Friday, February 3, 2012

When Communities Revolt

There are two kinds of digital swarms in today's nonprofit world -- groups of people who self-organize rapidly on the Web to achieve an urgent, common goal (to help Haiti quake victims, change a law or oust a politician, for starters.) And now, as this week's Komen for the Cure controversy has made clear, there are also the kinds of swarms 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 input or prior knowledge.

This week's Komen swarm 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 stop funding Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening programs because of its support for abortion. Within hours, criticism of the action on the organization's social sites had turned into an angry buzz. According to blogger Kivi Leroux Miller, who was closely monitoring the reaction on Komen's social sites at the time of the decision, "anti-Komen posts were outnumbering pro-Komen posts at the rate of 80-1."

The swarm intensified throughout the day into Wednesday, fueled by a decision Komen made to remain silent, even as the size of the swarm had become nearly overwhelming in its speed and ferocity. "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 starting to remove from its social media sites some of their most passionate criticisms. [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 when its target, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, said tonight that it would reverse its Planned Parenthood decision, three days after the uproar began.

But for Komen, is it too little, too late? It hasn't been only abortion rights activists denouncing Komen but also some of Komen's long-time supporters, furious that the fight against breast cancer has been pulled into partisan battles over the abortion issue. As of this post, ardent protest continues online, with some activists eyeing Sunday's Superbowl for possible further action. Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, says it was able to raise some $3 million from the new fundraising drive it began right after the AP story broke, to compensate for the cutbacks Komen now says won't be necessary. That's money soliticited from many of Komen's old donors that won't ever be going back. Bloomberg, who pledged $250,000 to Planned Parenthood yesterday, lauded the Komen reversal but says he will not withdraw his gift to Planned Parenthood. "Politics have no place in health care," Bloomberg said, echoing the complaints of protesters. "Breast cancer screening saves lives, and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care."

Some take-aways:

1. Don't underestimate the power of your fan networks. They are following your activities closely. They are likely to be more engaged with you than you realize and the most influential of them are always ready to engage further. Ignoring them or removing their posts from your media streams and walls signals censorship. 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."

2. Don't underestimate the power of social media to harness rapid protest. Angry fans have the power to hold even your most headstrong, high-profile leaders accountable, especially when they attempt to shift course abruptly or act controversially. Your fans on social networks also don't like surprises. Give them a head's up before announcing a big decision. [According to the Times, Twitter users have so far sent more than 1 million posts mentioning Planned Parenthood, Komen and related terms and hashtags. On Thursday alone, the Times says, there were more than 460,000 Tweets.]

3. Social media can help people to create a broad, shared awareness of a problem and accelerate the speed at which those problems get resolved. 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 used social media successfully to create full-blown assaults on the status quo -- and, at least for a short while, to exhibit widespread support for mass action.

4. Nonprofits, governments and other establishment organizations tend to overestimate people's access to informaton and underestimate their access to each other. Komen's decision to end Planned Parenthood grants may have been just as unpopular if announced last December but at least supporters would have heard the news first from Komen -- not from a news organization breaking "a scoop" based on an inside tip.

5. Don't wait to communicate. Komen waited more than 48 hours after the AP story ran to post a video of Komen Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker defending the organization on Web site and on YouTube. According to The New York Times, the video drew more than 2,800 comments and was been viewed more than 39,000 times but did little to reverse the sentiments of the swarm. According to Bloomberg News, meanwhile, Planned Parenthood was able to raise $3 million from people in reaction to Komen's decision, reversed earlier today, to end its grants. "Women feel betrayed," says Anika Rahman, president of the feminist group Ms. Foundation for Women. She told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Victoria Colliver on Friday the flap -- and the way it was handled by Komen -- "will be something that will have long-term implications."

6. And finally, social networks decentralize leadership. Networks do not need permission to act and they want a head's up on the big decisions. The Komen case serves as a reminder of what nonprofit marketing coach Kivi Leroux Miller called earlier this week the power of social media to "accidentally rebrand" any organization that fails to create new communications strategies aimed at transparently and authentically engaging its digital communities. Sure, Komen has its own Facebook page and Twitter stream. But using them to build ongoing and transparent engagement with fans is a challenge few organizations do well. The Komen brouhaha, Miller wrote this past week, "is what can happen when a leading organization with thousands of fans decides to jump into a highly controversial area of public policy without a communications strategy, stays silent and lets others take over the public dialogue." Ironically, the very same Komen marketing juggernaut that brought the world the ubiquitous pink-ribbon campaign to fight breast cancer ended up portraying itself as being clueless about social media.

Bottom line? Don't mess with your Facebook fans and social media followers. As Wendy Harman, the Director of Social Media Strategy at the American Red Cross told my social media strategy students at New York University last Wednesday: "Transparency is not about vulnerability so much as it is about having the institutional ability to hear what people are saying and to respond in a really human, honest and compassionate way -- in real time."

Just weeks after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power last spring, friend and former PopTech /NYU colleague Kristin Taylor suggested that many institutions today risk "getting Mubaraked." The definition? Said Taylor: "Failing to engage on social media with your stakeholders to such a degree that they eventually render you irrelevant."

Don't let it happen to you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Christoph Kadur for

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