Tag Archives: communications

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 u update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

Folklore, Rumors & Misinformation Campaigns Interfering with Humanitarian Efforts & Government Initiatives

gossipUPDATED:

Preventing Folklore, Rumors, Urban Myths & Organized Misinformation Campaigns From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

Folklore, rumors and contemporary myths / legends often interfere with development aid activities and government initiatives, including public health programs – even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings and mistrust, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others because of something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as simple text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Added to the mix: fake news sites set up specifically to mislead people, as well as crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments, countering misinformation efforts has to be a priority for aid and development organizations, as well as government agencies.

Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing both examples of this phenomena, and recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives. I’ve recently updated this information with new information regarding countering organized misinformation campaigns.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:

  • cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
  • quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
  • quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts

And, FYI: I do this entirely on my own, as a volunteer, with no funding from anyone. I update the information as my free time allows.

Also see:

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

gossipBack in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.

Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.

Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.

Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.

If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.

But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…

In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”

Also see For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

The importance of Twitter lists

Twitter_logo_blueAs I said in a recent blog, called the awesome power of Tweet tags, I am still a huge fan of Twitter. As I said in that blog, I still get so much more out of Twitter than Facebook, professionally:

  • I get a great sense of what folks are doing in the areas of expertise and work I care about most
  • I can easily find and connect with amazing experts in areas of expertise and work in which I’m intensely interested
  • I can find what I’m looking for and easily screen out what I don’t care about
  • When I tweet, I get replies and retweets and even requests for more info – real engagement – as well as traffic to my blog and web site

Of course you should follow me on Twitter: @jcravens42

But you should also be aware of another way to leverage Twitter for your nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization or program: creating and sharing Twitter lists, where you curate accounts based on some aspect of your program’s mission or location. For instance:

  • an animal shelter should have a public Twitter list of other shelters and animal rescue groups in the area, and another list of accounts tweeting credible information regarding animal care and training
  • a small college or university should have a Twitter list of its own departments, faculty and students using Twitter to talk about their university work
  • a police department should have a Twitter list of other law enforcement agencies in the area and nearby, and another list of accounts by nonprofits addressing issues that contribute to crime prevention (homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, programs to help teens, etc.)
  • a city office should have a Twitter list of other city offices
  • a public school should have a Twitter list of registered nonprofits in the area focused on youth
  • a water and sanitation program in a developing country should have a Twitter list of similar programs in other countries, so staff can look for ideas they can use in their own area, and have a list of programs and organizations in-country that have funded or might fund the WATSAN program
  • an association of managers of volunteers should have a list of all of the nonprofits in the area with Twitter accounts, another list of all student groups at local colleges and universities in the area that regularly engage in public service, and another list of all civic groups in the area using Twitter.

Creating Twitter lists and sharing them with the public affirms an organization’s mission, establishes a program as a leader regarding that mission, creates valuable resources for people you are trying to serve, and creates another way for you to attract Twitter followers. It also makes it much easier for you to be able to check in with what’s happening with specific audiences – instead of following them all on Twitter, you put accounts on lists, and then read those lists when it’s time to catch up on a particular area of interest to you.

Here’s a good example: Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA) has several Twitter lists. One is made up of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet, a list of people tweeting about the management of volunteers, and a list of people and organizations that tweet about volunteerism and volunteer recruitment. By having such lists and sharing them with the public, NOVAA is helping promote its brand as an organization that can help organizations in the area, including nonprofits, schools and government agencies, regarding effective volunteer engagement. What would be great is if they also had a list of all public officials in the area, or that represent the area, that are on Twitter, so that they could easily follow what those people might be saying regarding volunteers and NOVAA members could more easily contact those representatives regarding volunteerism.

Here’s another good example: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, also in Portland, Oregon. One of its Twitter lists is of its partner organizations on Twitter. Another list is of organizations focused on helping people and families work towards financial stability. Like NOVAA, they also have compiled a list of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet. So UW is using its Twitter lists to both promote nonprofits in the area and help people in the area find the services at nonprofits they need – in short, they are using Twitter lists as a part of their mission to “improve lives, strengthen communities and advance equity by mobilizing the caring power of people across our metro area.”

