Digital Campaigns With Autism NI

Hello all!

It’s good to be back. I know it’s been a whole month, forgive me.

The blog was offline while a good (technical-genius) friend of mine helped me to move it over from WordPress to its own (expensive) hosting.

Anyway, I’m here with some feel-good giving-back chat. Because that’s exactly what I did this week with a visit to Rachel (Marketing) and Sarah-Jayne (Corporate Fundraising) at Autism NI.

You might remember back in December, for Giving Tuesday, I offered local charities the opportunity to “Win a Day of my Time” which was followed by lots of social media applications and a subsequent vote between the four finalists, which I asked my Facebook and Twitter followers for help with.

Autism NI came out tops for a few reasons - namely, because my son lives with the condition and so I felt well able to help them from both personal and professional experience, but also because my followers felt that Autism the condition and Autism NI the organisation, could both use a boost when it comes to public awareness.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Rachel and Sarah-Jayne asked me to help with (because they know their stuff) and so in advance of my half day with them I did what I would do for any organisation I’m preparing to work with - a SWOT analysis of their organisation within their industry/field, as well as researching the best (and worst!) campaigns globally for the upcoming Autism Awareness month (April).

Admittedly I knew little about Autism NI before this project. But as I explained to the team, sometimes that’s down to personal responsibility and can’t always be shouldered by an organisation. After all, if I wanted to learn about them, they’re easy to find, with a popular Facebook page, fully stocked website and regularly updated Twitter account.

Autism NI is Northern Ireland’s main Autism charity. Formed in 1990, it exists to support individuals with Autism and their families, and campaigns to raise awareness of Autism in the wider society. The charity supports a network of 26 branches and local support groups across NI and provides life changing services for the 30,000 people affected by Autism.

The charity has it’s share of critics, as most Voluntary Sector organisations do, from those claiming they waste money on things like the Autism Act (NI) 2011, to generic accusations of “what good is awareness raising?!” in a sector that is more devoid of (and more in need of) resources for support services than anywhere else in the UK.

The Scottish government, for example, funds Autism Scotland to the tune of many millions. Autism NI do not have the same local support and so are restricted in what they can deliver by the funded projects they can apply for, and said funds are running out. Add to that the difficulty in educating the public on a spectrum condition (where every person is affected uniquely) and they climb a mountain regularly.

But Autism NI also have a lot of strengths as an organisation. As one of few regional specialist charities addressing this issue they have strong, positive patrons (like Belfast Giant Adam Keefe) and celebrity endorsement (like TV Presenters Ant and Dec) as well as good online audience figures and community volunteer/support group buy-in compared to other regional charities.

Their main challenge? How to get more people outside those directly affected, caring about and fundraising for, Autism in Northern Ireland.

And so just Rachel and Sarah-Jayne sit in their office battling the mammoth tasks of corporate fundraising, grant applications, digital and social media marketing, sponsorship, partnerships, fundraising event organisation and PR (while a very active CEO is battling the politicians and the media).

I know, I’m exhausted just typing it! But I remember the challenge well from my years in-house in the Third Sector.


Autism Awareness Campaigns

It was an interesting exercise to research what has worked well globally in terms of Autism Awareness campaigns, many of which I hadn’t seen before. Elements of the most popular campaigns to date have included the following:

  • Focus on what children have in common rather than what makes them different (i.e. wanting to make friends and be part of a group) such as Sesame Street’s autistic character
  • Celebrating difference, e.g. the Epic Strut campaign from MoneySupermarket for National Autistic Society
  • Raising awareness of the signs of Autism to families because early intervention is so crucial to outcomes in later life, like Autism Speaks’ film through the eyes of Jacob
  • #TwizzlerChallenge was demeaned for being confusing but did highlight the social awkwardness of Autism with the “kiss” at the end
  • Self-advocacy from children and adults themselves with positive messaging and support service e.g. Orbit Education and Care, Wales’ Awesome, Super, Clever campaign
  • The recent turn of focus from Autism Awareness month to Autism ACCEPTANCE month such as Brian Batey’s Facebook page to support his son “Paint ‘Em Blue for Autism”

During my time with the team I also chatted through as many tips and tricks as I could think of, from whether or not a charity CEO should have their own Twitter account (N.B. they should, mental note to blog on that further!) to how to guess and test the email addresses of people when you only know their name and company domain through to curating news via Google Alerts, devising a content plan for social media marketing and just general feedback as a parent on what I like to see from campaigning organisations.


