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Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Nonprofit

Who should speak for your organization in social media? How can you control what’s being said about your group and your cause? If you're not sure, it may be time to work out a social media policy for your staff and volunteers who blog and chat and comment online, where the personal and professional lines often blur.

Traditional media relations were almost easy, in retrospect. A reporter called or wrote to request an interview, and you could hook him or her up with a designated spokesperson: your policy coordinator, media relations officer, executive director, or even a trusted volunteer with special expertise in the issue and perhaps some public relations skills. Out-going communications could be readily *managed* according to an overall strategic plan, when the channels for information-flow were formal, slow, and essentially one-way.

Nowadays, the world’s most prestigious media outlets, that once would have relied solely on “expert sources” drawn from a pre-approved pool of contacts, are quoting bloggers and tweeters on a daily basis. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Social media — social networking sites, blogs, forums, the quick informal exchanges made possible by micro-blogging, lifestreaming, text messaging and the rest of Web 2.0’s easy-to-access opportunities for users to generate content — has forever changed the game rules.

Realistically, anyone with Internet access is empowered to say pretty much anything (within the loose bounds of international libel law), and more and more people are finding their voice in social media with every day that passes.

On one hand, this democratization of speech can represent a golden opportunity for small nonprofits to spread their message — without the need for a massive advertising budget or public relations expertise.  On the other hand, nonprofits are fast becoming as concerned as businesses by the creeping loss of control over their “brand” and message.

Chris Bailey: The reality is that no organization — either for-profit or non-profit — has control over its image any longer. Any membership association or fundraising nonprofit that thinks otherwise will find out painfully that irrelevance is perhaps the greatest cost of all.

Don Peterson: If an org is so worried about liabilities and controversy that they hesitate to join the parade of other orgs that ‘see the light’ regarding Social Media they will simply have to wait and watch until their confidence level arises to the extent that they can take the risk.

So what is it, exactly, that worries so many board members and nonprofit managers about participating in social media?

Beth Dunn: It seems like executives (and nonprofit boards) are primarily concerned about three things:

  1. Employees will say bad things about the organization (sponsors, vendors, customers, etc.);
  2. Customers/constituents will say bad things about the organization (sponsors, staff, vendors, etc.);
  3. Employees will tell secrets.

Smart organizations recognize that people are going to talk about them in any case, and that the best they can do is try to manage the effect.

The strongest course of action may very well be to meet their constituents on the common ground of social networking sites and in the blogs, responding with calm facts to any misunderstandings and misinformation, answering questions, resolving problems (or at least showing a willingness to listen), and on occasion defusing an unwarranted attack in much the same way as an experienced comedian will disarm the hecklers in a night-club crowd.  (No wonder there are so many American politicians and US Government staffers on Twitter!)

That’s a tall order, however — simply listening in on the worldwide conversation around your issue can demand a significant time investment — and very few small nonprofits with a limited budget can afford to designate a staff member to handle the job, on top of their regular duties.

So the social media strategy of many nonprofits, by necessity, still consists of an ad hoc arrangement where a number of staff people or volunteers will tag-team to cover the major listening posts and respond to comments and questions to the best of their ability.

Maggie: One way to minimize the risk associated with “a number of staff people or volunteers” is to limit the number of people with admin rights … to the Facebook page and Twitter account; anyone else on staff who wants to post goes through one of these people.
Don Peterson: Common sense ought to prevail here. Of course, anything off topic and not related directly to an org’s mission should stay private….
Beth Dunn: If you haven’t hired people you can trust to behave like responsible adults, then there is a deeper problem.

Is an Internet-usage policy even needed, if you know your people and trust their common sense, or does instituting such a policy show a lack of faith in their intelligence, honesty, and skills? Some have suggested it’s a possible abridgment of free-speech rights, especially for employees who were hired into their positions before the policy is introduced.  It’s a lively debate — and here’s some more food for thought:

A great many of the people who speak for nonprofits on social media websites,  “officially” or otherwise, are very capable indeed — make no mistake about it — but both the individual and the organization are in an inherently risky place without a social media policy to act as a guide for all concerned.

How many social media policies have been hastily developed in reaction to an unfortunate blog post or a hasty comment?  The Internet never forgets — and by the time a writer has a chance for cool second thoughts, the words have been archived in the labyrinth of search engine indexes and syndicated RSS feeds.  Better to be proactive in developing a social media policy, even if you never are called upon to pull it out and quote it. Most people will perform with greater confidence and skill, in an unfamiliar space, when the expectations for their performance are made clear.

But what should those guidelines look like? Can you ask your volunteers to adhere to exactly the same social media policy as you require of your staff? How do you draw a line between the public Internet persona and the personal voice?

Fortunately, developing a nonprofit social media policy need not be a daunting task, perhaps even more manageable for a small nonprofit with a limited number of staff, and only a few people who will represent the organization online in a official capacity, than for a larger organization. Social networking is, at heart, no more than PR 2.0, and a careful reworking of any existing public relations or media policy should set your organization on a solid basis.

If you have no public communications policy in place on which to build, however, it might be helpful to look at a few samples of social media policies from a variety of organizations, such as these:

What are your own tips, advice, experience, or other useful resources towards a nonprofit policy for social networking? If your organization has made its social media guidelines available online, please do leave a link in the comments.

