How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they Read more

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite. Read more

Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

Is your organization integrating market research into strategic decision-making processes yet? Here are eight important things to keep in Read more

A Quarter of Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations Are In One Age Bracket (DATA)

Nearly 25% of potential attendees to visitor-serving organizations fall into one, ten-year age bracket. Which generation has the greatest Read more

People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers. Here Is Why That Matters Right Now (DATA)

Actually, it always matters. But data lend particular insight into an important role that audiences want museums to play Read more

The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

These seven macro trends are driving the market for visitor-serving organizations. Big data helps spot market trends. The data that Read more

trust

People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers. Here Is Why That Matters Right Now (DATA)

Actually, it always matters. But data lend particular insight into an important role that audiences want museums to play right now.

“Are museums perceived as experts – and are they trusted? To what extent?” These are the questions that I hoped to shine a light upon when I requested a topic-specific data cut on cultural organizations from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. The NAAU is an ongoing study regarding market perceptions of visitor-serving organizations and it currently quantifies feedback from over 108,000 respondents. The resulting data reveal important takeaways for museums today – and specifically underscore an important role that the market expects museums to play. As a heads-up, the data below is cut for the United States market and not only high-propensity visitors. In other words, this isn’t simply “what people who believe in climate change” think about museums.

The data and analysis in this article contribute to several debates taking place in the visitor-serving industry right now from crowd-curated exhibits and the “education vs. entertainment” debate, to implications regarding participation in last week’s March for Science. Knowing how much people trust museums is important information for developing relevant and sustainable organizations. But data reveal that being trusted comes with the responsibility to communicate action and recommend mission-driven behaviors.

Hey museums, you have the superpower of public trust. Like your superpower of being facilitators of shared experiences, you may not even realize the importance of this superpower. Remember: Your organization may declare importance, but the market determines relevance. Here’s what the market thinks about cultural organizations when it comes to credibility, trust, and their duty to the communities they serve.

 

Museums are highly credible sources of information

Aquariums, art museums, history museums, science centers/museums, natural history museums, and zoos are highly credible sources of information. And, as the data indicate, these values aren’t merely “good,” they’re rather fantastic! With values in the upper-seventies, there is a strong level of agreement with the statement “[Entity type] is a highly credible source of information.”

While the strength of the sentiment may or may not surprise you, what is notable are the perceptions of museums as credible sources when compared to NGOs, federal agencies, and even the daily newspaper. Yes, folks, museums are trusted more than the daily newspaper.

The NGO category includes non-governmental organizations that are not museums. The mean values at 64.2 for NGOs and 61.3 for state agencies indicate a relative level of credibility – with perceptions largely influenced by the degree to which the respective NGO or agency conforms to the respondent’s worldview.  For example, no matter what the integrity of the information published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an avowed climate change denier is unlikely to find the NRDC unassailably credible. Federal agencies (with a mean value of 51.4), represent an even more bifurcated public view – which makes sense in our current partisan condition.

These data tie into the never-ending “education vs. entertainment” priority debate within visitor-serving organizations. It’s a never-ending debate because there isn’t a clear winner. Data suggest that cultural organizations need to be both entertaining and educational in order to succeed, though they play different roles in the visitor experience. It’s also a never-ending debate because – although the two may be unstoppable when they team up – the topic has become stupidly polarizing among some industry professionals. It’s divided within some organizations (e.g. education vs. marketing departments) and outside of them (e.g. topic-experts vs. museum consultants). Again, they play different roles, but we really should write a ‘thank you’ note to whomever invented that silly/awesome word “edu-tainment.” (Anybody know his or her address?)

Entertainment value is critical for an organization’s solvency and success, but organizations that veer too far on the “entertainment” side of things risk losing the reputational equity of credibility. And it’s an area in which museums shine.

 

Museums are trusted

Not only are museums viewed as highly credible sources of information, they are also trusted entities overall. This type of trust is not to be taken lightly, and it’s a testament to organizations that stand by their missions to educate and inspire audiences.

