Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Expanding your social media reach and vision as a means to more effective social activism

Posted in nonprofits, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on April 27, 2011

I have noted on at least a few other occasions in this blog that I worked as a volunteer in Pennsylvania for the Obama 2008 presidential election campaign. I admit that the now early stage unfolding Obama 2012 campaign is a source of impetus for me to write this posting but I am not writing it as an open letter to President Obama and his campaign staff for this upcoming effort.

I also find myself thinking about what now total 28 postings on Green and sustainability that I have added to Social Networking and Business within this blog but I am not explicitly writing about that here either. What I am writing about is the changing nature of the marketplace for ideas and for public attention and involvement and how organizations have to reach out and connect better to succeed.

I found working with the Obama campaign very rewarding in 2008. But even then I found myself attempting to reach out in frustration to higher up into the campaign when I saw, as someone there on the ground, that opportunities were being missed and mistakes made. President Obama cannot assume victory in November, 2012 and certainly not if he does not do better this next time. He won in 2008 because so many people were frustrated by the mistakes and failures of George W Bush but now he is the one who carries both the power and opportunity, and the divisiveness and weight of incumbency. And as an activist president who has pushed through a far-reaching agenda he faces a lot of push back this time.

Barack Obama and his campaign did a lot of good and effective things in 2008 but good is relative and his Republican opposition did a lot of things extraordinarily badly. John McCain scared a lot of voters and potential voters with his maverick vice presidential selection – who then seemed more intent on furthering her own career and even by attacking his, than in supporting his/their campaign. I met a lot of Republicans in Pennsylvania in the months leading up to that election and I am still amazed by how many told me they literally turned off their home phones in the evening so they would not have to endure yet another stupid, vicious Republican party sponsored robo-call. The “faithful” were hammered with them so many times and with such ineptitude, these opposition sponsored calls may very well have helped Obama take some key districts in Pennsylvania. But the Republicans have learned and they will do better, and what was good enough in 2008 will not suffice in 2012.

Green organizations have won some short term victories in states like New York in the debate over energy development and independence, and the possible developing of shale oil via hydrofracking technology. But the Energy industries and Big Petrochemical in particular have learned from that and will do a lot better too in social media and community outreach as they seek to fulfill their agendas.

I cite these examples not for their own sake but rather as illustrative examples. We live in a world that is increasingly coming to expect effective use of social media as a given, and a minimum standard of campaign quality.

• Every political organization,
• Every social or environmental organization,
• Every mission-driven nonprofit

needs to do this better. And 2008 “good enough” cannot be considered good enough. The here and now 2011 “good enough” of competing organizations cannot be considered good enough even now let alone for next year.

And with this lengthy preamble by way of foundation I come to the core point I would make in this posting.

• The best communication, whether explicitly social media in nature or not is that approach that most effectively involves and engages in creating two way conversations. Listening is at least as important as speaking.

When I first set out to write this posting I admit I was thinking about wikis as a means for sharing information resources for keeping everyone in the field on the same page for outreach campaigns. And wikis can and do support shared, and two- and multi-directional conversations as well. And access control can keep the centrally published message completely open to the public where that makes sense, and two way, inside conversations within the campaign more restricted in access where that would. But in a fundamental way this is beside the point as wikis, even if a big step forward now, will soon be just another “cannot be considered good enough” – if they are implemented simply to add new features and to look more current and “with it.”

• So along with doing that much better at interactive and two way communications, and for an increasing number of channels, campaigns need to make sure that the tools they add in and deploy really work together – to meet community needs and not just their own.

That means, among other things that if the first person who picks up on a message coming in from the community is the wrong person to answer the questions or resolve the issues raised, they have ways to transfer or escalate this conversation to someone who can. Obama 2008 did this fairly badly and across the board with a lot of volunteers on the phones with set scripts and white pages to read from but no way to handle or transfer a “none of the above.” And too many of the paid staffers simply did not see that as their job if they were approached for help. This can be done better and it must be to win again. And the issues I raise here go way beyond the specifics of Obama 2008 and 2012 for their importance.

I have written about corporations that speak but do not listen so this is not exactly a new theme for this blog – just a very important second set of working examples.

Organizations of all sorts need to do a better job of thinking through what they have social media and related/supportive technologies in place for, and whether they are actually using or even trying to use them to their real potential. They need to start asking more persistently and thoroughly what their real potential really is, with a clear focus on connecting to create value for the communities they would reach out to, as members of those communities see it. What of their own message and agenda in that? If they cannot convey them as sources of value to these communities they are lost and if they do not allow for actual conversations and participation they are lost too – and this means allowing for and actively supporting lots of conversations and of all sorts and even the ones they would not have anticipated in advance, but that become important in practice.

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