An inside look at AARP’s rapid response team

The head of grassroots advocacy shares how the association structures and runs this team, and how it’s responding to COVID-19.


AARP has been on the frontlines to ensure its members, those aged 50 and older—who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19—are protected when it comes to their health.

“It’s a great unknown that we’re all dealing with,” said Reshma Mehta, director of grassroots advocacy at AARP, at Ragan’s Speechwriting and Public Affairs Virtual Conference on March 25. “It’s about taking care of our members first and foremost. Focus on your people and community first before anything else.”

For AARP, that means suspending campaigns that were running before the pandemic and pivoting to advocacy and education around the coronavirus. “It’s not business as usual,” she said.

Among the actions the association has taken:

  • Updating resources in real-time at org/coronavirus and in English and Spanish.
  • Advocating in Congress and state legislatures.
  • Hosting weekly telephone town halls with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and other experts Thursdays at 1 p.m. Eastern time, which draw thousands of questions. “We’ve been getting our members that real-time info of how they can protect themselves in this crisis,” Mehta says.

Your social media efforts don’t need to go dark during this crisis, but make sure your posts are relevant, she advises. COVID-19 is top of mind so before your next post, ask yourself, is what you’re talking about relevant to your audience?

Online rapid response team

AARP has assembled an online rapid response team to respond to social media comments, crises and news that pertains to its audience.

“Yes, there’s a risk of putting yourself out there on social media…but the reward is high,” Mehta said.

Responses by the team should be both proactive and reactive. There are instances when people are talking about your organization and you opt to respond, and other times when you’re more reactive.

For instance, AARP recently jumped into the conversation on Twitter by reiterating its core priorities after the lieutenant governor of Texas said seniors would risk getting the coronavirus to prevent economic collapse.

You should “participate in a tone that works for your organization,” Mehta said.

So, where to begin in forming such a team?

Here are a few steps Mehta discussed:

  • Create a rapid response team and internal protocol.
  • Set up social listening protocol.
  • Cultivate internal ambassadors as well as third-party validators.
  • Monitor response and interact.

Step one: Form a rapid-response team.

To do this:

  • Get leadership buy-in. Whomever is in charge needs to be able to make decisions without the entire leadership team getting involved. That’s not sustainable.
  • Pick a social media manager who is media trained and charged with making judgement calls. This should be someone with experience—not an intern.
  • Create a rapid response team. Mehta advised you keep the team small. At AARP, eight people from different departments form the team. All team members must be relatively available seven days a week. If there’s a Sunday morning political talk show and someone says something about AARP, Monday is too late to respond. It should be folks willing to do things outside of that standard nine-to-five when necessary,” she said.

Step two: Set up social listening protocol.  

Don’t underestimate the power of the tried and true—keyword monitoring, Google news alerts, and Twitter lists, which Mehta called “a game changer.” The team has lists set up for AARP employees, health care reporters, care-giving reporters, retirement and economic reporters and each are monitored. Why? Reporters live on Twitter—sharing intel and getting scoops. You should be there, too.

“If you can reply to one of them or quote tweet a reporter with a comment they just said, there’s a good chance they may want to engage back with you,” Mehta says.

Reporters are looking for tweets to embed in their articles, so quick action is key. “As far as the nature of the tweet itself, it’s really important that it be easy to understand, bold and correct,” she adds.

The team alerts each other via email and group text, and a decision is made to respond within 30 minutes.

If they decide to respond, it can be a combination of social media and a press statement. They usually get something on social media fast, within 30 minutes to an hour, and give the group longer to work on a press release with more detail a few hours later.

Remember, you don’t need to respond to everything. “It’s important to take a pause, conduct a situation analysis and decide whether or not it makes sense to you as organization to respond,” Mehta says.

Sign up for Ragan Training to watch Mehta’s full session, including how to measure the effectiveness of a rapid response team, and access the entire conference on demand.

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