NMR Exclusive: The Sierra Club And The Rise Of Digital Activism

In 1892, conservationist John Muir founded the Sierra Club in an effort to connect an industrialized nation with the untamed beauty of nature. By doing so, Muir hoped that by seeing the majesty of the wild, people would fight to protect and maintain it. In 2012, the Sierra Club is still fighting for preservation of the natural world with a community of passionate activists and the strength of social media. Through the global connectivity that new media has introduced, the Sierra Club hopes to remind all of us that one voice can quickly become many in the struggle to safeguard the planet.

Leading the effort to digitally connect preservationists are Orli Cotel, the Sierra Club’s deputy communications director, digital product manager Kyle Boelte and the director of the Sierra Club’s digital strategies, Chris Thomas. With a commitment to protecting the environment and a keen understanding of digital media strategies, they have re-invented the modern day nonprofit. I spoke with the team about the Sierra Club’s newest YouTube campaign, their connections with a younger audience and protecting the planet one tweet at a time.

Creating A Movement

The Sierra Club has always strived to raise awareness not only as a nonprofit organization (NPO), but also as a group of individuals who are connected through their commitment to a safer, cleaner world.

“The Sierra Club is not just a national organization; it’s a broader organization of lots of smaller groups. So that transition to social media has provided a lot of opportunities for us because we have so many different people that we want to engage in all of our work” said Cotel.

Social media has allowed the Sierra Club to bring together a community of activists who, without the advent of new media may have never met before. By providing the channels in which people could speak about their relationship with nature or their struggle to preserve it, the Sierra Club created a global social media-fueled movement.

Thomas quickly acknowledged the power that new media has in its ability to bring together the Sierra Club’s members. “Being social is really about community; social media has only been around for a handful of years, but community has always been a huge part of what digital communications are all about. So to us it’s extremely well suited to what we do because we are about community, we are about volunteers, we are a grass roots organization and social tools are enabling us to reach out to people and get people to do actions.”

Sites like Twitter and Facebook have also allowed the Sierra Club to bring together a large following, while maintaining the independent spirit of a NPO. “The technology is really an enabling technology, so we are able to do more with less, which is another reason why I think non profits have adopted social media in a big way, we’ve found that it is a fairly cheap and effective way to reach our constituents” said Thomas.

Activism In 140 Characters Or Less

One of the Sierra Club’s primary sources for member interaction has been Twitter. With events like the Twitter town hall, the Sierra Club encourages followers to speak about issues promoted by the Sierra Club via Twitter.

“A lot of what we have done is tried to be a space where people can talk about the things that they are interested in. They might have done it over beers and other places at other times and now if they are at work or at a place where they are at their computers they can still have those conversations,” Boelte told me when discussing Twitters impact on the Sierra Club.

Beyond a main Twitter account, the Sierra club has set up a fictitious account belonging to Mr. Coal Guy, a satirical take on the modern coal executive. Mr. Coal Guy is by all accounts is a beast of pure malevolent intent with tweets that read, “I think of mountains like they’re big cookie jars.” Of course, the Sierra Club has created this character to play up big coal executives, but they also hope to appeal to a younger audience. “Being 120 years old, we have an image of being a little bit staid and we want to mix that up a little bit, particularly online. We want to show that we are a highly dynamic organization, that a lot of volunteers are young people who are very concerned about these issues,” said Thomas when discussing their Twitter approach.

The Beyond Coal Initiative

In 2002, the Sierra Club started the Beyond Coal initiative to stop new coal plants from being built when alternative energy sources could be used instead. The organization is passionate about this project especially due to the harmful results of using coal energy. “Coal pollution is one of the leading causes of asthma; it causes over 200,000 asthma attacks a year, and currently every 1 in 10 young people in this country has asthma. It’s the leading reason kids miss school due to illness,” Cotel told me.

The Sierra Club has taken the fight against coal to a new level in the form of a series of 5 YouTube videos created by digital creative agency, Mekanism that play on the manipulative nature of big coal execs. The videos feature clips from 70’s and 80’s television, conveniently voiced over by Mr. Coal Guy himself (John Ennis). The Sierra Club hoped to take a more humorous approach with the YouTube shorts to show that the 120-year-old organization is not without a sense of humor. “We think it is important to tell an engaging story around a serious issue, we don’t want people to just think that it’s just too somber and turn away from that, we want them to see that it’s interesting, it’s engaging and that it’s something that they can be involved in,” said Cotel on the tone of the Beyond Coal campaign videos.

Beyond Coal primarily hopes to show people around the country that they are not alone in the fight, but rather that there is an entire community supporting their efforts. Cotel spoke about the goal of connecting individuals involved in the clean energy movement saying that, “It’s really an issue of taking on this fight plant by plant, community by community and I think a lot of volunteers, community staff and local activists have been really excited about this campaign because it gives it more a national context.”

With two videos with over 100,000 views each out now, the Sierra Club hopes to continue to promote the Beyond Coal campaign and reinforce the idea that anyone can have a voice; or in Cotel’s words, “We want to show people that anyone anywhere can make difference and that it’s easy and meaningful.”