Facing the Social Media Challenge

May 01, 2012 | LND | Methods & Tools |


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Jovan KurbalijaA new form of influencing policy-making is emerging thanks to the Internet. The Arab Spring, anti-ACTA protests, the Occupy movement, pirate parties have at least one thing in common: they all share the  Internet as an enabler. On the Internet, protest movements coordinate activities and manage to reach out to the global public. Governments and international organisations cannot ignore this substantive change. Jovan Kurbalija, in his contribution, discusses challenges facing governments and organisations in getting involved in the social media space.

By Jovan Kurbalija, Diplo Foundation

The fate of ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) shows the limits of traditional diplomacy and the potential of e-participation in political life. Faced with a pan-European Internet campaign and protests, the EU is likely to abandon ACTA.

This shift in the way policy is made was summarised by Maroš Šefčovič, EU Commission Vice-President: ‘We saw how our absence in the world of social media on this particular topic caused us a lot of troubles. I think this is a lesson for all of us that we have to be much more active and in a much more communicative mood when it comes to such sensitive topics in the future.’

The main lesson of ACTA is that governments and organisations must listen and, in particular, ‘e-listen’, more attentively than ever before. The Internet has allowed people worldwide to coordinate, in order to present a more coherent message, and to share this message more loudly and stridently than in the past. As The Economist commented on ACTA: ‘Internet activists used to be dismissed as a bunch of hairy mouse-clickers with little clout. Not anymore.’

Similar to the EU, governments and international organisations worldwide will increasingly face challenges to adjust to changes in communication and social environment. How can they adjust their working methods to the requirements of our time? How can they become more active and effective on social media?

Low entry point – high bar for success

Governments and international organisations beginning to engage on social media face a very low entry point; i.e. one can learn how to use Twitter or Facebook in just one day. However, at the same time, they face a considerable challenge in order to communicate effectively using social media. It takes at least a month to start using these tools in a reasonably effective way (learning to listen and follow, acquiring the culture, developing a social media voice).

Even more time, at least one year, is needed for an institution to effectively integrate social media into its operations. Social media use requires a change in communication habits, and an organised daily routine. Such changes require time and patience. The patience needed to effectively integrate social media does not correspond to the perception of immediacy that surrounds social media and the Internet world.

Hands-off management

Social media puts many organisations in a ‘management paradox’: social media cannot be integrated in organisations using directives. It is difficult to order staff to be creative and engage in using social media. Top-down orders have limited potential. At the same time, the success of social media efforts depends on well-organised and sustained efforts over a period of time, and planning is important to ensure consistency and regularity in tweeting and blogging, for example. Effective social media communication will not just emerge out of  ‘creative chaos.’

If traditional organisational mechanisms cannot help, what can? Recent experience suggests the following approaches.

  • Support and leadership by example, from the top echelons of organisations, is essential. Regular and substantive blogs and tweets by the head of an organisation can motivate the organisation to follow, as demonstrated by early adopters such as campaigning organisations. For example, blogs have been central to Greenpeace International communication since they first emerged over 15 years ago. Their output regularly features blogs from senior management and Board members as they travel and engage in local activities.
  • Social media requires a substantive investment of resources, mainly human ones. Traditionally, ICT costs were associated with hardware and software. Today, these costs are minimal, and it is the reason many people perceived social media as “free”. But social media requires a lot of staff time, which is becoming a precious resource. For example, the US State Department has 150 staff working exclusively on social media, as well as other staff dedicating part of their working time to social media tasks.
  • Organisations need to create the necessary environment for the integration of social media. They must increase the level of risk tolerance, which is often counter-intuitive for organisational cultures that are anxious to avoid errors. Typically, anything that increases the possibility for mistakes, including innovation and initiative, is avoided. A good, possibly surprising, example is provided by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) social media approach. Their guidelines are based on the principle of ‘assumed competence’; meaning staff at all levels are encouraged to blog from their missions without prior approval. The FCO ‘post-moderates’, meaning it reserves the right to edit or remove blogs that cause problems once they have been published. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the FCO blog space is so rich and interesting. (Bloggers value seeing their work online quickly, while long approval processes deaden creativity and enthusiasm).
  • Basic guidelines (but not detailed regulation), success stories, and training and coaching for staff can all help. A good example of an approach that balances encouragement with guidance is provided by the UN IFAD social media guidelines.

In sum, organisations have to inspire staff and engage them through nudging and encouragement, until they start using social media with the same confidence that they have with e-mail or the telephone.

As has been said many times, the issue for organisations is not whether they will lose control of what is said about them in the online space but whether they will lose control gracefully. And organisations that work globally, such as development organisations, face the twin challenges of being left behind by the pace of change in the Global South, and appearing unresponsive to engaged constituencies at home.

As many thriving organisational social media spaces demonstrate, the challenge for organisations, especially large public institutions, is not how to train and engage their staff in the use of tools – although there is a need for some technical support – but how to manage change within the organisation.

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