Andrea Learned

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Start Growing Climate Action Social Capital

Like a flower, social capital can grow in very challenging spaces.


The idea of taking a more long-term approach to growing “social media social capital” can be a tough sell in our frantic times. But, if my experience working with nonprofits in the climate action space has taught me anything, it is this: getting past the usual consumer(aka citizen)-facing approaches means more authentic and productive engagement with a selection of key influencers.

So, start seeing the value in “influencers.” For the urgent purposes of climate action, it is worth the effort to grow your social capital with intention.

Influence Comes Before Leadership

Let’s address the elephant in the room before I go any further. Claiming that you have influence or proclaiming that you intend to engage with influencers may sound presumptuous and arrogant. However, what I espouse is a much quieter sort of power than you are probably imagining.

The quiet lies in the fact that outside your specific focus area, very few people will understand why or how you are building relationships with the people you target. And that is quite alright. Your garden of influence starts very s-l-o-w-l-y and grows very stealthily.

So, here’s the modern day climate action challenge: if you want to lead in some way, accept the fact that building influence must come first. You cannot be shy of pursuing it. But, where to begin? As Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger put it in their insightful 2013 Harvard Business Review piece, “Connect, Then Lead” it starts with something very human.

“A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence — and to lead — is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”

Interestingly enough, generating warmth is exactly the formula for growing social capital through Twitter engagement. By curating a great information stream, adding value, re-sharing others’ work, and generally reaching out to key leaders in your very particular space — you build trust and a comfort level. It is in these actions that warmth is reflected as perfect groundwork for ultimately becoming the climate action influencer you aspire to be.

Again: Boldly, if quietly, own that pursuit.

Social Capital Compounds

And, quietly is exactly how you grow influencer relations into long-term social capital.

Individuals and organizations that already understand this are “banking” this form of capital.They are continually building trust with and in their climate action networks. They are amplifying the good news, curating helpful information and pointing to the best contributors on the topic. Take a look at the #cities4climate Twitter conversation, as an example. Most of those involved are, as I often describe it for skeptical clients, “loving up” others – and along the way building a reputation for that generosity. Many who contribute to topics in this way will end up being on the radar of journalists and other influencers as key resources.

So, yes… the wise climate action tweeters make a steady practice of zeroing in on very specific conversations and a small group of influencers. And, when the key time comes, they will understand how to “use” the social media social capital they’ve so wisely grown.

To be clear, the magic happens when you stop striving for short-term top billing and instead love up the whole sector. That’s just what I see in the climate action networks I regularly monitor. While the true influencers in many of these Twitter conversations may not quite be as recognized as Paul Polman or Richard Branson, for example, they still hold amazing potential in their quiet influence.

COP21 is one such event example that reflects how growing Twitter social capital in climate action over time can be useful. In the months leading to the December 2015 event, many individual corporate or organizational leaders wisely used Twitter to amplify new information and point to influencers to follow. Thankfully, many of those involved in that work have continued contributing to the conversation and have inspired others to join as well. Thus, the social capital “banked” for the climate action cause from two years ago has grown and compounded into valuable Cities For Climate ( #cities4climate ) conversations today.

To repeat: these influencers, re-ignited by the new U.S. administration’s climate change denial, can now boldly activate the social capital they’ve built along the way.

Choose The Long Road

Choosing to grow social capital for climate action all boils down to embracing the difference between long–term strategic thinking and short-term, hyped moments. This seems fitting for the cause. What has become more urgent in the short term — climate change — could have been treated as a strategic, longer-term problem decades ago. Imagine where we’d be, if it had been? But, we did not take the facts of climate change seriously, and many organizations are now scrambling to be sexy enough in real (short-term) time to spur behavior and policy change. If only…

And, I find it interesting that the problem with leadership “short-termism” seems to start early in our culture, as evidenced by this recent research on MBA programs (one place where you’d otherwise hope tomorrow’s leaders were being nurtured!). Even the most stalwart of institutions have apparently been teaching “strategy,” yes, but not teaching how to actually implement it. Not so helpful.

My armchair theory on this: Saying and touting “strategy” can be super hip and short-term (“let’s talk strategy at lunch” with a wink and nudge), but DOING it for real impact takes much more self-awareness and advanced planning. To this I would point out an under-realized fact: the strategic potential of using social media emerges — with neon lights flashing— when you use it as a stealth and long-term, monitoring and research tool.

For both my own work and that of my clients, I can attest to the insights gained by quietly growing influence through Twitter engagement — as a long-term practice.

Grow Climate Action Capital

So, how does this all tie back to climate action communications? Nonprofits and NGOs often have the traditional more consumer/citizen-facing GIFs, memes, hashtags, chats and campaigns covered. Those are the fun and sexy, short-term moments. The long-term influencer-facing engagement strategies are most often quite lacking.

One way I’ve found to get my own clients pumped about using the longer-term approach is to simply ask them about their “dream” influencers. Names like Bill McKibbenCoral Davenport or Tom Steyer are often mentioned. From there, the key is in the backward mapping. If X person was the ultimate influencer they’d dream might re-tweet their forthcoming research, how do we build social capital in the meantime with the people who ARE in that person’s circles now? And that’s when I see the “now I get it” look in many a client’s eyes. So, I offer this up:


With finding influencers and amplifying climate action impact as your overriding Twitter engagement purpose, the long-term formula for growing social capital really, really makes sense.

Climate action is beyond urgent. Knowing how to wisely grow social capital should not be anyone’s little secret.

First published on Medium, July 25, 2017.