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The Voice of Civil Rights in the South

Posted At: October 25, 2013 10:30 a.m.
by Kyle Borland

When people think of Alabama’s past, it’s the dark parts they remember the most: the violent actions of the Klu Klux Klan, the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, police dogs and fire hoses used against peaceful protesters, and all the other events that tore Alabama apart from the inside out. The work being done by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center goes largely unnoticed by most people.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a civil rights nonprofit founded in 1971 to combat the racial injustices happening in the South. Over the course of more than 40 years, the SPLC has won landmark cases — most notably, Donald v. United Klans of America — that have paved the way for social change.

“The concept of using legal action to advocate for social change is so effective,” said Tiffany Smith, public affairs director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It sets the SPLC apart, and it’s why they’ve been so successful.”

Since its founding, the SPLC has expanded to not only focus on racial injustice and hate groups but a variety of topics affecting the South today: LGBT equality, immigration reform, the school-to-prison pipeline and more. With all these initiatives, the SPLC needs a large and dedicated public affairs staff to effectively achieve its goals.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center’s public affairs department runs very closely to the corporate communications model,” Smith said. “We have a whole team that is able to specialize in different initiatives, and we have the ability to hire consultants when gaps need to be filled.”

In some aspects, the communications staff of any organization has to be the most passionate about the work they’re doing on a daily basis. Finding that one initiative or that one cause that gets them into the office every single day is vitally important.

“Criminalization of kids of color is something that I care about deeply and the SPLC is passionately working on,” Smith said. “When your organization is working on something you care about, it brings passion to what you do.”

Public relations professionals are told from day one that the hardest thing to do is to change a person’s behavior. In civil rights organizations, you’re not just trying to change individuals but a deeply rooted way of life and thinking.

“You’re working alongside people who have lived and died for these issues,” Smith said. “That’s powerful. It brings meaning to the work you do every single day.”

It’s not just the SPLC leaders who feel this way. One of the newest employees whose position was only created months ago can attest to this as well.

“I grew up in Alabama and always saw the SPLC as a beacon of progress in the South,” said Leanne Naramore, social media coordinator for the SPLC. “Being a queer woman from the South, I jumped at the chance to be at an organization working for progress in an effective way.”

Since Naramore has been hired, the SPLC’s social media presence has grown exponentially. In May, the SPLC had only around 90,000 Facebook likes and 15,000 Twitter followers. Since then, Facebook has increased to more than 113,000 likes, and there are more than 21,500 followers on Twitter. These increases have as much to do with Naramore’s passion for the work she’s doing as the consistent posting of new and meaningful content.

“When you put faith and energy into something, you see results,” Naramore said. “Having passion for the work you’re doing makes putting your heart and soul into something easy.”

The leadership of the SPLC has taken notice. The work that Naramore has done has changed the way the organization thinks about social media. Her success has demonstrated that social media is the best way to convey the SPLC’s messages because it promotes engagement.

“I’m excited to move forward with social media at the SPLC because people here are getting excited about it,” Naramore said. “The SPLC has so much potential to engage our supporters using social media.”

Naramore recently implemented the “#IMarchFor” campaign for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The design department came up with a postcard that had “I March For,” written across the top and space underneath for individuals to write what they continue to march for. The concept behind the initiative was to increase awareness for the March on Washington but also to increase engagement with the Center’s publics by using its various social media channels.

Southern Poverty Law Center's campaign for #IMarchFor used an integrated approach to reach participants
Southern Poverty Law Center’s campaign for #IMarchFor used an integrated approach to reach participants

“The #IMarchFor campaign was an amazing success,” Naramore said. “We’re not on the same level as other groups in visual strategy yet, but we’re definitely moving in that direction.”

Whether it is traditional communications or social media, the SPLC continues to grow and adapt to the changing landscape. An organization that was founded more than 40 years ago has successfully entered the digital world while also keeping a traditional communications foundation.

“The public affairs team is definitely doing something right when conveying our messages on all fronts,” Naramore said. “People are excited to work with us in a personal way.”


  1. Post comment

    I enjoyed Kyle’s piece greatly. It is informative on the journey of the Southern Poverty Law Center and how it has revamped its media services and objective audiences to remain current in the changing world of media. I believe that it is always necessary that an organization go through a series of rebranding to be an effective source in today’s society. It is very interesting that this company has been in service for more than 40 years and takes advantage of progressing technology and social media. The setup of the article gave specific background and built to the organization’s progress today, giving me a better understanding of the history and why set changes were necessary. Social media is always a target when reaching new audiences and presenting key knowledge.


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