In the last year, working as an Advisor for several organizations I have been training lots of journalists, mainly in small local community media, like community radio stations, and NGOs, on how to use social media for their work. One things needs to be noted: from country to country, and inside the country, from place to place, there is a huge difference in the awareness and use of social media that small local media and NGOs do.
I am referring here to small local media or NGOs because normally those type of organizations do not have the money to hire their own “social media” expert so they rely on their existing capacity to learn how to use those tools. On the side of NGOs is just because they too often think that the Social Media is part of their PR or comms system. Having said that, there are some who have learned how to do and master it very efficiently, and others that still struggle, either for lack of technical capacity or for lack of previous knowledge.
In general for local media outlets and NGOs that start using social media by themselves, those are most common issues I have faced and how I have addresses them:
1. Using social media as a newspaper. This is a very common mistake that lots of traditional media and NGOs entering the social media space do: using Twitter and Facebook in the same way they were operating before, as one-way communication system. Normally this means that they use those tools only to push information out to the public, basically transforming their twitter feed or their Facebook page into a newspaper. Those cases are also normally paired with almost no interactions with users: no replies to comments, little pools, poor or no use of forums, etc.
Why? The reason why this happen is that while people recognize the importance of Social Media in their work, they do not address the issue from a systematic point of view. They simply add Social Media management to the work of the IT person – normally – or the editor – or the PR or comms person for the NGOs – and they believe that this all it takes. The fundamental mistake here is the lack of understanding that the use of Social Media is not just an additional tool but it is a change in the way we communicate and relate to the audience or our stakeholders, being them beneficiaries or people we want support from. New tools here come with new approaches.
What to do? The simple way to address this is to have a more systematic approach that begins with the understanding of what a two-way communication system is. For traditional media this has been and will still be for some time a struggle. While traditional journalism and PR comes from the perspective of “publishing”/ “advertising”, social media relies on the process of “sharing” and “interacting”. The first is a totally outfacing process – I tell you, you listen; the second one is a process relying on a conversation – I talk to you, you reply, I reply to your reply and so on. The shift here is related to the understanding that a relationship needs to be build and that a relationship is necessarily based on a conversation rather than on a unidirectional stream of information. One practical way to do so, is to actually start incorporating Social Media management into all the activities of an NGO or media outlet, and guide individuals through the process of relating to their audience in a very different way.
2. Think that social media can be an accessory. What I am referring to here is the idea that the use of social media will not require any additional efforts. This is a very common mistake related to the fact that Social media accounts are indeed free, meaning you do not have to pay to have one, and for this reason people tend to think that also their use/management is free. Which is not the case.
Why? One of the main problem here is the fact that, as I mentioned before, normally Social Media management is a task that is given to the IT person – or the editor, or the PR or comms person. Normally the editor/PR person choose which content is published and the IT person is the one mandated to publish the information on the Social media account. This system, it’s not only a problem in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of practical workflows. In fact, the very principle of Social media – immediate, real time and highly interactive tools – becomes pretty much impossible to be fulfilled by this system. By the time the editor/comms has decided what needs to be published and when, the audience may have already replied and waiting for an answer, that will need to be read by the IT person, reported to the editor/comms person again and then referred to the IT person to be published.
What to do? I had several conversations with journalists and NGOs like Al Jazeera, BBC, and UNICEF and I consider those three organisations to be probably the best users of Social Media in the traditional media an NGO landscape (granted UNICEF is not an NGO, but it’ a similar type of organisation in terms of mandate). One of the main technics that they use is that they train all their journalists/workers in using social media individually. This leads to a completely different workflow but also to a completely different “relationship” with the audience. What happen in fact is that social media becomes a tool for journalists/development workers and not a “company” tool necessarily, where individual journalists/NGO workers handle and control their own relationship with the audience, but in the same time they enrich the conversation on behalf of the “company”. The result is one conversation under the umbrella of one organisation, that have different distinct voices under it. This system, makes the conversation faster, easier and richer.
3. Trying to control the conversation. This is something that most NGOs and local media outlets can’t really cope with: the fact that on social media you cannot really control the conversation or try to direct it the way you want (one notable example is this tentative of the NYDP to use Twitter for their own PR campaign). If you do not engage in a conversation in your real life – or in your job as organisation – Social Media will just be a reflection of that. With the difference that while with in-person conversations there are only as many people as you can reach – with social media one person can reach many other people, and therefore spread the voice much faster and broader. Controlling the conversation is not an option, but being able to handle a conversation is the first prerequisite for using Social Media properly.
Why? The reason why this happens is strictly related to the fact that the while in the pre-social media time organizations where able to decide what to talk about and how, now this prerogative is not there anymore. Anyone, any where, can decide to start a conversation about an organization and provide information and input into the conversation without even having to talk to the organization in question. Social media does not allow for any control of the conversation and does not allow anyone to take ownership of it – and this mans that organizations need to learn to do something they have never done before: 1) engage with their audience even if the audience it hostile; 2) provide proofs for what they say and convince the audience 3) be ready to apologize for their mistake and be held accountable for what they do/say.
What to do? This is normally what I suggest to organizations and what I trained them on:
1. Learn to listen, not just to talk. Listening does not mean hearing. It means listening!
2. Have processes, protocols, editorial guidelines in place – what you say reflects who you are but different people may read different messages in the same sentence. Be mindful and careful about your language and your reactions.
3. Learn how to handle a conversation. A conversation is based on the mutual ability to listen and understand not on the ability to “convince” people that you are right.
4. If you screw up, be the first one to say it. Do not wait for people to find out.
5. You will never make everyone happy and you will never be liked by everyone. So make sure you choose a target carefully and go for the “influencers” and not for the masses.
This last point is very important. Traditional media and NGOs have in common one thing: they both believe that what they do is unique and that they have little to learn from other fields. Wrong. Lots of their processes are shared with tons of other fields and lots of other organizations have things to teach them. One is for example the audience research that business and bug companies do: learn who is out there, what do they like, who do they listen to and what do they think about you. Think as a business that needs to sell a products and the product is your reputation and your image. Your brand is your mission and your values, and the more people know your brand, the more they may be willing to be your advocates and to engage in a social media conversation on your behalf.
I find still very fascinating that Social Media continue to be an unknown territory for lots of small organizations – but also for big one. The change in mentality when it comes to the way we relate to the rest of the world has not happened yet. The very exciting thing here is that we are in a transition mood and we have the possibility to learn from what others are doing and make the best out of it.