Here’s how it works for me: I maintain several public Twitter lists – lists of people and organizations that regularly tweet about subjects of interest to me. These lists affirm my areas of expertise and my interests as a professional, help establish me as a leader regarding some of these areas, and create valuable resources for people and organizations with whom I want to connect in some way. It also cuts down on how many people I have to follow on Twitter;  instead, I can put people and organizations on various lists, by subject matter, geography, whatever, and then check in with those lists as I like. I pick one or two of my lists a day, and then spend a few minutes going through the tweets of that list.

For instance, there’s my Tech4Good ICT4D, a list of people and organizations that regularly tweet regarding computers and the Internet used to help people, communities and the environment. Or my ework evolunteer list, which tracks people and programs tweeting about telework, telecommuting, remote work, virtual teams, distributed teams, virtual volunteering, etc. Or my CSR  list, which is made up of corporations that tweet about their philanthropic and social responsibility activities, and people and organizations that tweet regarding corporate social responsibility. My several public Twitter lists become both ways to brand my interests and expertise as well as a way to offer resources that others might find useful.

Take Twitter to the next level: make it not only an outreach and engagement tool, make it something that promotes your program through the lists you curate!

Also see:

Tech & communications jargon versus reality

The Guardian, a media organization based in the UK, has a wonderful online program called the Global Professionals Network, “a space for NGOs, aid workers and development professionals to share knowledge and expertise”. They also have an occasional feature called “The Secret Aidworker,” a column written by anonymous aid workers, talking about the not-so-great parts of humanitarian work.

The most recent blog is an aid worker talking about the “dark side” of humanitarian / development communications. Like me, she trained as a journalist, and it affects both her approach and her ethics regarding public relations and marketing. I was so struck by these two paragraphs from her blog:

The international community is too focused on using gimmicks in outreach campaigns rather than considering who their audience is and what they want. I was recently asked to design an outreach campaign to educate the local community we work in about the work we do. So keeping in mind the low literacy rate of our audience and the limited access they have to online and print media, I designed a communications campaign accordingly. However, that was considered old and outdated.

For my organisation, the use of new technology such as apps and social media held priority over the local regional media, even though I explained much of these were inaccessible to the people we were trying to reach. Too often people think that if a country has access to the internet and mobile phones, every one has access. They don’t consider the cost of mobile data, the literacy rate, or if the locals would even use their devices the same way as in the US and Europe.

Oh, I SO hear this! Not just in humanitarian work, but in all communications work for nonprofits, governments and other mission-based organizations, anywhere. I hear from nonprofits wanting to explore using SnapChat that haven’t updated their web site in months.They want to host a hackathon to develop an app while their manager of volunteers is refused money for posters for a volunteer recruitment campaign. They want to know the best engagement analytics software to purchase while their online community is quiet for weeks, with no staff posting questions, no volunteers sharing information, etc. They want a crowdsourced fundraising campaign but haven’t sent thank you’s to donors this year. They want a viral online marketing campaign to promote something but balk at the idea of a staff person visiting area communities of faith and civic clubs to build personal relationships with local people, especially groups that represent minorities that are under-represented within the organization’s volunteer, client and donor base.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have long been a promoter and advocate of ICT4D. I wrote one of the first papers – back in 2001 – about handheld devices, what were then called PDAs (personal digital assistants), in health and human services, citizens’ reporting, advocacy, etc. I am a pioneer regarding virtual volunteering. I use, and advise on the use of, social media to promote a variety of information and network with others. I regularly post to TechSoup’s Public Computing, ICT4D, and Tech4Good community forum branch about apps4good – smart phone applications meant to educate people about maternal health, help women leave abusive relationships, connect people with emergency housing and more. So I certainly cannot be accused of being a Luddite. But with all that said, I also still see the value of, and know how to leverage, printed flyers, printed posters, paper newsletters, lawn signs, newspaper ads, radio ads, radio interviews, TV interviews, TV ads, onsite speaking engagements, display tables, display booths and other “old fashioned” ways of communicating.

