(or, How Trusting Your Online Audience Puts Your Organization at a Huge PR Advantage)
Adopting social strategies- such as taking on innovative social media initiatives- requires institutions to change how they think about communications. Creating this change requires removing four, distinct barriers: buy-in, radical trust, uncertainty, and resource issues. In my last post, I discussed buy-in and why social media is critical for institutions. This week, I’m delving into the topic of radical trust.
Radical trust is a term used to describe the confidence that any structured organization, including museums, government entities, libraries, businesses, and religious institutions, has in collaboration and empowerment within online communities. In order for social media to be effective, institutions must place a great deal of trust in their online audiences.
Institutions display trust in these communities by being transparent, open, and honest. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s not easy because, very often, social media best practices are in direct opposition with marketing lessons learned in traditional MBA programs. Take Chester Burger’s 1975 MBA curriculum staple on public relations from Harvard Business Review, How to Meet the Press. It’s nearly irrelevant in regard to online communications. In this day-and-age, it’s important not to think of public relations as a game (“how can we swing this?”) because a game implies a lack of transparency, seriousness, and honesty. Moreover, the media-verses-us tone of this and similar PR articles is poisonous for organizations. During a time when people are increasingly becoming the media (43% of young people find out their news from Facebook- that is, from their friends), this translates into a people-verses-us mentality. That’s just not good public relations (anymore), but that’s how many of our brightest have been trained.
Public relations best practices have changed and are changing. We must keep our eyes open to this change regardless of academic background or years in the field. As Abraham Lincoln said, “As our case is new, we must think and act anew.” Need we start from scratch? Certainly not, I don’t think. But today, people strengthen brands through word of mouth marketing more than companies can strengthen brands through paid efforts.
Radical trust pays off. In fact, it’s difficult for social media to be effective in terms of meeting an organization’s bottom line(s) without radical trust. Organizations must keep communication channels open and be unafraid of cultivating personal connections with institutional content. Yes, this does mean embracing some potentially wacky comments and creative conversation, but giving your online community a voice pays off. As a related side, it’s also important to know what people are saying about you on the web. Here’s a tidy little online-gemstone to keep in your pocket for help in this arena: Mashable’s 10 Steps for Successful Social Media Monitoring.
If your wondering what good radical trust looks like and how it can pay off, then you’re in the right place! Here’s a terrific example of a ZAM (zoo, aquarium, or museum) effectively displaying radical trust to educate, make unique connections with audiences, and avoid a possible PR crisis to boot.
The Shedd Aquarium vs. The Low Survival Rate of Dolphin Calves
Here’s the story told alongside explanations of how the Shedd Aquarium rocked radical trust and started gathering sugar for lemonade in case they received a lemon-of-a-situation.
Smart move #1: They celebrated the dolphin birth, despite low mortality rates. The Shedd Aquarium experienced the birth of a new Pacific white-sided dolphin calf on June 3rd, 2011. Despite the staggeringly low survival rates of dolphin calves both in aquarium and in the wild (they have a 33% mortality rate!), the Shedd seemed to shout the birth from its rooftop. They wrote up a birth announcement on their blog and linked to that copy on social media channels. The Shedd even wrote two blog posts on the day of the calf’s birth, establishing the blog as a site for ongoing information regarding the calf. One of the posts featured a video of the calf’s birth. Can you get more intimate than that? Shedd’s decision to celebrate the birth so quickly was a big one. If the calf did not survive even its first night in the world, there would be no turning back or hiding the death after such announcements.
Smart move #2: They kept us posted and let us in. The Shedd wrote ongoing updates on the dolphin calf and her mother, Tique. Communications were effective because they were honest, ongoing, and transparent. Instead of constantly reporting that, “the dolphins are doing great,” (or not posting much information at all) the Shedd shared concerns and small victories regarding the calf’s health along the way. Keeping up communications regarding the state of the dolphins allowed the social media team to connect online audiences with the institution while providing educational information regarding dolphin calf. Not to mention, these communications tactfully showed that the Shedd cared for the dolphins and their online audiences through timely posts. In essence, the Shedd set the stage for possible death of the calf, should such an event occur… which it did.
…and then the dolphin calf passed away… But thanks to the institution’s transparency regarding low survival rates and the preciousness of the baby dolphin before and after the death, online audiences responded with care and concern for the calf’s mother, as well as institution and its staff.
Smart move #3: They were timely in announcing the death through all channels. After posting six blog posts about the dolphin calf’s status throughout the seven days of the dolphin’s life, the calf passed away on June 10th. The Shedd was prepared. In this short time, they had built up interest in the dolphins, and they positioned themselves as loving facilitators between audiences and the calf. The Shedd Aquarium immediately shared the information on Facebook and Twitter, and they sent an immediate announcement to their email contacts. They accepted the risk that some folks might blame them for a possible death, but they opened their communication channels anyway. It paid off. Within only one hour of posting the sad news, the Shedd had 103 sympathetic comments on Facebook. A vast majority of these comments expressed care and concern for the institution. It was immediately clear, even in this example alone, that the Shedd was not going to be villainized for the calf’s death. In fact, they were victims of nature’s course. Have you been emotionally moved yet today? Visit the Shedd’s Facebook page and scroll to the community comments around June 10th, 2011… Maybe prepare a tissue or two beforehand.
Smart move #4: They were human. Immediately following the announcement of the calf’s passing, the Shedd Aquarium answered questions, accepted sympathy, and most of all—expressed human sadness. The end of their email communication and blog announcement stated, “This is a difficult loss for the Shedd family. But in our joy and grief, we remain proud of our animals, our people and our husbandry program.” These sentiments are warm, touching, and (one must believe) true. When it comes to caring for animals, there is a strong reliance on science and research, but the Shedd did not overlook the value of the feelings involved in this situation. They did not “play-down” the situation, embed the announcement within a jam-packed email update, or try to gloss-over the happening in any way. They spoke in plain English, understanding that this is no time for “science-y” words that might alienate a concerned audience. Despite being a world-class institution, the Shedd opened up like a human being, increasing their potential for connection with audiences.
Smart move #5: They followed-up. After the announcement of the calf’s death, the Shedd could have chosen to divert audience attention. They could have turned their focus to their new exhibits, or their summer programs, or anything else. They could have tried to never look back. That’s not what the aquarium chose to do. Instead, they followed up eleven days later with a status report on the calf’s mother. They did not just let the connections created from the dolphin birth slide away, leaving audiences hanging. While this sounds like common sense, following up is a key element of online transparency that is very often overlooked- especially when something “bad” happens. We see this all the time on social media outlets: something bad will happen and the organization will try and make us forget that it ever happened by blindly diverting attention. Here’s a dose of reality: audiences don’t just forget. So don’t go for “forget.” Go for continuing to inspire connections to your nonprofit’s social mission and aim for forgiveness first.
Because of the outstanding trust that the Shedd Aquarium placed in their online audiences, the organization positioned themselves in a win-win situation: If the calf lived, the Shedd had engaging content to help inspire connections and draw attendance and support. If the calf did not live, they had positioned themselves as caring, informative, hardworking, and honest dolphin caretakers recovering from a terrific loss.
The Shedd Aquarium was unafraid. They were unafraid to show emotion, to express concern, and to share positive and negative news. They trusted their audiences to judge them fairly after they had placed all of the information on the table. That, I think, is how to handle a communications crisis and come out on top thanks to radical trust.
Got another example to share? Please write a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
About the author
MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore