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.
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
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
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:
- Employees will say bad things about the organization (sponsors, vendors, customers, etc.);
- Customers/constituents will say bad things about the organization (sponsors, staff, vendors, etc.);
- 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
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!)
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
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.
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
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
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.