This aid workers blog reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, when I would hear an executive director of a nonprofit or the director of a government program talk about how great the agency’s new web site was, but as they talked, I realized they’d never looked at it themselves, and weren’t really fully aware of what the Internet was.

wizardToo many senior staff are bedazzled by buzzwords and jargon they’ve heard from consultants, giving their employees orders to do something based only on what they think is “hip” now. I am just as frustrated by organizations that overly-focus on the latest social media fads for communications as I am by organizations that ignore all things Internet and smart phone-related.

What should you do if you face this in the work place? Use small words and lots of data with your senior staff, and stay tenacious. Remember that a list of potential expenses and budgets for time can make a case for you to do a comprehensive, realistic communications plan. And be explicit and detailed on how your communications efforts will be evaluated for effectiveness.

My other blogs that relate to this:

Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation

ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has a fantastic blog posting, Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation, by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. An excerpt:

“Over the last two decades, innovations have fueled the creation of a humanitarian cyberspace. It is now time for the task of addressing the challenges posed by the humanitarian cyberspace to be prioritised on the humanitarian innovation agenda… The traditional notion that the ´virtual` world is a different social space than the ´real world` is by now obsolete, also in the humanitarian context… While the traditional threats to the humanitarian space persist, the humanitarian cyberspace broadens the scope of humanitarian action – which means that, instead of shrinking, the humanitarian space is actually poised to enter an expanding frontier. As illustrated by the increasing reliance on mobile cash transfers in food aid, the humanitarian cyberspace also offers new options for the constitution and distribution of relief. The notion that access to information and humanitarian data constitutes a form of relief in its own right illustrates how technology is reshaping the very definition of aid. The emergence of ‘digital humanitarians’ exemplifies a shift in the understanding of who is an aid provider and the possibilities for providing aid from a distance. At the same time, the humanitarian cyberspace has engendered a new set of threats, which impinge on the humanitarian space and which needs to be taken more seriously in the context of humanitarian innovation.”

Another excerpt:

“The use of social media by fieldworkers may undermine principles of neutrality and impartiality and endanger recipients of humanitarian aid as well as aid workers. The dilemma is well-known: In the humanitarian field, the free speech of aid workers must be balanced against the vulnerability of aid recipients and the particular dynamics of the emergency context. However, social media exacerbates the risk, also for humanitarians themselves…While the medical and social work professions (among others) are developing more robust, binding and enforceable industry standards with respect to social media, the humanitarian sector is lagging behind. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are largely perceived as ‘private’ platforms, even when used actively during and for work. Additionally, the tension between security concerns and fundraising priorities seems to exacerbate the difficulty of developing strong and innovative approaches to responsible social media use.”

This entire blog is a MUST read for anyone working in international development, as well as any nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization. It is based on a roundtable at the 4th bi-annual IHSA World Conference on Humanitarian Studies and Sandvik’s recent article in the Third World Quarterly ‘The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier?’

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) was established in 1997, as a mechanism to provide a forum on learning, accountability and performance issues for the humanitarian sector.

Propaganda for good

I am fascinated with propaganda – information meant, specifically, to encourage a particular way of thinking – and with social engineering, the social science regarding efforts to influence attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale – call it propaganda for good.

Propaganda is communications not just to create awareness, but to persuade, to change minds, and to create advocates. It’s communications for persuasion. These are communications activities undertaken by governments, media, corporations, nonprofits, public health advocates, politicians, religious leaders/associations, terrorist groups, and on and on, and they aren’t automatically bad activities: such messaging has inspired people to wear seat belts even before there were laws requiring such, to not drink and then drive, to engage in activities for sex that prevent HIV, to read to their children, to spay and neuter their pets, to a lessening of intolerance among different groups, and on and on.

