Are social networks the best tools for charity PR?

Here’s some fantastic advice for charities (though any small business could use it) about delivering successful PR on a budget.  As you  might expect it focuses solidly on digital channels – Twitter, Facebook, blogging and audioboo.

The low entry costs compared to the potential impact of social media make them obvious channels for organisations without marketing budgets or press officers to command.   An effective social strategy costs in terms of time – those blog posts don’t write themselves, and the price of success on Twitter is eternal vigilance.  But as the example of the Never Seconds blog shows, a simple piece of online communication can  have extraordinary repercussions.

However, nothing is ever simple.  Recent experience suggest it’s worth treading carefully before the evangelising can commence.

Lesson 1: don’t assume that people know what this stuff is or how it works

I did some training recently with a charity whose Chief Exec wanted her staff to understand the role that they could all play in raising profile through the smart use of tools like Twitter.  Explaining the potential of Twitter took second place to explaining what it is and how it works.  A minority of people in the room had accounts and used them enthusiastically.  Most displayed a degree of scepticism.

Lesson 2: don’t assume that people have enough time, technical confidence – or kit.

Most people didn’t feel comfortable about communicating online or able to do it, partly because they lacked equipment – many didn’t have smartphones, for example (today’s figures from Ofcom suggest that only 39% of people do). There was concern about losing time from already busy days to servicing more communication, and about how a small organisation could meet the increased workload that a successful strategy might generate.

Lesson 3: just because you can see opportunities don’t assume others share the view.

My group assumed that Twitter would be time-consuming (“don’t you just get streams of stuff to read and respond to?”); full of trivia (“isn’t it all about what people had for breakfast?”); and slightly creepy (“following people and having them follow you?  It sounds like stalking!”).

Lesson 4: charities may have particular concerns about social channels that PRs should respect

Many felt uneasy about talking about what they do online because they work with vulnerable people in difficult circumstances.  There was a lively discussion about the danger of forfeiting clients’ trust, the limits of what was and was not acceptable and how to raise attention – and funds – without exploiting people.

Eventually we agreed that it was better to make a cautious start with social media than avoid it for fear things might go wrong; that there are plenty of voluntary sector organisations using social media effectively and their experience offers lessons to be learned; that while client confidentiality trumps all other considerations, there is much else that can be discussed online.

But there’s still convincing to be done before some organisations feel confident enough to look for advice on what to put in their multi-media toolkit.

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