Is Your Association's Social Media Marketing Policy Realistically Prepared for What People Post?
Associations often use social media marketing to promote their various agendas, be it their events, raison d'être, expanding membership or volunteer base, or something else entirely. They may or may not follow an internal policy on the mechanics of doing so: the sort of images to use, hashtags, mentions, and the like, but does the policy cover ethics and etiquette?
It is all well and good to have formal policies about how to control an association's own messaging for the sake of consistency and optimization, but what about controlling potential ramifications? Does your association have rules for what your social media marketing can include in its messages? What about sharing and retweeting, likes, and mentions?
Is Your Association using Responsible Messaging?
Foremost when it comes to using social media marketing responsibly is the sort of messaging one includes in posting. Start with the basics by considering who your audience is. Speak to that audience appropriately and with their feelings, expectations, and goals in mind. Do not assume that because you are okay with something or pursue a specific political, ethical, religious (etc.) agenda that your audience feels likewise.
How you present your association's messaging goes beyond the information you wish to convey. It paints a picture of how your organization constructs its messages, defines its objectives, and thinks about its audience. Although you are crafting the specifics of your association's social media marketing posts, when, how, and why to embrace a degree of social responsibility beyond your organization's core messaging is something you should have defined guidelines for.
For example, it may seem a simple thing, but what sort of gender identification does your messaging include? Many marketers believe that people are accustomed to the long-standing practice of using male pronouns (e.g., "he," "him") when talking about a general audience, so they are okay with it. This is increasingly less acceptable in many circles, however, especially if your audience is significantly female or includes demographics that take issue with binary gender identification. Even using "his and/or her" and the like can misaddress the latter demographic.
How your association constructs its messaging is often as important as what that message is.
Are You Mindful of Who You Share, Retweet, and Reply To?
When operating your organization's social media marketing accounts, what guidelines do you follow regarding how you interact with posts from other accounts? Does your organization have an official social media policy, or is it left up to "common sense" (dirty words in the content world) and personal judgement?
If your association does not have a social media marketing policy that covers interactions with other individuals and organizations, I recommend doing so ASAP. Our personal perspectives are highly subjective and individualized, so without guidance we can easily share, retweet, like, etc. a social media post by someone else that seems fine, but additional information may reveal it conflict's with our organization's brand and identity.
For example, without naming names, there is a well-known not-for-profit that many laypeople consider to be the most outspoken, benevolent advocacy group for a particular cause. However, among the people that cause encompasses, how that organization presents itself and reflects on them has resulted in many people labeling this organization as a hate group.
So, let's say you're in control of your organization's twitter account and you believe this organization does a lot of good based on what you've personally heard of it and a cursory look at their website. You begin following them on Twitter. One day you see them post something you find very uplifting and poignant, so you retweet it. You see nothing wrong with this and may actually believe that, overall, showing your support is the socially responsible thing to do. It shows your organization cares about the cause's target demographic.
But you're also not aware of the controversy surrounding this group and are not yourself a part of the demographic it advocates for. Unfortunately, because you've retweeted something by them while using your organization's account, you've created the impression that your organization supports this controversial not-for-profit.
Without meaning to, and with the best of intentions, you have opened up your organization to all manner of backlash and condemnation via negative association. Socially responsibility isn't always synonymous with what may seem obviously ethical in any given scenario because, in the world of social media, perception becomes reality. Fact is defined by belief. Popular opinion defines what is considered real.
Your organization needs to set clear boundaries for who it interacts with online, and how and to what extent to reduce the chance of wading into a situation where opinion and perspective are setting the battle lines rather than clear facts. Do your research if you're not certain, and never make assumptions because you happen to have fallen for someone else's messaging spin rather than the truth behind it. (Or even the truth as it is perceived by your audience.)
As a safe starting point, limit your shares, likes, retweets, etc. to individuals and organizations your association deals with directly. Foster that shared relationship by giving them a social media marketing boost, and you will likely enjoy the same in kind. It is when you start branching out from this (relatively) safe harbour that you can get into trouble.
Of course, no boundaries or policies are 100% safe or certain -- you cannot account for how another organization or individual can change. However, you can make smart, socially responsible choices that mitigate any risk while still being loyal to your organization's messaging.
Striking the Balance Between Social Responsibility and Social Media Marketing
When all is said and done, there is no "one size fits all" answer for how finely one should walk the line between social responsibility and responsibility to your organization's objectives, as the two may not always seem to line up perfectly. Mitigate this risk by creating an organization-wide policy on social media use, messaging, and branding that defines how your association's identity is to be represented online.
Many associations and other not-for-profits (and also businesses) have no official policy regarding how they are represented online, for social media marketing purposes or otherwise. Similarly, more broadly reaching digital resources policies are also rare. Such policies focus on how an organization's computers, networks, the Internet, and other digital resources are to be used. What they can and cannot be used for is a critical starting point for defining how online interactions between your organization and others must be appropriately shaped.
To help organizations get a firmer grip on their online identity and messaging, CSAE offers a free Digital Resources Policy Template anyone can download. Take this boilerplate document and alter it to your needs, vetting the end result to ensure it is legal and viable for your region and purposes.