This is important information for all museums contemplated in these data, and it is especially worthy of an extra look for zoos and aquariums. Zoos and aquariums are trusted by the market at-large…and rather significantly so. I point this out because it lends context to some of the debates taking place in the zoo and aquarium world regarding captive animals. Certainly, IMPACTS data reveal stark trend lines regarding perceptions of exhibits such as dolphin shows, but the market at large still largely trusts zoos and aquariums to evolve and make value-based decisions driven by their missions. This is not an excuse for zoos and aquariums not to listen up and evolve alongside market perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (to the extent that they may/may not be evolving). It’s the opposite. It’s a reminder not to let people down.

It may be argued that museums are trusted because they employ and/or consult topic experts and thus provide expert content. That might be it, friends! Regardless: Trusted, they are.

These data also provide aid for thinking about crowd-curated exhibits. The market views museums as expert sources of information. While crowd-curated exhibits certainly can be an effective way to engage the public depending on how they are administrated and actualized, they also risk perceptually undermining a museum’s own hard-earned trust and credibility. Engagement is super great! Engagement that results in a greater loss of equity than the payoff (especially when there are other avenues for engagement) is not super great.

 

Museums are not seen as having political agendas

Here’s how these data fit in with the rest: They underscore that museums are seen as factual and impartial – more so than government agencies and the daily newspaper.

Are museums trusted because they are not seen as having political agendas? Maybe, but you can only stick the landing there if you jump to some conclusions. While I am sharing this alongside trust and credibility metrics, I’m not yet certain of the exact nature of the relationship between being political and being trustworthy as it relates to visitor-serving organizations – and neither are you. (If you don’t have data, then you have an opinion. That’s cool, but it doesn’t count here. Mine doesn’t, either.) There’s more to these values – and they are interesting and worth putting on our thinking caps to explore.

“Political” may understandably correlate with having connection to or trying to influence policy. This may be the reason why aquariums and zoos indicate a higher level of agreement with the statement, despite having lower levels of government funding and more earned revenue imperative than other visitor-serving entities. Some zoos and aquariums encourage audiences to vote in a certain direction (e.g. in favor of plastic bag bans). It makes sense that NGOs may have the strongest perception of having a political agenda – they openly do things like encourage people to fight global warming and feed the homeless. Federal and state agencies being perceived as having a political agenda seems to make good sense, too, from where I stand.

Confidence in cultural organizations took a plunge after the presidential election, and it remains low. The New York Times reports that we are divided in terms of consumer optimism: Some of us have great confidence in the economy, and some of us don’t. Unfortunately, those who profile as high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations largely fall in the “don’t” category. The reason for this dip seems to be concern that organizations are not standing by their missions (e.g. science museums remaining oddly quiet when confronted with “alternative facts” concerning climate change, or concern about board members that don’t support an organization’s mission running the show). In sum, this may not be a matter of “being political,” but rather one of integrity.

Indeed, taking a political stand for the sake of taking a political stand seems like it may be mission drift for most organizations. However, recent happenings suggest that when your mission is pinned against a “politicized” topic, standing up for your mission wins. This is illustrated by the data-informed success seen at MoMA when they highlighted artwork by artists from countries impacted by the original Muslim-majority nation travel ban.

Museums are viewed as impartial entities, and this may be because they are trusted to present the facts with expertise. Where things get messy is when an organization’s very mission becomes politicized. Or perhaps more simply: when facts become politicized.

 

People believe that museums should recommend action

This data set is probably the most important. People believe that museums should suggest or recommend certain behaviors or ways for the general public to support their causes and missions. Got that? People think that it’s the job of museums to recommend behaviors. That’s huge, and it’s likely tied to the combined force of the high levels of trust and credibility that these organizations possess.

Consider that recommending action is not the same as “being political.” Recommending things like cutting down on single use plastics (as a zoo or aquarium may advise) or contributing funding for art programs that an organization carries out (as an art museum may recommend), may not be seen as necessarily “political” to the market, but rather seen as an organization walking its talk in terms of supporting its mission. The data doesn’t specifically support museums recommending protesting (for instance). The data support organizations leveraging the trust that the market has in them to suggest behaviors that underscore their missions – which the market perceives not to be innately political.

Museums are becoming forums for community engagement on important issues related to their missions, and that may be a terrific thing. Museums are heroes for their missions, and there’s incredible potential to lead the charge in helping to actualize these missions. That’s an important superpower – and it’s an enormously humbling responsibility.

Museums, zoos, and aquariums are highly trusted to produce and output content and information. They are viewed as expert, factual, and impartial – more so than government agencies and even daily newspapers. The market – which generally doesn’t like to be told what to do in today’s connected world – is even willing to accept prescriptive recommendations from museums.

