Social media for charities: anyone can do it

I recently attended a Guardian masterclass on ‘Social media for charities’. There was an excellent range of speakers from different charities: Macmillan, Amnesty, Oxfam and Save the Children. Each covered different aspects of social media, but for me three overall themes came out of the event.

1. It takes time to do social media effectively.
2. Social media requires a strategy.
3. And, perhaps surprisingly, anyone can do it.

The last point might seem questionable to the traditional communications manager who likes to keep control of messages and who worries about colleagues going ‘rogue’ (we’ve all been there). We learned that there can be good reasons for broadening out who uses these particular communications channels – but to do it effectively does depend on the first two points (time and strategy).

Empowering colleagues to use social media

Carol Naylor, social media manager for Macmillan Cancer Support, covered this in a talk about ‘Embedding social media across your organisation’. For Macmillan, social media allows them to spread their services more widely, providing support and advice to more people. To make this happen, they had to move away from the conventional structure where just one department controls social media. It didn’t happen overnight, though: there was a planned process of building social media literacy across the organisation, with a structured training programme for all involved.

How many social media accounts does a charity need?

Macmillan now have numerous official Facebook and Twitter accounts, connected through a ‘hub and spoke’ structure. These could be for departments, regions or events and are particularly effective when addressing a niche audience where the communications department might not have the necessary expertise.

This approach might not work for everyone. Stuart Fowkes, social media manager at Oxfam, argued for minimising the number of accounts and sub-brands, unless there’s a distinct audience and also something to say on an ongoing basis. But he too gave examples where sub-brands were appropriate, such as music or fashion accounts, or a news account managed by the press office.

What about personal accounts?

Some organisations might worry about staff members mentioning their employer on their personal social media accounts. But if used carefully, this can be valuable: it allows staff to build their professional reputation and can also grow the reputation of their employer. As Carol Naylor pointed out, sensible people won’t do anything to bring their employer into disrepute: ‘We trust people to be intelligent professionals – on and offline’.

During a discussion session, many present were keen to get their CEO onto Twitter and building a reputation as an expert. This can be good for the credibility of the organisation, although you do need to make a distinction between their persona and that of the charity (CEOs may move on).

Save the Children go further, as digital media manager Rosie Childs explained: their PR strategy includes working with bloggers and ‘YouTubers’ to spread the word about their activity to new audiences. Again, this has to involve trust.

So can anyone really do it?

Here are some of the tips I picked up during the day.

  • Don’t assume that people know how to use social media in a business context, just because they use it out of work.
  • Identify colleagues who are naturals, but don’t assume age has anything to do with it. The best people are those with social skills as well as technical skills – people who want to connect.
  • Train staff to think about strategy (eg how to grow networks) as well as the mechanics.
  • Provide a consistent experience for people who need to interact with the charity – but don’t try to create clones.
  • Provide the right resources for staff: training, online support, information sharing.
  • Provide resources for volunteers or supporters, such as graphics for their Facebook page.
  • Encourage people to be confident, and allow them to make mistakes.
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