I did a presentation at the eCampaigners Forum in Oxford last week called “’human’ is the new ‘professional'”. Despite being the 1st victim of a clown-style horn telling me my 7 minute slot was up, the core notion that ‘professionalism’ prevents our organisations from connecting with the people involved in our causes, seemed to go down pretty well. Yet when we got to discussing the ideas in practice, there was a major push back to the more traditional approach…
Meeting agendas at the pub
I started with this: “imagine you’re at the pub and a mate pulls out agendas for everyone and says ‘we’ve got 10 minutes to debate yesterday’s footie, 20 minutes for Jim to complain about his family, and 15 minutes to talk about the recession… by the way, who’s going to be minuting this?’”
This was my metaphor for most voluntary organisations’ use of social media; applying the conventions of one space, to the structures of another. Like calling someone and reading them a press release over the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to treat social media as a formal broadcast channel and doing so undermines the impact we can get from it for our respective causes.
I recently decided that social media is (should be?) like the ‘smoke breaks’ of organisational communications. It’s informal, it has a power-levelling impact on those involved, regardless of job title, it is where critical ideas are often exchanged, but is rarely recognised for the important role it plays in decision-making processes or in information distribution/collection.
That one got a solid laugh.
After the talk…
But when we moved from the formal presentations, to an Open Space session on ‘Organisational social media policy’, it felt like my ideas, while good for a laugh, had been quickly thrown away. A few bad experiences, a lot of self-censorship, some fundamental mistrust of staff and a few very legitimate arguments (I felt) around safety of individuals being Tweeted/blogged about, took the conversation back towards the traditionally slow-moving, autocratic, top-down means of communicating that organisations have always used for older media channels.
The natural extension, in my opinion, would be another 30 page document that would take months to produce, get properly read by no one, and create a ‘chill’ amongst staff who choose to err on the side of caution to avoid saying or doing anything online that might not fall within the policy they haven’t read. Ultimately, it is the ‘safe’ approach to social media that looks most ‘unprofessional’, as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the format in which it has engaged.
Some of the challenges
Having been discussing these issues with people in organisation’s for a little while now, it was not totally surprising to hear many of the concerns people raised at the ECF last week. But I wanted to provide a bit of an alternative story, some of which people brought up in the discussion, others which weren’t really touched on.
“We don’t want people’s personal lives to be confused with their organisational lives.”
My response: When it comes to a cause, whether cancer research, climate justice, human rights or animal welfare, almost everyone thinks of that cause as something personal to them. It’s only this tiny percentage of us who actually get paid to be active, that think of campaigns as ‘professional’ activities. And even amongst those of us ‘professional’ campaigners, we hopefully do our jobs in large part because we are passionate about our issues. If we are, but are not able to share that passion (as it might mean calling a cabinet minister a bastard from their Twitter account, for example) our organisations are losing a huge part of why they hired us, and what we have to offer the cause. And further, if our organisations want to take advantage of that passion, it can’t be boxed in with ‘acceptable types and levels of public passion’ guidelines – because that’s not how passion works. There is a level of risk acceptance needed here on the part of organisations. My inclination is that allowing your staff the freedom to be as expressive as they want to be online, will lead to much greater gains for your cause, than some occasional moments of public embarrassment will cost it.
“If we can’t control it, how can we make sure it is on-message’?”
My response: In short, you can’t. But even if you did control social media messaging from the top, people would still make mistakes and contradictory statements would still sometimes get published. So instead of asking ‘how can we control it’, why not shift the frame to ‘how can we get the most from it?’ and encourage anyone with the desire to take on Tweeting, blogging, video making, if they have the inclination to do so? After all, we are hired for a reason, and if we are worth the pay, surely we should be trusted to speak out about things we care about? I think it was Jamie Wooley from Greenpeace that brought up the big underlying tension here, by asking the group what they want a social media policy to achieve; is it a matter of controlling messages (and as a result, staff and volunteers), or is it about harnessing the potential power of all stakeholders to increase the impact of your campaigns and awareness of your issues? I have heard many a geeky rumour that Google’s staff social media policy is simply ‘be smart’, which seems to capture the essential balance of freedom and responsibility that is key to any public platform. I see little need to make it more complicated than that, as long as your staff are aware of the specific public information risks related to your work (say, revealing a dissident journalist’s location in a hostile country).
“But what if [insert hypothetical PR disaster here]”
My response: Then handle it as you would any other PR disaster; apologise, explain, move focus back to your cause, etc… I’d argue that the news story of an erroneous Tweet from a household-name NGO is probably not a story that will hold the spotlight for long. The much bigger PR disasters (the ones that lead to cancelled Direct Debits and angry blogs from former supporters, etc) are the ones where the organisation has undermined its own values. An open social media policy, in which more people are empowered to act for the issues they care about, is not remotely in the same league as say, undermining employees’ rights, paying private sector-scale wages to top brass, or being sponsored by companies that sell guns or tobacco. Just to put the hypothetical situation into perspective for a moment…
Some questions to follow-up with…
When the horn pushed me through my final slides a little faster than planned, I had a few questions I’ve been using as a ‘guiding principles’ in the process of ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ that got rushed through.
How human is your organisation?
1. Practices two-way, conversational communications, inside and outside its walls?
2. Supports autonomous leadership to emerge from all levels?
3. Encourages broad, open, equal involvement in organisational decisions?
4. Trust staff to take risks and try new ways of campaigning (without fear of reprisal)?
So what do you think? Is this a bunch of hippie faff, or are these questions our organisations need to be asking more seriously when we engage in the online world?