When Communities Revolt
Two kinds of digital swarms wield considerable influence in today’s nonprofit world. First, there are the kinds of groups that self-organize rapidly on the Web to achieve an urgent, common goal for good (to help Haiti quake victims, for example). And then, as this past week’s Komen for the Cure controversy has made clear, there are other kinds of groups that can form when an organization’s most influential fans and followers on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms start feeling that the organizations they support are ignoring them — or betraying their trust by doing something controversial without their engagement or prior knowledge.
Komen’s swarm this past week acted swiftly — “with head-snapping speed,” according to Jennifer Preston of The New York Times. It began forming on Twitter and Facebook minutes after The Associated Press Tuesday broke a news “exclusive” exposing a decision by the Komen board to eliminate grants funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening programs because of Planned Parenthood’s support for abortion. Within hours, criticsm of the action on the organization’s social sites had turned into an angry buzz. [In the early hours of the brouhaha, nonprofit marketing consultant Kivi Leroux Miller counted 80 Twitter comments criticizing Komen for every comment supporting the organization’s new policy.]
The Komen swarm intensified throughout the day into Wednesday, fueled by a decision Komen made to remain silent, even as the size of the protest had become nearly overwhelming in its speed and furor. “It was as if they were trying to ignore us,” one Komen supporter tweeted Wednesday. But the uproar didn’t reach critical mass until cause-wired fans caught Komen deleting some of their most passionate criticisms from its Facebook pages. [Komen supporter Mary Anne Van Develde wrote on Komen’s Facebook page Wednesday that “…the post I made here yesterday knocking your decision is now gone. Please, no matter how you try to spin it, you have to know this is just wrong.”] The swarm ended late Friday when Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Komen for the Cure, reversed the decision.
But it was too little, too late. Komen had already lost countless donors and experienced what Miller called “an accidental rebranding” of its once-stellar image as a marketing juggernaut able to convene women of all stripes behind its famous pink ribbon campaign to fight breast cancer. “It’s what happens when a leading nonprofit jumps into a highly controversial area of public debate without a communications strategy, stays silent and lets others take over the public dialogue,” Miller says.
Some social media communications strategy take-aways:
Don’t underestimate the power of social media. Komen did. In all, said The New York Times, ”Twitter users had sent more than 1.3 million posts mentioning Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and related terms and hashtags. On Thursday, alone, there were more than 460,000 Tweets.” The online drumbeat became impossible to ignore, convincing 26 U.S. senators to call on Komen to reverse its decision.
Don’t underestimate the power of your organization’s fan networks. They are following your activities closely. They are likely to be more engaged with you that you realize, and the most influential of them are always ready to engage further. Ignoring them, removing their posts from your media streams or chastising them for expressing their opinions, even if you don’t agree, “is one of the worst things you can do to your community,” says Care2 blogger Allyson Kapin. “It also riles them up even more.”
Social media can help people create a broad, shared awareness of a problem and accelerate the speed at which those problems play out. Be prepared with a communications strategy that takes into account Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, blogs and your Website. Be open and honest with supporters and upfront about controversial decisions. It took the Komen swarm less than three days to force Komen to reverse itself. The 2011 Arab Spring protests, the citizen’s campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Occupy movement and dozens of other protests all have leveraged social media to create rapid, full-blown displays of mass action.
Nonprofits (and governments and companies) tend to overestimate people’s access to information and underestimate their access to each other. Social media make it much harder to keep a secret, if it that’s what you intend. Komen’s non-public decision last December to end Planned Parenthood grants still may have been unpopular if announced immediately, but at least Komen fans would not have had to hear about it for the first time from a newswire breaking “an exclusive” almost two months after the fact.
Don’t wait to communicate in a crisis. Komen waited more than 48 hours to break its silence amid the backlash, posting a video of Komen Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker defending the organization Thursday. According to the Times, the video drew more than 2,800 comments and was viewed more than 39,000 times but did little to reverse the sentiments of the swarm, which had already taken over control of the story. Bloomberg News says Planned Parenthood was able to raise $3 million in three days from people in reaction to Komen’s decision.
Bottom line? Don’t mess with your Facebook fanbase and Twitter followers. As Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross told this class last week, social media transparency may feel uncomfortable at first but it is ultimately a good thing. “It’s about having the ability to hear what people are saying and, therefore, to be able to respond to them in really human, honest and compassionate ways.” That way, when something big hits, it lands more like a stumble than a meltdown.
(Illustration from #takebackthepink Super Bowl campaign on Twitter)