I use these techniques myself, to a degree, in trying to get nonprofits and government agencies to embrace virtual volunteering and in recruiting for diversity and in creating welcoming environments for everyone at nonprofit organizations and within government initiatives. I’m not just trying to create awareness about those concepts and practices; I’m trying to create buy-in for them, to break down resistance to them, to get initiatives to embrace them. I’m evangelizing for those concepts.

My fascination with propaganda is why I track how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, and government initiatives, and how to prevent and address such. That subject was almost my Master’s Degree thesis; I decided the data I’d collected before I abandoned the idea of it being my thesis was too helpful not to publish, and I’ve continued to research this topic and update this resource. And I have attempted to apply my elementary understanding of social engineering in my work, most recently when I drafted Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF); it offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine, and provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.

My fascination with communications for persuasion, not just awareness, is also why I’m fascinated with the rhetoric in the USA about how Daesh – what most Americans, unfortunately, call ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State – uses social media to persuade. There are few details in the mainstream media and in politicians’ rhetoric on how this is really done – just comments like “He was radicalized by ISIS on Twitter,” which makes it sound like the app is somehow causing people to become terrorists. That’s why I was so happy to find this blog by J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and the author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam”. The blog, “How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it),” provides concrete information on how Daesh uses social media to recruit members – and it sounds a lot like the same techniques various cults have used to recruit members, before social media. The blog also provides concrete ways to counter the message, and how reporters can avoid robotically amplify the Daesh message.

Here’s the manual that Al Qaeda and now ISIS use to brainwash people online, which provides an outstanding summary of what it says – that echoes the aforementioned analysis.

December 28, 2015 addition: in an analysis paper released in early 2015, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, as part of the The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. It notes that, in its 2014 tracking of Twitter accounts that support ISIS, 1,575 of them tweeted more than 50 times per day on average, with 545 tweeting more than 150 times per day. “These prolific users—referred to in ISIS social media strategy documents as the mujtahidun (industrious ones)—form the highly engaged core of ISIS’s social media machine. These users may not tweet every day, but when they do, they tweet a lot of content in a very short amount of time. This activity, more than any other, drives the success of ISIS’s efforts to promulgate its message on social media. Short, prolonged bursts of activity cause hashtags to trend, resulting in third-party aggregation and insertion of tweeted content into search results. Prior to the start of Twitter’s aggressive account suspensions, highly organized activity among the mujtahidun—who at one point we may have numbered as many as 3,000, including bots—allowed ISIS to dominate certain hashtags and project its material outside of its own social network to harass and intimidate outsiders, as well as to attract potential recruits.”

And here’s another article I was pleased to find, Fighting ISIS online, talking about the tiny and not-so-effective effort to counter Daesh online, and which notes:

Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun (Arabic for “those who will be successful”), a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to fighting Islamic extremism, says people like her and (Paul) Dietrich who try such online interventions face daunting math. “The ones who are doing these engagements number only in the tens. That is not sufficient. Just looking at ISIS-supporting social-media accounts—those numbers are several orders of magnitude larger,” says Khan. “In terms of recruiting, ISIS is one of the loudest voices. Their message is sexy, and there is very little effective response out there. Most of the government response isn’t interactive. It’s a one-way broadcast, not a dialogue.”…

Social-media research has shown that messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising. Other bodies of research show that youth at risk of falling into many kinds of trouble, from drugs to gangs, often benefit from even small interventions by parents, mentors, or peers. But so far, major anti-ISIS programs don’t involve that kinds of outreach.

That emphasis is mine. I find these articles fascinating – and woefully ignored by governments and moderate Muslims in the fight online, and via traditional media, against Daesh.

This article from The Atlantic explores the strategy further: “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.”

I would love to see moderate, peace-focused Islamic social groups with a good understanding of online communications, like MuflehunQuranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, receive grants to hire more staff, train other organizations, and create a MUCH larger, more robust movement on social media with their loving, pro-women, Islamic-based messages. Such tiny organizations are doing a brilliant job of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. But they are drowned out by Daesh. Governments also need to not do this.

