People still don’t get social media. And I’m not just talking about Donald Trump.

It’s an established best practice for building community support for a point of view or an initiative, and that’s because it works. There’s no better way to harness those who already agree with you as surrogates to carry your message (often in their own words) to other people who know and trust them, whom you wouldn’t otherwise reach.

That doesn’t mean it’s not still a minefield. Just look at some recent headlines.

A busy month for social miscues

The Washington Redskins found that out recently when it became clear that the grassroots movement in support of retaining the controversial team name was actually run by a public relations firm and paid for by the team owners.

Transparency is especially important if you’re an organization committed to objectivity. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently ran a Thunderclap campaign in support of its clean water regulations, the Government Accountability Office accused it of being engaged in “covert propaganda,” because people on the receiving end of social media messages from their friends might not have realized that the campaign was originated by the EPA.

Objectively, paying for a PR/marketing campaign to advocate your point of view is nothing unusual. Organizations large and small routinely use social media successfully to build communities and drive action, and for good reason.

Examples of campaigns done right are plentiful, but some favorites include the Los Angeles Kings’ widely heralded efforts to rally Southern California fans, traditionally among the more apathetic fans in the NHL, with a humorous Twitter feed; Live United, United Way’s multi-year branding campaign that has relied heavily on shareable social content to significantly increase their name recognition among a new generation; and even Casper’s recent, light-hearted “hangover helper” campaign to help New Yorkers recover from holiday parties.

Rules of engagement

It’s not rocket science, but it’s also remarkably easy to screw up a social campaign from its outset. To avoid that, ask yourself these five questions to ensure that your initiatives read as authentic to the public, whether you’re a brand, public agency, nonprofit or issue campaign.

  1. Do you have a public constituency on which to build?
    Online engagement initiatives amplify public sentiment that already exists. Twitter or Facebook alone are not going to conjure a non-existent community out of thin air. Consider the widely heralded Obama for America digital campaign in 2008, for instance. It was about amplifying the voices of real supporters and giving them a dedicated forum—not inventing them.So ask yourself: Do real public voices exist that take the position you’re espousing? If you’re a lone voice, it’s best to do some influencer outreach first, both behind the scenes and out in the open (e.g., through media relations and advertising), to begin to build a community that believes in your point of view.
  2. Are you prepared to stand up to the opposition?
    If you can’t state your proposition at least as clearly, concisely and compellingly as the opposing side can state theirs, you’re on dangerous ground. This is doubly true when human emotions and cultural sensitivities come into play (hence the recent trouble for the Washington Redskins).If the other side’s point of view is something as clear as “Families are being hurt by this policy,” and the best response you can muster is, “It’s complicated” without any human proof points, then you’ve got some work to do.
  3. Are you willing to be transparent about your motives?
    Everyone has an angle, and (for good reasons) people sometimes keep their cards close to the vest. But Internet culture demands transparency. Otherwise, people presume you’re hiding something. Never mind whether doing so is perfectly legitimate; it’s not a conversation you want to get into. The immediacy and quick-response mechanisms typical of social media make it common for a voice to be amplified rapidly to a massive audience. When that voice is saying something you want the world to hear, that’s great. When it’s criticizing your motives (especially if it’s speaking unfairly), it’s not so hot.
  4. Is the position you’re advocating a credible and defensible one?
    Sounds simple, but it’s not always that simple. Just ask Chick-Fil-A. No matter how advantageous your position is for you, if your organization holds to a point of view that’s contrary to social norms, be prepared for the fallout. It’s a free country.But if you aim to reach a broad-based market, don’t initiate a social media engagement campaign that’s controversial on its face. Don’t needlessly insult or inflame particular cultural groups, don’t take positions that are widely derided and, above all, avoid stonewalling.
  5. Can people clearly understand why this matters to them?
    Remember that social media is consumed in small bites, usually on small screens and very often on the go, which makes it particularly suited to pithy slogans, compelling visual images and other short, simple, easily digestible sound bites.As a rule of thumb, if your point of view is too complex to turn into a hashtag that the average person can immediately understand, it’s probably not suited to a social media-driven engagement campaign. Conversely, if your campaign includes lots of ways people can take part, so they can feel personally implicated in your success, you’ve got a winner.

Know your audience and don’t BS them

The best broad-based social media programs have a place for everyone, from the fanatic who’s ready to knock on doors and email all her friends to the casual supporter who’s merely going to retweet or repost something once in a while.

Put simply, don’t be disingenuous. Honest efforts to use the power of friendship and social connections to extend the reach of a straightforward point of view are going to be most effective. Be as open as you can about what your organization believes and why, and give people ways that they can have an emotional stake in the story you want told.