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Published Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 8:45 AM

Comments

  • Laura’s Notebook | Technology for Non-profit Organisations, Social Media and Accessible Website Design  » Blog Archive   » Social media policies for organisations

    Laura’s Notebook | Technology for Non-profit Organisations, Social Media and Accessible Website Design » Blog Archive » Social media policies for organisations said:

    Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 12:36 AM
  • Debra Askanase

    Debra Askanase said:

    Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 5:03 AM

    really comprehensive post! I worked at non-profits for years and the issues are mostly time and responsibility for doing it, which go hand in hand. However, liability was always on the mind of the Executive Director and Board. These will be really helpful for any non-profits looking to institute social media policies. Thanks! I may tweet about this!

  • Eve Smith

    Eve Smith said:

    Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 7:07 AM

    Thanks for mentioning Easter Seals' work in developing our social media policy (Easter Seals Internet Discourse Policy). We also developed Online Community Guidelines for our Easter Seals and Autism blog (autismblog.easterseals.com) that may be useful to readers. It's available at http://www.easterseals.com/site/PageServer?pagename=ntlc8_community_guidelines

  • kare Anderson

    kare Anderson said:

    Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 9:05 AM

    As a companion plan - what will you do if a crisis hits?

    Here's some suggestions

    http://www.movingfrommetowe.com/2008/12/24/be-our-leader-when-that-crisis-hits-next-year/

  • Peggy Hoffman

    Peggy Hoffman said:

    Thursday, 08 January 2009 at 11:15 AM

    Great piece that I just shared on Facebook and a listserv ... appreciate the links and particularly one easy-to-read posting on Have Fun * Do Good which said "If someone writes something bad about your organization [on a comment], I'll betcha that they are saying it to other people, and that other people may have the same feelings. Wouldn't you rather address the complaint out in the open, where everyone can read your response, instead of having talk about you behind your back?" Great reason to take the plunge and hear it all.

  • Debra Askanase

    Debra Askanase said:

    Monday, 12 January 2009 at 7:07 PM

    Had to comment again! Just read Intel's social media policies and I think that they cover all the highlights of your post. A good complementary reference: http://www.intel.com/sites/sitewide/en_US/social-media.htm

  • Rebecca said:

    Tuesday, 13 January 2009 at 6:12 AM

    Eve, thanks for the additional information about Easter Seals' forum guidelines: "Be Respectful" is an especially vital rule, I think -- for any interpersonal communications, but even more important online, when we're communicating in text, without benefit of all the cues we rely on for face-to-face communication: tone of voice, facial expression, etc.

    Kare, your post is a very thoughtful and thorough addition to this discussion! I found the section "Get Your Facts or the Facts Will Get You" particularly useful in terms of planning a real-time response, so important in online communications.

    Debra, absolutely agree, the Intel piece is right up there on the list of "essential reading" for its take on the social networking "rules of engagement"!  And I appreciate your pinpointing the issues of time, responsibility, and liability as major concerns for nonprofits getting into social media -- would love to learn something of how you and others have addressed these issues!

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Kivi Leroux Miller said:

    Wednesday, 15 July 2009 at 5:30 AM

    Great summary of the issues Rebecca! Will point nonprofits to it during the webinar I'm doing today on the personal/professional mix and in follow-up blog posts I have planned.

  • Rebecca said:

    Wednesday, 15 July 2009 at 9:07 AM

    Kivi, thank you! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts around this tricky issue.

  • Amit Desai

    Amit Desai said:

    Tuesday, 04 August 2009 at 6:24 AM

    Nice article and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I firmly believe that every organization big or small should have a social media policy. Recently I completed an analysis on usage of social media and its impact on productivity and have published my findings here http://www.gigathoughts.com/social-media/do-you-have-a-social-media-policy-for-your-organization.html

    Hope you guys find it useful and also do let me know your views on the same

  • Chris Boudreaux

    Chris Boudreaux said:

    Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 10:09 PM

    For anyone developing or researching social media policies, this database contains links to more than 70, and you can filter by industry:

    http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php

  • Wild Apricot Blog

    Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 09 December 2009 at 9:42 AM

    The importance of measuring the effects of your organization’s social media outreach is not in question. But what metrics should you track? How? And what can you do with those numbers? Let’s look at Twitter, for example.

  • uberVU - social comments

    uberVU - social comments said:

    Sunday, 13 December 2009 at 4:19 PM

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by yamasas: [resources] Wild Apricot Blog : Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Nonprofit http://bit.ly/8Sy8Ul

  • Elana

    Elana said:

    Wednesday, 27 January 2010 at 7:02 AM

    I think it's worth adding a point that is perhaps less obvious to people who tune in here. That is, not everyone is on facebook and twitter, and even professional managers and board members may harbor resistance that is a sort of lagging techno-phobia. My director is not on facebook and has no idea what the fuss is about. Most of my board is also not on facebook, and definitely not on twitter. They don't blog, and despite the fact that I bring up at every staff meeting that people need to be writing, it just continues to fall by the wayside.

    So while it's sort of optimistic to think that there are some rational considerations for not getting into social media, there is quite a bit of the irrational at work here too.

  • Rebecca said:

    Wednesday, 27 January 2010 at 7:33 AM

    Excellent point, Elana. Even if we tend to see it as "irrational" -  and in fact, a case can be made for it having a rational basis (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technophobia) - the power of technophobia can't be discounted. I suspect that an element of  xenophobia (fear of strangers/the unknown) often comes into play here, too.

    The only way I know of to begin to counter these fears is with small, safe, gradual steps - a program of systematic desensitization, if you will - where success can be assured, demonstrated, and measured. Then you build, very very very gradually, in tiny risk-controlled steps, on each success - being careful to stay within the comfort level of the technophobic person.  

    Anyone else had success with shifting the position of the technophobes in your life?  I'd love to hear how you tackled it!

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