Friday, September 8, 2017

Sometimes Good Communications Policy Includes NOT Communicating Publicly

I have the privilege of working with a hard-working, gregarious, passionate board member who ended up in a public fight with a belligerent social media poster. That poster said some things that were out of left field, "on his agenda" as they might say if we were in Washington. My fellow board member responded. Before I even finished my coffee, there were 14 responses within an hour on our group's social media page.

When I took it down, I heard from the involved parties that I was in the wrong.

Here's why I would make that same communications decision again:
  • IMAGE MATTERS: The best image for the organization is to be well-dressed and presentable in public. It is our group's page and even when we as a group come down on one side of an issue, we should always present it in a positive way. 
  • BE AUDIENCE-APPROPRIATE: If we were the ACLU, for example, and known to be controversial, I might have a wider definition of what is appropriate. But we're a group gathered to support kids. We want those kids to get along and become positive members of our community. Those kids will likely see this page. We have an example to set.
  • BE MISSION-APPROPRIATE: If we were offering to be an objective news source like the New York Times, we would expect people to bang on our comments sections with their agendas because we were a marketplace for ideas. But we're a limited purpose 501(c)3. Getting into fights in a public, written space is not good for the organization's ability to attract funders, supporters or future participants. This page is to move our agenda forward. If you want to move *your* agenda, get your own page.
  • FACTS BUILD REPUTATION: The initial comment from a member of the public was incorrect. So all the discussion that flowed out of it went down the wrong track. It didn't support the kids or our mission or the little event alert that started it all. So if we left his comments on our space, we would have a smear of those inaccuracies following us around. If there were graffiti on my billboard or store's sign, I would clean it up. 
  • THE BUCK STOPS HERE: I'm ultimately responsible for the group's social media messaging. If I spelled things incorrectly or had bad dates in there, my message would be edited by the group of other board members who also have admin access. This is an appropriate back-up system. As Comms Secretary, I am accountable to the board and the public to represent an image of the group that is consistent with our mission.  We will certainly disagree on various points. Let's not do it publicly. And if I'm misrepresenting the group's goals or culture, then vote me out. Until then, I will take the heat from inside and out.

But maybe I am wrong. So I asked myself these questions to check for holes in my logic. If the situation were different, would I still take down the arguing posts? 
  • Am I still responsible for their disagreements? No. I wouldn't have been able to stop them from fighting if they were yelling in our parking lot. I'm not responsible for that channel of communication. I might have to deal with it *afterwards* and explain that unfortunate incident, but the 'yelling' channel of communication is not in my jam.
  • Am I attempting to wipe this exchange from history by wiping the social media post? No. In real life going around to tell everyone to forget there was a fight would be the work of a control-freak. People do fight, do disagree, do have their facts wrong. But I don't have to leave that in our organization's front yard to stain the impression of future readers. We're a public non-profit, but we're not a court of law or being recorded for quality assurance. Our social media page is a high-tech ad for our organization and I'm paying for it in volunteer time and some real money. I'm not obliged to leave misrepresenting material on my promotional resource.
  • Am I limiting debate?  My beloved board member felt she needed to address a misconception that plagues our mission. I don't want to shut down discussion. I will help you make the case!  There are plenty of reasonable, respectful ways to present potentially controversial info and opinions. But I still expect to set a positive example: I wouldn't want my kids thinking it is acceptable to be rude when disagreeing. 
  • Should we be arguing about this issue? No. The issue being argued over was complicated, multi-faceted, way, way (way!) outside of our control and beyond our stated mission. In a long way around it, effects the kids at our school, so it does (sort of) push on our mission. I still don't think we're obliged to spare any resource to give anytime or space to it publicly. It distracts us from what we said we would do and what we're good at.

We are a public 501(c)3. So we have to show our tax returns to anyone who asks. We as a body have a collective responsibility to our constituents to engage in discussion about how the money is spent and what the priorities are. These conversations about money and priorities should be public, we should invite the community and direct and indirect constituents in.

The conversations should also be civil and as board members, I think it's up to us all to keep it civil. Argumentative conversations drive most people away, except those who want to argue.

I do deeply appreciate the passion here. It's a tough line to walk about freedom of speech and image. It would be a slightly different decision if the organization's mission were differently oriented.