December 11, 2015 addition:  Mohamed Ahmed, once a typical middle-aged father and gas station manager, is one of many Muslim Minneapolians to do whatever he can to fight extremism in his state. Frustrated by the Islamic State’s stealthy social media campaigns, Mr. Ahmed decided to make a social media campaign of his own. Ahmed has used his own money to produce and develop his website, AverageMohamed.com. On his site, Ahmed creates cartoons and videos so average people can share “logical talking points countering falsehood propagated by extremists.” More about how Minnesota Muslims work to counter extremist propaganda.

The reality is that the Hulk, Smash! strategy will not work to fight terrorist ideology and the violent results of such. Nazism survived the bombing and defeat of Nazi Germany. Bombing cities is not what marginalized the Ku Klux Klan, and bombing cities does not stop people like (and that have supported the ideas of) Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph or Jim Jones. We know what’s work. Let’s fund it and do it.

Index of my own communications advice

Don’t shoot the questioner

logoGovernment agencies and nonprofits HATE my questions on social media. I ask them publicly because, often, I don’t get a response via email – or because I want my exchange with the organization to be public. Questions like:

  • Where is the list on your web site of your board of directors?
  • Where is the bio on your web site of your executive director/program director, etc.?
  • Where is your latest annual report of finances (income and expenditures) on your web site?
  • I saw your quote in the newspaper, and wondered: where is the evaluation that says your program lead to a 30% drop in juvenile crime? Is there a link on your web site to this study?
  • You have a form on your web site for people who want to volunteer to fill out/an email address for people that want to volunteer, but you never say what volunteers actually do. What do volunteers at your organization do?

Responses, if they come at all, rarely thank me for pointing out missing information on the web site, or apologize for not having such. Rather, most responses are one of these:

  • We’re not required by law to provide that. 
  • Our web site is being redesigned. It will be a part of the new web site. (no date is provided on when the web site will be re-launched)
  • That information is confidential. 
  • That information is on our web site (with no link to where it is).
  • Why are you asking?

I admit that I sometimes ask a question because I’m annoyed that the organization isn’t being transparent, or because a newspaper reporter wrote a glowing story I read about the organization or program didn’t ask these questions – just took every quote from the representative as fact. But I also ask the questions because I’ve sometimes considered donating to an organization, or volunteering with such – and I’m then stunned at the lack of transparency.

None of these questions should bother any organization or agency. None. They are all legitimate questions. Often, they are questions you yourself invite, by talking at civic groups or in the press about the quality of your leadership, the impact your organization is having, the services your organization provides and your value to the community.

If you say you don’t have time to provide this basic information on your web site, one has to ask: what is it that you are spending your time on?

Also see:

Use Tech to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit Sector!
Mission-Based groups are under growing scrutiny. What you put on your web site can help counter the onslaught of “news” stories regarding mission-based organizations and how they spent charitable contributions.

Have I offended?

handstopA few years ago, whilst doing a training in Louisville, Kentucky, I explained that online volunteers shouldn’t be segregated in program management from traditional onsite volunteers, that they are just volunteers, like all other volunteers, and should be treated as such. An attendee was outraged that I had used the phrase just volunteers, even though it was obvious that I had meant solely or specifically, not merely.

A university student in one of my classes told me she didn’t like my use of the words target and setting my sights on something, because these were “references based in violence” (her words). I admit that, later,  I smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb.

A workshop attendee in Egypt told me it was outrageous that I said volunteers should get written descriptions of the tasks they were getting or that there should be any talk of their commitment or performance. “We should accept their help and be grateful for whatever they can give! We have no right to ask for anything more!” She was almost in tears as she said this.

And then there’s the infamous Florida workshop at the Corporation for National Service conference from the 1990s, where a team of trainers, including me, tried to encourage a group of SeniorCorps program leaders to adjust their recruitment tactics in order to better attract seniors from the Baby Boomer generation. I don’t think I will ever recover from that.

These incidents – and lots of others I could talk about – prompted me to put a slide at the beginning of all of my presentations, called modus operandi. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I might not have all the answers, etc. And I also ask for no GOTCHA moments, where an attendee immediately becomes outraged at something I’ve said. I ask that, if anyone hears me say something that they think is offensive to please raise their hand and ask me to clarify. Some people have done so, and it’s helped head off a lot of bad feelings, because most of the time, I did not at all mean what they thought I meant.

I realize that there is no way in the world to avoid saying something that someone won’t like, but I really do want to connect with my audience, on a human level, and for us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. I love training, and if there is an obstacle to my overall message getting out because of something I’ve said, or a perception of what I’ve said, I want that obstacle addressed post haste.

My work is out there in the public sphere for anyone to read and criticize. That’s the nature of my work, and it can be scary. Most of my work isn’t tucked away on an intranet at a humanitarian organization or in a classroom or high-priced academic journal – it’s on my web site, on my blog, on YouTube, on social media, even on other people’s web sites. It’s not easy to live with that much public scrutiny, and the criticism of me and my work can often be downright hateful, as we Kentuckians say (or, at least, as the Kentuckians I grew up with would say).

I was born and raised in Kentucky, and am fiercely proud of the fact. Fiercely. Ask my non-Kentucky friends and colleagues: they will tell you that they are sick of hearing about my beloved home state. Kentucky is like so many other states I’ve lived in or visited – Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Iowa – or even other regions of the world – Ukraine, Catalunya, the Westerwald of Germany – where residents are intensely proud of being from that region, where there are unique aspects of their way of talking, even the way they dress, and they have faced jokes – sometimes good-natured, sometimes cruel – about their culture, including their accents. People from such regions get called out almost immediately anywhere else because of their accents, and they can be very sensitive about comments made about their culture, especially when most images about their culture in the media are negative.

Upon hearing that I am from Kentucky, I have heard comments all over the world which have stung me. There is a very particular joke that Germans have about Kentucky that I won’t repeat here, but when Germans would hear I was from Kentucky, and smirk, I would say the joke, in German, and they would be flabberghasted that I knew their “secret.” Instead of being offended, I turned the tables, and it actually often lead to some really great conversations about Kentucky – they got to learn just what an interesting, beautiful place it is, in contrast to what they thought. I hear a lot of hurtful comments from people from other countries when they learn I’m from the USA, because of how they perceive this country, based on our foreign policy, our movies and our TV shows. I have to find a way not to become overwhelmed with outrage at their comments, however cruel, because I’m there to work with them. I guess that’s why it takes a lot to offend me, as someone from Kentucky or from the USA as a whole.

Because of this worldwide perception of Kentucky, I sometimes comment about it at the start of a workshop I’m doing. It’s my way of disarming (oops, gun reference!) the audience: yes, I know you hear the accent, however slight. It’s also my way to represent: hey, you are going to get communications and tech advice from a gal from KENTUCKY – get your stereotypes about my state around THAT! I hope that, by the end of the workshop, they have not only learned about communications strategies, social media, volunteer management, etc. – I hope they have a new, better opinion of people from Kentucky.

I do just that at the start of this video. And it was recently brought to my attention that a Kentucky university professor was offended because of it. She didn’t tell me, however. Instead, she told her colleagues about her offense. Someone else had to tell me about her judgment.

So let me make it clear that my modus operandi isn’t just for my workshops; it’s also regarding my web site, this blog, and anything else I do online. If you read something of mine that you think is offensive, write me, via email (jc@coyotecommunications.com) or, as so many have done, in the comments section of my blog, and immediately ask me to clarify. Maybe I don’t mean what you think I mean. Maybe it’s exactly what I meant. But you won’t ever know unless you ask me.

And, no, I’m not wearing shoes right now. And I did use an outhouse last week, but it was in Canada.

Taking a stand when you are supposed to be neutral/not controversial

handstopSo 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?

Also see:

Why you should separate your personal life and private life online

 

 

How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict