Challenges of Using Social Media for Your Association. . .

Unless you have been transported from the past à la “Star Trek,” you’ll know firsthand, as an association, speaker, or academic that social media can be highly useful for the work that you do.

Looking in today’s blog primarily at professional associations (not-for-profit groups which are not charities), I’m going to discuss in particular some of the challenges that have arisen from the often unprecedented conflicts that can arise from using social media in association culture and what your organization can do to avoid them, before (or as) they appear.

First: social media can be useful to associations in the areas of advocacy, information and action.

Towards Advocacy: an association can raise interest and support for its members. For instance, CSAE can use Linkedin to not only promote its upcoming conference, but to stimulate discussion on a topic or issue that will be addressed more fully at the conference itself. Interested readers of social media can learn about a topic or issue that interests them, be informed about and engaged with it, to support it.

To Inform your Audience: one of the benefits of social media is that it can accurately disseminate quality information easily, efficiently and cheaply. A YouTube video, tweets on Twitter, postings on Facebook can educate the member who’s reading. They may further pick up on a story and repost it to their websites or to forums they belong to. CSAE member, Tim Shaw, Leader of Online Engagement at Amplifi (a company servicing associations and small businesses), has observed that Community Living Ontario, Ontario Long-Term Care Association and the Ontario Real Estate Association have been “trailblazers” in social media engagement and use in Canada, the first of which had 1500 Facebook fans as early as 2010.

To Inspire Action: after social media informs its audience on an issue, the medium enables readers to take action. You can post a form that gets transmitted directly to a local government office, or to a consumer advocate. Shaw notes that the power of social media removes any potential backlog or inefficiencies in participation, in ways that earlier wreaked havoc with methods from a pre-technological age.

In these ways (and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list), social media has immediate usefulness to not-for-profit associations and related groups.

But over the past few years, social media has equally created major challenges in the ways in which associations or organizations like you operate. As you might expect, skirmishes have arisen, and while Canadian groups have not been immune, two American association members of the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) have been discussed publicly (on the ASAE site) and can illuminate this discussion.

In her recent ASAE article, “Does Social Media Belong in the Boardroom” (2013), Margaret Loftus argues the central concern of this blog, that more and more, “association executives are finding themselves navigating the uncharted territory” where “social-media-meets-boardroom.” Privacy, confidentiality and their concomitant legal issues are just some of the red flags raised by social media. Loftus details two such managerial “snafus:” during a recent board meeting of the (American) National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA), the group’s social media chair photographed and tweeted a revised mission statement on which council members were carefully working. While the act was not maliciously-intended, the posting preceded the document’s final approval, which worried the group’s parent organization, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

This “snafu” was seen as a potential future problem that needed to be addressed responsibly in order to represent members’ interests. The NSSLHA’s President Renee Utianski advised council members to think twice before sharing social media and that the new policy which could evolve might involve closing some portions of meetings: “ . . . there are some parts [of meetings] that are closed, like voting on grant submissions.”

A second “snafu” was less positive: an American student journalist in 2012 was barred from the open board meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), an annual meeting of minority journalist associations, for having live-tweeted that same meeting. Some protested the lack of transparency, and the irony of a journalist being barred for reporting on the work of a journalist association. But the move reflects not only the politics of one association board (NAHJ), but the much larger issue on privacy and privileged information on social media networks.

Both incidents were caused by “digital-natives,” communications’ staff in their 20s, and students whom, as one executive observed, “communicate” very differently “than more seasoned professionals” who occupy association boards. Those seasoned executives might call outright to close board meetings to facilitate candid conversation about association challenges. Leaks could arise, but those could be stemmed, these executives say.

By contrast, NSSLHA’s Utianski said that as 21st century communicators, “We do think there’s a right to have this information, but there is a time and place for which it’s appropriate. It’s not necessarily if the information will be shared, but it’s when and how.”

What these incidents point to is a shift from traditional style of communications, of telling members what the organization wants them to think, to a broader kind of conversation, that is open to others, on which concepts, issues and action (and the advocacy information and action with which we started this blog) are all under debate. American association growth strategist and author, David Nour, whose response to such incidents is more conservative than Utianski’s, argues that being a “social” organization (one using social media) is not enough. Since, as Margaret Loftus writes, “there’s a huge leap to becoming a social-enabled association,” Nour says that that leap should “start with leadership: you cannot abdicate your strategy to a 21-year-old . . . . There’s a reason the executive director and board are there.”

How is your association leadership putting social media on its agenda? Are you becoming responsibly “social-enabled?” A proactive strategy overseen by (and involving) the executive director and the board are crucial to the responsible growth of not-for-profits groups, in our hyper-technological age.

If you aren’t already, then talk with your association board about how disclosure and privacy issues raised by social media are being addressed.

And in that context, ask yourself: how can you use a third-party’s services as a blogger and social media writer (like me), to responsibly enhance your engagement with members and contributors?


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