The American Red Cross initiated its social media strategy after Hurricane Katrina. The organization knew there were negative blog posts about its disaster relief efforts, but had no capacity to respond, let alone track. They hired Wendy Harman, a social media integrator, to “combat” bloggers and to increase organizational transparency. “It felt like we were going to war. There were concerns about negative comments, fear even,” says Wendy whose current title is Social Media Manager.
The American Red Cross started a listening program with some key goals: correct misinformation, to be informed about public opinion, to track conversation trends, to identify influencers, and to build relationships. Wendy Harman notes, “We needed to listen and engage first before we could do anything successfully with social media.”
Listening to bloggers initially, and later on Twitter and other sources, has helped informed communications strategies. What surprised the staff at the American Red Cross and even Wendy herself, was the majority of these conversations were positive. Notes Harman, “We found that most are passionate and positive and want to help. Social media offers us a way to engage them and tell their stories about their experience with us to others.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit and unexpected outcome of engaging in social media through listening first is that the Red Cross drove internal adoption of social media. Wendy says people are no longer afraid of negative comments or posts. “The opposite of hate is indifference, if someone bothers to post a negative comment it means they care.” Negative comments are now viewed by the organization as an opportunity to educate and improve what they are doing.
What started in 2006-2007 as a series of listening and engaging experiments has now begun to pay off. In December 2008, thousands of Facebook members helped leveraged a $50,000 donation from the Western Union Foundation by voting for the American Red Cross and its disaster relief efforts on Facebook. The $50,000 donation contributed to a broader American Red Cross goal to raise $100 million for disaster relief.
Wendy Harman noted that employees at the Red Cross were initially blocked from accessing social networking sites, like Facebook, from work. Recently, a change in policy has allowed access, in part, due to the listening work undertaken with Harman’s leadership.The American Red Cross has also established a response policy for commenting on blogs or replying on Twitter. Says Harman, “I organize the report by subject matter and if I need help answering I consult with others on staff. This approach generally keeps everyone abreast of what people are saying about the Red Cross in the social space.”
Wendy says that it is really important to document anecdotal evidence when making the case for the ROI of Social Media, especially feedback from staff members about how the listening process supports their work. She also documents how external stakeholders have engaged with the Red Cross literally sharing screen captures of the actual tweet or blog comment. This drives adoption.
As Wendy Harman sums it up, “Social media listening has become the gateway drug of the organization.”
However, dramatic results from social media come when it can scale. When everyone in the organization can listen and participate. In order to scale, you need a policy.
Wendy Harman at the Red Cross has been hard at work creating this draft version of the organization's Social Media Strategy Handbook. It is intended for staff and chapters and is encouraging them to participate in social media and craft a strategy for their chapter. It isn't a command and control policy, it's encouraging, provides a lot of useful tips/steps, and is also realistic about the time commitment involved.
The first step is to become social media savvy - the premise that you can better understand how the tools work if you use them personally. It goes on to lay out some guidelines for personal use if the employee or volunteer chooses to self-identify their affiliation with the Red Cross.
The handbook is built upon the work of other organizations that have shared their policies.
Has listening been the catalyst for creating a social culture in your nonprofit? What are you doing to scale your social media efforts?