Museums are experts. Museums can make expert recommendations, and people believe that they should do just that. To shirk this market-determined capability for influence may be the greatest blow to an organization’s mission of all. Data suggest that museums may play a role in leading us all toward a more educated, connected, and inspired world…if they are willing to take up the calling.

 

(Credit: The header photo on this article comes from the Field Museum’s totally watch-worthy #DayOfFacts video.)

 

Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 7 Comments

Influencing Leadership: Three Findings to Effectively Communicate with Cultural Executives (DATA)

Influencing Leadership at Cultural Institutions

Here’s a data-informed peek at what influences leaders in cultural institutions.

I’m in the business of cultural sector evolution and – given that the cultural business model is in need of an update – we at IMPACTS have been looking at how the opportunity for evolution may be best understood. We work directly with many industry leaders (the Chiefs, or the “Cs”), and recently had occasion to scour the minds of these executives in order to better understand how they obtain information, and the roles that various information channels play in influencing their executive decisions. Potentially innovative, groundbreaking ideas risk dying on the vine if they aren’t understood and supported by an organization’s leadership. We wanted to find out more about how to keep that from happening.

The data below is from a survey of 306 executive leaders working at nonprofit visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums, aquariums, cultural centers, theaters, orchestras, zoos, historic sites, etc.). The study identified the primary information channels that executives use to inform their decision-making processes, and further measured the relative trust and influence that these same leaders ascribe to the various information channels. These values are quantified on an index value basis – a way of assessing and comparing these measurements in relative terms (i.e. an information channel with an influence value of 200.0 is 2x as influential in the surveyed leaders’ decision-making processes than is an information channel with an influence index value of 100.0).

The findings of this study are relevant to anyone whose profession requires influence, motivation, and collaboration with or among leaders.  If we know what informs and influences leaders, then we can more effectively communicate with, and, in turn, influence leadership. Before you can change the world, you likely need to change some minds. Here’s data that will help:

 

1) Timeliness matters

KYOB IMPACTS - Sources of information  for cultural leaders

Let’s start with the obvious: It’s easiest to reach fellow leaders via the information sources that they are actually using.

Books and manuals generally have some influence power and are perceived as trustworthy and relatively influential sources (more on that in the charts that follow). This is frequently because book publishers employ credibility protectors such as fact-checkers, researchers, and editors, so leaders often regard this information channel as an expertly vetted, reliable source of information. But, it also takes time to write, edit, publish, and distribute (not to mention read) a book. That may be why the data suggest that leaders aren’t primarily relying on books and manuals for information (which they reference for information approximately 3.5x less often than they do online daily news sources). So, yes, books are potentially influential – if you can get the leader to read the book!

Data suggest that more timely information channels win the day when it comes to providing value as an information resource for leaders. Consultants/industry experts, peer-to-peer communications, and especially daily newspapers and blogs are timely by nature. Timely information sources are likely to be more right-now relevant than sources with more labored publication processes.

In addition to books, industry publications (often published periodically) and conferences (typically occurring annually) struggle to meet the timeliness requirement that agile leaders demand of their most important information sources.

 

2) Experts are far more valuable than participants

KYOB IMPACTS - influence of sources for cultural leaders

Perceived expertise is a significant driver of influence. Daily newspapers are definitionally timely – and the perceived prestige, credibility, and expertise of publications (think The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, etc.) inure to the benefit of their journalistic staff. There’s a high level of trust and influence embedded in these brands despite the fact that the web allows nearly anyone to be a “reporter” these days. Sources perceived as expert – such as industry experts, consultants and industry executives – dominate influence on leaders.

KYOB IMPACTS - Trust of sources for cultural leaders

Conversely, sources based heavily in participation don’t perform nearly so well. Not everyone who participates in something is an expert. This may be a challenge for industry publications and conferences – they often feature far more participants than experts. More heavily participation-based (versus expert-based) sources often supply unfiltered noise in the already-noisy world of an executive leader…a circumstance that may be the opposite of helpful in the eyes of the “Cs.”

I wonder if – as the most effective leaders increasingly play the symbolic role of a conductor within organizations – the influence, trustworthiness, and go-to value of professional staff will increase. That’s a tide that may necessarily turn as cultural organizations evolve: Leaders may need to trust the (increasingly nuanced and specialized) experts that they hire in order to simply run their organizations.

