Nonprofits, Social Media, and Firestorms

For a moment, let’s try to put aside the politics, women’s health issues, and controversy surrounding the recent Susan G. Komen for the cure-Planned Parenthood story that made national news. From any such event, there is always a takeaway – some sort of “Aha” moment that is much easier to discern the morning after – and that is what I’d like to address from a social media perspective.

One of the more insightful analyses of the situation appeared in Social Media Today – “Lessons from the Komen Controversy” by Glenn Gaudet, president of GaggleAMP, a social media service firm. GaggleAMP conducted a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the situation with a focus on social media and concluded something so fundamental that it represents a stark lesson for every nonprofit – and every social media user, for that matter.

GaggleAMP’s conclusion was as follows:

“…Komen used social media as a monologue (just another platform for corporate announcements) while Planned Parenthood used social media to engage in a continuing dialogue with stakeholders, starting well before the crisis.”

There was more to it than that, however. Glenn Gaudet added the following assessment of Komen’s use of social media:

“Komen violated the most important rule of social media advocacy – the need to consistently engage stakeholders. It’s the difference between being credible and authentic versus being seen as out of touch and aloof. Another interesting element revealed by the data is that Komen’s poor handling of the initial messaging – not being consistent, changing course, changing tone – apparently helped organize their opposition. Disciplined message delivery through social media is critical to success in overcoming a crisis.”

Getting Burned by Social Media

Whatever you may think of the outcome, the fact is a major nonprofit organization made a controversial decision, wilted under a firestorm of largely negative feedback, and subsequently reversed its course. The resulting damage to the brand’s image, and its fundraising, may be felt for a long time.

At the core of the firestorm was social media, demonstrating in particular the outcry of opinion on Facebook and Twitter. This is no surprise; the bigger surprise is that the organization in question was, according to Gaudet, not making the best use of social media to begin with, and this may have made the situation worse than it would have otherwise been.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, a nonprofit that doesn’t understand the basic premise of social media – that it is really social and requires individual attention and interaction with people – risks getting burned. Ironically, the organization that made this mistake is one that depends on a very intimate relationship with its base of supporters.

Can a Firestorm be Avoided?

Gaudet offers five lessons for every brand that come out of this case. I have summarized them here, but I recommend you read Gaudet’s article for further detail:

  1. Build a group of involved stakeholders in advance of a crisis.
  2. Listen well and you may hear things that will allow you to deal with issues before they turn into a crisis.
  3. Consistent messaging is critical to be effective with social media.
  4. Be “quick, authentic, transparent, and effective” in communicating and stakeholders will help amplify your message.
  5. Be sure your social media efforts align with your brand and amplify the right messages.

Truth be told, when a nonprofit organization makes a controversial or unpopular decision, it may be impossible to avoid a firestorm. That’s simply part of being in the public eye. But what social media offers nonprofits is a two-way safety net – a communication channel that can foster a meaningful relationship with constituents and make them feel like they are being listened to, even if constituents don’t always agree with everything the nonprofit does. Listening and responding, it seems to me, is the real heart of social media.

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