User Generated Content Campaigns

I also came up with a newsjacking content plan throughout the month of April to encourage a variety of User Generated Content across the social media channels, to keep the conversation going:

2nd April: Autism Awareness Day: Organise blanket social support (such as a blue filter on Facebook profile photos with an equal sign on top) to add an element of mystery.

7th April: National No Housework Day - a fun take on the chores Autism mums actually miss doing because they’re at therapy sessions, containing meltdowns, or the extra housework they do because they’re up all night with a non-sleeper!

10th April: National Siblings Days - fun photo uploads celebrating the love between neurotypical siblings and their brothers and sisters with Autism.

11th April: Pet Day - celebrating “man’s best friends” and highlighting the life-changing effect assistance dogs have on children living with Autism.

15th April: Jungle Book movie release - celebrating difference, create a video to the Bear Necessities song with children and families dancing and singing - being happy, encouraging others to #EmbraceDifference and tie in with the age old story of the awkward child raised in the jungle.

20th April: Volunteer Recognition Day - highlighting the individual stories of volunteers who make a difference in everyday lives.

23rd April: 400th anniversary of  William Shakespeare’s death - there are a few links here, from highlighting the constant research to find new ways to support children (such as the Ohio State University Shakespeare and Autism programme) and the link between communication difficulties and expressing emotions: Shakespeare’s plays are written to the rhythm of the human heartbeat.

Also highlighting the importance of relaxed performances opening the theatre experience to Autism families (which the globe theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company actually operates).

Also promoting a different quote for each key signal of Autism e.g. lack of sleep “To sleep, perchance to dream” (Hamlet) or how everyone is different “What’s in a name?” (Romeo and Juliet) or the courage of children to face a world that bombards their senses or frightens them “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em” (Twelfth Night). This could be backed up with powerful imagery.

6th May: Captain America movie release - finishing April with superhero themed event/social uploads/competition - because Autism is just like being a superhero; heightened senses, social awkwardness, family dramas, daily battles but ultimately - special people who amaze the world!

OK, perhaps it all sounds very fluffy or PR-spin for such a serious issue, but positive sentiment and authentic human stories work online when they are tied in to topics people are already talking about and sharing. That’s just the way it is.

Fluff aside, I had arrived in their office as their CEO Dr Arlene Cassidy MBE was busy responding to the welcome announcement of a much-needed government cash injection to try to clear the back log of families desperately waiting for assessments (to get a diagnosis that will help them access non-existent support services, but that’s an issue for another day).

You see, unlike the stereotypical PR Consultant, I didn’t just parachute in on this charity with quirky ideas to “go blue” or “take a selfie” for Autism Awareness month without understanding the unseen daily battles families face. I have fought hard for my son in both the health and education systems, and will continue to do so, probably for the rest of his life. I have grieved for his struggles and I have celebrated all that he is.

But unlike many online detractors, I don’t agree that awareness days are a waste of time. Or that the viral Facebook images to “post for one hour to show support” don’t mean anything.

They do. At least, they do to me.

They show us acceptance. That we are not alone.

People want to show solidarity with those who fight these battles for their children. And yes we need to educate, we need to support, we need to do lots of things. But when all people have to give is their empathy, time and social channel space, then it would be a wonderful thing to see those channels go blue in April.

Well, didn’t social spread make a world of difference to the Equal Marriage campaign when 26 MILLION people changed their profile photos to a rainbow flag?

So yes I will be “wearing it blue” on April 2nd, as will my little boy, who now knows he “has an Autism brain” and thankfully accepts it (enduring the challenges while enjoying the fact that he has heightened senses like some kind of real-life Superhero). If you want to do something more tangible, the option to donate is always there, too.

“Bold in Blue model Bjorn Blythe helps Autism NI launch their ‘Wear It Blue’ campaign this April to encourage local supporters and businesses to hold a ‘blue’ day and raise awareness and funds for this hidden disability in Northern Ireland.”

I must thank Autism NI for taking part in my volunteering competition, allowing me into their organisation and giving me their time so that I could give back to my community, and also to Giving Tuesday Northern Ireland for inspiring people to donate their time as much as their pennies!


P.S. For further information or to request a ‘Wear It Blue’ fundraising pack contact Sarah-Jayne on 028 9040 1729 (option 3) or email [email protected]