Fun fact: Leaders right now utilize printed newspapers far, far more frequently than the general population. Nope, it’s not because printed newspapers are different than online newspapers in terms of content – it’s because today’s head-honchos are generally educated Baby Boomers who simply still prefer getting their news in print.

 

3) It’s a small world after all

What leaders say to one another is far more influential than what non-peers say to leaders. This is evident when observing the high impact of peer-to-peer communications and industry experts. Leaders seek out and listen to other leaders.

While this may be slightly disappointing for non-Chiefs, I urge these future leaders to look at the very bright side of this finding: If you can influence a small group of leaders, then you may be able to influence the entire sector. Hopeful? Perhaps. But identifying this narrow band of very specific influencers could prove enlightening for both current and future leaders alike – especially considering the imperative to evolve the way that many nonprofits do business. Think of other relatively small groups of folks who knew one another and changed the course of history. The Beat Generation. The Lost Generation. The Cultural Institution Reinvention Generation? Perhaps change in this sector is not so different. Or, perhaps I just want an excuse to include references to both Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a post.

Ours is not a kingdom, it is a collaboration. To influence leaders, we must compellingly communicate a point of view…and it’s easiest to do this when we communicate in consideration of leadership’s most preferred, trusted, and influential information sources.

 

Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Image credit: Scientific American

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Reach, Trust & Amplification: The Importance of Social Media in Nonprofit Marketing (STUDY)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to share recent IMPACTS data (collected in real-time through the end of last month) regarding the comparative importance of different marketing channels. The key finding? Data indicates that social media is the fastest growing and most influential marketing channel.

A few weeks ago, I shared data indicating that websites and mobile platforms – followed by word of mouth, social media, and peer review sites – play a disproportionate role in encouraging visitation decisions to visitor-serving organizations compared to more traditional marketing mediums such as radio and print media. With the help of coworkers at IMPACTS, I’ve drilled deeper into available data in order to answer the question of how these platforms play a role in the current marketing world. To do this, we looked at these mediums through three parameters: reach, trust, and amplification. Then, we calculated the weighted influence of these parameters to assess the overall value of each channel.

We measured the following information channels/marketing mediums:

  • Web – an organization’s website or an online news site, for instance
  • Social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and other social networking sites
  • Word of mouth (WOM) – Person-to-person sharing of information
  • Email – Good ol’ email.
  •  Mobile web – web accessed via mobile device or mobile platform
  • Peer review web – TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other online review sites
  • Television – both commercial and public broadcasts, news programming, information acquired through television
  • Radio – both satellite and terrestrial programming
  • Newspaper (print)– Any newspaper source in print (content accessed online are included in the “web” category. In other words, the print edition of The New York Times falls within the “newspaper” category, whereas content accessed via nytimes.com would be considered a “web” resource.)
  • Periodicals and magazines (print) – Magazines and periodicals in hardcopy (again, online versions are included in the “web” category)
  • Direct mail – That stuff that physically arrives to your home/office and clutters your countertop
  • Other print – Brochures, flyers, other informational, printed material
  • Other – billboards, bus signs, posters, etc.
Take a look at our findings below and consider how your organization values these channels. Do your organizational priorities match the public perception and actual use of these marketing channels? Click on the graphs below to pull up larger images.

 

1. Reach

This parameter quantifies the relative efficacy of each channel in terms of that channel’s ability to expose an individual or household to a message within any defined duration. In other words, we’re trying to understand how effective any medium is at “reaching” an overall population (or, for that matter, a targeted audience such as women aged 35-54, etc.)

As you can see above, in terms of “reach,” websites are the primary channels used by the market to acquire information. An interesting item of note here is the growth in the importance of web/mobile platforms (web, mobile web, peer review web, and social media) compared to the June 2011 baseline data. In fact, every defined marketing channel that was NOT web or mobile-based (except word of mouth, which is the only channel based on person-to-person interaction) experienced a decline within the past year in terms of its reach.

