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helping organisations to be more like people

‘Human’ is the new ‘professional’ @ ECF2011

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

Liam @ #ECF2011 by coenwarmerI 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?

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Posted in campaigning and flexibility and professionalism and social technology and trust.


8 Replies

  1. You know, I hadn’t even linked your presentation with the social media policy session we’d had earlier – doh!

    I know well the anxiety of posting something online which, at the back of my mind, a voice is telling me might not be popular internally. But then we often receiving messaging lines to use on various issues which definitely aren’t in the conversational tone you describe – repeating them online would sound like boring repetition of the company line, and a long way from the tone we’re trying to build up in social media.

    Trust is required so messages can be adapted to fit the people you’re talking to, and often it needs a demonstration of how it can go well to convince colleagues. Everyone remembers the disasters…

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Jamie!

    The link w/ the social media policy session afterwards was not a direct one, but it’s one of the areas I’m constantly seeing the best intentions for organisational social media use get systematically boxed into a more traditional way of doing things…

    I agree that everyone remembers the disasters. I think this might be a pretty natural human response, so I think the focus on actually demonstrating the models of more human communications are definitely a better place to focus.

    Trust is definitely fundamental, but you rarely see people actually come out in an organisation and say they don’t trust each other, which is probably good in quite a few ways, but also makes it much harder to address, as it’s rarely out in the open… Are there any ways you know of highlighting the mistrust in organisations, without creating greater divides (usually between staff and management)?

    Thanks again for weighing in! 🙂

  3. Hi Liam,

    I enjoyed your presentation last week and I think you hit on some really relevant points & quite smartly placed it in the social context in which a lot of people engage online.

    I also sat in on the first part of the social media policy session (delightfully basking in the sun) and I found it focussed too much on the “possible” negative consequences of staff tweeting. I realise there are some situations where there are genuine risks (e.g. human rights abuse, protecting identities of sources, or simply preserving an announcement for a more appropritate channel).

    On the most part though, I felt the fear was imbalanced compared to the very many positive possibilities of allowing passionate staff to advocate a cause online.

    I believe a social media policy should be liberating and empowering with clear demonstrated examples of how social media can be used by staff members, they should be actively encouraged to engage.

    Burying this in a document is a quick way to ensure it’s not read so perhaps an induction or training for staff members in effective use of social media can fill a gap in understanding..

    And of course there should be some guidance on no no’s but this should really be common sense for most people. I like google’s “Be Smart” policy, adding “don’t tweet about your org while drunk” might be another sensible addition..

    If the US military encourages it’s people to engage in social media, I’m sure open natured, well meaning, change orientated non profits can get it too…

  4. Great post, Laim.

    I did make the connection between your pres and the subsequent discussion on social media policy (yes, Eugene, that sunshine was delicious!).

    I’m going to try to write the shortest social media policy I can, including using the tips above and from the ECF session.
    1. Be smart
    – don’t tweet that you’re drunk (even if you are)
    2. Trust
    – this is directed at managers, who must trust their staff. (As you note, Liam, they hired you for a reason in the first place.)
    3. Manage risk.
    – do this professionally, and with humor when appropriate

    If you haven’t already, I suggest reading @kanter’s book “The Networked Nonprofit“, in particular chapter 6: Building Trust Through Transparency.

  5. Yes Liam, trust is critical.

    I can understand someone working in the office at a factory not being passionate about 8″ flange nuts but can’t understand people in the voluntary sector who aren’t passionate about their work I have met a handful who weren’t. They’re not the sort of people I’d have a drink with.

    People who keep their personal lives in one box and their working life in another also sound like they just have ‘jobs’. Where’s the fun in that?

  6. @Eugene – absolutely – the only thing I’m unsure about is training staff in this stuff… I think there are ways to encourage it through perhaps an open ‘coaching’ offer within organisations – allowing those who want the help to ask for it, and giving them a little bit of 1-2-1 time. In my experience, people take this stuff in so differently, that trying to get through it in a group can end up being much slower than giving a short amount of time to each person individually… which, I suppose, is kinda how Twitter works anyway…?

  7. @Joel – definitely been meaning to read Beth Kanter’s book and agree with what you say here re: social media policy… but I’d also suggest being careful w/ the manage risk piece – in my experience, too often ‘manage risk’ morphs into ‘prevent innovation/experimentation’, so perhaps one to watch out for and actively promote in a certain way?
    Thanks for the thoughts and keen to see it if your able to share the policy openly 🙂

  8. @Peter – yes – unlikely to have a drink w/ those who work in this sector, but without any passion for it… such people need to move on and make room for those with the energy!

    Sadly, I think it’s often an impact of big organisations – people come in with a lot of energy, but after one-too-many departmental meetings, policy re-drafts, scoping exercises and other such soul destroyers, the motivation is gone, let alone the passion. It often takes a special kind of person to keep that kind of energy in a system that seems to punish (or at least not appreciate) it. And a lot of that punishment or under-appreciation is directly linked to this false idea of professionalism… I wrote more about this last year:

    Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.