So many people responsible for communications at nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government programs and international development agencies like the United Nations do their work from a place of fear: fear of negative publicity, fear of reprimand from supervisors or partner organizations, fear of controversy, etc. One of the consequences of this fear-based work style is that these communications professionals overly-censor themselves on social media, avoiding messages that relate directly to their program’s mission, simply because they don’t want to make anyone angry.
It’s impossible to work in communications and not make anyone angry. Impossible. While I think it is very important to be culturally-sensitive/appropriate in communications, the reality is that the work of most mission-based organizations is meant to grow understanding and change minds – and that means, at least sometimes, being challenging, even provocative. I long ago accepted that not everyone is going to like the messages of whatever program I’m representing, even messages that seem quite benign and non-controversial to me. As long as I make all messages reflective of the mission of the program, and ensure all messages come from a place of sincerity and honesty, I make no apologies.
If you want to post a message to social media that promotes something that relates to your program’s mission, but you want to keep negative responses to a minimum – or have a solid response to anyone who complains about such a message, including a board member or donor, here’s what you do: find the message you want to say on your headquarter’s Facebook or Twitter account, or a partner organization’s account, and share it or retweet it.
Here’s an example: I’ve had colleagues at the UN say, “We cannot talk about rights for gay people. It will make too many people angry.” Yet, the UN has a human rights MANDATE that includes rights for gay people. So, what could an office in such a position do in order to promote that human rights message and have a firm defense for doing so in the face of criticism? Follow the United Nations Free & Equal initiative on Twitter (@free_equal) and on Facebook. This is an initiative of the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights (follow that initiative on Twitter and Facebook as well). Share and retweet the messages that initiative says that you feel you cannot say yourself, such as this video from the UN Secretary General in support of the Free & Equal initiative. No one can argue that you shouldn’t share it – unless they can point to a specific, verifiable threat as a result of such a message that could endanger staff.
Another example: while working in a country with a lot of armed conflict going on, our communications office decided that celebrating the UN’s international day of peace with our own messages could be seen as taking sides in the hostilities – saying “We hope for peace” could be interpreted as encouraging one side to “give in” to another. So we decided not to post our own messages – but to share and retweet official UN messages related to international peace day.
It’s a good idea to make a list of Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts that interns and/or volunteers could monitor and whose messages they could share or retweet without pre-approval from a supervisor. You might want to also make a list of accounts they should absolutely *not* retweet or share; for instance, at one work site, I would not allow articles from a certain media outlet to be shared or retweeted via our official account, because I felt the media outlet was profoundly biased against our work and because I felt their articles were often riddled with misinformation.
No matter what: keep communications mission-based. Think about the intent of your message: To educate regarding an issue related to your program’s mission? To encourage someone to do something related to your cause? To celebrate your program’s activities or accomplishments? To create goodwill with a certain community? Always be able to justify any message you want to send.
And did you see what I just did there?