 

2. Trust

This parameter quantifies how credible these channels are perceived to be as information sources. In this metric, we still see traditional, printed materials leading the way. We sometimes refer to this as the “Publication Effect” – there has been an observed tendency for the market to “believe” information obtained via mediums with higher barriers to publication (e.g. newspapers and magazines) than those with relatively easy publication thresholds (e.g. online forums). And, this perception may be reality. Not only do more traditional publishers employ “credibility protectors” such as fact-checkers, researchers and editors, the physical nature of the medium tends to imply a certain level of gravitas that a more ephemeral medium simply cannot achieve.

Still, the web and mobile platforms have generally displayed the most positive change in terms of being identified as trustworthy sources of information, and I expect for this trend to continue as more traditional publishers develop increasingly robust online presences.

Self-published content such as direct mail are among the least trusted sources of information. (Interesting finding: Upon reviewing data from previous years, we know that the trust value of direct mail tends to further plummet during election seasons when mailboxes are littered with campaign propaganda – and we may reasonably expect this in the upcoming seasons.) Other printed materials (e.g. brochures) are also considered to be comparatively untrustworthy sources of information.

This data should be of considerable note to nonprofit organizations (or any company) spending a significant portion of their budget on printed materials while largely ignoring its online reputation – especially if the organization could alternatively invest an equivalent amount to hire a resource to manage its online engagement and social media platforms.

This data is particularly intriguing to me because it illustrates a very unique moment in terms of the evolution of marketing and information-share. Perhaps the way that we think of printed materials such as direct mail will someday soon join payphones, Polaroid pictures, Blockbuster video stores, road maps and telephone books in the pantheon of obsolescence.

 

3. Amplification

Amplification quantifies the re-distribution potential of the respective information channel. Marketers should care about amplification because this measure potentially indicates the amount of “marketing bang” that an organization will get for its buck – a particularly relevant item for cash-strapped nonprofits. This parameter measures how likely folks are to share these marketing channels with others. In my line of work, we sometimes refer to an information channel’s amplification value as its “sneeze factor” – how many other people can we infect with this message? (Quick apology to health-related nonprofiteers reading this post!)

As you can see, web and mobile-based sites generally have higher amplification rates and are easier to share than more traditional marketing channels. This seems sensible. It is, of course, easier to forward an email than it is to share a radio spot with a friend… but some interesting habits of the general population and how they use/relate to these channels emerge in these numbers. For instance, when compared to other printed information sources such as newspapers and direct mail, we generally find a higher amplification rate for magazines because they often have much higher production values (i.e. look and feel “nicer”). Because of this, magazines are more likely than other printed channels to occupy a spot on the coffee table until the next month’s issue arrives. During that time, friends coming over may see these magazines, flip through their pages, and presto! The magazine as an information channel has achieved amplification.

Unfortunately for many museums and nonprofits spending large amounts of money on printed materials, less substantial brochures do not have the same fate and are tucked away in private spaces or ultimately land in the trash before they can be amplified.

Though high in credibility value, word of mouth has a low amplification rate because it is difficult to reproduce and scale an in-person interaction.

 

4. Overall Value

The overall value represents the weighted, relative values of these information channels after collectively considering the reach, trust and amplification metrics. The results here may be stunning in their comparative value – especially for marketing traditionalists or web and social media “nonbelievers.” All of the web and mobile-based information sources experienced growth from June 2011 to March 2012 (i.e. web, social media, mobile web, and peer review web). No other media channels experienced growth. Email also experienced a decline, and though this is indeed a medium that is dependent upon the web, it does not represent a “living” platform with rotating, changeable content and thus functions differently than social media, peer review web, etc.

Social media is an enormously important component of your overall marketing and communication strategy. In fact, data suggests that it is the most important channel to engage your users and constituents. The overall value of social media increased 49.2% from June 2011 to March 2012. This is (quite obviously) the most significant change observed across the quantified information channels.

This data serves as yet another reminder of the recent, rapid evolution in the ways that people communicate, spread information, and find value in marketing messages. This is more than just anecdotal word on the street; it is compelling evidence of the way that our society behaves. CEOs and managers slow to “believe” in the power of online platforms and social media may need to lower the printed brochure in their hands, put away the flyers, and move their communications into the present.

Findings such as these present the contemporary nonprofit organization with a handful of basic choices: Relevant or obsolete? Solvent or destitute? Growth or regression? More or less? And, perhaps most importantly over time: Life or death?

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 9 Comments

Barriers to Adopting Social Media: Radical Trust

(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.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Trends 3 Comments