Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social media and finding a balance in the face of conflict

Posted in nonprofits, social networking and business, Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on October 28, 2010

I was initially planning on posting a next installment today in a series I am running on cyber conflict (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, postings 58-60 and 62.) I have decided, however, to push that back a day and will post it tomorrow. I am doing that because I want to write for today on a vexing problem that every organization that connects out through social media will face if they have not already done so. I bring this up here and now because I am currently dealing with what might be considered a poster child example of what this problem can involve.

I am working part time with a still small but growing nonprofit that offers support for underserved communities and the individuals and families who live there. The programs that this organization runs are both socially and environmentally aware and responsible. Among other things, they reach out to help open doors to new career opportunities for people of low income, by offering them training that can lead to professional certification. These training programs are provided free of all costs to participants.

This organization has an excellent track record in bringing their program participants up to a significant, effective skill level, and both for technical skills and for job search skills so they can secure better jobs and a better future. But even if some 90% of their students pass their certification examinations at the end of their training and even if 90% of these students succeed in landing a good job in their new field within a few months that still leaves students who have real difficulty completing their training, passing the certification exam, or landing a job.

I am working with this nonprofit to help them more effectively manage their social media presence, and their branding, and I have been working with them to more clearly identify and reach out to all of the various demographics they seek to connect with. I have, among other things, been working with them as they connect out through resources such as Facebook and Twitter, and a range of other social networking and crowd sourced review and ratings sites. That brings me to the situation that has developed that has prompted me to write this posting now.

They are listed on a specific online crowd sourcing review site that lists their area of specialty and their contact information, including links to their web site with all of this added to a profile page. And people can post reviews about this organization, and they can in turn click to indicate what they think of reviews posted. But their options for that are all lopsided. You can click a relevant vote selection if you find a review helpful, informative, or cool, but there are no options for offering feedback that that reviews appear to be biased, inaccurate, or otherwise problematical. And if a reviewer has filled out a reviewer profile on this site, which need not show any true names or contact information, and if they are at all active on this site their reviews appear prominently and directly on that profile page. Anyone who sees a review they would find objectionable who is not actively in their system in this manner can also post reviews but they are hidden away under a tiny text link for “filtered reviews” and these are overtly identified as a group as being suspect – even if they simply seek to raise a red flag that the more visible review they are responding to is legally libelous.

This site states that as a matter of immutable policy, it will not retract any review no matter what. And someone who only self-identifies through a code name has in fact posted a very derogatory, factually inaccurate review that has been causing reputational damage for this nonprofit, and in a way that could be argued to have crossed a line from simple disagreement into legally defined libel.

I have drafted a comment that I am going to try to get appended to this review as coming from a business owner of this nonprofit, and will be posting it as soon as possible to this site. But this event brings up a variety of issues that any organization in the position of my client nonprofit should be prepared for. This also highlights some issues that any review site such as the one involved here should be aware of and planning for too.

• Even publically popular social media sites can make mistakes and even serious ones. That is certainly true when it comes to finding a balance between offering an open forum for sharing opinions while still limiting opportunity for hate speech, libel or similar abuses of the open forums so provided.
• Even when an organization sees itself as being attacked by postings that would not be protected under freedom of speech laws, it can be both difficult and expensive to combat that.
• This creates legal and financial liabilities for all parties concerned – which this social media site clearly does not understand.
• But it may still be more effective and damage limiting for the targeted organization so attacked, to simply respond with a moderate voice and seek to move on. This becomes a cost/benefit analysis problem.

There are no easy or simple, one-size-fits-all solutions to this problem. I simply raise this here as reflecting a very real problem that more and more organizations will face:

• Organizations that reach out and connect through third party social media sites as a part of their Marketing and Communications initiatives, and
• Those third party social media sites if they do not have and follow effective policies for dealing with posted content that by its nature would not be covered by freedom of speech protection, such as hate speech or intentional criminal libel.

There are learning curves and a need for new best practices on many fronts here and with the technology and reach of social media and the interactive web expanding and evolving so rapidly, any current efforts to build them will have to evolve rapidly too, if they are to be at all relevant.

I am posting this in two series, as this strongly connects to issues I have been raising in my Social Networking and Business series and it very directly involves Nonprofits. I intend to post a follow through on this at some point as this situation is resolved.

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