It’s no secret that some nonprofit organizations have been defensive about allowing folks to interact or “contribute” to the organization’s reputation or area of expertise online. (This terror is the basis of recent discussions regarding radical trust, for instance.) And, in a way, the terror makes sense from more traditionally minded members of the workplace – nonprofit organizations are heavily scrutinized and already have many stakeholders as it is (board members, constituents, donors). Understandably, (though perhaps inexcusably) social media and online engagement may be scary-to-the-point-of-suppression for those who don’t fully understand how it has changed the way that we communicate, connect with one another, and access information.
Some organizations have tried to exert control by putting forth aggressive social media policies. In fact, a nonprofit organization is the opening case study in this week’s The New York Time’s article summarizing recent court rulings concerning social media policies.
These recent rulings do not indicate that social media policies are a bad idea; rather, they suggest that social media policies that aim too strongly or aggressively to limit freedom of speech (and then use these policies to take away jobs) are a bad idea. But, in reality, organizations too ignorant to understand the role of social media in society may be doomed to confront significantly larger problems than disgruntled, chatty staff members. Assuredly bad though that may be, developing a reputation for a lack of transparency and suffering from the negative word of mouth that inevitably results from stifled and contrived social media communications is likely to jeopardize an organization’s relevance in the competitive market much more quickly than a Negative Nancy with a Twitter account.
Here are some key take-aways from the article regarding rulings:
- Recent rulings by the National Labor Relations Board “generally tell companies that it is illegal to adopt broad social media policies — like bans on “disrespectful” comments or posts that criticize the employer — if those policies discourage workers from exercising their right to communicate with one another with the aim of improving wages, benefits or working conditions.”
- “But the agency has also found that it is permissible for employers to act against a lone worker ranting on the Internet.”
- The agency has pushed companies such as General Motors, Target and Costco to rewrite their social media rules.
- National Labor Relations Board officials “say they are merely adapting the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, to the 21st century workplace.”
The critical take-aways for nonprofit organizations from these recent ruling are less tactical and more strategic and conceptual – and absolutely necessary. Here are four guiding principles that nonprofit organizations may benefit by adopting:
Web and social media are the public’s number one method of accessing information – and social media plays a leading role in driving the decision to visit a museum or other visitor-serving organization. Social media is critical to increasing online reputation, which directly aids in long-term financial solvency. An organization that runs from social media, or tries too hard to control it rather than contemplating how the organization may benefit from digital communications, may risk speedy irrelevance. For quote-lovers, a harsh reality of being a leader may be summarized here: “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” The world moves. Times change. Social media is here and it’s important. Embrace it. Or, if you prefer photo quotes, this one may be more inspiring…
Not all social media policies are stifling. In fact, having a smart social media policy is wise for nonprofit organizations. Effective social media policies should:
- Provide staff members with the tools and information required for them to optimally communicate with/about the organization. Chances are your employees actually want to help your organization succeed online. Show them how they can do that.
- Outline expectations for social media interactions, etc. Have an organizational Code of Conduct? This is a good time to remind folks that these rules apply offline and online.
- State that leaders are open to feedback…and encourage team members to channel thoughts that may reflect negatively on the organization to higher-ups who intend to listen and work to find viable solutions instead of broadcasting their critiques to the less specifically-concerned web.
- Remind staff members that negative posts about the organization indeed reflect poorly on the organization. Again, chances are that your employees are actually out to elevate the organization and its mission.
- Underscore items that staff members truly should not communicate. For example, if members of your organization have security clearances or work with sensitive or confidential information, restrictions concerning the disclosure of this information should be clearly articulated. In other words, be detailed about what is okay to share and what is off-limits.
- Encourage social sharing. Let staff members know that positive word of mouth marketing has an impact on promulgating your mission. If staff members believe in your cause, encourage them to share it personally.
It may require a bit of a change in the minds of executive leaders, but thanks to the increased use of social media, staff members are also critical stakeholders in much the same way as are donors, board members and other constituents. It’s been vogue for some time now for leaders to issue generic platitudes along the lines of “Our most important resource is our people,” but this sentiment, while arguably always true, is now on display to the world. Smart organizations know how to leverage these most valuable resources. Staff members are your behind-the-scenes evangelists – the people whom the world looks to for the “inside scoop” about how your organization functions. What is best for them is – increasingly often – also best for you and your organization. Understanding this is critical for creating a successful social media strategy. As recent rulings indicate, dealing with lone perpetrators who conduct real offenses on social media may be actionable by punishment…but don’t assume that all staff members are “out to get you,” or cannot be relied upon to promulgate positive, personal messages. If you don’t trust your online audience, online audiences will not trust you. The same rule applies in this day and age for employees. More to the point, if you lack sincerity in declaring the importance of your people, then be prepared for your people and constituents alike to rightfully judge you harshly.
Like the merging of personal and professional realms that increasingly seems to be occurring in society today, the line has also dissolved between what happens inside of your organization and what happens outside of it. Recent rulings indicate that there isn’t “protection” for organizations on this front. In fact, nonprofits and businesses alike may do themselves a grave disservice by ignoring the connection between internal culture and how that culture is perceived externally. Anything your organization says or does to upset staff members may indeed be held against you. And – in the age of social media and the desire for transparent organizations – perhaps it should be. This is not a reason to be scared of staff members. Instead, it is a reason to empower them and pay attention to them. Organizations may benefit by paying extra attention to their internal cultures because if the culture or morale is negative, chances are that connected staff members may have communicated this fact on social media. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be hurtful to the organization. Perhaps the employee felt that they had nowhere else to go. Regardless of the rationale, their communications regarding their grievances have been deemed a reasonable exercise of their First Amendment rights. The best way to prevent an unfortunate airing of an organization’s dirty laundry is to prevent it happening in the first place. Maintain a positive, supportive culture internally and give staff a safe forum to discuss key workplace issues. If “lone workers” promulgate unfair, inaccurate, or inappropriate messages, deal with those situations individually. And, chances are, if you are truly cultivating a positive culture, those “lone workers” will indeed be “lone workers.”
These recent rulings are indicative of the fact that society at large is still adjusting to how to adapt to social media and the changes in communication that it brings. Down the road, other rulings may be inevitable as society tests the limits of social media and online behavior. As new legal regulations develop, intelligent organizations will continue to adapt.
If your nonprofit has a social media policy with “blanket” rules for behavior on social media, you haven’t done anything wrong. But it is your responsibility to evolve and stay legally ahead-of-the-game. If your organization’s policy is too broad, now may be the time to open it back up and write in more details or discuss appropriate repercussions for violating the policy. And when you close the policy and roll out the changes, understand that you may not be closing it for good. And understand that that is okay.
*Photo credits to mediabistro.com and Venspired.com