Evolving into a Social Organization: An Open Letter to the Association CEO

This post has been reprinted from the SocialFish blog where it spawned a great conversation in the comments. We’d love to know what K Street Cafe readers think.

Dear Association CEO,

Tired of social media yet? You’ve surely had many conversations, at this point, with various people in your organization, about using social media to advance your mission. Everyone–from your marketing director and your publications manager, to your advocacy guru and your conference manager–has some idea of how they should be blogging, tweeting, or creating a social network.

That’s all well and good, and (stop us if we’re wrong) you’re not disputing the myriad business advantages of starting to build a social media presence in this day and age when many of your association’s members are actively communicating using these tools. But you’re a little worried…

  • You’re worried about how much time will be involved in getting all these activities going.
  • You’re feeling the stress from other managers and directors who have tight budgets and too much work spread among too few people already.
  • You’re concerned that with lots of people doing little experiments in a piecemeal fashion, there will be duplication of effort and wasted time and energy.
  • You’re particularly concerned about lost revenue from traditional sources like your paid job board.
  • And, let’s be honest, you’re not particularly comfortable with letting just any employee speak for the organization (and your PR director isn’t either). You’re keen to get some guidelines and policies in place but everyone has different ideas for where to start.

So then, the challenge your organization faces is how to evolve into a social organization. This evolution will affect individual staff, internal processes, and the structure and culture of your association. And the challenges can’t be solved in an instant. You’ll probably want to help assign them to your people to tackle one at a time (or one area at a time).

But you, as CEO, have a different challenge.

Your own challenge is not about determining how your association applies social media tools in the right way, nor how particular tactics achieve specific objectives. Fundamentally, your role is to help your staff prioritize and defend their ideas by having them tell you why and how they advance the mission of the association. You are closer to the mission, the vision, the strategic objectives of the association than anyone else. You must live the mantra of “clarity over control” – in other words, that those activities that are very directly and clearly driving the mission of the organization require less control because all stakeholders – staff and members – know why this work is important and relevant to the association. They know the strategic intention of that work and their role in making it actionable.

If you can help your staff be clear about how their social media activities will advance the mission, you can begin to lay the groundwork for becoming a more social organization. The digital age (the advent of the social internet) demands less of a “mechanistic”, top-down, controlled system and more of an organic, evolving ecosystem. Your role, as CEO, is that of facilitator within this ecosystem. You are now the master cat herder – and here’s a secret you probably already know. How do you herd cats? …You tilt the floor. You point everyone in the right direction, not just through words but through action and through intent. The world around us is shifting, and you have a crucial role to play in what these changes mean for your association and this industry.

Sincerely Yours,

Maddie and Lindy

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  • Marc Ross

    Sadly, there are so few social trade associations in DC – Report on Advocacy Analysis 2009: – that there seems to be little, if any, “titling of the floor” happening on K Street.

    There is such a rapid movement to digital communications, smartphone use, broadband expansion, social campaigning and video production outside of the beltway that most of the K Street establishment appears blissfully clueless to the new communications and advocacy environment. Even worse, some want to blame “techies” and “social gurus” for forcing them to change their operations and advocacy efforts using unknown websites and bizarre sounding social tools.

    It is true that most of America’s largest institutions (media companies, brands, trade associations and political parties) still exist and are in place – but they are not the same organizations they were just a decade ago. As Clay Shirky rightly points out in his book – Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations – everyone is now a media outlet thus giving the rise to mass amateurism and diminishing the power and influence of professionals at trade associations and mass media organizations who in the past controlled news and shaped policy. Furthermore, the overall media landscape has been transformed where now personal communication and publishing are now united functions, happening in real-time and without regard for waiting for approval to type, post and/or edit.

    This is real and it is happening – social media is here. Why are organizations continuing to grapple with the how, why, when and where? More of K Street needs to spend time on Main Street working for a political campaign. Candidates and activists aren’t debating, planning and waiting for someone to “tilt the floor;” they are executing and moving forward.

    And you can’t say all this social media thinking and chatter is a new craze. The achievement of eBay (launched 1995) coupled with the success of Napster (launched in 1999) were some of the first shock waves foretelling a change to media creation and information dissemination. The reshaping of media and information was further cemented with the development of Wikipedia (launched 2001) and YouTube (launched 2005) where user-generated-content (UGC) is empowering everyone to be a journalist, scribe, activist, entertainer, thought leader – even a media mogul.

    What K Street needs to fear it that every year more and more talented communicators and organizers are coming to DC that know how to move quickly, shape the debate and engage activists on a limited budget with less resources. It is no surprise that the economy is moving forward with fewer workers due to technology driven productivity – embracing these dynamic changes sooner rather than later will serve the current leaders on K Street well.