to motivate others to take action—were exactly the skills she would need as she transitioned to digital political work. Quite literally, Laura organized her way into a job in digital—asking everyone she knew in digital to coffee, asking them who else to ask to coffee, learning from as many people as possible, and hustling like crazy.

As an organizer, Laura knew how important strong relationships were, so she continued to invest in relationships, building a network of people who cared enough about her to help her find the right training (New Organizing Institute’s New Media Boot Camp), the right connections, and the right opportunities. Fresh out of boot camp, Laura got her first job in digital working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Now, as the digital director for Congressman Patrick Murphy’s senatorial campaign in Florida, Laura continues to employ the skills that she gained while organizing. To help you organize more effectively, we talk with Laura about the goals and work of campaign digital teams, the ways organizers and digital team members can work together to have fun and increase effectiveness, and her best advice for organizers taking their efforts online.

Here are some important principles behind digital work that you can apply to your work right now.

Meet people where they already are.

A digital team helps a campaign find and communicate with individuals online. Any good organizer knows you must meet people where they are. Digital work lives by this principle.

You will organize better when you stop differentiating between online and offline organizing and just organize, using whichever tools you have available.

If one of your neighborhood team leaders is really active on twitter, show them some love on social media. If your 21-year-old phone bank captain never actually answers her phone, communicate with her via email or text. If you’re trying to find a group of college students, talk to them on one of their school’s online forums.

Be collaborative.

“One of the coolest things about digital is that it means being involved and doing work with all the other departments of a campaign or an office.”

Digital teams help other campaign departments accomplish their goals, whether that’s communicating a specific message, raising money, or recruiting volunteers. Though each digital department has its own specific purpose and mission, they also contribute to the work of every other team.

A good organizer needs to be able to do the same. You have your goals and you’re right to focus on them with crazy intensity, but don’t forget that your main mission is bigger than each individual goal. Taking the time to share your work online and with your digital team can help them create content that gives back to you and your work.

Be adaptable.

“One of the beauties of a digital team is that probably each one that you look at on a campaign or in an office is going to look a little bit different because there are so many different roles that a digital team can fill.”

A digital team can accomplish many things and their goals will change with the campaign’s goals, just like your goals will change throughout the course of a campaign cycle. Approach these transitions and the many fire drills that come with organizing with a calm and patient attitude. You can figure anything out—you’re an organizer!

Learn to prioritize.

There are so many things a digital team could be doing at any given moment. And often, they will hear different departments saying their need is the most urgent. A good digital team needs to be able to determine what action is most important at any given moment.

When you choose to spend your time doing one thing, you’re also choosing to not do something else. Be intentional with your time and your actions, prioritizing what’s most important and making sure your actions serve your goals.

Learn to make an effective ask.

Keep your ask short and simple. Digital teams know it’s more effective to only make one ask per email. Follow that same guideline in your own work, whether it’s online or in person.

Lift each other up.

“Organizing is really the core of what drew so many of us to get involved with this work. It’s uplifting to see that it’s alive and well: people are interacting with volunteers, talking to voters, registering voters, even phone banking. When you share quotes and pictures online, it shows the real world impact of our work. It serves as a tie to the purpose of your campaign.”

Sharing examples of your work supports your volunteers, encourages your teammates, and inspires people to join the action.

Be authentic online: use your voice.

“People forget sometimes to be authentic online in trying to just use cool hashtags or memes. While those can be valuable, people really like to follow a voice online. If they can hear who you are and that comes through—regardless of what you’re doing online—it’s going to be better because people can feel like they’re getting to know you.”

Now that you have seen how closely digital principles are connected with organizing principles, you are hopefully more excited and inspired to organize online and collaborate with your campaign’s digital team. As Laura says, digital work is fun! You can help make it even more so.

Here are Laura’s tips if you’re interested in working on a digital team:
• Think of one person you know who works in digital and reach out to them. If you can convey your passion about digital work, people will want to help you.
• Find a well-regarded training program. Use this for the intensive training, but more so for the network of digital professionals.
• Learn digital skills online at websites like Bento, and put them into use. Make a website about cats! Create your own Hamilton-themed Tumblr!