[Note: This article was originally published in Munting Nayon Magazine and was meant as an introductory piece on the importance of properly drawing up social media strategy and policies.]
Social technologies are revolutionising society.
You’ve probably heard this before and shook your head in dismissal of the idea. Surely, the word ‘revolutionary’ doesn’t apply to posting so-called ‘status updates’, sharing content and ‘liking’ what your friends have to say. But before you condemn the social web to the list of yet another run-of-the-mill and overrated next big thing, think again.
Today’s social web is revolutionary not because it’s new, but rather because of the new and unexpected ways people are using it. It’s groundbreaking not because of its innate technological prowess, but because it’s capable of helping releasing the radical potential of users and events. Social media is changing, right before our very eyes, the way we organise and interact with each other. It’s changing in profound ways we think and behave, even leaving its footprints on politics and economics. I’ve written about this in the past, citing the role of social media in business (how it helps build brands and conversations) and in political-socio affairs such as the elections in Iraq and the US, the promotion of citizen journalism, and supporting causes among others.
Social means conversations not monologues
The recent Manila hostage crisis that gripped the country last August 23, 2010 once again showed just how tightly the social web is intertwined with our personal and national life. It played a big part in spreading information, fuelling feedback (ranging from genuine sympathy to acerbic criticism and downright shock and anger) and moulding the way the story unfolded even after the event has passed.
You might have already heard about how some students and police officers posed to have their picture taken in front of the wrecked tourist bus. This sparked shocked reactions from both Pinoys and Chinese alike to the insensitivity of Filipinos to the hostage crisis turned tragedy. Comments flooded Twitter and Facebook, and there were even some anti-Filipino Facebook pages that were set up in response to this incident. However, what I deem more interesting is the way the administration handled online criticism hurled at Noynoy’s Facebook page.
Noynoy has embraced new media just like any politician who hasn’t been living under a rock. His administration has a new media group that manages his social network accounts, all of which have been activated in the name of transparency in government. I applaud the intent, as democratising information is essential for good governance. However, just like with many brands and businesses, it seems that the President’s goals and strategy for adopting social media are not yet properly in place.
Noynoy’s Facebook page isn’t as social as they claim to be
I’m not certain what exactly the goals are for Aquino’s use of Facebook in particular and if there’s even a social strategy behind it. I can infer from the way he uses his Facebook page, however, that he’s still treating this new media the old way. Instead of serving as a venue for real conversation between the President’s office and the citizens, it’s become just a press release with a new face.
At its best it functions as an announcement board. At its worse, it’s simply “carrying one’s own bench” or as we say in Filipino, “nagbubuhat ng sariling bangko”. But why would any of these be wrong?
The way I see it, it’s certainly not the gravest of sins or the most important of priorities (in a list that includes addressing graft and corruption, greed for power and dismantling structural poverty), but it’s the wrong way of doing things. Here’s why:
» Every now and then, there’s the occasional announcement on Facebook of what the President would be doing, but very rarely would there be a response to the numerous comments, questions and pleas for help. My first impression when I saw Noynoy’s official page was like talking to a brick wall. There were so many people reporting cases of abuse, opining on national issues and literally asking for help, but all of it just seemed to fall on dead ears. It’s like wailing to the heavens where deaf gods reside. This is a classic way of applying old media practice to new media. If you choose to utilise social media channels, then conversation is imperative. Why use a medium designed for dialogue as a glorified announcement board?
» If monologue drives your social platform (what an oxymoron!), then the social media policies that result from this framework will be inadequate in handling crises that may erupt in your social media channels. And this was what exactly happened during the hostage crisis. An outpouring of criticism, questions and emotions filled Noynoy’s Facebook page. And yes, there were a lot of hateful and angry remarks, some outright insulting and racist. The administration’s response was to delete the offensive remarks. Nothing wrong with that; there are community rules that should be followed. But what constitutes offensive and slanderous wasn’t very clear. There were lots of complaints that suggested that even valid criticisms were deleted as well. Also striking was that a note on the use of Noynoy’s Facebok page was published only two days after the hostage incident. It was more a reaction and response to the online crisis that ensued rather than a clear guideline. Was there ever a community strategy developed for crisis management? And more important to ask: why would you want to handle the crisis in the first place? Is it merely to save face or correct misinformation? Criticisms and ‘dislikes’ are vital social conversations and can propel how social technologies will work for or against your goal.
» According to the note, Noy’s FB page is avenue for the public to air their comments and grievances. That’s all fine, but what of it? What would come out of sharing thoughts and disclosing injustices? The new media group handling Noy’s FB page says that feedback gathering is one reason for activating it. But that begs the question: what will be done with the feedback? Will it gather digital dust and wither away as older posts? Will feedback be actually fed back to policy-making, improving organisational processes and solving problems? If they are doing anything with all the comments that come in, it’s not communicated on Facebook. What’s the use of using media that’s designed for getting feedback easily when you can neither guarantee accountability nor make accountability visible within the environment where the feedback-givers converge?
Of course, there’s the big challenge of scale in social media. The moment you open your doors to social networks, your organisation must be prepared internally to accommodate all the demands of such a dynamic and ever-growing platform. Scale will always be a problem. There will never be enough human resources and technological tools that can respond to the conversations that will ensue, especially within the context of governance. The people want to be heard and they want to speak. If the President’s office is not ready organisationally for this, if their processes are not attuned to respond to the socialisation and democratisation of information, then their social networks will degenerate and function as old media. If the President’s office doesn’t have a strategy in place that will help build the community and allow them to help each other in cases where government cannot respond quickly enough, then Noy’s social channels will be charged terrains for crises, waiting to erupt.
Such was the case in the Nestle Facebook fiasco. The short version: Greenpeace was mad at Nestle over palm oil so some members began expressing their outrage in the Nestle Facebook Fan Page. They dominated wall posts and changed their profile pictures to altered versions of the Nestle logo to make their point. The moderator of Nestle’s Facebook page responded in a manner that belied the presence of a social media policy, with comments such as: “Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it’s our page, we set the rules.” Such a response awakened a groundswell of online criticism and generated lots of negative sentiments about the brand and the company.
Nestle’s Facebook experience can can provide learnings that Noy’s new media group should heed. I hope the President and his team start practicing truly social media.